It’s Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts. “…the 18th of April in ’75.”
I’d set the alarm for 3:45 a.m., but I woke up about 3:15—you know how it is, like having to get up really early to catch a flight, and hardly sleeping at all so as not to be late.
Somewhere in the yard a single bird chittered once, twice, and then was silent. After a few minutes I disabled the alarm and crept out of bed. Dressed really warmly, tiptoed out of the house into the delicious chilly pre-dawn air. It’s nine miles to Lexington from here, just a short drive out of town.
Neither people nor cars moved on our street, and when I got on the highway only one light came toward me on the other side. But a mile or so ahead, I saw a lone car’s red taillights signaling for the Lexington exit, and I was pretty sure it was also going to the reenactment. Where else would it be going at 4 a. m.?
In the outskirts of Lexington I drove slowly past the big farm market where we spend most of our food dollar. Its fields were just visible in the faint morning glow, but there were lights on in the second floor of the market barn, where the offices are. You get up early when you grow things.
Lexington Center was quiet and dark, except for the startlingly huge illuminated American flag that covered the whole side of a two-story building. Your heart rises. A few people walked in the dark, singles or twos. I parked my car in the big parking lot behind the shops on the main street. Time to hit the coffee truck; I could smell it on the moist cold air.
The guy is just unlocking the coffee truck. A few of us are waiting for him. No donuts? Oh, shoot. I’ll just have a small coffee. Just the one size? Fine, I’ll have it. I have some Easter cookies, offers another customer. Would you like one? Well, sure, thank you so much. The egg-shaped cookie, large and iced with hard frosting, is just right for breakfast.
Ahead of me, quite dark but I know my way, is the Lexington Green, on which the first battle of the American Revolution happened, rather by accident. It is that event which we are here to commemorate in a reenactment performed every year since 1969.
This morning’s reenactors are members of either the Lexington Minute Men Company or His Majesty’s Tenth Regiment of Foot.
The Company of Lexington Minute Men was formed on December 13, 1775, and has been in continuous existence since then, the oldest such militia organization in the United States. These days each reenactor takes the role of a person known to have been an actual member of the Company; he is required to carry out research on his namesake and to dress in an exquisitely-correct fashion, in order to portray a Minute Man of the period between April and October of 1775. No plastic buttons or Timex watches here!
A Lexington Minute Man must swear the original pledge: “We trust in God, that should the state of our affairs require it, we shall be ready to sacrifice our estates and everything dear in life, yea, and life itself in support of the common cause.” Little did they know.
On the other side, His Majesty’s Tenth Regiment of Foot. The Redcoats. Actually they are His Majesty’s Tenth Regiment of Foot in America, Inc. Back in the late 1960’s, as folks were beginning to look ahead to the Bicentennial, ersatz “reenactment” redcoat groups fought mock Revolutionary War battles. At the Old North Bridge, in 1967, a local man, Vincent Kehoe, observed the ragtag redcoats and determined then and there to organize a more presentable, accurate regiment.
With the support and formal authorization of present and retired officers of the actual British Tenth Foot, and following a great deal of research, the American Contingent was established, and in 1970 Mr Kehoe became its colonel. He and the men were surely proud as they served as a guard of honor for HM Queen Elizabeth II during her bicentennial visit to Boston in July, 1976.
But back to the Lexington Green in the dark. Carrying my cup of coffee, I picked my way carefully along the lines of people gathered at the edge of the Green, looking for a good spot. No step-ladders this year—for security reasons they aren’t allowed. But I see some people standing on upturned buckets. Whatever. Here’s a pretty good place—only about five lawn chairs there at the rope, and the people in them will probably stay seated. I slither in behind them, now and then inching forward as people to either side of me adjust their positions. Yeah, it’s a good spot.
It’s about 4:30. Behind me the sky shows the subtlest blue.
For the next hour or so one of the Minute Men reenactors, who must be a high school history teacher in his day job, regales our edge of the rope with stories of the events leading up to the one we will see shortly. He is good-natured about the lacunae in our knowledge, and helps us to understand all the complexities of the real history, which is not quite the same as the familiar, Longfellowized version.
Behind him, little groups or pairs of Minute Men walk the darkened Green, speaking of their worries for the morning to come. It’s known that late last night the Brits marched off the Boston Common where they have been camped, and seem to be heading this way. It’s over fifteen miles, and they had some slow going in the beginning, when they had to pass through the wetlands at Lechmere. So nobody knows exactly when they will get here, or what will happen when they do.
The Minute Men know that there are stores of arms in Concord, the next town over, and that Sam Adams and John Hancock are staying in a house just up the road. So do the Brits, and that is what they have come for, to arrest the men and destroy the arms.
It’s gotten lighter now, and some birds are chirking in the trees over my head. The crowd behind me has grown to ten deep, but I have an unobstructed view. A bell sounds from across the Green, and our history teacher/reenactor finishes his stories and moves away, our applause following him.
Presently the master of ceremonies across the Green greets the crowd. He is speaking into a microphone which echoes and reverberates around the green oval lined with spectators. He explains the events we will see.
Then there is silence. The crowd waits in silence. Except for a little kid somewhere behind me, on his daddy’s shoulders, who says, “I hate the Redcoats! They’re bad!” and we all laugh.
The light rises, the birds twitter. All at once a horseman gallops up to Buckman’s Tavern, just at the end of the Green (it was there then and it is there now). “They’re coming! They’re coming!”
Minute Men pour out of the tavern where they have been waiting. We all crane around each other to see if we see the Red Coats. The Minute Men line up on the Green, just across from me. Captain Parker keeps them in order. He tells them not to fire but to stand their ground if they are challenged.
Oh so much easier said than done: for here come the Red Coats, marching smartly down the road to the Green. They are a formidable sight, in their fine red and yellow uniforms and carrying their rifles. There are so many of them. On that day, there were 77 Minute Men and 700 British soldiers.
Red Coats in lines seem to fill their end of the Green. Our guys waver and a few must be urged by Captain Parker to stay in formation. A Red Coat advances. “Lay down your arms, return to your homes, and no one will be harmed, “ he says in a commanding voice. Nothing doing.
Again the British officer commands, “Lay down your arms, you rebels! Return to your homes! Disperse, I tell you!!”
Still nothing, although our men begin to move back slowly, in view of the intimidating lines of British soldiers. The officer in his red coat hollers once more, right into the faces of the line of Minute Men, “DISPERSE! You damned rebels, DISPERSE!”
Then two things seem to happen simultaneously. The Red Coats are ordered to affix their wicked-looking bayonets to their rifles, and Captain Parker orders his men to retreat cautiously. The two lines, facing each other, slowly move as if in lockstep to the right across the Green. How terrifying this must have been!
But look! A shot is heard and seen in its monstrous puff of smoke. From which side? No one knows, to this day no one truly knows. The firing breaks loose on both sides, arcs of flame and spurts of smoke and terrific reports fill the air! Our men break and run, they fall, they are chased by the soldiers and all is confusion and mayhem.
When the firing ceases, eight of the Minute Men are dead upon the Green. Women rush out to tend them and the wounded. The Red Coats, disordered after this unexpected encounter, regroup, fire a smart volley, and march off to Concord.
These hallowed dead are buried upon the Green, and you can walk over and pay respects at their monument. Today there are eight red roses laid there.
So it’s over, there in the early blue morning, and our crowd of spectators does indeed disperse, many of us including me heading for one of the boy scout fund-raising pancake breakfasts in a church basement. At the breakfasts reenactors from both sides sit down together over pancakes, sausage and coffee.
Captain Parker is reported to have said, “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!” And it did.
In Boston, on this same day, is the running of the 118th Boston Marathon, site of last year’s horror. Boston has come together, Boston Strong as they say, and the winner of the men’s race is an American, for the first time since 1983. And how wonderful his story, for he is an immigrant from Eritrea, who came to America in 1987. Yes, just a typical American.