It’s not the flashiest of the flag-flying holidays, coming more than a month before summer kick-off of Memorial Day and without the mid-summer revelry of the Fourth of July, but it is unique and historical, and as such Massachusetts is proud to let school kids free and marathoners run wild to celebrate Patriots’ Day every April. To explore one Patriots’ Day tradition of battle reenactments, FM ventured back in time and out to the suburbs, hoping to uncover the motivations of tri-corner-hatted men who wake up at dawn and fire off rounds of gunpowder in memory of liberty-loving forefathers.
These guardians of the past are not professional historians. Among the Minute Men ranks are dentists, doctors and professors who meet once a month to transport themselves to the colonial era, with meticulous attention to authenticity. While fans of the reenactments, American historians at Harvard don’t suit up themselves, though a number of history loving Harvard alums tote muskets in formation with the Lexington training band.
This year, Patriots’ Day morning was gray, rainy and cold, but 5,000 spectators still lined the edges of Lexington Green to watch a reenactment of the Battle of Lexington. Seasoned spectators stood on ladders and drowsy yet curious small children perched on their fathers’ shoulders to get a good look at the action. Coveted viewing positions were occupied by 4 a.m. At 6 a.m. sharp, a Lexington Minute Man playing messenger Samuel Prescott rode up to the green to deliver the message that the British were, indeed, coming. Soon after, about 120 reenactors portraying British regulars marched up the road and confronted the Minute Men holding the green. The redcoats were booed by the umbrella-toting crowd. Tension rose among the crowd and reenactors as the British gave an order for the Minute Men to withdraw. They did not move. The British advanced. And then a shot was fired. Volleys of fire criss-crossed the green and the Minute Men fled with British in pursuit. When the heavy amount of smoke cleared, eight colonials were dead. The Minute Men survivors returned to the green, the crowd gave a rousing cheer and everyone dispersed to pancake breakfast at Lexington’s local churches.
Excitement about Patriots’ Day runs high throughout Lexington. “You should arrive before 5 a.m. I know it’s early, but people start getting there at 3:30 a.m.,” advises Wayne McCarthy, executive officer of the Minute Men. Most of the younger attendees whined about the early hour, but once the gunpowder ignited, everyone was wide awake. And on Patriots’ Day, everyone is an expert. One older man quizzed the kids next to him about battle-specifics and then knowingly informed them how one of the Minute Men died in his wife’s arms. Another man in the crowd explained to a curious onlooker that the British weaponry was not completely accurate, because the redcoats never marched without bayonets.
The Lexington Minute Men have been in continuous existence since 1773, and though today there is no need for them to defend their town, men still take the Minute Man oath and join the same band that clashed with British troops 227 years ago.
Originally known as the Lexington Training Band, this local militia, like others around Massachusetts, was cobbled together from residents of the community, 144 in total. Each member took this oath in order to join: “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.” Today, rather than simply joining the band, applicants must be sponsored by members to gain admission. Now membership is capped at 77, to remain true to the number who fought on Lexington Green on April 19, 1775.
The Minute Men’s mission is “to educate the public and its membership by recreating, in as historically accurate a manner as possible, the uniform and history of this militia company, and to portray the life and times of its soldiers and civilians,” a feat they accomplish through reenactments and school demonstrations. The group also serves to memorialize the original Minute Men, teaching “so future generations will understand it was more than a mere battle. It was more than a military confrontation,” according to the group’s website.
A love for history prompts most to join the Minute Men. “I’ve been interested in the history of the Revolution since I read ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ when I was 12,” says Dan H. Fenn Jr. ’44, a former Crimson president and Harvard lecturer. “I had always been fascinated with history and interested in Lexington in particular, because it was a time when people stood and fired on others who were part of their same community,” says McCarthy. Samuel A. Forman says he has always been interested in history, especially colonial Boston. He even wrote a historical novel about the siege of Boston.
Colin Godfrey, a professor at UMass-Boston, first became part of the Minute Men not for a love of history but because of his acting experience. “I was involved with theater at my church, and someone thought I’d be good in the Paul Revere reenactment,” Godfrey says. “It’s different from acting, because you get out there and feel something more of what those men must have felt then.” So he now riles up the rebellious crowd portraying Sam Adams the night before Patriots’ Day, and Ebenezer Bowman in the battle. “I’m actually British, so I should be on the other side,” Godfrey says.
This interest in history is essential, because each Minute Man must research his character in depth. For instance, Forman portrays John Hosmer, a young man who was set to attend Harvard until his benefactress, Madam Ryall, died. Instead, Hosmer became a shoemaker and Minute Man who survived the war and was around in 1835 to see the first reenactment.
It’s not just the reenactors that get involved. Fenn’s entire family gets caught up in the colonial excitement. “My grandchildren and daughter-in-law and son are involved,” Fenn says. “It’s kind of a family affair. As we speak, I’m getting ready for our yearly celebration of George Washington’s birthday, a little late. We all get together, and the kids do skits that, while maybe not so accurate, are always a good time.” Forman’s daughter is part of the group as well, dressing up in colonial garb and running onto the field to tend to the dead each year. “Amongst kids of a certain age group, it seems to be something of a status symbol in this area to be involved with the Minute Men,” says Forman. “She’s gone to school in her clothes. It’s very different from when I was a kid and that kind of thing would not be considered so cool.”
The Minute Men’s goal is accomplished if their audience has learned something over the course of many years of reenactments. But what exactly do these events teach? “What it can do is be an impetus for people to go read more about the period,” says Minute Man Sam Coppe. Children can be even more affected by the reenactments. “When you stand in front of people wearing your costume, there is learning that goes on without even talking,” McCarthy says. “The only thing I don’t like about reenacting is hearing little kids crying, because they think people are actually dead. It’s traumatic, but there’s learning going on.”
Professor of History Joyce E. Chaplin doesn’t quite agree that spectacle equals learning. “[Reenactments] are very good for giving people a sense of the texture of the past, but not so good about conveying the significance of specific events,” she says.
“I don’t think of reenactments as a way of ‘teaching’ history but as a way of learning about, connecting with and enjoying history,” says Phillips Professor of History Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Mark Hanna, a teaching fellow for Ulrich’s Historical Study B-40, “Pursuits of Happiness: Ordinary Lives in Revolutionary America,” served tea in his section about the Boston Tea Party, but he doesn’t think that sipping tea will transmit history like a coursepack can. “I think reenactments have a place as a national or cultural ritual, yet they possess immense limitations as teaching tools,” he says.
While history professors here at Harvard won’t be involved in colonial reenactments any time soon, Chaplin sees the University as a bit of a reenactment itself. “Lots of people at Harvard are self-consciously upholding traditions and enacting established rituals,” she says. “I think Harvard is rather like an open-air, living museum, though without the visual cues like wigs, farthingales and tricorns.”
Harvard’s history is indeed very intertwined with that of the Revolution. The Adams House Masters’ residence, Apthorp House, was home to colonial troops during the war, as were a number of Yard dorms. “The University actually moved to Andover for a time in 1775 while many students were off fighting in their local militias and for the British,” says Forman, who has researched the Revolutionary history of Harvard.
Harvard students probably don’t think twice about the events behind the plaques and markers that adorn this campus. But next Patriots’ Day, student will be just a pre-dawn bike ride away from witnessing history in reenactment form. The Lexington Minute Men will be on the green—as they were more than 225 years ago.