History comes on horseback in Lexington
Decked in lobster-red, marching up what’s now Massachusetts Avenue and onto the Common, the British soldiers did come, finding a ragtag band of local militiamen standing their ground, unwilling to disperse.
The story of what happened next — the shot of unknown provenance, the lopsided battle, the American Revolution — has been told and retold for 241 years. But it was fresh to some of the thousands of spectators and performers at the Lexington reenactment, which helped kick off this year’s Patriots Day festivities in Massachusetts.
Bruce Leader, a longtime member of the Lexington Minute Men, portrayed the mounted scout Thaddeus Bowman for the first time this year, trotting his horse, Lacey, toward Buckman Tavern in the early morning light to warn Captain John Parker that the British troops were very close.
Parker, portrayed by Lexington dentist Barry Cunha, then mustered his men, dressed in a colorful assortment of garb.
“Steady men!” Cunha shouted, channeling the words said to have been uttered by Parker in April 1775. “Do not fire unless fired upon!”
The tension built in the cold morning air. Then, a shot rang out and a short and decidedly lopsided musket battle left smoke hanging over the Common — and eight Massachusetts men dead on its ground. With the rat-a-tat of drums, the troops of King George III marched off to Concord.
It might seem an ignominious beginning to a war that formed the United States of America, but historians and reenactors say that the first battle and the ones followed on that April day were actually glorious examples of Colonists standing up to the indignities foisted upon them by the Crown.
Leader, a 53-year-old Lexington resident and manager of a shopping center who portrayed the mounted scout, grew up in the town and remembers attending the reenactment as a child.
He has always felt a connection to Lexington’s history.
For him, the early-morning recreation of the battle, which he has been involved with as a man since 2003, transforms the Lexington Common to something much bigger than the actual grassy space.
“It’s a small little green space, really. But that morning, it just seems enormous, mist coming off the Green,” he said. “There’s just something about the dark, the light from lanterns, and maybe a little bit from some houses and moonlight. And you get the sun eventually coming up. It transports you to a different time and a different place.”
And Leader lauded the men he and his fellow minutemen portray, who slowed down the red-coated Regulars: “They’re putting everything on the line to do this. It’s incredibly brave.”
One spectator was only modestly impressed by his first visit to the reenactment.
Soren Wangsgard, 7, who stood with his father and grandfather at the Common, declared the spectacle “fine,” but he said, “If it wasn’t so early in the morning, it would be better! And I also wish it wasn’t super-cold today because my toes are going to fall off.”
His father, Logan Wangsgard, something of a history buff, gave the event a better review.
The 35-year-old Cambridge resident said he had learned that there were a lot more British Regulars than he had realized.
And Soren’s grandfather, Brian Wangsgard, chimed in that the musket fire was really loud.
The British met greater resistance in Concord and retreated to Boston under duress. That day set the Colonies and Crown inevitably toward a confrontation that would lead to the Declaration of Independence in July of the next year, 1776, historians say.
“Once the constitutional and political conflict becomes militarized . . . it changes the chemistry of the conversation,” Joseph J. Ellis, a professor emeritus of history at Mount Holyoke College and specialist on the Revolutionary era.
“Lexington and Concord represent the beginning of the American Revolution in a way there’s no turning back,” Ellis said.