Patriots’ Day!

Almost every year for the past ten years or so we’ve been going to an event on the Saturday of Patriots’ Day weekend at Minute Man National Historical Park.  Technically in the town of Lincoln, MA it basically spans most of the original road from Lexington to Concord. We discovered the place in the late 1990s quite by accident when I was scheduled to take a certification exam in Boston very early in the morning and I was seeking a place to stay the night before.  Lexington sounded good. Of course, I had been there as a kid with my parents and grandparents, and I distinctly remembered walking across the North Bridge in Concord as well as recalling the two statues; one in front of the North Bridge and the other on Lexington Green.  What I hadn’t remembered was the rest of the park itself, and it is quite possible that we didn’t even stop to visit the battle road trail in between the two more famous locations.

In any event, Mr. H. and I had an extra day to explore, and explore we did! We walked most of the “battle road” trail, reading all the park service signs along the way marking significant events from April 19, 1775.  I was particularly moved by the markers of the British soldiers who were buried where they fell- young men who didn’t ask for war, and never made it home to their parents, wives, and children at home across the ocean.  It became my tradition to pick a few daffodils and wildflowers from the field near the North Bridge and place them on the grave of the two soldiers buried near the bridge.

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When we began to participate in living history in the early to mid-2000s, one of the first events I wanted to attend was “Battle Road” on Patriots’ Day weekend.  At the time, I had less of a clue about historically accurate clothing (eek, yikes, exclaim how you must) but I recalled walking the trail several years before, and I knew the history of the area and what happened on April 19. So we attended in an unofficial capacity and while I’ll spare you the photos of our early clothing attempts, I found the place to be strangely “magical” and just needed to be there every year. Some of you will doubtless understand what I mean.  In more recent years with tightening of regulations in order to show improved historical accuracy to the public, we’ve attended with groups in a more official capacity, and have served as interpreters or participated in staged scenarios during the tactical “battle” in the afternoon.

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Hartwell Tavern (in summer) along the battle road and Hartwell Tavern interior (below)


The event can be crowded and there are designated areas for the participants to park in order to leave the major lots clear for the visitors, so we typically arrive fairly early in the morning when there are very few if any, “modern” people out and about.  There might be an occasional dog-walker or bicyclist but generally, all one sees are people in 18th-century dress– militiamen, King’s soldiers and officers, and townswomen with little colonial kids.   That has changed in the last couple of years with the “Tough Ruck” for fallen soldiers taking place in the park at the same time.  However, our routine has always been to take a quiet walk along the dirt road lined with trees and stone walls, past some of the original houses (or remains of such), then to greet our friends.  We contemplate the general alarm of the countryside the night before with the beating of the horses’ hooves of the alarm riders, church bells tolling and the sound of signal gunfire calling the militia out in the wee hours of the morning (generally 3 musket shots in a row, as quickly as could be loaded), how the inhabitants of the homes might have been feeling, and what actually happened that day.  For me at least, it effectively transports to a different time and place.

The event opens to visitors mid-morning, and that time is usually spent visiting with friends who are demonstrating 18th-century life at Hartwell Tavern and the Smith House, as well as talking with and answering questions for the visitors.  We find a shady place for “nooning” if the weather is warm, or a sunny place if it is not, then the main event occurs right after lunch in the afternoon.  In this case, it is a tactical weapons demonstration rather than a “battle” where the soldiers are dropping “dead” on the road, but the way it is scripted and organized is still very effective.  Opposing fire, casualties, and simulated warfare are prohibited by the National Park Service.  This is partly a safety issue, but also a matter of respect.  Many National Parks are on battlegrounds where people actually died, and in some cases, are buried.  Respect for the memories of those people on both sides of the conflict is of profound importance.  The Park Service’s policy is explained here (reference is to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary War, but the policy is the same).  In any case, at about 1 p.m. the ropes are placed to get the visitors off the road, and we begin to hear firing in the distance. We see horsemen from both sides riding up and down the road, and the Regulars and their officers begin marching east, returning from Concord.

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They fire occasionally (black powder “blanks” only) demonstrating their formation for firing, the commands, and their weapons.  We also see the militia in the distance, running to take positions in fields, behind barns, behind stone walls, amongst the trees, etc.  They also fire, but both sides fire at oblique angles to each other to demonstrate their weapons, as there can be no opposing fire.  Still, the way it is scripted, the running up the road, the smoke and the chaos, is quite effective.

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For a couple of years when we were not part of any scenarios and remained behind the spectator lines I found a group of kids who were running around with toy guns screaming “AIM, FIRE” and randomly “shooting” each other.  I formed them up, explained the commands, trained them a little to keep them quiet for their parents (I don’t actually know the drill itself), and explained what had happened that day, as well as what was about to happen when the action got to our location.  Then I told them that when the “British” came down the road and reached them, they were going to remain in line, I was going to give them the command and we were going to go for the officers like the militia actually did on that day.  Ok kids, here they come! They were jumping up and down with excitement.  Even better, one of the officers in front was my friend, so this would be quite fun.  I lined the kids up and yelled loudly enough toward them that the kids could hear me but not too loudly (as I didn’t want the soldiers on the road to mistake it for a real command)  “Make ready.  Present. FIRE!” The officer saw us when I waved to him and yelled asking how they dared to fire upon officers!  Later on, a soldier walked through the crowd near us and I told the kids that it was their chance to take a prisoner.  They didn’t, as it was all in jest of course, but the kids got a huge kick out of it.  The parents were grateful that they were occupied for a bit while waiting for the action to get to them.

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This year, we were asked to participate in an evacuation scenario at the Whittemore House, a location east of the “Parker’s Revenge” site, where the main action would be concentrated.  This is much further east than the Hartwell Tavern and Smith House, and as a consequence, we didn’t get there this year to see some of our friends.  However, Mr. H. and I were asked to portray Jacob and Elizabeth Whittemore, at their actual house! These houses that are still standing are known as “witness houses” (how we wish these houses could speak to us of what they’d seen!).

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Two other friends from our group were asked to portray the Whittemore’s daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Moses Reed.  The family was living in the house on April 19, 1775 and until recently it was a mystery as to why Jacob and Moses didn’t join the militia that day, rather choosing to hide in the woods with their women and children.  It was unlikely, or at least improbable that they were cowards, so it was assumed that they must have been Loyalists.  But if they were Loyalists, would they have hidden from and feared the King’s army?  I don’t have that answer.  However, the real story was recently discovered by a local historian.  Mrs. Reed had at least 2 other young children already (some reports say 3 plus the baby, but we’ve only been able to find evidence of 2 others), had given birth to a baby girl on April 1 and was still feeling decidedly unwell. Mr. Whittemore had lost two previous wives (including Sarah’s real mother Esther) to childbirth and it is supposed that Mssrs. Whittemore and Reed remained with their family out of concern for Sarah and the baby.  In fact, Sarah was carried out of the house on a mattress (probably stuffed with straw) when the family fled and hid in the woods as the army was returning to Boston from Concord on the afternoon of April 19, with good reason it turns out, as a skirmish took place in front of their home shortly afterward.  Mr. Reed later joined the Continental army and went on “multiple campaigns”, so there goes the “they were Loyalists” theory. Read about the Whittemore and Reed families in this Boston Globe article.   I was curious about whether Sarah and her baby survived, so I looked the family up on Ancestry.com.  Sarah Whittemore Reed lived until 1830, dying at age 79, and baby Sarah Reed Smith died in 1865 at the age of 90.  It is significant that she was born at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and died at the end of the Civil War.  So for those of you who ascribe to the old wives tales about how “they all died young back then”, there is your proof, right?

At the appointed time, we waited with our household valuables in a wheelbarrow at the back of the house, Moses with his musket over his shoulder in case we should meet with trouble. Although it is supposed that the family fled from the back of the house directly into the woods, this was a public scenario, so when other townspeople arrived we were to come into the road from behind the house.  A neighbor was waiting along with us with her “great grandchild” in her arms. When a group of other women arrived, it was time.  It was strange and awkward at first, and we had to remind ourselves not to laugh or smile. As we did not have any sort of period-appropriate mattress available, we thought at first to put Sarah in the wheelbarrow, but we quickly realized that wouldn’t work.  So Sarah was supported between her Dad and Step-Mum, bent double with pain, and carrying her “baby”.  Moses was next to us pushing the wheelbarrow, piled high with our “stuff” and carrying his musket as we struggled up the road.  At one point I noticed that no one was speaking, exclaiming or running, which I thought we’d actually be doing if we were frightened, so I shouted to the two young ladies ahead of us, inquiring if they had as yet seen any soldiers coming after us. I then asked Moses if he had the silver, and asked my husband if he’d loosed the animals (better to round them up from the woods than to let the soldiers have them).  Despite our original awkward giddiness, once we heard the gunfire in the distance and were on the road it started to feel real.  It was getting hot in the afternoon and it’s slightly more difficult to run or walk quickly in stays because breathing is somewhat more shallow, so I was sweating and breathing hard. What if my daughter were sick and I didn’t know whether she and her baby would live or die, what if the soldiers came, killed our men and molested us? What if they burned the house down and stole our animals, our money, and our valuables? What would we do, how would we live? If they caught us, should we beg for mercy or pretend to be Loyalist? People began to ask us “is she all right?”, not knowing if something was wrong and we actually needed help or an ambulance!  That’s when we knew we’d been convincing.

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We waited and watched the skirmish in front of “our house” from behind the visitor lines, then returned “home”. Afterward, we took a few pics, relaxed on the lawn hoping to be able to talk about the family to visitors (sadly they all left after the action finished), and began planning how we’d make our scenario an even better one next year.  It was a privilege to portray the Whittemore family, and we would like to thank the National Park Service, the hard working park rangers at Minuteman National Historical Park and the Whittemore House, the organizers and participating units of the Battle Road event, and our friends from McAlpin’s Corps of Loyal American Volunteers.  See you next year!

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