• Missed my book tour? See me on C-SPAN3 TV! Details Here

Lexington, MA—First Shots of the Revolution, Repeated Annually

I have decided to revise this post, first published April 8, 2012, based on new information. If you’ve read the previous version, I beg you to read this new one, as it is radically changed.

It’s that time of year: springtime for New England, and in mid April each year, Massachusetts and Maine celebrate the regional state holiday known as Patriots’ Day. This day, generally celebrated on the Monday nearest April 19, commemorates the first shots of the American Revolution, which took place on April 19, 1775, just west of Boston in the sleepy towns of Lexington and then Concord, followed by a running battle from Concord all the way back to Boston (via Charlestown). This year, Patriots’ Day was celebrated on Monday April 16. (The Boston Marathon also takes place on the same Patriots’ Day Monday each year.)

(Read my previous article on this subject: “Start of the Revolution: Who Shot First? — The Americans!”)

Lexington Green Re-Enactment in 2009

Lexington Green re-enactment in 2009. The shot is blurry because I had to raise the camera over my head and shoot blindly. (Much like the militia and British did in the fight! :) (click to enlarge)

Back in April 2009, while I was in the Boston area researching my book 1775, I attended several of the Patriots’ Day re-enactments. (I have a private joke with some that these could be called impersonations, given some of the impersonators, er, re-enactors, play the parts of famous participants of the original affair.)

During that visit, the re-enactment that stood out most to me was that on Lexington Green, the triangular common area in the center of old Lexington center, the location of the first shots of the American Revolution. But while I enjoyed the show from what I could see of it, my vantage point was not particularly good.

For that 2009 re-enactment, I arrived about an hour before dawn, expecting a decent viewing spot, a fresh large cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand. I knew, from scouting out the area the day before, that the viewing spots would be cordoned off from the re-enactment area, a necessary precaution for safety. What I didn’t realize was that a viewing stand, centered on the Green, in the best viewing spot, would block the view for many, and would be accessible only to those with special access. What was worse, the remaining cordoned area near the viewing stand was in fact divided into two sections: the front section for what I believed at the time to be VIP spectators, and the rearward section for others.

Lexington Green Hours after the 2009 Re-Enactment

Lexington Green hours after the 2009 re-enactment, taken from the opposite side of the viewing area. In the distance, you can see the viewing stand still in position. The cordons have been removed. (click to enlarge)

So while I arrived early enough for the event, I was relegated to a back section near the viewing stand. I slowly watched my view diminish as late-comers bearing tickets were slowly ushered in to the cordoned section in front of me, until my view of the Green was sufficiently blocked. So much for getting there an hour early. (I might have moved to the opposite side of the Green at this point, where there seemed to be just one viewing section, but at this point, it was too late, as it was very filled in as well, and regardless, it had a lesser vantage point.*)

When the event finally got underway at dawn, I found myself standing beside a father and his son of perhaps five or six years old. We both stood at the front of our rearward cordoned section, but of course with the ticketed section between us and the action. The young boy cried out to his dad several times, “Papa, I can’t see anything!” What a tragedy, for the value of this re-enactment to be hidden from our interested youth! The father seemed to debate what to do, mindful that, were he to put the boy on his shoulders, he might block others back farther still. Finally, the father rightly bucked the system, and encouraged the boy to squeeze his way through the ticketed section to get a view of the re-enactment. I privately applauded his father’s decision. (I also jokingly thought about handing the boy my camera… my pictures were pretty limited as a result of my position, as you can see above.)

My viewing situation during the Lexington Green re-enactment in 2009. Had I known better, I should have shifted to anywhere else on the Green, to not be stuck behind the this one, tiered viewing area. (click to enlarge)

In my original, uninformed version of this blog post, now updated here, given my experience in 2009, I decried the organization of the event as a failure to understand the lessons of the American Revolution, contrasting the creation of an apparent tiered, class-based viewing section as contrary to the ideals of equality that were fought for in the Revolution.** I also thought it ironic that such an apparent class system could be instituted beneath the Green’s flag pole which proudly displays “Birth Place of American Liberty”.

However, I have since revised this position.

Thanks to the thoughtful and patient Mr. Jim Roberts, a member of the Lexington Minutemen Company of re-enactors, and former organizer of the event, I have come to realize that my understanding of the viewing situation was not entirely accurate.

You see, while it is indeed true that there was a viewing stand, and a ticketed section immediately around it, those tickets were not for VIP’s or upper class citizens, but are reserved for the re-enactors themselves to give to family and supports of their effort. The re-enactors are not only the participants, but the organizers of the Lexington Green re-enactment, and the event is an all-volunteer, non-profit affair run each year by them, not the town. And, while it was not entirely evident to me when I was there in 2009 (I blame the early pre-dawn hours, though signage would have helped too), I could have shifted my position to almost anywhere else along the perimeter of Lexington Green, where I would have been in an open, first-come first serve, non-tiered cordoned area. As the event is entirely free and supported by the community, the small tiered, ticketed section (behind which I stood) is the only means of compensation for the generosity of private individuals that help make the event happen each year. And without that kind of support, the Lexington Green re-enactment might not happen at all.

And clearly, the Lexington Green re-enactment is an important, educational event, and one that should continue annually, and remain forever free.

In fact, contrary to my limited previous understanding, the Lexington Minutemen Company, as organizers of the event, has had to fight to keep the event free and devoid of distractions and profiteering. One year, they were approached with an offer to make a special, ticketed area only available to paying spectators. They judiciously refused. In another case, a major news media outlet wanted aerial coverage of the event via helicopter, but ultimately ruined the event with their chopper’s noise, and the Lexington Minutemen have since refused further requests for helicopter coverage.

The point is, with the number of spectators each year numbering in the thousands, and with very limited space for the event, the spectator situation will likely always be imperfect. Yet the Lexington Minutemen Company, who serve not just as re-enactors, but also as the event’s organizers, are steadfastly dedicated to doing all they can to put on a great event each year. Moreover, they are mindful of distractions to the spectators, doing their best to limit spectator nuisances whenever they can (such as the occasional step-ladders brought by spectators and setup to block the view of others).

The other point, the one I share to those who might read this and attend a future re-enactment event, is that you should stand somewhere well away from the viewing stand, preferably on the north side of the Green. In this way, you would avoid standing being the limited ticketed section and get a great view. I think the best spot would be immediately across from the viewing stand. And of course, it should go without saying: get there well before the dawn affair starts, an hour at least.

And if you see small children there at the event who cannot see the important educational re-enactment, encourage them to squeeze their way to the front. It is important that people continue to learn the values and lessons of the Revolution.

Finally, my original version of this post was seen by some to disparage their great public service as re-enactors of this important and pivotal moment in our nation’s history. This was never my intent. As a member of the US Air Force Reserve, and passionate storyteller of Revolutionary history, I wholeheartedly applaud the dedication of the Lexington Minutemen Company for their continued patriotic service to this annual recreation of the start of the Revolution.

What are your comments on my new revision of this post? (assuming you recall the previous version, no longer posted)

Next: more on the significance of the Lexington Green flag pole, flown 24 hours a day by an act of the US Congress…



* Turns out, I was right: the areas surrounding the rest of the Green were not tiered sections at all. Read on.
** The Revolution was fought for provincial rights and equality (not taxes, but lawful taxation was a right of every Briton, and taxation without representation was an example of provincial rights being trampled). The greatest outcome of the Revolution, besides of course Independence, was the break down of the class structure. No longer was American bound to a King or a noble class of course, but moreover, no longer was it impossible for lower class citizens to rise to upper class status. The very waging of and success of the Revolution was this pivotal struggle on a macro, visceral scale: Americans were indeed considered almost as indentured servants (slaves) to Britain, with little rights or representation except as bestowed upon them by a benevolent master (the Ministry, Parliament, and the King). The fact that Americans, as such low class citizens amongst the British Empire, could rise up and cast off the chains of its disapproving masters was as much a break down of the despotic British class system as it was about Independence. The equalities that we now enjoy and take for granted in America have their roots in the upheaval of the Revolution. (There are many good books that expound on this subject more thoroughly than I can possibly do so in a mere blog post. Among them is The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn, a Pulitzer Prize winner. )

 Derek
 Derek’s Book
Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek W. Beck

I write stuff. I film stuff too.

22 Responses to Lexington, MA—First Shots of the Revolution, Repeated Annually

  1. tmosgood1984 says:

    Great article. I went three years ago and found myself in a similar situation. Had a rather good “view” until a man set up a 12ft ladder in front of me that 3 people shared. Do they still allow them? What a shame.

    • Derek Beck says:

      I’m not sure if they still allow them, but am hoping to hear from spectators from this year’s event!

      • Derek Beck says:

        So it turns out, given my new understanding as outlined in this revised post, that the organizers have seen the ladder issue before, and make a strong effort to control it. Hopefully no one got a ladder as their view this year.

        • Henry Liu says:

          As far as the ladders, at about 5:00 a.m. there were no ladders within 5 feet of the ropes as far as I could tell (a vast improvement over previous years). My intention was to request anyone too close to the ropes with a ladder to move it back and allow those on the ground to see, but when I walked the perimeter around that time, I did not see any ladder that needed to be moved.

  2. knacody says:

    Good post, Derek! I’ve never been able to attend a reenactment, but it’s certainly on my bucket list. I’d like to know that I’d have an equal chance to see it without having to be an insider.

    I’m sure looking forward to your book too!

    • Derek Beck says:

      I know you were replying to my original post, which displayed my misunderstanding of the big picture. It turns out, you would have an equal chance to get a good view, so long as you don’t stand where I did (near the viewing stand).

  3. Sam Forman says:

    Hello Derek,
    With ten to fifteen thousand spectators typically joining Lexingtonians for the reenactment of the opening battle of the American Revolution, a charming but circumscribed town green, and mostly level ground, the event organizers have their work cut out for them. Not everyone can possibly have an optimal point of view. Hope you stayed for the inspiring salutes to the unknown British fallen at the Old Burial Ground, pancake breakfasts, and parade honoring veterans… Something all morning for everyone in a picture perfect town worthy of Norman Rockwell. The National Park Service does a “musket salute” on Patriot’s Day at Concord’s North Bridge, but you will not see a bayonet charge there nor any direct action, regardless of the point of view!

    • Derek Beck says:

      In 2009, I did see a re-enactment on Concord’s Old North Bridge, with firing, etc. If that doesn’t exist today, it is too bad. The Lexington Green event was nice, for what I could see of it. But I did stick around for pancakes, yes :)

  4. Lora says:

    One of these years I’m going to take Sam up on his offer and come out to see it. I wish all these events weren’t so far for an Ohio girl! But I’ve heard from my New Englander friends that this is the one reenactment you don’t want to miss.

    I didn’t read the first post, but I appreciate this revised one. If I ever do make it up, I’ll know how to navigate the affair!

  5. Henry Liu says:

    Derek, I am currently serving as Chair of the Reenactment Committee for the Lexington Minute Men Company, the role formerly held by Mr. Roberts. We are always seeking ways to improve the experience for participants and the viewing public alike. This year, one such change was to move the media area across the Battle Green to a spot in front of a large pine tree that stands between the Town’s reviewing stands and the area for friends and family of the reenactors. That way, the media section would not be blocking anyone’s view. This left the side along Bedford Street (the north side as you mention) totally unobstructed. As far as the section for friends and family, one of the principal reasons we selected that particular location for this area was that the ground behind is elevated, so viewers in that area can still see. I patrolled that area to make sure that folks that arrived early for spots behind that section understood that there would be people filling in in front of them. Some moved to the other side of the common, but many decided to stay regardless. The other change we made this year was that no ropes were dropped after the Regulars marched onto the Common. This was done for safety reasons at the request of our local police and fire departments. This required some changes to the ropes along the Bedford Street. I was originally skeptical of this change, but after seeing the ropes in place and hearing some of the post-battle comments from some of the regular crowd, the feedback has been very positive so far. I’d be interested to hear feedback from anyone that attended this year.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Hi Henry, thank you for your comments here, they are much appreciated. Although my first iteration of this blog post was uninformed, I am glad there was something positive that came from it. In particular, I and I’m sure other spectators there appreciated your willingness to patrol the area behind the family/friends viewing area to alert them to the fact that they’d have a potentially obstructed view. I think in future years, perhaps some signage taped to the cordons might serve the same purpose. If I hear from any one that attended this year, I’ll be sure to have them follow up with you, or otherwise pass along their comments. Thanks again for your comments here.

  6. Rob Young says:

    Hi Derek

    This year I went for the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Perfect night and the crowd was not so bad.
    I did get a chance to talk to some of the minutemen it was really good. It was nice to see that Alice Hinkley put a nice Plaque in memory of Prince Estabrook in front of the memorial stone.
    pictures were not so good due to the spotlight ha. My ancestor was there on the green in 1775 so it means alot to me to be there.

    Good luck with your book cant wait to read it; just finished 1776 by David McCullough it was good.

    Rob

    • Derek Beck says:

      Hi Rob, thanks for your comment here! Glad you enjoyed the show. The Lexington Minutemen do an awesome job each year. When I saw it, they rightfully made the first shot ambiguous. I couldn’t tell who shot first, and I was looking for just that.

  7. DWB,
    This past “April 19th” I sent an e-mail to an old high school classmate about my memories of the re-enactment. We reminisced about growing up in Lexington in the 50’s and 60’s, the event coincided with school vacation, and it was a see and be seen event.

    At some point when us Davis kids were young our dad sidled up to the Lions Club Members selling tricon hats and bought us each one. We would drag them out each year and wear them “downtown” for the re-enactment. Also, at our house at least, it was called “April 19th”, not Patriots Day.

    To your re-posting, no matter what age I was, the flatness of the green and the sight lines blocked by others always added, rather than distracted, from the event. Without a clear view, and only glimpses of the action, and a wafting of powder smoke in the air, you really felt you were part of the battle. Those limitations enhanced the reality and gave insight as to what the real Minutemen may have felt.

    After our dad past away, we kids gathered at the house on Concord Ave. and began the process of emptying it so it could be sold. When my sister opened the front closet she grabbed down the tricon hats of our youth and we passed them around until we each found one that sort of fit. The the three of us wore them on and off for the rest of the day. As I left to head back to Connecticut my sister tossed one in the car for me to take. This past “April 19th” I took it out of my front closet and hung it on a hook in the hall. In memory of those mornings on the Green.

    Allison Davis Casey

    P.S. As for the ladders referred to in the comments section; Some group of friends or some families always did it. With enough gentle prodding they always moved back a bit. It is part of my vision of the whole morning. Most especially, long haired children of the 60’s celebrating heritage.
    I’m glad to hear it still is a tradition and I’d like to suggest it not be curtailed.

  8. Jim McGrath says:

    Hi Derek, I am the present captain of the Concord Minute Men. Each year our men with minute men from area towns and British units all under the support and direction of the Minute Man National Park, stage a reenactment at the North Bridge. This year it was held on April 16. Later that day there was also reenactments along Battle Road in Lincoln and Lexington and at Tower Park in Lexington.

    At 6:30 AM, April 19 each year, the Concord Minute Men with muskets and the Concord Independent Battery with cannons, fire a 21 gun dawn salute, near the North Bridge.

    I recommend you attend the dress rehearsal of the Lexington Battle which is usually held on a Sunday before the 19th. Check for the actual date and witness the event without a huge crowd.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Hi Jim, thanks for the note. I saw the North Bridge re-enactment that same year I attended the above Lexington re-enactment. I loved it, and highly recommend it to others. I especially liked that I didn’t have to arrive before dawn to watch it. Whenever I get back, I’ll be sure to check out the rehearsal, that’s a great tip, and thanks for sharing it. If only the National Park Service would allow you to aim your muskets at least generally towards one another, as they did on some other off-property re-enactment I saw in a town park in Lexington (Tower Park).

  9. Pingback: The Lexington Green Flag—Not Like Most Flags - Derek W. Beck

  10. lillymcginnis says:

    I thought this was actually about Lexington and Concord because I came to this page to get facts about the war. you should make a real page about Lexington and Concord. :-(

  11. Pingback: Jennefer Ollison

Leave a Reply