Patriots' Day Reenactment | Two Mornings in April
There are enough national studies, political gaffes, and Tonight Show “Jay Walking” segments to prove that we as a culture are not that interested in our own history. The boys in front of me are the exception. They’re still at the age when history is inherently interesting because it’s the subject in school that most closely resembles a Mel Gibson movie. In a few years, though, it will be harder for them to imagine phantom Redcoats darting among the trees. Most will lose interest. Those precious few who don’t will become history nerds, and from there it’s a short, slippery slope to becoming a historical reenactor.
There are far more reenactors in this country than you’d ever guess, a fact that’s easy to see at the park’s annual “Battle Road” events. For Revolutionary reenactors, this is their Woodstock. Units travel from several states to participate in this day of demonstrations, which culminates in the reenactment of the battle at Meriam’s Corner.
The Scouts and I round a bend in the road, and the treeline opens up on a small field filled with scores of people dressed in striking red British uniforms. Some of them are cooking over campfires, while others are just talking with the tourists. A line of regulars is undergoing inspection, blocking the path ahead. A woman in bright-purple jogging shorts squeezes around the line of soldiers. On any other day this park is a popular running path, but today, much to her surprise, it’s an 18th-century encampment. The British commanding officer chuckles as she offers him an embarrassed, “Hi, sorry,” then continues down the path, jogging a little faster than before.
If you ask reenactors why they get into this, you get a lot of answers, but ultimately the conversation always comes back to one common theme: fun. In this country it’s common to dress up like the thing you’re passionate about, whether in a Tom Brady jersey at a Pats game or a Starfleet singlet at a sci-fi convention. We take our fandom seriously. Reenactors are really no different; they just root for something more important than pop culture.
In a few minutes, the Redcoats form up and begin their march to Meriam’s Corner. After the shots at Concord, the British were subjected to a string of ambush attacks all the way back to Boston. Meriam’s Corner was the largest of these skirmishes, and as such it’s by far the largest reenactment of the weekend.
The same Park Service rules apply. No one falls down, though with so many people on the field, it’s less obvious that they’re not aiming at one another. The colonial forces attack, retreat, and reform over and over again as the British column moves slowly but steadily down the road. At times, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on, and a reenactor would later confess to me that this battle is probably more for themselves than it is for us.
It’s their payoff for all the regimental meetings, the hours of drills, and the time and money put into crafting their uniforms. On any other day someone might scoff at the $1,200 someone paid for his musket or the hours he spent hand-sewing a pair of breeches–but not today. Today the reenactors get to take center stage amid the gunsmoke, the shouted orders, and the billowing banners, while the rest of us stand on the sidelines and watch.
A person’s connection to history is personal. Some people feel it; others don’t. Later I would talk with Charlie Price, a Lexington Minuteman who works as a park ranger in Concord. “I spend a lot of time at the North Bridge,” he tells me. “People come up to me and ask, ‘So what is there to do around here?'” As he says this, his voice rises, as though he can’t fathom how anyone could be ignorant of the sacredness of the place. Those tourists may as well have asked the same question of a priest in his church.
Reenactments aren’t so much entertainment as they are interventions: They’re an attempt to bridge that divide between those who never stopped caring about history and those who did. Reenactors don’t necessarily want you to join your local militia; they just want you to pay attention, open yourself up to the ghosts in the place, and for at least one day, see the British darting amid the trees again.
On Patriots’ Day you have to wake up awfully early to love your country in Lexington: Diehards stake out their spots along the town green at 3 a.m. If you arrive after 4:45 a.m., the crowd is so thick you can’t see the field from the back. Locals have found a few ways around this. Rooftop seating abounds on the regal homes that line the green. For those less well connected, ladders are a popular choice.
One man rolls a little red wagon, piled high with materials, down the street. He quickly deploys two ladders, then slides a painter’s bench between them. He has a gaggle of small children with him, and he hoists each one like a sack of potatoes onto his perch. Then he climbs up one of the side ladders and leans out, one arm hooked around a rung, looking for all the world like a proud sea captain in his riggings.
I’m astonished by how many people turn out at this god-awful hour. I hear a man joking about it with his buddy: “One year the British win and the next the Americans do. They change it up to keep the tourists happy.” But, of course, they don’t. The players stick to the script, and if you’ve seen it once, well, you’ve seen it. And yet every year the crowds come.
Tradition is part of the appeal, of course, but to a greater extent I think it’s town pride. If you ask anyone anywhere else in the country where the Revolution started, they’ll reply (provided they know), “LexingtonandConcord,” as though it were one place. That doesn’t fly here, and each town claims to be where the Revolution really began.
I ask a very proper-looking woman where she stands on the debate, and she gives a little laugh, then says, “Can you tell time?” The Battle of Lexington did indeed take place before Concord, and the casualties here sparked the conflict that would occur later in the day. Still, Emerson didn’t write “Lexington Hymn”; he opted to place the “shot heard round the world” just outside his family home at the North Bridge. Concord benefited from the fact that we tend to remember history based on the stories people tell about it rather than what actually happened–or, as Sean Kelleher, a Lexington Minuteman, put it, “They had a good publicist 60 years later who wrote a nice poem.”