It may be a juvenile thing to do, but I like to personalize history sometimes, going back in time and placing myself in the shoes of those who lived the history I am reading.
It’s a harder exercise than you might think. In order to make this little parlor game worthwhile, you have to know something about how people lived at the time, how they thought, what they believed. By placing yourself in the middle of an historical event, you learn to appreciate the choices made by the actors, as well as learning about your self.
Today’s exercise is to go back in time exactly 235 years to a small village green in Lexington, Massachusetts. The dawn has just broken and you have assembled with your friends and neighbors to demonstrate against a British column that has come down from Boston to take the powder and shot that used to be stored in nearby Concord (the Patriots moved the supplies a couple of weeks earlier when word leaked out that the British were going to confiscate the colony’s military supplies).
Having been warned the previous evening by Paul Revere himself that the Red Coats were on the move, you weren’t quite sure what you were doing standing in formation at early light as an advance column of British regulars entered the village limits.
Your leader, Captain John Parker (probably a relative since about a quarter of the assembled militiamen were related to the tubercular Parker), stood at the front of the formation. Seeing this motley crew of farmers and tradesmen armed with squirrel guns and old flintlocks, the British, under the immediate command of Major John Pitcairn, marched smartly to within a couple of dozen yards of the Patriot formation.
You may have heard Parker utter the immortal words “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” (The accuracy of this statement is doubtful. More likely, he cautioned his men against antagonizing the Red Coats. Besides, the militia’s guns weren’t loaded.) Suddenly, a British officer (probably Pitcairn) rode up and ordered you and your fellows to disperse and to “lay down your arms, you damned rebels.”
At this point, there was confusion on the green with shouted orders coming from British officers, probably shouts from the 50 or so assembled spectators, and Parker himself ordering the militia to disperse. It is one of those tantalizing moments in history that you really “had to be there” to find out exactly what happened because at that moment, a shot rang out.
Theories abound regarding who fired first but there just isn’t any compelling evidence one way or the other. Even before the first shot of the American Revolution was fired though, several of your neighbors in the militia had already begun to withdraw. Others were standing their ground. Everyone was confused and uncertain of what to do – until the British let out a loud “huzzah” and fired off a volley before advancing at the double quick toward you and your friends, bayonets at the ready.
At that point, your good sense probably overcame any doubts and you began to run, conscious of the fact that several of your neighbors lay wounded on the green. You would not have seen the British soldiers bayoneting your wounded fellows, nor would you have glimpsed other soldiers cutting off the retreat of some other militiamen and dispatching a couple of more via the bayonet.
What would you have thought of all this?
I would think that anger would be the dominant emotion. You would go over the confrontation in your head and convince yourself that your intentions were peaceful, that your guns weren’t even loaded, and that the object of your demonstration was to stand firm for your rights as free born Englishmen. Instead, his Majesty’s soldier’s opened fire, killing 8 of your friends wantonly. You may have even heard the celebratory volley the regiment fired off before they resumed their march to Concord.
The burning anger you felt would probably have translated into you joining other townfolk as they made their way towards Concord to ambush the British column and get revenge for the slaughter on Lexington green.
An interesting exercise, no? But better yet, why not put yourself in the shoes of a British grenadier? What was his perspective of the morning’s events?
You would not be in a good mood, having marched all night, tripping over the ruts in the roads and lanes you followed in the pitch dark. You knew your destination was Concord, but you had no idea what you were going to do there.
The 60 pounds you carried on your back, coupled with the scratchy woolen uniform would have you cursing the day you mustered in.
And your feelings toward the colonists? Chances are, you had already spent several months in America putting up with the taunts from the street gangs, the dirty looks from the rest of Boston, and the occasional rock or snowball tossed your way by persons unknown. You had probably been doing a slow burn over what you considered the ungratefulness of these hard headed colonists. You probably didn’t know the nuances of the politics, but you were almost certainly aware of the major areas of disagreement. Of course, you supported his Majesty’s government in the matter. (That would change later as desertion – encouraged by the Patriots – became a regular occurrence in all British armies as the war progressed.)
So you’ve been marching all night, stumbling around in the dark, with a 60 pound pack on your back and a heavy musket on your shoulder, your itchy uniform making you wish you could scratch, when just as dawn was breaking, you emerge from the surrounding woods and behold a well kept village and a green or “commons” in the middle of town. In the new light of day, you can see several indistinguishable forms on the green. They appear to be armed and in military formation. “Militia,” you say to yourself. “How dare those fellows place themselves in the way of his Majesty’s soldiers?” you might ask yourself. You probably resent this show of force and realize with some satisfaction that you outnumber the colonials by a considerable margin.
You are afraid, but not paralyzed with fear. As you form ranks for the advance, you are comforted by feeling the shoulder of your friend next to you. It is how you have drilled for years, so everything is familiar. The officer’s shouted commands are followed immediately and without question as your unit halts just a stone’s throw from the colonial militia.
You can’t see much because you’re not in the front rank. You hear Major Pitcairn say something about dispersing to the colonials but he is facing the militia and its hard to catch much of what he is saying.
You have no trouble hearing the shot that rings out.
Your anger at these ungrateful upstarts boils over. Without thinking, and as one with your fellows, you raise your musket and fire toward the rapidly melting militia formation. When you hear the order to advance, the pent up emotion, the slights, the rock throwing, — all the little indignities from these past months living in Boston overflow and you sprint toward the retreating militiamen determined to teach them a lesson.
By the time you reach the scene, there is carnage. Dead militiamen dot the green while the rest of the townfolk have fled. You are overjoyed at having dealt a blow to what you consider nothing less than rebellion. You know you acted properly and in the best traditions of the British army. When the order is given to fire off a volley of victory, a surge of pride courses through you.
Back in formation, you continue toward Concord, confident that you and your fellows can resist anything the militia can throw at you. You feel nothing but contempt for the colonist’s military abilities and are sure that you and your fellows can re-establish peace and order in Massachusetts.
Of course, if a British soldier felt that way, he would be disabused of that notion by day’s end. Before the column even reached Concord, the countryside was swarming with militia. After tarrying in Concord to carry out their orders to destroy militia supplies (they found precious little), the British began their confused, frightened retreat back to Boston.
Before long, each side of the road was thick with angry minutemen, all anxious to exact revenge for Lexington. The 16 miles back to Boston was a nightmare of hit and run tactics by the nearly 10,000 militiamen who would eventually get off a shot at the retreating Red Coats. Pausing to fight rear guard engagements, the British took a toll on the militia as well. The Patriots lost 50 killed, 39 wounded, and 5 missing. For the British, the long march cost them 73 killed, 173 wounded, and 26 missing.
I often ask myself whose side would I have been on? Simply because I am a contemporary conservative means nothing. By the time the first shots of the war rang out on Lexington green, most colonists had developed something of an “American consciousness.” While recognizing the advantages – commercial and military – to maintaining close ties with Great Britain, a majority of Americans at that time saw themselves if not as a distinct country, then certainly as a distinct people.
In William Seymor’s The Price of Folly, the author points out that even most Tories in the colonies thought they deserved special treatment from the British government due to the nature of America and her people. And at this time, there was precious little talk of independence, more a determination to fight for rights the colonists believed that British government was infringing upon. But the seeds of independence had already been sown long before Lexington and Concord. And by the time America became a reality in July of 1776, it was not much of a leap for most people to make from colony to independent country. The psychic gap had already been widened as the brutality of war was brought home to ordinary Americans. In short, independence became a no brainer.
I know what side I would have taken. How about you?