Monday, April 19, 2010

Patriot's Day

Lexington, Mass - The Patriots' Day celebration in Massachusetts starts early - really early. As dawn breaks, local history buffs are assembled on the Lexington village green, some decked out in `Redcoats' while others sport the scruffy attire of Minutemen, firearms in hand, ready to re-enact the fateful battle that kicked off the War for American Independence.

Massachusetts is one of only two states in the USA that recognizes Patriots' Day as a public holiday, but the Commonwealth takes it seriously. This is where the action went down on April 19, 1775. And this is where it continues to go down every year on the third Monday of April.

I was there before daybreak - along with hundreds of other eager spectators. (Note to self: next time bring a ladder.) The Minutemen hung around near Buckman Tavern and on the green, while the British Regulars assembled in a nearby parking lot. Apparently they don't make them re-enact the walk all the way from Boston.

As the sun rose, the bell rang out from the Old Belfry, and the colonial militia assembled on the green to await the arrival of the Regulars. Back in 1775, the militia men had been warned by Paul Revere, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, who set out from Boston the night before to spread the word. So when 700 British Regulars marched up to Lexington Green just after daybreak on April 19, they found Capt John Parker's company of 77 Minutemen lined up in formation to meet them. (Today, the Brits are represented in decidedly fewer numbers.)

The famous instructions from Capt Parker were the following: "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here."

But Capt Parker was a reasonable man. When he saw how badly outnumbered were his ranks, he ordered his men to disperse peaceably. Before they could do so, the Regulars were charging forward, shouting "Huzzah!" to confuse and disarm their opponents. It worked... some of the militia men dispersed, some stayed put, some laid down their arms, some did not. As a spectator, even I was confused - and I knew what was supposed to happen! (In all fairness to me, I couldn't really see.)

Here's where history is a mystery. In the midst of the confusion, a shot rang out - from which side nobody knows.  During the re-enactment, the shot was fired from a window of Buckman Tavern, but other accounts state it came from behind a wall or a hedge. That one shot triggered others, and bayonettes, and soon eight Minutemen lay dead on the green, with 10 others wounded.

Afterwards, the British soldiers continued to nearby Concord, where growing numbers of Minutemen were able to fight them back - and indeed chased them all the way back to Boston. (The Battle of Concord is also re-enacted every year on the Saturday before Patriot's Day.) But the skirmish on Lexington Green was the first organized, armed resistance to British rule in a colonial town.

Back in Lexington in 2010, as the British troops marched off down the road, the Minuteman re-enactors came out of character and the crowds began to filter across the green, heading to Starbucks to reload on caffeine. The battle was lost, but the war would be won. It was still not even 7am, and the rest of the day would filled with pancake breakfasts and parades.