Hamilton re-enactors revisit the War of 1812

George Nelles can talk about what the soldiers of the 89th Regiment went through in the War of 1812. He's been there. Sort of.

Local society acts out a skirmish at Westfield Heritage Village

Members of the 89th Regiment lay while the Norfolk Militia looks on during a re-enactment of a skirmish in the War of 1812. The re-enactment happens again today at Westfield Heritage Village. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

George Nelles can talk about what the soldiers of the 89th Regiment went through in the War of 1812.

When it comes to the action and the drama, the heartache and the pivotal battles, Nelles has been there.

Sort of.

As a War of 1812 re-enactor, Nelles steps into the shoes of a 19th century soldier about six times a year. The Hamilton resident is one of about 100 re-enactors participating in the two-day Life in 1812 event that wraps up today at Westfield Heritage Village in Rockton.

When Nelles steps onto the battlefield today, he will do so as the great-grandson of Robert Nelles, a lieutenant colonel in the War of 1812.

"I've thought in the past that I know a little of what it must have been like for him because I do the role now," Nelles said. "Sometimes I think it's destiny that I do this."

Nelles is a member of the Wentworth Re-enactment Society, a group of about 10 men who portray members of the 89th Regiment of Foot.

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The real 89th Regiment fought in the Battle of Crysler's Farm and the Battle of Lundy's Lane, where it suffered large casualties. The new 89th Regiment was created in 1999.

Re-enacting is a serious hobby for members of the new 89th. Just getting started requires a financial investment, Nelles said.

Muskets cost about $1,400. The uniform must be either sewn or ordered. All told, uniform and musket can cost about $3,000, Nelles said.

With the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the new 89th is participating in eight re-enactments this summer, and anticipates that many next year, said Reg Bainbridge of Binbrook, society co-founder and sergeant of the 89th Regiment. 

At camp, 'I'm at peace'

Each re-enactment is a three-day venture. The re-enactors — and often their families — camp out for three days, cooking food over a fire and sleeping in tents similar to those used by militia members 200 years ago.

By day, Bainbridge's wife Pat is a registered nurse. But at the encampment, she wears period garb as she scrubs clothes and cooks over a fire. Their daughter has portrayed a private in another regiment. Their grandchildren love to visit the encampment too.

It's a nice escape from everyday life, Pat said.

"It's nice to not have to be who you are in the busy world. When I do this, I'm at peace."

The goal of re-enacting is to respect the sacrifice of the 1812 soldiers, said Richard Feltoe, re-enactor with the Imperial Militia of Upper Canada and author of the new book Redcoated Ploughboys.

"Yes, it is a bit of a game because we're firing blanks," Feltoe said. "But we try to do it accurately and with a sense of honour and service."

From all walks of life

In everyday life, re-enactors hold a variety of jobs, Nelles said.

There are doctors, lawyers and police officers. Bainbridge is a civil engineer. Nelles is retired from Stelco and now volunteers at Westfield Heritage Village.

But re-enactors are hooked on history and portraying life as it was lived in that era, Bainbridge said.

"Something [the regiment] did a long time ago has made a difference in who we are today."

As many as 500 people are expected at the village today. More than 35 buildings are open to portray Canadian life throughout the ages.

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, with the re-enactment at 2 p.m.

The cost is $11 for adults, $10 for seniors and $6.50 for children.