In the gray light before dawn, a horseman wearing Colonial attire gallops into Sudbury, Mass. (pop. 16,841), bringing an urgent message to the people of the quiet New England village.
Panting from his ride across the countryside, Dave Loda, 49, hands a note to John Neuhauser, 39, colonel of the Sudbury Companies of Militia & Minute, who reads it by the light of a hand-held lantern and shouts orders to about 60 soldier re-enactors.
“Sound the alarm!” Neuhauser cries. “March to Concord to defend your freedoms!”
The historic moment leading up to America’s Revolutionary War is re-created each spring in Sudbury, which has the distinction of bearing the nation’s most patriotic ZIP code—01776.
Though the U.S. Postal Service assigned the mail codes by region and location in 1963 with the launch of its Zoning Improvement Plan, citizens of Sudbury say their claim on America’s birth date is fitting since the village sent more volunteer militia to the Battle of Lexington and Concord—348 citizen soldiers in all—than any other community.
The town honors its contribution to America’s independence from Great Britain each April 19 with a re-enactment of Colonial militia marching the 12 miles to Concord, Mass.
Sudbury was among the villages west of Boston that, during the night of April 18-19, 1775, received word from messengers on horseback that British Gen. Thomas Gage planned to march his troops from their headquarters in Boston to Concord to seize Colonial munitions. While Paul Revere is the most famous of the messengers, Sudbury was alerted by rider Abel Prescott Jr. of Concord.
A neighbor to Concord, Sudbury at the time had the largest population in Middlesex County and was home to military veterans from four French and Indian War battles. A large contingent of Sudbury men quickly heeded the call to arms and marched to Concord’s aid.
“The Sudbury militia was prepared for hostilities with the king’s troops,” says Lee Swanson, 72, curator of the Sudbury Historical Society. “Still, not every man owned a musket. Some had pistols, and some only had pitchforks. It was a mismatched battle.”
By the time Sudbury’s citizen soldiers arrived in Concord, British troops already had faced off with patriots in Lexington on the morning of April 19, killing eight. The redcoats marched on to Concord, where at the North Bridge they clashed with members of the Sudbury militia and other Colonial forces—about 450 in all, though some 4,000 patriots gathered along the road to shoot at the British as they retreated to Boston. The day’s hostilities left two Sudbury men dead.
“The Concord engagement showed the king’s troops for the first time that we weren’t cowards,” Swanson says. “We had the audacity and perseverance to attack.”
During last year’s re-enactment, a crowd of about 40 people braved early morning temperatures in the 30s to watch the march begin from the town common.
“It’s cool, but cold!” says Tyler Bower, 9, of Franklin, Mass., watching with his grandmother, Linda McCabe, 61, of Sudbury, as the re-enactors marched to the town cemetery where 15 slain sons of Sudbury were buried during the Revolutionary War. Church bells underscored fife and drum music, and re-enactors fired muskets in unison before marching past fields and 18th-century homes.
Five hours later, the re-enactors conducted a final haunting ceremony on Concord’s North Bridge and fired muskets across the Concord River.
Reliving the historic event was a privilege for Neuhauser, whose daughter, Kaleigh, 6, and nephew Matthew Daley, 8, of Plymouth, Mass., participated by wearing Colonial garb for the day. “Having grown up in Sudbury and still living in town, I feel a real connection to the past,” Neuhauser says. “I hope to inspire others to look deeper into the history of our town and in some way work to preserve it.”
Their mission complete, the re-enactors returned to Sudbury and convened at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, the oldest operating inn in America. Inside its low-beamed tavern, the mood became decidedly more jocular as the men hoisted brews in pewter mugs.
“This is my haversack. Militiamen use them for personal items, such as cell phones,” laughs re-enactor George Connor, 61, of Sudbury.
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn has its own colorful history. Offering hospitality to travelers along the Boston Post Road since 1716, the community gathering spot likely was known as How’s Tavern in 1775, when innkeeper Ezekiel How was among the militia commanders who led Sudbury forces to Concord. After visiting the lodging place in 1862, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was inspired to write Tales of a Wayside Inn. The tavern’s last private owner was automotive pioneer Henry Ford, who relocated to the property a one-room schoolhouse that is associated with the 19th-century nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb. He also added a water-powered gristmill and a chapel that is a popular New England setting for weddings.
Today, Sudbury is an affluent hamlet of Boston celebrated for its pastoral scenery, historic architecture and spirit of patriotism.
“Residents still passionately participate in town government and uphold the democratic principles that we fought for in the Revolution,” Swanson says. “Our enthusiasm drove us to prevail in Concord over two centuries ago, and that same enthusiasm keeps the spirit of 1776 alive in Sudbury today.”