Patriots' Day Reenactment | Two Mornings in April
As the sun begins to rise, a police officer’s walkie-talkie crackles, “Unit 1, British on the march.” The message elicits a small laugh from the crowd. With little fanfare, the Minutemen form up in a line on the green and await their opponent.
Unlike the colonials at Concord and Meriam’s Corner, the men on the green here aren’t reenacting generic soldiers. History recorded the name of every man who fought at Lexington, and when you join the Minutemen, you’re assigned one of them. You learn his story; you carry his legacy forward. On the line, Bill Poole stands ready with his musket; he’s reenacting his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Ebenezer Locke. Down the line from him is Henry Liu, whose ancestors were in China when this battle happened.
Soon, the British arrive on the green in grand fashion, their legion dwarfing the small Patriot contingent. True to history, some of the Patriots flee before any shots are fired, running off the green, across the street, and through a neighbor’s side yard. The British order the Patriots to disperse, the Minutemen refuse, and then somewhere off the green someone fires a musket and all hell breaks loose. The British fire a salvo into the American formation. This isn’t Park Service land, so any Minutemen who are reenacting soldiers who died or were injured fall to the ground in front of the British assault. The Redcoats give a cheer and rush across the green. A young man in a British uniform dashes in front of a New England Cable News film crew, glances quickly to his right to ensure that he’s framed up, then fires his musket. Compared with Concord, this is like a Broadway production.
The last of the Patriots retreat across the street, and the British regroup and march away. Women in colonial dress emerge to tend to the dead and dying. It’s a quiet, solemn moment, and the spectators pause to appreciate it. An announcer reads the names of the dead over the PA system. Upon the final name, the reenactment ends.
On April 19, 1775, no one knew what these shots meant. It would be another two months before George Washington took control of the new Continental Army, and more than a year before the country would get around to declaring independence. The only thing that was clear was that a handful of citizens in Massachusetts had unilaterally declared war on the most powerful empire on earth. Imagine the anxiety they faced when the sun set that day. Luckily, we don’t have to.
Today the dead rise off the green, dust themselves off, and pose for pictures. The crowd converges on the battlefield, and visitors shake hands with reenactors. In a few minutes, everyone will head over to St. Brigid’s church for a massive pancake breakfast.
In this way “historical reenactment” is an oxymoron. We attempt to make the past live again, but the very fact that we live in a society where we have the luxury to even try means that we’ll never truly succeed. It’s impossible to know what the world would be like without the battles of Lexington and Concord, or to express our gratitude for what happened there, so we create these little rituals instead. It’s like a child’s first birthday. He or she doesn’t care and will never remember, but our hearts would break if we left the day unobserved.
And so we gather around this little green at dawn. We light the candles on the cake, sing “Yankee Doodle” to the country, and then, in dramatic fashion, blow them out with a concussive musket blast from 20 yards away.