On a clear, cold late April night, a little after three o‚Äôclock, a plump woman in a long red dress with a matching bonnet shivers as she watches a group of six middle aged men dressed in a variety of rough wool tunics and hand sewn linen fiddle with their long barreled muskets. The light of two candles flickering in glass lanterns projects their shadows into giant shapes on the white-washed planks of the Unitarian meeting house. It is the spring of 1775, and a group of American patriots from the Sudbury Companies of Militia and Minute are readying to march from the small settlement of East Sudbury in Massachusetts to the neighbouring town of Concord, ten miles north. It had been a harsh winter, but they and thousands of other American ‚Äòpatriots‚Äô had used the time to prepare ammunition, gather weapons and train the young men in how a guerilla army would defeat the army of the most powerful military nation on earth.
On the orders of their commander, they prime their long barreled muskets and pull the triggers. There is an explosion of sound and blindingly bright light as the black powder charges go off. The group of gathered men chortle and one exclaims, ‚ÄúThat was a good one!‚Äù They prime their weapons again, now bathed in a startling red light. A late arriving member of the militia has parked his car and was inadvertently keeping his foot on the brake pedal, casting a brilliant glow over the proceedings.
The year is actually 2015 and it, too, has been an exceptionally cold and snowy winter. These men and women are all enthusiastic re-enactors of the events of 1775, when British Crown troops acting on intelligence reports marched on Concord to confiscate weapons stockpiled by the restless colonists, and also capture rebel leaders in Lexington village. The whole north east coast was under the spell of sedition, but the colony of Massachusetts seemed to be the most militant.
Back in East Sudbury, or Wayland as it is now called, the company of minutemen marches down a slope and across a main road. They ignore the red traffic lights, but adhere to the pedestrian crossing. A car waits patiently for the ensemble to cross, nonplussed by the anachronistic parade. They don‚Äôt walk far before the men line up near a graveyard to fire more volleys outside a beautiful colonial building and under a brilliantly starred sky. The group sets off again toward Concord, leaving the town limits, followed by a small convoy of cars, their headlights lighting the way once they enter the darkness beyond the town lights. They do not walk far, and climb into the cars, and make their way north to a parking lot set up with trestle tables where they partake of an al fresco breakfast alongside a 1970s GMC Motorhome.
Eventually, the Waybury militia makes its way to Concord‚Äôs North Bridge, where the first battle between American military forces and the Crown troops of the British Empire took place. The beloved ‚Äòprophet of the American Religion‚Äô Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the skirmish at Concord,
‚ÄòBy the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April‚Äôs breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.‚Äô
‚ÄòSpirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.‚Äô
Emerson‚Äôs stirring ode immortalised the events next to a little stream swollen by the thaw, as well as the American belief in their exceptionalism and that individuals can, and should, act to ensure freedom. Except that this is where it all becomes a little contested. Concord and Lexington were two small farming towns, villages, really, that were at the heart of the planned revolt against the British. Spies among the ‚Äòpatriots‚Äô had informed the British that the revolutionaries had stockpiled weapons, including a cannon, at Concord and two of the leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock were staying in Lexington. The night before the British force set out from Boston, seventeen miles away, Paul Revere made his famous ride through the dark, warning village after village of the imminent arrival of their enemy. Church bells peeled, and drums beat in his wake as the militiamen were roused from their beds. ‚ÄúThroughout the night, towns that had been warned of the British Crown forces‚Äô march toward Concord sent small bands of men to take on the Crown forces,‚Äù says Boston historian J.L. Bell.
“As the more numerous and disciplined British faced off against the ragtag militia, instructing them to lay down their arms, one of the nervous Americans fired his musket.”
The confrontation took place on the Lexington green, where villagers and nearby farmers had rallied to the urgent ringing of the church bell as the British force approached. As the more numerous and disciplined British faced off against the ragtag militia, instructing them to lay down their arms, one of the nervous Americans fired his musket. It was most probably an accident, as none among the closely packed Redcoats was hit, but then the order was given to fire and several militiamen were shot and killed ‚Äì the first casualties of the war of independence. The Americans fled and the British marched to nearby Concord, seeking to confiscate the cannon and other weapons. It was here that the American forces, made up of men from several of the neighbouring towns, including East Sudbury, for the first time marched on the British.
Initially, the citizens of Lexington insisted that they had been unfairly attacked on the village green, and only later spoke about shooting back. There was, says Bell, ‚Äúa lot of friction with Concord over exactly who fired that first shot.‚Äù Once independence had been gained, a pamphlet war ensued, arguing over which of the two towns was more important, historically speaking.
Emerson‚Äôs poem, the Concord Hymn, was written in 1836. It was in no small way influenced by the arguments between Lexington and Concord, as well as the fact that Emerson‚Äôs grandfather had witnessed the battle at North Bridge. Lexington had, however, fired the first shot in the propaganda war, ‚ÄúThe very first reenactment was in Lexington in 1822,‚Äù says Bell, ‚Äúmen who had been alive and involved were still alive and young men reenacted how they thought the battle had taken place as a tribute.‚Äù
The rivalry, much watered down, continues today, with each town having its own historical society and its own cadre of re-enactors. These groups follow quite varied standards of historical accuracy. Among the more fastidious is the Lexington Militia, where members choose a historical character to research and then assume his or her persona.¬†On a sunny day on Lexington Green preparing to relive a historic exchange, Steve Conner corrected a reporter who was querying why the players did not have beards or moustaches, ‚Äúthe fashion in those times was to be clean shaven, though few bother with the wigs that Americans in the 18th¬†century habitually wore.‚Äù
“Each person has to¬†research as deeply as possible their character, as well as the time and place they lived¬†in, who their family was. These people continue to play that same character for¬†twenty years or more.”
Bell says, ‚ÄúThere is a great range in historical accuracy and Lexington is on the more accurate side, but it is still very much a civic celebration of the town itself. I like it that they represent the town now, as well as back in 1775.‚Äù Most re-enactors adhere to the thirty yard rule, where you pass muster if you appear authentic across a little over the length of a cricket pitch. Those who step right up to the crease for a closer inspection, like literally counting the stitches in an item of clothing are known as ‚Äòstitch-counters‚Äô. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those referred to as Farbies. These actors wear inauthentic clothing and just look wrong. Bell reckons the name Farby perhaps comes from the phrase that might spring out of a Stitch-counter‚Äôs mouth on seeing an inappropriately dressed re-enactor, ‚ÄúFar be it for me to say …‚Äù
The Sudbury Companies of Minute & Militia are a very active group, but not such sticklers for up close authenticity. Hal and Betsey Cutler, both 71, have been re-enactors since 1969, and had never heard of the term Farby, ‚ÄúI guess that makes us Farbies then,‚Äù he laughed. Though there was a time when they did pay intense attention to the details of their attire. Due to a glut of militia for the upcoming re-enactment of the battle of Yorktown, they were told they could only take part if they were prepared to dress and act as soldiers of a French regiment. The Sudbury group accepted and sent a member to France to photograph the exact uniforms. Betsey was one of many women who sewed 85 perfect replica uniforms, with handmade brass buttons. Hal recalls ‚ÄúWe put 83 men on the field in very authentic French uniforms. We learnt enough French to take marching and firing orders.‚Äù
They were so authentic that the company was invited to France in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of The Treaty of Paris, when Britain officially relinquished control of her colony and America gained its independence. Hal recalls marching down the Champs-Elys√©es in that French uniforms as tens of thousands of Parisians waved American flags.
For Hal, his lifelong hobby has yielded some wonderful as well as emotionally powerful memories, ‚ÄúI remember a battle in NY, our unit was being held back and I watched another unit engaging the British regulars. One of the militia members broke ranks and ran from the field, terrified. His officer chased him down with a drawn sword and forced him back to the line. That really drove home for me what it must have been like as a non-soldier taking part in war.‚Äù
“Facts should not stand in the way of a good founding myth…”
The historian Bell regards the re-enactors as an important part of public history, ‚ÄúHistorians have a lot to say about heritage as opposed to history. Heritage is how we like to think about our history, and around here we like to emphasise the battles of Lexington and Concord because Americans won. Battles like Bunker Hill, which we lost, not so much.‚Äù
And while the battles of Lexington and Concord have been immortalized by Emerson‚Äôs Concord Hymn, Bell says the first battle was ‚Äúfor the harbor fort at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in December of 1774. No one was killed, so we don‚Äôt remember it as much‚Ä¶‚Äù Some claim it was the battle at Gaspee on Rhode Island and yet others claim it to be the Boston Massacre, or the Stamp Act protests.
Facts should not stand in the way of a good founding myth, much like the belief that the first Anglo Saxon foothold in America was established when the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. Ignoring Native Americans, the Spanish and the French, the first British colonial settlement was down south, at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. Bell says ‚Äúthe colony all America celebrates at Thanksgiving is Plymouth, in what’s now Massachusetts, founded in 1620. So once again, Massachusetts has seized primacy in the minds of ‚Äòmost Americans,‚Äô even though it clearly came later.‚Äù
Among the re-enactors, many wear prescription spectacles called ‚ÄòBen Franklins‚Äô that¬†are procured from a specialist supplier at great cost. Authentic shoes are pretty¬†expensive, and uncomfortable. The most costly item is usually a modern remake of¬†the muskets used then. Nonetheless, there is great enthusiasm for this hobby. For¬†militia, like Lexington, who assign a historic character to a re-enactor, each person has to¬†research as deeply as possible their character, as well as the time and place they lived¬†in, who their family was. These people continue to play that same character for¬†twenty years or more. Other re-enactors play more than one character.
Greg Marinovich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and filmmaker. He is the co-author of The Bang Bang Club, a nonfiction book on South Africa‚Äôs transition to democracy that has been translated into six languages.¬†He spent 25 years covering conflict around the globe, with his writing and photographs appearing in magazines and newspapers worldwide. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2013/14 and currently teaches visual journalism at Boston University‚Äôs Journalism school and the Harvard summer school.¬†