This is what I discovered about putting on a historically accurate, 18th-century British officer's uniform and standing on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City pretending I was General James Wolfe: I might have looked like an overgrown lunatic playing dress-up, but when I actually slipped the coat and hat on, it felt surprisingly grave. It made me want to be serious.
If events had turned out the way a lot of people wanted, I might not have been alone.
Had things gone another way, several thousand men and women dressed as 18th-century French and British soldiers would be re-enacting the battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City this weekend, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the short-lived skirmish that's conventionally remembered as having transformed New France into an English colony, establishing the future character of Canada.
It would have been the first time the country's most historic battle had been restaged on the very spot where the original took place.
The boom of cannons besieging Quebec would be filling the air. The plains would be thick with musket smoke from the 60,000 shots fired in the course of the battle.
Three hundred thousand tourists would be spending $30-million in Quebec City when they weren't wandering through a copy of an 18th century French and English military encampment. The tourists would be asking questions of seamstresses and tanners and blacksmiths living in neatly lined up, 18th-century-style tents, cooking 18th-century-style meals in 18th-century-replica pots over open fires started in 18th-century ways.
The seamstresses and tanners and blacksmiths in turn would be showing the great curious public how cowhide windows were made or what shoes looked like then or how wool was woven into linen as a flame retardant, because a leading cause of death among 18th-century women was infection due to burns suffered while cooking over an open fire, and people would be saying, “Isn't that interesting?”
Most of all, everyone would be intensely debating the fine points of what actually happened on the Plains of Abraham and how significant the battle was, or was not. That, after all, is what re-enactors do: They try to make history real.
But none of this will happen.
Last February, a pocket of Quebec City separatists complained that the re-enactment would “celebrate” the conquest of French Canada. A media howl ensued. Within days the event had been cancelled.
Which is why – and this is a scoop, dear reader – two weeks ago, on a damp spit of green park in the sleepy town of Ogdensburg, N.Y., 275 miles from the nearest Quebec City indépendantiste , 250 French and English participants secretly re-re-enacted the cancelled re-enactment.
They pretended a line of split cedar rails were the walls of Quebec City. The riverside shores of upstate New York were the cliffs at Anse au Fulon, where General Wolfe landed his troops to surprise the French general, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.
It wasn't the same, of course. They were re-enacting history. If they'd been allowed to do it on the actual Plains of Abraham, they would have made history too. Maybe the past would have been appeased.
II. Eight minutes to change an empire? Not exactly
The standard take on the battle of the Plains of Abraham, as military historian Desmond Morton sarcastically put it, is “eight minutes to change an empire, to eliminate the French and bring on the English: ‘One volley, and the French dissolve – ha-ha, what do you expect?'”
Prof. Morton (thanks in part to his mentor, the great Col. C. P. Steacey) was one of the first historians to challenge that cliché.
In fact, he said: “The hidden part of the battle on the Plains was that it continued until dark, sustained by [French] Canadian militia and their native allies.
“When Quebec sovereigntists killed plans to re-enact the battle, they kept that heroic story secret.”
Prof. Morton wasn't even sure the Quebec City re-enactors would have gotten it right. “My experience of re-enactors is that they're very conscientious, but they're also quite conservative.”
In this case, though, he needn't have worried: Harry Hunkin was on the event committee.
A former Ontario school principal, Mr. Hunkin moved to Quebec City after he remarried because his second wife (22 years younger than him, and a federalist – a niece of the late Claude Ryan, the former Quebec Liberal leader) wanted to raise their daughter in French, a language Mr. Hunkin did not speak at the time.
He now leads tours and teaches the British part of Quebec's history to aspiring tour guides. At 67, an avid re-enactor and historian, he still doesn't feel entirely comfortable in the city (whether because of his “Tarzan French” or simply because he's English, he's not sure).
However interested you may be in the English victory on the Plains in 1759, Mr. Hunkin will remind you the French won the rematch at Ste. Foy the following year (the Quebec City group was planning to re-enact that battle as well) – and that if French ships had arrived the following spring ahead of British ones, the history of Canada might have been different.
He'll show you Wolfe's much-defaced monument, and then he'll show you Montcalm's (whose mausoleum, in classic cheeseball Quebec Catholic style, resembles the front end of a Cadillac Escalade). He'll take you to Montmorency Falls, where Wolfe's initial failure to oust the French inspired his bitter order to burn every farm between Quebec and Kamouraska.
Wolfe's campaign intensified after that, becoming ever more quixotic. Montcalm might even have avoided defeat on the Plains of Abraham had he simply stayed inside the walls of Quebec City and waited for winter to drive the English away. But Montcalm had never commanded a battle on his own, without supervision – that's how much France cared about its colony – and his inexperience cost him.
It probably didn't help that the British dropped as many as 60,000 cannonballs and firebombs on the city in the course of two months, roughly a thousand a day, or more than 40 an hour, virtually razing it.
It's a bottomless story, made more fascinating by the fact that Wolfe and Montcalm were equally hapless tacticians: It's a miracle either of them managed to win. The battle was the endpoint of a global conflict France and Britain had been fighting all over Europe as well as in Africa and India. This was history's first world war. Wolfe, at least, seems to have grasped that context.
We walked over to the Plains themselves, or at least the third of the original farmer's field that remains today – past the place where Céline Dion staged a concert last spring after she complained that Paul McCartney (the Brit) had a bigger venue than she did, and past the spot where British soldiers rolled a rock to mark the spot where Wolfe received his fatal wound, to Wolfe's Hill.
There, surrounded by sunbathing Quebecois and couples engaged in public French kissing (I saw more tonsil tennis in Quebec in two days than I have in 10 years in English Canada), anyone can contemplate the strip of path and grass where regiments of French regulars met Wolfe's famous thin red line – a mile long, staggered front and back, with spaces between each man to allow for continuous firing.
This is where the two sides stood, 30 yards apart with muskets accurate to 100 yards, and, after the command “Ready, present, fire” (they didn't say “aim”), tried to obliterate each other, packing two balls into every musket charge.
Eight hundred people died here. The re-enactors had planned a minute's silence at the end of the battle to commemorate the dead.
Wolfe's Hill was where I tried on Mr. Hunkin's red and blue re-enactor's tunic – the uniform of the 60th Royal Americans, who were fighting with the British – and his tricorne hat. He told me to cock it over my left eye.
I realize it sounds absurd, but I suddenly imagined I knew what it felt like to have a destiny. I knew how my character's “life” turned out and down from here, after all. The foreknowledge was sobering.
Re-enactors admit to feeling these things all the time. They get dressed up in the uniform of someone who died fighting for a cause, and suddenly remember that life is serious, and that history isn't reversible. Those are easy things to forget in an age of technological ease.
Could that be why re-enacting is booming these days? Because people long for some hands-on reality, and the past lets them touch it without apology?
There are at least 60,000 re-enactors in North America now, and the number seems to be growing at a time when, with Iraq and Afghanistan, war has become a part of life again. An astonishing number of politically charged battles are regularly restaged: Catholic-killing Culloden in Scotland (where Wolfe fought and famously refused an order to execute a wounded highlander), Waterloo, D-Day (especially tank skirmishes), even Vietnam.
Nor are military re-dos the only way to play the game. The Rendezvous is the current rage – a weekend act favoured by younger history buffs who practice pre-contact skills such as trapping and flint-knapping and tanning. In Boston, an artist named Mark Tribe has been re-enacting Vietnam protest speeches, using actors to portray the likes of Coretta King.
But not in Quebec City.
III. ‘If you tell a re-enactor that the battle will happen on the original place, this is what they live for'
On Saturday morning at the top-secret re-re-enactment at Ogdensburg, the French and English camps were still cooking breakfast over open fires as Horst Dresler made his way over the battlefield with his French opposite, choreographing the afternoon's battle.
He didn't need notes. Three years earlier, Mr. Dresler and the Quebec Historical Corps, his re-enactment group, had been asked by the federal national battlefield Commission to organize the replay on the Plains of Abraham. By last fall 2,100 re-enactors had committed from California, Europe, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Winnipeg, and the US. “The national battlefield commission loved the idea, and so did we. If you tell a re-enactor that the battle will happen on the original place, this is what they live for.”
At 57, Mr. Dresler has been re-enacting the French and Indian War, the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War for nearly 40 years. He married American-born Deb Goodman (an intensive-care nurse when she isn't playing a French commander) in a fully authentic 18th-century-style ceremony at Louisbourg, the French redoubt on Cape Breton that the British conquered in 1758 as a prelude to Quebec.
They still sleep on a replica of an 18th-century rope bed, even at home in Woodstock, Vt., where muskets also stand by the fireplace. Mr. Dresler sometimes seems to keep one part of his mind permanently back in the other time, observing from a distance the antics of the present. The Plains of Abraham project was to be the pinnacle of his career.
But by February it was a shambles. Le Réseau de Résistance du Québécois (the Québécois Resistance Network), a passel of fewer than 500 hard-line separatists, claimed the Conquest ought not to be commemorated with “a celebration.” Every political party in Quebec backed away from the event as if it had impetigo.
Mr. Dresler's reaction: “It was a bunch of idiots using it for their own political purposes.” You could say he's a little bitter.
In no time, he was fielding 18 calls a day from reporters; soon after that, it was anonymous threats from separatists offering to “stick your bayonets up your asses.” The battlefields commission could no longer guarantee the safety of the participants and the public.
Not that Mr. Dresler was scared: Re-enactors are the jocks of the history set, big guys who carry bayonets and tomahawks. What surprised him was the level of public support for the opposition. When his Quebec Historical Corps had performed Revolutionary War battles on the Plains, restaurants had given them discounts if they ate in costume. But this was the Conquest.
“There's nothing more right-wing than a separatist movement,” Ms. Goodman said. (She has a master's degree in political science.) “To me, separatism is repression. Moving on is progressive. I mean, for instance, I'm Jewish, and Horst is German. Come on.”
“Not one of our events in five years has been called a ‘celebration,'” Mr. Dresler replied, sticking to the facts.
“If you were set on being a separatist, why would you abandon your history?”
“If you don't acknowledge history as it happened, then you have no one to villainize,” Mr. Dresler added. “My point is that they're idiots.”
The generals were back from the reconnoitre. Camp conversations were bubbling everywhere, the standard, unpredictable re-enactor fare: Which movies were most accurate, historically ( Black Rob e wins, The Patriot loses). Whether Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, governor general of New France and commander in chief of the North American fighters in 1759, undermined Montcalm's chances of winning because Montcalm informed the French court that Vaudreuil was skimming the colony's finances (Desmond Morton thinks not, some re-enactors think maybe). How slippery the hills would have been at Anse au Foulon, where the British landed, considering that it was 4 a.m. and dewy and the Brits had two cannons to carry (“This is an 18th century shoe,” Mr. Dresler said, hoisting his hoof – “it's not a lot of traction”). As I said, the usual.
Another popular topic was how Tentsmiths, a well-known maker of historically correct canvas tents, was making a killing selling to “settlers,” as non-soldier re-enactors refer to themselves. Re-enacting's an expensive hobby: a starter officer kit runs $3,000, which is why a lot of newbies begin as French-Canadian militia. The fancy marquee tent the Dreslers use when Horst plays General Wolfe (big enough for a double rope bed and carpets and travelling chests of drawers and a desk) cost $1,500. Ms. Goodman flat-out refused to say how much she paid for her handmade, whale-baleen stays.
The one consolation of the cancellation was that by the time Ogdensburg rolled around, Mr. Dresler had been working up his Wolfe persona for three years. He'd lately been scouring The Life and Letters of James Wolfe , a biography from 1909, and was finally beginning to understand the whack-job British general.
“As a commander, I would say Wolfe was stupid, but he was lucky.”
“There's speculation Wolfe committed suicide,” someone said.
“Well,” someone else replied, “suicide by cop.” Wolfe insisted on standing up directly behind his men. As short as the skirmish on the Plains of Abraham was, he managed to take three hits – in the wrist and the hip, then a double ball to the heart.
“I wanted to incorporate how he treated his men,” Mr. Dresler said. “The group was very divisive. He treated someone very well if the respect was there, but not if it wasn't.”
Ms. Goodman looked over at her husband and rolled her eyes. “I don't know what Wolfe was like,” she said. “But sometimes he thinks he's Wolfe.”
That afternoon, in full Wolfean garb, Commander Horst Dresler led his troops toward their pretend Quebec. Albeit small and somewhat conceptual, the re-enactment was an accurate replay of the battle as it unfolded on the Plains of Abraham 250 years ago.
The British held their fire, a long thin string of red jewels against the green grass. The blue-and-white French advanced too far, and paid for their haste. Still, the natives and Canadiens sniping on the right held the British back, managing three musket shots a minutes – top speed, back in 1759. But Wolfe had been drilling his men all summer, and they were faster.
One of the native re-enactors was fighting with his 10-year-old son at his side: I wanted to go out with them in the long grass, and pretend to live or die for the country I loved. If I were a re-enactor, I suddenly realized, I would have to be a local Canadian milis , fighting for the French. It was an unexpected thought.
Historically accurate rain began to drizzle, but the crowd stayed put. Then Commander Dresler assumed Wolfe's last pose, splayed like a geisha against a tree. Everyone watched him die. There was applause.
IV. The making of politics, symbolism and sausage
One night in Quebec City I hailed a cab. The driver, a Quebecker named Hannibal who was born in Marseille, asked me why I was there.
“The cancelled re-enactment,” I said.
“Oh, yes, the separatists,” Hannibal said. “Fuck.Why? Why separate? Look at this city.” He gestured at the scene in the street around us – well-heeled couples going out to dinner, speaking French, driving expensive cars, shopping, prosperous. “Why?”
“Well,” I said, “a young country that needs you is always attractive. Especially if you're young yourself, and looking for an identity.”
“Fuck,” Hannibal said again. “They have two identities already – Quebec, Canadian. What's wrong with them?”
Pierre-Luc Bégin answered that question the next morning. Mr. Bégin is deputy director of the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois, and one of the people who masterminded the media campaign that kiboshed the re-enactment. He was a thin, pale man with a narrow face and short haircut parted almost in the centre – he had an old-fashioned, almost Victorian air.
His objection to the re-enactment was its lack of seriousness. “First of all, this actually was supposed to be a celebration. Second, it was organized by the federal government, that clearly had a political vision of the thing. There was the poster with Montcalm and Wolfe shaking hands, with these big smiles.
“Our objection was not that we talk about the Conquest. It was important to talk about it. The problem was the federal government wanted to do something happy – but it was a sad event.”
That, at least, was true. In Northern Armageddon , Peter MacLeod, the pre-Confederation historian at the Canadian War Museum, quotes literate Canadians of the day who felt enraged and betrayed by the 1763 Treaty of Paris, in which the France ceded all claim to Canada as part of an agreement to end the Seven Years' War. But those Canadians blamed the French, not the British.
Mr. Bégin admitted that he also wanted to block the re-enactment as revenge for the way the federal government had “stolen” the 400th anniversary of Quebec last year. Stephen Harper publicly compared Samuel de Champlain to Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, and said they were the first and latest in a long line of Canadian governors.
“They used the 400th anniversary to make politics for Canada and the federal option. So, many militants and French-Canadians in general said, ‘We will not let them do that again with the Conquest.'”
The Plains of Abraham, in other words, may or may not be the site of a significant battle. Historians disagree. But the present-day park (a gift to Quebec City from the federal government and the British House of Commons on the city's 300th birthday in 1908) is certainly a central symbol of the sovereigntist cause – big, green, unavoidable and always there to remind everyone that this is where Wolfe beat Montcalm.
V. ‘Go forth and sin against the English'
At Ogdensburg, most of the French-speaking re-enactors were sovereigntists. They cared about preserving the French language and culture – a challenge they were addressing by showing people what French culture was like in the 18th century.
In that regard “the cancelling was a catastrophe,” said David Lafond, a Montreal civil engineer in the 2nd battalion of the Régiment du Sarre.
“When you don't know your history, it's not important to keep it. But when you know it, you know how much you want to keep it,” he added. Then he went off to be blessed by the priest, who exhorted him and his troops to “go forth and sin against the English.”
At the English end of the camp a guy named Bob McGowan was demonstrating the use of a tomahawk as a slashing tool. Mr. McGowan was dressed as an Abenaki Indian. He was 54 years old and made his living running robot cameras through pipelines. But today he was wearing a nose ring of 18th-century Abenaki design, three earrings, tanned shin leggings and moccasins (which he pronounced “mucksins” to be historically correct) and a loincloth made from trade wool (“dries faster than the brain-tanned deerskin – even the natives realized that, as early as the 1760s”).
And that was about all he was wearing: Mr. McGowan's bare behind was there for all to see, and tinted a coppery red. But he was a human Swiss Army knife as far as weapons went: 1747 Dutch flintlock rifle (80 calibre), vicious-looking maple-burl war club, belt knife, neck knife, the aforementioned tomahawk.
“I ran through that arch in the fort at Fort Carillon,” Mr. McGowan said, to explain why he re-enacted. “That arch that Montcalm himself went through. And the closer I got, the more I got a feeling I'd never had before.”
“You'd been there before,” another re-enactor said.
“I don't like to say it like that,” Mr. McGowan said, “because it sounds corny. But it just gets a hold of me.”
“It's like going back home,” the other man said. “It's a spiritual feeling. It's a reincarnation. You go to a place you've never been before, and you feel you have.”
Which is one way of describing a sense of history.
VI. Re-enactment and its opposite
A quarter-million young Québécois were streaming onto the Plains of Abraham when Harry Hunkin dropped me off after our day of Wolfe. It was the eve of the feast of St. Jean Baptiste, Quebec City's biggest night of partying.
Guys were lugging entire fridges' worth of beer around in their knapsacks. They kept stopping to open the knapsacks and count the beers, then reshouldering the load without taking one. So many people were teeming across the Plains it was hard to move.
I made my way toward Wolfe's Hill. It was not crowded.
In front of the bandstand where the biggest crowd gathered young men and women waved their fleur-de-lys flags above their heads as one, as if a quarter-million thought bubbles had suddenly appeared. It seemed like the same thought over and over again, but “it's just a celebration of being French-Canadian,” a young woman assured me.
It was the exact opposite of an event you would re-enact, the antidote to re-enactment: It was emphatically here and emphatically now.
Ogdensburg was not like that. Thunderheads were building over the sunset the last night I was there, lighting the grass a bright, grave green among the darkening trees. You could smell wood smoke from cookfires and smudgepots; someone was playing a fiddle and a tambour, and a lot of people were singing an endless, chanty 18th-century song. Lanterns glowed faintly pink inside the neat, white canvas tents, looking like a field of pointy, luminescent brains.
This was Horst Dresler's favourite time – at night, after the public had left, with everyone in period costume (except me, so I tried to stay out of sight). The camp was lit only by fire and it actually began to feel like the real 18th century.
To my surprise, the more time I spent in the camp, the more I liked it. I liked the way people walked around in their fancy costumes, unselfconsciously debating, say, the role battlefield panic played on the Plains. I liked the way people said hello, no matter who you were. I liked that I could wander into a settler's tent-store and find a book called The Fighting Tomahawk: An Illustrated Guide to Using the Tomahawk and Long Knife as Weapons.
The re-enactors seemed to need to be there. They loved history, but they needed to make it physical and accurate, even strict. There was something dignified and slightly resigned in this. No one ever looked bored.
I met unusual people who did unusual things all over the camp. One was Teresa Gage. She had red hair and was 54 years old, though she looked younger.
“I had a different time frame before,” she said. “Norman Conquest. But then my sister was attending an 18th-century event, so I moved forward again to the 18th century. I'm getting more and more modern” She laughed, but added: “This is as modern as I'm going.”
Ms. Gage was an electrical engineer and made her living as a systems analyst at Lockheed Martin, the military contractor. She'd just finished a third degree in “data-technology design,” something I'd never heard of. During her time in England studying radar systems for U.S. Air Force planes, “I had an opportunity to get a degree in lace-making, out of the city guilds of London.”
Normally that requires seven years; Ms. Gage did it in two.
Her hand-hewn booth was filled with lace – designs and samples and parchment prickings covered with tiny forests of (period-accurate) brass pins, around which she was crossing and twisting and twisting and crossing linen thread (there are only two moves in lace; the hard part is creating a design).
She could make an inch of lace in three hours. Her works-in-progress, with their pairs of Italian or English bobbins, looked so complicated they made me dizzy. “I do it for myself, for pleasure.”
Ms. Gage didn't want to live in the past. “I would probably not be alive in the 18th century as a 54-year-old woman,” she said. “But the public needs to understand where they come from. It's a value that we ourselves can do things with our hands. I've always found that it's helpful to remember that.”
Making lace gave her a concrete sense of what she knew, of her store of knowledge. She had to take up computer science for her job, and worried the subject would be too difficult. “Oh,” a friend said, “you'll have no problem. You make lace. It's all ones and zeroes.”
But “making lace is way more relaxing,” Teresa said. “And it's something I wrestle with singly.”
Next she hoped to take up flint-knapping, to make stone tools and firearms.
As I got up to go Ms. Gage informed me that one of the rules of re-enacting was that “you don't ask about peoples' personal lives. When they're here, you can only ask about what they're re-enacting. When you're here, you're a re-enactor – or a French militia man, or whatever.” She paused. “I guess it allows you to stretch more.”
She was saying it ought to be possible to be something other than what modern society expected of you. The re-enactors were trying to be people they weren't supposed to be, whereas the people who opposed them in Quebec City wanted to stand guard over who they already were. It seemed like a significant difference.
Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.