Go to just about any Revolutionary War re-enactment and you are almost sure to find members of the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment. Dressed in uniforms of the period they can tell you a lot about what it was like to be a soldier during what Thomas Paine called “the times that try men’s souls.”
Like most groups of re-enactors, the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment is not a mere fabrication. They are based on an actual Revolutionary War unit that served in a number of major battles of the war. And they also have another history. Once known as the Northamptontowne Militia they were formed to honor the 200th anniversary of the U.S. in 1976.
Their founding father was A. James “Jim” Shedlauskas. He and several like-minded friends had a vision, to create an historically accurate military group of the Revolution to be the “guard” over the Liberty Bell Trek--the re-enactment of the September, 1777 journey that took the Liberty Bell and other Philadelphia bells out of the city during the British occupation.
As Shedlauskas remembers it the creation of the unit began in 1974. “It was that April that George Longenbach, a member of the Liberty Bell Trek Committee, an offshoot of Lehigh County’s Bicentennial Committee, came to my home to talk about what kind of uniforms had been worn by Continental troops who had accompanied the original wagon train.”
Although neither man knew it at the time Allentown had a Revolutionary War re-enacting group 100 years before. In 1876 local militia units had donned colonial era military garb and re-enacted the battle of Bunker Hill in what is now the Old Fairgrounds neighborhood between 5th and Liberty Streets. Apparently some participants were so “into” their roles that some suffered from real if superficial wounds caused by black powder.
The militia liked the uniforms so much that they adopted them as their regular dress. But a year later, while participating in putting down a riot by railroad workers in Reading, they found them totally impractical and returned to the basic Union Army blue uniform.
As they talked in 1974, both Longenbach and Shedlauskaus came to realize that there were two schools of thought about exactly how they should be uniformed. “Some wanted to recreate the event as closely as possible,” Shedlauskas recalled. “Others were satisfied with rather theatrical costuming for the participants.” That group felt a scaled down uniform of a tricorn hat, hunting or rifle shirt and a pair of shortened breeches would be enough.
But something about this struck Jim Shedlauskas as just not right. This was, after all, the 200th anniversary of the country and should be accorded something special. So several months later he and Longenbach went to Bill Albert, chairman of the Lehigh County Bicentennial Commission with a proposal. They and their friends would “outfit ourselves as correctly as we could and assume the cost of our uniforms and equipment.” Albert had no objection but reminded them that as it was October, 1974, they had better get started.
Quickly Shedlauskas, Logenbach, and Dave Nicholas, a friend who was a member of a Philadelphia area “Rev. War’ unit formed the Northamptontowne Militia. The named came from the original name for Allentown which it officially bore from 1762 until 1838. The group had its kickoff event on January of 1975 when a recruiting table was set up on Hamilton Street, accompanied by a fife and drum unit.
The next event was Washington’s Birthday on February 22, 1975. Members of the militia, four musketmen, a drummer and fifer paraded up Hamilton Street, then to 10th and Linden. There at the Allentown Cemetery they placed a wreath in honor of the many Lehigh County Revolutionary War veterans who are buried there. But not everything went smoothly. The parade “caused quite a stir in downtown Allentown because in addition to the unique costumes and muskets, this group was marching against the flow of traffic.”
Another hitch developed when the musketmen fired their first volley and only one of the muskets went off. But the second try was perfect. Soon requests were pouring in. “We were asked to show up for everything from tree plantings to pageants,” Shedlauskus recalled.
During 1976 the Northamptontowne Militia made up to 108 appearances and apparently never managed to wear out their welcome. That year Allentown’s First Presbyterian Church, the Northern Lehigh Bicentennial Committee and the South Whitehall Costume Ball held at Dorney Park’s Castle Garden, all echoed to musket fire. At this last venue some of the men got a chance to show their skills at something more than warfare when they danced the minuet, which they had been practicing. And that April they served as honor guard at the Lehigh County Chamber of Commerce’s 70th Annual Dinner for the special guest of the evening, former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton.
But the big event was in September when the Northamptontowne Militia acted as protection for the Liberty Bell Trek that carried a replica of the Liberty Bell from Philadelphia to Allentown. Along with the bell the Militia was a major attraction. In 1976 re-enactors were still something of a novelty. And a unit as well-organized and educated as the Northamptontowne Militia was able to share their knowledge of life in an 18th century military unit.
The end of the national bicentennial was not the end of the Northamptontowne Militia. The unit continued to be called for any number of historical activities and events.
As Shedlauskaus remembers it, it was sometime in the mid 1990s that the Northamptontowne Militia became the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment. Although he is no longer an active member he remains on the mailing list. And he still shares his memories.
Photos courtesy of Jim Shedlauskas.