Every summer when I was a kid, my parents dragged us to Newport to tour the mansions. I hated it. The velvet ropes cordoning off fine antiques and the stories of the impossibly wealthy bored me. But our reward was an ice cream cone, so I endured the tortuous history lesson.
I woke up to history after I had lived in Boston for a few years, when I grudgingly joined a friend at the site of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Looking out over those gentle hills, I felt a shock: My God, I thought. On this little field, shots were fired that changed the course of world history. I found myself reflecting on democracy and power, and what it meant to me to be an American.
History is, almost by definition, dead and buried. Over. It's the challenge of teachers, museum curators, and living-history reenactors to make the past come alive.
"It's difficult," says John Ott, executive director of the National Heritage Museum in Lexington. "Everything is equated against MTV and Disneyland. People want to touch and feel, and we want to create exhibitions the whole family can relate to."
Inside the entrance to that museum hangs a map of Middlesex County from the 1850s. "People stop to find themselves on that map," Ott says. "If you put the right objects with the space, then you get the stories of the people. That's what folks are really looking for."
I recently set out with friends seeking that spark of the past. Our goal was to revisit British General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne's 1777 campaign south from Canada down what is today the border between New York and Vermont.
We started at Fort Ticonderoga on Lake George in New York. Although the fort was plundered and torn down in the 19th century, it was restored in 1908 and now houses a museum. The imposing, star-shaped stone edifice with a red roof stands guard at the juncture of Lakes George and Champlain.
The British held Ticonderoga in 1775, but just three weeks after Lexington and Concord, a hothead named Ethan Allen, with 40 men behind him, stormed the sleepy fort. A young tour guide dressed in Colonial garb plucked a boy of about 11 from our group and had him play the sentry; the rest of us he enlisted as the Green Mountain Boys. Screaming at the top of our lungs, we charged the hapless lad.
That morning in 1775, Allen pounded on the door of the fort's commander. His memoir says he declared, "In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress, surrender," but our guide told us that he actually hollered, "Come out of your hole, you stinking rat!"
Allen let the British go. His men unearthed 90 gallons of rum and spent the next two days drinking it up -- we calculated that to be about a gallon per man per day. Two years later, on July 5, 1777, the British regained Ticonderoga.
We took a seven-minute ferry ride across the lake, then meandered through Vermont farmland to Mount Independence. It has a small museum and shop, where I picked up two books. Lexington and Concord aside, I was realizing that military history and the strategies of battle held little interest for me. My mind numbed at numbers of troops, the weights of cannons, and the types of uniforms. It lit on the personalities and the human tales, not the epic ones.
Mount Independence fell quickly to the British. The men left on guard had dipped into their casks of Madeira, and didn't put up much of a fight. Hikers and archeologists will enjoy this site. Trails crawl around it, and markers point out remains. To me, it had none of the frisson of Lexington and Concord. We got a good, if fly-plagued, walk in, glimpsed Ticonderoga across the water, and left.
After a night in Rutland, we visited the Hubbardton battle site during a living-history reenactment. The battle was scheduled to take place between 8 and 10 a.m.; when we got there at 9, it was over. The British had damaged the Americans, but the American rear guard had done what they set out to do: kept the enemy from catching up with their regiment.
I wandered around the encampment, visiting firesides and poking my head into tents, where soldiers slept five men to a space fit for three. Women served breakfast to the commander of the British troops -- not Simon Fraser, as history tells us, but the reenactor, who identified himself as Brigadier General Lord Viscount Loding, Baron of Kingsbury. I told him I had come from Boston.
"You mean Boston, in the Bay Colony?" he asked. The general, who in the 21st century is Paul Loding, 53, of Hudson Falls, N.Y., would not break character, which I found unnerving. The ploy didn't welcome me into history; it put me on the outside of it.
American Colonel Jim Hayden, 42, of Methuen, has been a reenactor since he was 13. At 14, he commanded his hometown militia -- the youngest commander in the New Hampshire regiments. He nodded over at the redcoat camp. "Those aren't the bad guys," he said. "There are no bad guys. This was the first American civil war. It was British subject against British subject."
I was sorry to have missed the battle. The reenactors use muskets and gunpowder, although not musket balls. Apparently, it's a dirty, frightening scene -- like a real-life battle, without the casualties.
Later, I perused the two books I had bought at Mount Independence: a succinct guide to the campaign, "Saratoga 1777" by Brendan Morrissey, and "In the Path of War," an anthology of oral histories taken in the 1840s by Dr. Asa Fitch of his patients in New York, edited by Jeanne Winston Adler.
The first told the story of the battles. The second told the stories of the people who lived through them, farmers and their children who had little idea about the political ramifications of the war. Most of them at first sided with the British. After all, Burgoyne promised them protection.
Then, in late July, Indians allied with the British killed a local family, the Allens, and then a young woman, Jane McCrea. I got caught up in the tale of McCrea's capture: She and others hid beneath a trap door, where they were found and dragged out by their hair. They were made to run two miles to the Indians' camp. The others were eventually liberated; McCrea was killed, somehow. Morrissey's book posits she was hit by a stray American bullet, but that's not the tale that buzzed through the towns of eastern New York state.
Suddenly, the locals didn't feel so safe.
Onward to Bennington. The Bennington battlefield is actually in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. While Mount Independence and Hubbardton have small exhibitions and shops in their visitors centers, this battlefield has only explanatory text. The Bennington Battle Monument is in Vermont; it's a scaled-down version of the monument at Bunker Hill and the Washington Monument, and from its windows we could see three states, but we didn't learn a fig about the war.
The Bennington Museum has an exhibit, "The Bennington Battle: How an Event Defined a Community," that not only traces the course of the battle but documents the way the town has celebrated it over the years. While it didn't bring the battle home to me, it raised good points about how a community identifies with its history.
On our way to Saratoga, we detoured up Route 4 for lunch. As we drove past a historic marker, I glimpsed Jane McCrea's name. "Stop!" I cried, and we made a U-turn back to a little fenced-in monument. It marked the original site of Jane McCrea's grave. This was the most exciting piece of history we had stumbled across on our journey.
McCrea, after all, was like me. A woman, an innocent bystander whose main take on the war was a desire to be safe. She was a Tory, according to Adler's book, engaged to marry a British officer -- and no more secure for it. My heart went out to her.
At Saratoga National Park in Stillwater, N.Y., we took the 9.5-mile driving tour, which has 10 sites, where you can push a button and listen to audio of actors playing farmers and soldiers in 1777. The serenity of the park made it hard to imagine the cacophony and violence of the two battles that took place here. In the first, on Sept. 19, the British took the battleground from the Americans, where they entrenched and waited for reinforcements from the south.
Delayed by their own battles, those reinforcements never came. Burgoyne waited three weeks. During that time the American forces got larger and larger -- thanks, in part, to their previous victories.
Adler suggests that, perhaps, they were joined by local men angered by the murders of the Allens and McCrea, men who wanted vengeance for the lives and security stolen from them. In my other book, "Saratoga 1777," Morrissey dismisses that hypothesis as "nonsense," and a "fanciful piece of pseudo-history, retrospectively meeting the need for a `Yankee Joan of Arc.' "
Historians may argue that history must be based in fact. To me, the stories, the rumors, the things we need to believe, the people we turn into heroes whether they act heroically or not, are just as much history as the facts that surround them. McCrea's story may not all be fact, but there is truth in what sprang from the fears and desires of the people who told it.
On Oct. 7, the Americans defeated Burgoyne's troops, finally and completely, at Saratoga.
The battles of Saratoga are considered by many to be the turning point of the Revolutionary War, the moment when the British realized that the ragtag Colonials had more grit and power than they ever suspected. Saratoga did not strike awe in me in the way that Lexington and Concord had. None of the battle sites could do that. I finished this tour more humbled than awed, and not by the battles, but by how the random violence of war can strike anyone. And how even a seemingly incidental stroke can change the tide of a battle, a war, and of history.
Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer who lives in Haverhill.