Just before daybreak in mid-April, the lonely clang of a bell echoes through Lexington, Mass. Answering the call, members of the Lexington Minute Men slowly assemble on the village green, where they exchange worried glances as they await the impending arrival of the Redcoats.
For more than 35 years, the Minute Men, a local history organization, has staged an annual re-enactment of the Battle of Lexington, the 1775 skirmish that sparked the American Revolution. The drama heightens when 60 Redcoats—portrayed by re-enactment regiments from across New England—march onto the green. The scarlet wall of British soldiers brandishing muskets with bayonets creates an intimidating sight for both the Minute Men and wide-eyed spectators.
It’s a scene that has personal significance for Bill Poole, a seven-year veteran of the Minute Men. “One of my ancestors was actually on the green that day,” says Poole, dressed in a light-blue frocked coat and linen breeches.
“I’ve often walked across the green and glanced down at my shadow, and thought: ‘He was here,’” says Poole of his distant relative Ebenezer Locke, a 41-year-old farmer at the time of the battle.
In the pre-dawn hours of April 19, 1775, 77 members of the local militia gathered on the Lexington Green. Under the command of Capt. John Parker, the men waited apprehensively while a force of some 700 British troops known as Regulars approached on foot from Boston. The Regulars were on their way to nearby Concord (pop. 16,993) to recover munitions.
When the British forces reached the green, the tension quickly escalated. The Colonists, sensing the futility of making a stand against such odds, began to disperse. Then a shot rang out and mayhem ensued. Minutes later, when the muskets fell silent, eight Colonists lay dead, and as many as 10 more were wounded. The Regulars, who suffered one wounded soldier during the exchange, regrouped and continued on their way to Concord. The American Revolution had begun.
The re-enactment in Lexington (pop. 30,355) takes place on the third Monday in April as part of Patriots’ Day, a state holiday in Massachusetts and Maine that commemorates the armed conflicts between British troops and defiant Colonists.
“I’ve always loved history, and participating in this event gives me the opportunity to bring it to life,” says Carlo Bertazzoni, 44, an 11-year member of the Lexington Minute Men. “It shows that history is not just in a textbook. The people love it.”
The 100 dedicated history buffs that make up the Lexington Minute Men spend much of their free time marching in parades and giving educational talks throughout New England, all in anticipation of Patriots’ Day.
During Lexington’s celebration more than 10,000 visitors attend the re-enactment as well as other festivities, such as a road race and an afternoon parade featuring fife and drum bands from across the country.
Settled in 1642, Lexington often is referred to as the Birthplace of the American Revolution and celebrates that moniker. A favorite stop for visitors is Buckman Tavern, where in 1775 many in the militia gathered prior to the Regulars’ arrival. Today, sightseers can take year-round guided tours of the tavern, which displays its original red door marked with a bullet hole from the battle.
A look at the town’s past also can be found at the Minute Man National Historical Park, which includes historic buildings as well as a stretch of Route 2A, known as Battle Road—the route the British retreated along after they clashed with Colonists at Concord.
Dawn McKenna, a 40-year Lexington resident, says it’s hard to overestimate the significance of the town’s Patriots’ Day celebration. “I think the celebration grounds us as Americans,” she says. “It’s the most important day of the year.”