Patriots' Day: Two Mornings in April
A ragged band of Americans march tiredly towards the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a cold, gray morning here in Minute Man National Historical Park, and from somewhere in the mist the sounds of a fife can be heard. As they hunker beneath their hoods, a sense of quiet anticipation furrows the brows of the assembled men. Then the fateful cry goes up: “Hot coffee and pie!”
Huzzah! I think. I could use some pie. I duck out of the line of bleary-eyed tourists and quick-step over to the big white tent in front of the Old Manse, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family home, which sits just feet from the site of the battle. I’m not in the habit of eating apple pie at 7:30 in the morning, but Patriots’ Day comes only once a year.
But this isn’t actually Patriots’ Day, which officially lands on the third Monday of every April. Not many people get that day off, so the National Park Service holds its major reenactments on the Saturday before, hoping for bigger crowds. Ironically, this means that the reenactment of the battle at Concord happens two days before the one at Lexington, but only the most hardcore history buffs make a fuss about it.
Pie in hand, I continue toward the bridge and catch my first glimpse of the British. A small cluster of Redcoats are queued up in front of the public restroom by the road. By the bridge, the crowd of tourists starts to swell. There are several dozen families as well as a large group of high-school students, and I try to guess how long it will take them to run out of jokes about knickers. I settle in behind a man who’s there with his young son.
They say that 95 percent of war is waiting, and the same could be said of historical reenactments. Somewhere at the head of the crowd, a park ranger is reciting the story of this day, but the PA system is squawky, and most of his words are lost. The crowd undulates as people shift their weight from one leg to the other and back again. I fantasize about more pie.
Just then, the sound of a drum comes beating from the parking lot as the British form up. Across the bridge, a thin formation of Patriots starts its march. The British brush by where I’m standing in the crowd, and the man in front of me bends down by his son and points: “Those are the Redcoats! You see them?”
Moments later the two sides meet, one at either end of the bridge. Both forces present arms, then shift their aim 45 degrees to the right and shoot harmlessly over the creek. These aren’t warning shots; this is the battle. You’re not allowed to fire a gun–even an unloaded replica during a reenactment–on Park Service land. It’s also against the rules to pretend to be dead, so no one falls down on either side. High drama it’s not, but if you’re here to be entertained, you’ve missed the point.
After a few rounds, the British break and run, and a cheer goes up amid the crowd of onlookers. “That’s it,” the man in front of me says to his son. “That’s the start of the war.”