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Running for their lives

In 1775, British soldiers' mission became a 'marathon of survival'

Among the British reenactors staging a practice march in Concord last month were Charles Ziniti (above), outfitted as a sergeant major. Among the British reenactors staging a practice march in Concord last month were Charles Ziniti (above), outfitted as a sergeant major. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
By Bill Porter
Globe Staff / April 16, 2009
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Talk about heartbreak. Imagine running 26 miles, 385 yards, people cheering all the way. Then imagine trudging nearly 40 miles, wearing a red woolen uniform and leather shoes and toting a musket, ammo, and supplies. Oh, and one other thing: People aren't cheering for you; they're trying to kill you.

On Monday, runners will muster in Hopkinton for the Boston Marathon, a Patriots Day tradition whose cruel hills and fickle weather have been known to test even the most seasoned athletes. But it pales next to what the British Army faced 234 years ago.

British regulars endured a staggering ordeal on April 19, 1775, slogging through mud in Cambridge, busting through a thin line of militia in Lexington, and then marching and at times dashing from Concord to Charlestown through a hail of lead in a trek that stretched over one long day. Their ill-fated excursion helped trigger the American Revolution.

"It was definitely a marathon of survival," said Erica Martin, 41, a history teacher at Concord Academy who ran the Boston Marathon in 2005 and attended Lexington battle reenactments as a child growing up in the town. "When you're running a marathon you're thinking, 'Am I going to make it, am I going to make the last 3 miles?' People say 'I just want to finish it.' These guys are running for their lives."

There were no roaring crowds, no women of Wellesley College, no Nikes protecting their feet. "You get a waft of cigarette smoke, by the bar in Ashland I think," Martin said. "But you don't have somebody pointing a musket at you."

The British mission to destroy a cache of munitions in Concord involved units of light infantry and grenadiers.

"Both of them were considered to be the bad boys," said Paul O'Shaughnessy, 52, of Lexington, who has played British roles in reenactments since 1972 and will portray Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines in Monday's predawn reenactment of the Battle of Lexington on the historic green. "You didn't really want to tangle with them if you could help it."

There is no official count of troop strength, but Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer, in his book "Paul Revere's Ride," estimated the size of the expedition to be 841, including 74 officers. The soldiers, members of elite units of the British infantry, were English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. Reinforcements boosted the force to between 1,800 and 1,900 on the return trip.

Fueled by determination and primed by supportive onlookers, marathoners travel light. Karen Ringheiser, 45, of Carlisle, preparing for her seventh Boston Marathon, recently tossed her running clothes, including shoes, onto the scale and found the stuff weighed about a pound and a half. "I can't imagine what it would be like to wear heavy clothes and heavy shoes," said Ringheiser, who, like Martin, grew up in Lexington and attended the local battle reenactments.

British soldiers wore a long linen shirt that served as underwear; a woolen waistcoat; a woolen outercoat with lapels, tails and cuffs; woolen britches buckled just below the knee; woolen stockings pulled up above the knee; square-toed leather shoes; and gaiters.

The clothes weighed "probably 7 or 8 pounds," O'Shaughnessy said. "It's fairly heavy stuff."

The clothing was perhaps not quite as cumbersome as it sounds. "You're OK in this sort of clothing as long as you're in good shape and you have a source of water," said O'Shaughnessy. "You're going to perspire, but the linen and the wool actually wick it away from you and it evaporates. So you actually stay cool.

Opinions vary regarding the temperature that April 19, according to Fischer, who wrote, "By all accounts, the day of the battle was crisp, cool, and fair."

British soldiers carried a musket with a .75-caliber barrel that directed a lead ball about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. The weapon weighed about 12 pounds and was 58 inches long, O'Shaughnessy said.

Throw in a bayonet, ammunition, haversack for rations such as boiled beef, dried peas, and bread, and a canteen, and these guys were lugging about 25 pounds of clothing and equipment on April 19, 1775.

On the night of April 18 they rendezvoused on Boston Common at around 10 and rowed across Back Bay to Phips Farm in Cambridge a couple hours later. They waited in a marshy area for provisions, and left for Concord at 2 a.m.

It was chilly when they finally got started. The terrain had more rolling hills and was more open than it is today, the stony road wide and firm for the most part but muddy here and there. The condition of the road might have varied depending on who was taking care of it at a specific location. "There was no DPW," O'Shaughnessy said.

They made good time, Fischer said. An appendix in "Paul Revere's Ride" divides the long march into four legs and estimates that the soldiers moved at a clip of 3.44 miles per hour, or roughly 18 minutes per mile, covering the initial 11 miles from Cambridge to Lexington, where the first shots were fired.

The British soldiers managed 3.12 miles per hour over 6.25 miles between Lexington and Concord, turning back after battling militias at the North Bridge and finding few munitions during searches of the town, a process that included an additional 4-mile round trip for four companies that were sent out to Barrett's Mill. They traveled 2.5 miles per hour from Concord back to Lexington, and 2.93 miles per hour on the final 11-mile leg to Charlestown's Bunker Hill, where their ordeal ended at about 7 p.m.

"Those numbers were surprising to me and to others when I got them," Fischer said. "That's a pretty good clip for a marching column."

It was a long trip to take by foot, Fischer said. "Maybe the worst of it would have been the shortage of water. They would have been carrying water with them but not enough. And wherever they could, these men were falling out on the way back to get water," he said.

"I do have accounts of these men stopping at wells along the way. Most houses had wells, and there were fights around these water points."

Among the hottest spots for the British on the way back were Fiske Hill and Parker's Revenge in Lexington, Bloody Curve in Lincoln, and Menotomy Village, or present-day Arlington, where there was savage hand-to-hand fighting in some of the houses. From Menotomy to Charlestown, they drew a spattering of fire. The official records of the British commander, General Thomas Gage, showed 65 of his soldiers were killed and 180 wounded, and 27 went missing.

Although the British troops were well trained and accustomed to marching, it's likely that many of them would not have been in good health.

"The most common cause of death in the 18th century was tuberculosis, and many of these men would have suffered from that and various other pulmonary diseases," Fischer said. "Their diet was not good, and with the shortage of water that would have added to the heavy stress. And all of this would have applied to the militia as well," he said, noting that many of the colonists were running their own marathons that day.

"They were marching from the North Shore, from as far as the New Hampshire line in some cases, and from many points to the south and west. So they were really covering a lot of ground."

Endurance test

British regulars covered about 40 miles on April 19, 1775, an ordeal that Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer details in "Paul Revere's Ride." They managed "a pretty good clip for a marching column," Fischer said.

1. March begins at 2 a.m. Soldiers move at a clip of 3.44 miles per hour over 11 miles from Cambridge to Lexington, where the first shots are fired at the village green.

2. Resuming their search for munitions, the redcoats hit 3.12 miles per hour for the 6.25 miles to Concord.

3. After battling colonists at Concord's North Bridge, they head back to Lexington at 2.5 miles per hour.

4. On the last leg, they travel 2.93 miles per hour during the running battle between Lexington and Charlestown's Bunker Hill, where their ordeal ends at 7 p.m.