' Skip To Content
Patriots Day | Article

Writing History and Living History

Reenactment, WGBH

The Battles of Lexington and Concord provide an excellent case study on how history is written and the difficulties inherent in that project. Most of the historical facts seem relatively easy to corroborate, but how the events were interpreted decisively altered the development of the nation. Historians always look for primary sources — documents from eyewitnesses — from which they can draw their conclusions. One should not expect, however, that a primary source can be free of bias. When documents are written with the intent to shape opinion, historians sharpen their skepticism.

Who Fired First?
Dr. Joseph Warren of the Provincial Congress understood that in a democratic nation, the actions taken in these battles would be judged by the people — both his contemporaries and future historians. For that reason, the Committee on Safety commissioned depositions from those present at the battles. On April 23-26, 1775, within a week of the fighting, 21 sworn statements were taken from 97 people (some were interviewed in groups). These would be ideal primary sources except that each of them — even those taken from British prisoners of war — makes clear that the British fired first at both Lexington and Concord. While this may be true, many of the "witnesses" were nowhere near the front lines of either battle and could not know who had fired first. Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn rode up to the front of his troops and his report to his superiors states that the first shot came from an American musket. The first organized volley came from the British troops at Lexington Green, but there has never been a satisfactory attribution of the first shot that provoked the gunfire.

Making a Case for War
Other documents that make up the "first draft" of historyare clearly prejudiced. The narrative that accompanied the depositions as a sort of press release to newspapers in the Old and New World contained many obvious exaggerations and falsehoods -- "driving into the street women in child-bed [i.e. having just given birth], killing old men in their houses unarmed" -- as well as attributed emotional intent on the participants — of the British, "malice had occupied their whole souls," whereas the Americans "were determined to be peaceable spectators."

The Story Changed over Time
Visual images can be just as misleading. Amos Doolittle, a Connecticut silversmith, arrived in Lexington within weeks of the battle and made sketches based on his observations and interviews with witnesses. His engravings are the earliest illustrations of the event. The first print shows an orderly row of British soldiers mowing down a fleeing ragtag local militia — among whom no one is shown pointing, loading or firing a gun. The image depicts more of a firing squad than a battle, and contradicts the sworn statements by witnesses that the Americans did try to resist. Later illustrations of the event show the minute men firing on the British. The events of that day have been viewed through so many lenses -- pride, honor, war propaganda -- that no one will ever be able to determine precisely the level of the minute men's resistance when confronted by the British light infantry's front guard on April 19, 1775.

Getting the Feel of History
Going to the scene of history can be enlightening. "The historian of any battle must attend carefully to the ground," according to historian David Hackett Fischer. Responsible historians visit Minute Man National Historic Park and traverse the Battle Road for whatever insight the landscape may give them. And participants in local reenactments are particularly well suited to interpret the events of the day. Not only are they on thefield of battle, but the cold spring air on each 19th of April, the exhaustion from an early alarm (from a clock, not a Midnight Rider), the feel of their period costumes and the weight of their equipment all contribute to an interior view of the conflict. And though reenactors know how the battle will turn out, anyone who is not a little frightened when a working gun is pointed at him is a fool. "It's all theater," Paul O'Shaughnessy told the filmmakers, "but scary theater."

Seeing History Through a Single Character
A reenactor's point of connection with history is a single character, not an entire war, or battle, or day, as it can be for an academic historian. Wayne McCarthy, one of the Lexington minute men reenactors, noted that various members will portray the same character differently after doing their own research and deciding which aspects of the person they want to emphasize. The reenactors have access to the same documents as a university historian, and may even have family journals or artifacts passed down from the original battle.

Living History
Precisely because the Battles of Lexington and Concord can be hard to analyze with so many particular points of view, they may be particularly well understood through reenactment, by the collective motivations and individual incidents of particular characters. Reenactors are not actors, after all; they are historians testing out their hypotheses in public.

Support Provided by: Learn More