Here Comes the Old Guard

Old Guard at the White House. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

Old Guard at the White House. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

 

By Digney Fignus

Since I was a kid growing up in Lexington I have always loved Patriot’s Day. It seemed like it was Lexington’s own special holiday, our first official spring celebration heralding the warmer weather to come. Long before it became a state-mandated “Monday” holiday, all the kids in the neighborhood looked forward to April 19th as a day off from school dedicated to parades and old-fashioned fun. It was something that made you proud to be from our little town that usually made the evening news for at least that one day every year. No matter what the weather, Patriot’s Day in Lexington has always been a great time for families to relax and reconnect with their neighbors after the long winter.

This year we’re getting an extra special treat to help Lexington celebrate Patriot’s Day. The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is coming to town! They will be easy to spot in Monday’s parade with their bright red regimental coats, white wigs, black tricorn hats, and period uniforms dating back to George Washington’s Continental Army. And in a double-dose of good fortune, lucky fans will also get an outdoor concert Saturday, April 19th at 12 noon. This is a must-see event for any fife and drum fanatic. Come early, because there is sure to be a crowd on the Battle Green for this special performance. The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps along with the US Army Drill Team, and the Commander in Chief’s Infantry Guard is a show not to be missed.

Stationed in Fort Meyer, Virginia, the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is unique as the only unit of its kind in the armed forces. Part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, an official representative of the U.S. Army, the Corps averages 500 appearances a year and has performed for millions. They not only appear at all the official White House Arrival Ceremonies for visiting Heads of State, the Corps have been featured performers at every Presidential Inauguration since President Kennedy in 1961. Besides their official functions, the Old Guard has performed at NFL events, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, and the Tournament of Roses Parade — to mention only a few. In addition, they serve as good-will ambassadors and representatives of the United States Army overseas performing at international competitions, known as “tattoos,” everywhere from Australia to Panama.

The Old Guard is at the top rung in the Fife and Drum Corps world. Even though it is an ultra-exclusive group, I was surprised to find that anyone can audition for an open position. There are only 69 members in the Corps. Openings are few, so if you are lucky enough to be asked to Washington to audition for a spot, you’d better be good. The Corps uses 10-hole fifes, handmade rope-tensioned drums, and single-valve bugles which according to their website “bring to life the exciting sounds of the continental army.” Only the best musicians get a chance to audition. Although they are currently full-up, last year there were openings for a bass drum player, a fifer, and a bugler. So keep rehearsing, it’s a great gig if you can get it.

I had a chance to talk with Corps member, Staff Sergeant Heather Tribble, a fife player and eight-year veteran of the Old Guard. She is one of many men and women who join the army specifically to serve in the Old Guard. She reflected, “I was performing in a Fife and Drum Corps at the EPCOT Center in Florida. There were a lot of ex-military in the group, and I found out about the auditions from them.” If you pass the audition, only then do you need to commit to the army. After you go through normal basic training you have a guaranteed spot in the Old Guard. Unlike some jobs in the military that require a lot of moving around, people tend to stay put in the Old Guard. It affords the soldier-musicians and their families a little extra stability, a chance to develop long-term relationships, and an opportunity to put down some roots.

 

 

Old Guard at FDR Memorial. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

Old Guard at FDR Memorial. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

Being a musician myself, the more I talked with Sergeant Tribble the better the Corps sounded. I was tempted to start practicing my own big bass drum to see if maybe I could get an audition for one of those coveted open spots in the band. Unfortunately, I think the geezer-factor might kick in if I started competing with the rest of the mostly 18-year-olds in basic training. I wish I’d found out about this dream job sooner. Imagine, 500 guaranteed shows a year! All that, plus military benefits, and a steady paycheck? Obviously, I made a mistake when I decided to learn to play guitar instead of the fife.

The Fife and Drum Corps is a real family. A bass drummer with the unit, Sergeant Scott Danley sums it up, “The kids don’t just have a mom and dad, they get 60 aunts and uncles too.” Sergeant Danley, an eight-year veteran with the Corps, is a native of Alabama. He joined the Fife and Drum Corps in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Scott had just finished his tour of duty with the Marines. He served from 2001 – 2005 playing the tenor drum in the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. He reminisces, “I had always thought the Fife and Drum Corps was a re-enactment group. But just before my enlistment was up with the Marines I attended a twilight tattoo on the ellipse by the White House in Washington. I saw those rope drums going to town. I’d never seen that style of drumming before.” Danley was so impressed with the musicianship of the performers that when he learned there was an opening for a bass drummer in the unit, he knew he had found his calling. He consulted with his wife and with her blessing sent a video audition tape to the selection committee, hoping to re-enlist with the Army Old Guard. To his disappointment he didn’t make it the first time.

After his enlistment was up in the Marines, the ex-soldier and his family returned to civilian life back home in Alabama. Things couldn’t have been worse. It was only a few months after Katrina, homeless refugees had flooded the area, and housing was nearly impossible to come by. The family was in a real quandary when Scott’s wife noticed that almost a year after Scott had been turned down, the army was still auditioning for the bass drum position. In Scott’s words, “My wife suggested I try to audition again and I told her ‘they don’t want me’ but she said I should give it another try. This time I got called to Washington to do a live audition.” On his second try he passed with flying colors. He laughs, “It’s funny because the first tape I recorded was in a big hall and the second tape I recorded in my living room!”

Last year, along with many other programs, the Old Guard was a victim of the government sequester. They were originally scheduled to perform during Lexington’s 300th Anniversary celebration. Unfortunately, because of the untimely budget limbo, they were not able to attend. Thankfully, this year they’re back and better than ever, and they’ll bring along some very special reinforcements. The Fife and Drum Corps is a real spectacle, colorful, precise, and extremely well-tuned. The 69 members of the Corps are usually deployed in marching groups of 21 soldier-musicians, a Drum Major, and support staff. This allows the Old Guard to perform at multiple locations and more than one show at a time. Look for the drum major as a quick way to tell the Old Guard from the other ceremonial Fife and Drum Corps marching in the Patriot’s Day Parade. He will be distinguished by his tall black leather hat covered in bear fur (a light-infantry cap), a white leather sash (called a baldric), and a long 18th century infantry officer’s weapon called an espontoon that he carries to issue silent commands to his marching Corps.

Old Guard at Pocono 500. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

Old Guard at Pocono 500. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps perform a diverse repertoire of traditional field music. Drawn mostly from the 18th and 19th century, it includes familiar favorites like “Yankee Doodle,” and Fife and Drum Corps standards like, “Washington’s Artillery March,” the “Downfall of Paris,” and the “Duke of York’s March.” In addition, according to the official website, “performances include a breathtaking drum solo that is a real show of professional dexterity.” With just two opportunities to see them Patriot’s Day weekend, new converts and hard-core fans are sure to be left wanting more.

Along with the Fife and Drum Corps, the Commander in Chief’s Infantry Guard is also coming to Lexington’s Patriot’s Day weekend celebration. They are the infantry version of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. They dress in traditional Continental Army blue and generally accompany the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps as a support group for parade and pageantry performances. They will be marching in Monday’s parade as well as appearing at the Battle Green on Saturday. Created in 1784, the Infantry Guard is another part of the 3rd Army Infantry Regiment. They hold the distinction of being the oldest active infantry in the United States Army. It only seems fitting that they assemble on our Battle Green on April 19th to honor the hallowed ground where the first shots were fired in the American Revolution.

Besides the Fife and Drum Corps and the Infantry Guard, Saturday’s event on the Battle Green includes a special appearance of the US Army Drill Team. As official good-will ambassadors, the Army Drill Team puts on a spectacular show. They expertly perform choreographed routines with bayonet-tipped 1903 Springfield rifles. Tossing around the heavy rifles with death-defying precision, these highly trained specialists are guaranteed to wow the crowd with their daring and complex maneuvers. Balancing vintage weapons with razor-sharp steel blades is no easy task. Courage, dedication, coordination, and a dead-calm demeanor are all necessary requirements before being admitted to this talented group. It’s a tough competition for a spot in the squad. According to the Drill Team’s Mission Statement, “Soldiers are selected for this elite unit after six months of rigorous and competitive drill practice. Trim military bearing, strength, and dexterity are mandatory prerequisites for qualification to the Drill Team. For those selected for the team, the rigors of training never stop. To execute their complicated routines as close to perfection as possible, the team practices constantly.” The routines are far too dangerous to be done while marching so the Drill Team will only be performing Saturday at the Battle Green and will not march in Monday’s parade. Take my advice and mark your calendars for noon, April 19. You don’t want to miss this show.

The Corps fact sheet proclaims, “The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is America in retrospect – rekindling the ‘Spirit of ‘76’ in today’s Army.” So don your tricorn hat and take advantage of the opportunity to see this uniquely talented and entertaining group of the Army’s finest on Saturday and Monday during Patriot’s Day weekend.

 

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The 10th Regiment of Foot

Paul O’Shaughnessy (above right) leading his men.

By Heather Aveson  |

Getting ready for Battle – Behind the Scenes with the reenactors as they prepare for Patriot’s Day

Uniforms have always served two purposes. They identify an individual as part of a group, but their cut, style, color and ornamentation can also act like a peacock’s feathers to draw attention and intimidate an opponent. According to the National Park Service, the British soldiers wore red not only because of it looked good and ‘added a frightening appearance, ‘ but ‘Battlefields in the 1700’s were smoky, confusing places. Red uniforms made it easier for British officers to see their men through the smoke of battle. As a result, they were better able to control the action, and could avoid shooting their own troops!’That’s what happened the first time a young Paul O’Shaughnessy saw a “Red Coat”. In 1972 he was a student at Lexington High School serving as a guide on the Battle Green with some friends. He’d saved up a few hundred dollars and he was planning to use the money to join a local re-created militia with his friends. But one day, he saw THEM – The Red Coats of the 10th Regiment of Foot. The tailored jackets in reds and yellows, shiny buttons and glistening muskets, towering Grenadier hats of real bearskin were irresistible. Paul still remembers his feelings in the jargon of the day, “We took one look at them and thought, ‘That is so cool’”. But the feeling wasn’t immediately reciprocated. The Red Coats played hard to get and it was several months before the 15 year old was able to convince them to let him join. That young recruit is now Lieutenant Colonel Paul O’Shaughnessy, Commanding Officer.

And the authenticity of the Regiment’s splendor is the foundation on which the 10th is built.

AUTHENTICITY MAKES A RETURN

In the late 1960’s there was a resurgence of interest in the battles of Lexington and Concord. The Bicentennial was approaching and many local towns re-established militia and minute companies. They began staging mock battles with the “British Regulars”.

Vincent Kehoe, a Chelmsford photographer and historian, was assigned to cover one of these battles at the North Bridge in March of 1967. “When he got there he couldn’t bring himself to take the pictures because the British were outfitted in red paper hats and red waiters vests,” according to Paul O’Shaughnessy, “That inspired him to do some research into which regiments were actually at the battle and recreate one more authentically.”

Kehoe’s research led him to pursue the 10th Regiment of Foot; he knew they were one of about five regiments garrisoned in Boston during that time. Kehoe himself had served in the 10th Mountain Division during WWII and so “the 10th” held special meaning for him.

Imagine his surprise when Sir Christopher Welby-Everard, President of the 10th Foot Royal Lincolnshire Regimental Association in Britain heard from a New England photographer asking to establish an American contingent of the Regiment back in the States. The two began a correspondence and any initial skepticism gave way to mutual respect. It was clear that Kehoe was serious about building a regiment that would bring authenticity to the living depiction of British regiments. In July 1968 he received authorization to establish his American regiment. Sir Christopher and Kehoe continued working together for several years researching the history and uniforms of the 10th Regiment. By 1972 The American Contingent had grown to two companies, Light Infantry and Grenadiers. The same two companies remain today.

Gone were the paper hats and waiters’ vests. They were replaced by an ever evolving uniform of wool felt, leather strapping, bear skin hats and “Brown Bess” muskets; each new element reflecting an additional piece of research uncovering a greater level of detail.

EVERYONE DOES WHAT THEY CAN

It is this continued commitment to research and authenticity that sets the Tenth Regiment of Foot apart. A few years ago a button from an original uniform was found. The shape and design were slightly different from what the Regiment had been using. New buttons were cast and are being replaced on all the uniforms.

Even more recently the Regiment found that the belt buckles they had been carefully hand etching had the X, for tenth, going horizontally instead of vertically. So they will now buff off the existing X on each belt buckle and etch in a new one.

The attention to detail that sets the 10th Regiment of Foot apart also demands a greater level of commitment from its members. Each winter finds the group not only repairing and replacing existing uniforms and accoutrements but also replacing elements as new information comes along. And everyone helps out. For Grenadier Captain Michael Graves it’s become a family affair. You could say that for one weekend each winter the 10th Regiment becomes an occupying force in their home. Sheets of white leather and bearskins, heads and all, fill the living room as infantryman, and Grave’s son, Ian works with Kelsey Brennan of the light infantry and drummer Matt Lee building a new Grenadiers hat. In the kitchen, Captain Graves has traded his musket barrel for a curling rod and is coiffing wigs in the style of the day. Meanwhile, his wife Valerie is repairing small leather pieces nearby. “It all started with Ian when he was twelve. He joined as a musician and Mike would drive him to practice,” recalls Valerie, “After about a month Ian said, ‘you have to take me anyway so you may as well join too,’ so Mike joined. I help out where I can, so now the whole family is involved.”

In the basement, other members of the Regiment are rolling cartridge casings, repairing uniforms and cutting and sewing leather belts or shoe guards.

Taught by his mother, Ian Graves has become the Regiment’s tailor. Uniforms are created from patterns that have been researched back to the 1700s. Each uniform is individually made, from coat to waistcoats and britches. There’s no buying off the rack when you’re going for this kind of authenticity. “I’ve been doing this about eight months. It takes about 40 hours to make one coat,” Ian says, “No other regiment does what we do. They don’t have these kinds of workshops. People put themselves up against our standards because we set the bar. It’s just who we are.”

A few weeks later the company commandeers Commander O’Shaughnessy’s basement. Here the emphasis is on muskets and metalwork. Grenadier Private Eric Niehaus is doing maintenance on a Brown Bess musket. He’s much more comfortable here with bear grease and flintlocks, “I’m a lousy artist. I stay away from leather and costuming or we’d all be running around in loin cloths.”

The Brown Bess, or 2nd Model Land Pattern, is the standard musket for the Regiment. They can be bought new, but most members own a used model they have found or that has been handed down through the regiment. Light Infantry Private Marc McVicker is working on a musket that’s come down through his family, “This is my grandfather’s gun. He got it about fifty or sixty years ago.” It’s starting to show its age, the wood cracked during a drill, so while the gun is apart to be repaired, Marc is polishing and treating the barrel.

It’s not uncommon for the wood of these older guns to crack. The wood itself dries out and the percussion of the discharge takes it toll. Members painstakingly drill small holes into the wood and then pin the pieces back together.

Meanwhile, other members are polishing stocks and barrels while they compare the benefits of bear grease, orange oil and beeswax to preserve and maintain the wood and steel.

That’s not to say there isn’t any leatherwork going on here. Captain Graves is working with two of his men to make a bayonet belting for Grenadier David Parker. It’s a slow process for the first timers. I’m not sure if their banter makes the work go faster, but it certainly makes the time pass more quickly. That’s part of what makes the 10th Regiment special. These winter workshops not only enhance the group’s outfitting, they encourage camaraderie as well.

David Parker is new to the Grenadiers. “I started out as Light Infantry, but then I moved away. I’m coming back as a Grenadier. I’m very interested in the history of the revolution, not just re-enacting, so I wanted to experience it from both sides,” he says. Truth be told, David also feels more comfortable in the Grenadiers now that he’s not a kid anymore. The light infantry is for the young and agile. The Grenadiers are considered the elite, relying more on strength and size. Parker puts it more subtly, “Also, I tend to stand out in the Infantry. The average age of the Light Infantry is about 18. In the Grenadiers I’m about average in the age and size range.” But fellow Grenadier Gary Mezack isn’t buying that explanation either. “The real reason he joined us is that the Grenadiers get their picture taken with all the ladies. What attracts the ladies? It’s the bearskin.” Sounds like he’s speaking from first hand experience.

PUTTING YOUR BEST FOOT FORWARD

The bearskin apparently attracts the ladies, the uniform attracted a young Paul O’Shaughnessy; each recruit has their own reason for joining. Grenadier Gary Mezack remembers what brought him to the Regiment, “I’d been involved in re-enacting for many years. I always wanted to join the 10th because it does set the standard. But I was working, traveling and raising a family, so it seemed there wasn’t time. Then I realized this is never going to change. I may as well do it now. I miss a few things, but it works out. And I’m definitely glad I did it.”

The Regiment is always on the lookout for new recruits. This year the Regiment is putting six new members through their paces. On a recent Saturday the new recruits showed up for their third Recruit Training at the Depot. Sergeant Major Charlie Ziniti gives the orders, and Sgt. of the Grenadiers Ed Scull is another set of eyes critiquing and correcting along the way.

The recruits don’t drill alone; they are flanked by veteran members of the regiment. Captain Graves explains the training technique, “If the recruits trained alone, it would go a lot slower. They wouldn’t know what to do. This way they can follow a veteran’s lead. And the guys who come, improve their skills as well.” All the training techniques come straight from a British Army Drill Manual of the 1760’s. The exercises and maneuvers are practiced just as they were by British soldiers at the time of the American Revolution.

The muskets start to look pretty heavy as the recruits repeat maneuvers and work on new patterns. Captain Graves explains that the different musket positions are designed to make carrying the 12 lb. gun easier over long periods of time and through difficult terrain, “After a while you realize that the way the musket maneuvers happen is very logical. There will be a change in position for narrow paths, rough terrain, or up a hill.” For instance, when going through dense brush, the muskets are dropped low along the side of the body, in a ‘trail position.’ This keeps the guns from getting caught up in the brush.

The maneuvers are highly choreographed. The recruits first learn to change musket positions in proper sequence. Once the recruits are comfortable with that, footwork is added. All steps begin with the left foot on a count of two. Steps and musket changes coming together in perfect choreography. And then there’s what I refer to as “sticking the landing.” At the end of any drill the soldiers should finish in clean straight lines. It’s not easy. The Sergeant Major’s final order at the end of any maneuver is usually “Dress!” This allows the soldiers to adjust their positions and create clean lines.

So how does this new group look? Captain Graves looks them over, “These recruits look very well.”

THE BATTLE BEGINS

Patriot’s Day starts early for the 10th Regiment of Foot. Although they won’t be marching out to Lexington from Boston through out the night, they will gather as unobtrusively as possible in the darkness by 5am. Weapons and uniforms will be inspected. Black powder will be distributed. In a private ceremony new recruits will be sworn in. The recruits are read the Britain’s Articles of War from the 1770’s and swear their allegiance to the King.

Then at 5:45am the Light Infantry and the Grenadiers will organize themselves. The drums will begin to beat as they start down Massachusetts Ave. from the Police Station.

The Regiment will march onto Lexington Green in the cold dawn as men and women, as well as boys and girls admire the cut and detail of their handmade wool felt jackets, the grandeur of their bearskin hats, the polish of their muskets and the precision of their maneuvers. Those watching are captured by the moment without a thought to the hours of research and work that go into this display of pageantry. And that is the beauty of this form of theatre. It all looks so natural.

The teenage age Paul O’Shaughnessy who was first drawn to the Regiment by its regalia on this very spot, now leads his troops as Lieutenant Colonel, Paul O’Shaunnessy Commanding Officer onto the field of battle.

Through their research, attention to detail and commitment to the History they not only entertain and educate, but they pay tribute to those who over two hundred years ago used their skill and knowledge to present the 10th Regiment of Foot for service in Lexington and Concord.

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