A Revolutionary War hero lives again
● By J. Chambless
Noah Lewis is a living history re-enactor who portrays Ned Hector, a black Revolutionary War hero.
Noah Lewis has been portraying Ned Hector for so long now that he slips into the character effortlessly. Dressed in his Revolutionary War-era uniform and carrying a musket, a bayonet, a canteen, a cartridge box and other military necessities, he looks like he just strolled off the battlefield. Lewis spent most of the day on Friday, Feb. 6 bringing Hector to life for students at the Hopewell Elementary School in Oxford, concluding with an evening performance that was open to the community. Hector was a black Revolutionary War hero who served with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine and in Germantown. During the course of his fast-paced and entertaining presentation, Lewis talked about the role of black soldiers in the Colonial fight for freedom, focusing on Hector and the events that transpired on the Brandywine Battlefield in 1777.
The presentation, which was sponsored by the the Oxford Area Historical Association, Oxford Area School District, and Oxford Educational Foundation, was in celebration of Black History Month.
Ken Woodward, the vice president of the Oxford Area Historical Association, is a retired educator. He said that Lewis’ presentation makes a lasting impression on students, especially because it is very interactive.
"The program in the school gave the students an interactive illustration of what it was like to be a Revolutionary War solider," Woodward said.
Vernon Ringler, the president of the Oxford Area Historical Association, said that Lewis’ presentation brought with it "a lot of positive energy."
That was true from the moment that Lewis dashed on stage, shouting out about the impending battle. Soon, he is weaving together stories about the battle and biographical information about Hector, including the audience at every opportunity.
As natural as he is on a stage, Lewis did not set out to become a living history re-enactor. The Upper Darby, Pa. resident earned a degree in biology and was a certified bio-medical technician. He would occasionally do presentations in the school that his children attended, and it was after one of these presentations that Lewis was asked by a teacher if he knew anything about Colonial history.
At about that same time, Lewis was researching genealogy and becoming more interested in history.
He made some school presentations and found out that he had a knack for it. Hector was a natural choice as someone to portray because of his exploits on the battlefield and the interesting life that he led.
Lewis started traveling to different parts of the country to portray Hector in schools, at historic sites, and at various community events. Eventually, he was able to make living history his livelihood. After so many performances, he knows how to change the presentation to suit the audience.
"A lot of it is trial and error," Lewis explained. "You want to come in and just say everything that you’ve ever learned. But you can’t do that. You have to focus on the essentials."
While Lewis occasionally portrays other historical figures, he has mostly settled into portraying Hector, one of between 3,000 and 5,000 people of color who fought for the cause of American independence.
Hector served in the Revolutionary War from February of 1777 until at least December of 1780. He was a teamster and a bombardier with the state militia called Proctor’s Third Pennsylvania Artillery. The Third Pennsylvania Artillery was dispatched to the area around the Brandywine River to prevent the movement toward Philadelphia by British Troops. Philadelphia was the American capital at that time, and it was imperative that it be protected.
As the British troops approached Kennett Square, their forces were divided into two to confuse Gen. George Washington and the American Army. Hector’s regiment arrived near the John Chads House, which was still occupied by Chads’ widow, Elizabeth. She stayed in the home the entire time that the battle raged outside.
Lewis demonstrated the happenings on the battlefield with the help of several other re-enactors, one who portrayed a soldier who was on the lookout for the enemy, another soldier who visits Gen. Washington to relay important information, and another who portrays Elizabeth Chads as she refused to leave her home.
During the presentation, Lewis incorporated details that help explain not just how the battle played out, but why it played out that way.
For example, in the Battle of Brandywine, American soldiers weren’t as worried about being shot as they were about having to fight the British with bayonets, which left cruel injuries that couldn't be effectively treated at that time.
"The British are good with the bayonets," Lewis explained. "We are not."
The British won this battle in part because of that advantage with the bayonets, forcing American soldiers to retreat.
Hector disregarded the orders to abandon everything and retreat. As a teamster and artilleryman, if he retreated, both cannons and teams of horses would be lost to the enemy. When he was given the orders to retreat, Hector replied, "The enemy shall not have my team. I will save my horses or perish myself."
The display of courage earned Hector the respect of the other troops.
"He’s considered a hero in this battle," Lewis explained.
Lewis kept the spectators fully engaged and included them in the program by working with volunteers from the audience to illustrate how to load and fire a cannon. When he enlisted the help of several girls, he talked about how many women would disguise themselves as men so that they could fight in the battles during the Revolutionary War. One person who gained considerable notoriety for doing this was Deborah Sampson. She was injured on the battlefield in the Battle of Brandywine, yet still tried to conceal her wounds so that her true identity wouldn't be revealed.
Lewis said that his favorite part of the presentations is seeing the reactions of audience members, especially the younger spectators who are learning about history in a fun, interactive way.
Lewis said that one of his goals whenever he is making a presentation is to explain the vital role that black soldiers played in fighting for the country’s freedom. If you’re enjoying your life of freedom now, it is due in no small part to the black soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War.
"Our power as a country," Lewis said, "has always been our diversity. These people deserve a lot more glory than they’ve been given."
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email firstname.lastname@example.org.