When we look back on history, it's hard to see events without a sense of inevitability. We think of the siege of Fort Sumter as intended to launch the Civil War, when in fact other southern forts had been ceded to southern control without launching a war. The chain of events is only obvious in hindsight. This is true too of the American Revolution. The colonists did not set out to start a new country. They intended to work within the system to gain more equitable treatment. It was only after their complaints were ignored (or greeted with punishment) and the crown rescinded their right to self govern, that the idea of separation started to take hold. This is just one of the little tidbits of knowledge I gained while walking Battle Road. I grew up in New England where there is only one war that matters, in a school where the Revolution dominated any discussion of history, daughter to a woman who enjoyed visiting historic homes of that period; so the fact that I learned something new about this topic I thought I knew so well, was truly exciting. Did I mention that Johnny Tremain was my favorite book in 5th grade?
Battle Road does a wonderful job of showing how ordinary people make history. There's the Nelson's house (Ok, doorstep and well at this point), where a member of the family heard steps on the road, went out in the dark to ask for news of the soldiers' advance, and was shot by those very soldiers.
There's the field where a farmer waited for the line of soldiers to pass, and shot at them from the relative safety of the boulders. As I looked at this "field" full of new growth, I was reminded of something Bill Bryson said in one of his books. Modern day New England is a veritable forest compared to the same land a couple hundred years ago. All those stone walls hikers come across in the woods once marked the edge of a field. Of course back then the cleared land was not covered in strip malls and parking lots, so our current abundance of trees is not a clear win for Mother Nature.
Not far from here stands one of the many memorials along the route to the British soldiers who died in the fighting. I heard a battle reenactor explaining that many of these impromptu graves were found when digging began for Route 2A (relatively recent history). As he explained, the colonists didn't want any sign of the enemy dead to remain near their homes, out of fear that the British would come back and take vengeance.
Just think about that for a moment. This was not a battle fought in the open, far from women and children. It was fought over thirteen long hours, along a well travelled road, from behind hedges and stone walls, across farmers' fields, and just steps from civilians' homes.
There's a scene in the miniseries John Adams that illustrates the proximity of the war to civilian's lives beautifully. This is a bit later in the war, but you an imagine it playing out hundreds if not thousands of times. In the scene, you see Abigail Adams tending to the family farm, feeding the chickens, hanging out clothes, and then she and her children stop what they're doing because they've heard something in the distance. The rumble of drums and footsteps, the sharp squeal of a fife and before you know it there are soldiers marching down the road just a few feet from her and her babies. If you have any interest in this period of history, I highly recommend the miniseries and of course the book it was based on, by the same name.
One of the best known structures along Battle Road in Minute Man Historical Park belonged to one of Abigail Adams' relatives.
The Captain William Smith house stands in a meadow abutting the intersection of Route 2A and Bedford Street. Runners can often be seen using the stone wall to stretch. Children run happily through the field, after the relative confinement of the wooded trail. The house is closed to the public, but people peek in the windows to see what's there.
Several of the houses in the park have this saltbox silhouette. It's a style that originated in New England in response to the weather. The bulk of the house's windows were on the southern exposure, taking advantage of the sun's light and heat. The northern exposure was low and often windowless, ensuring that precious heat wasn't lost. The sloped roof helped heavy snows slide off, rather than accumulating and endangering the roof.
If you've ever read or seen anything about the Revolutionary War, you are probably aware of the disadvantage the Bristish army's red uniforms placed them in. This year, spring came early and the landscape is unusually lush for April. Even so, those red coats stand out like a beacon.
As you can see, I was lucky enough on my walk to run into some pre-Patriot's Day events in the park.
I'm assuming the white uniforms were the equivalent of the dress whites today's navy wears on formal occassions, but that's just a guess. If you happen to know, please be sure to leave a comment.
The colonists may not have had the same gun power as the soldiers, but they blended into the countryside (their clothes dyed using local plants). They had the advantage of knowing the terrain, and were fighting for their lives. As I write this I can't help but think of the similarities between these early patriots and the people our modern day military is battling overseas. Yes, there are important differences, but the similarities give pause. Our national heroes, the original patriots, the people who everything (and I do mean everything) is named after in this region were rebels and terrorists in the eyes of the King.
Yes, that's a patriot on the side of a port-o-potty.
Today, a good section of the park borders Hanscom Air Force Base. At some points on the trail you look down through the trees onto base housing, at the families who today continue to place their security and happiness second to the needs of the country. I often see solderies training together, running the Battle Road trail, and I wonder if they give any thought to the events the park commemorates. Do they see themselves as inheritors of that tradition?
The Minutemen who answered the call some two hundred years ago, didn't know what the outcome would be. They didn't know that their actions would become the stuff of legend, or that their actions were one step along the way to the founding of a new domoctractic nation. their legacy is alive in this man. He's a candidate for the state legislature. While people gathered to listen to music and hear the details of Paul Revere's capture, he was making his way through the crowd, introducing himself and talking with potential voters. As I watched him I marvelled at his willingness to go up to stranger after stranger and insert himself into their day. Everyone I saw him talk to was polite, but I'm sure that's not always the case. No matter our political system's flaws, the people who get elected really have to work for that office. There's beauty in that.
When I set out to walk the Battle Road trail, I did it more out of a sense of duty than pleasure. So I was surprised at just how moving I found the experience. As I walked, read the signs, and listened to the audio tour, I found myself wondering if I would take the kind of risk Mary Hartwell did, when she left her children asleep in their beds, to get the message of the British advance to the Minutemen leaders in time for them to act. I was made uncomfortable as I realized that our bitter enemy in the late 1700's, is today our closest ally. While this gave me some hope for a more peace-filled future, it also highlighted just what an inevitable waste enmity between nations is.
By the time I got home again, I was tired and sore (I really hadn't realized just how substantial a walk it would be), but it felt like a day well spent. I had no idea how much I'd see and learn when I left the house that morning, and for that, the surprise of life, I'm grateful.