Enlisting with the enemy to feel a part of history

Email|Print| Text size + By Glenn Rifkin
Globe Correspondent / April 9, 2006

LEXINGTON -- I am a vision in scarlet. My red wool waistcoat with broad white belts crisscrossing my chest, a 14-pound musket slung up against my shoulder, a black leather helmet festooned with a red ostrich feather sitting snugly on my bewigged head all signal that I am indeed a redcoat.

On this cool April morning on the fabled green in Lexington, I have been transformed into a British regular, a private in His Majesty's 4th Regiment of Foot, just as the first gunshots of the American Revolution burst through the dawn.

Amid thunderous rounds of musket fire, with a smoky white haze blanketing the Common, the annual Patriots Day reenactment of the battles of Lexington and Concord is underway. Along with 300 other redcoats, I have broken rank and we are chasing the defiant Lexington militia across the green and into the surrounding countryside.

When the smoke clears and we are finally herded back into formation by our exasperated officers, eight colonials lie dead and the townspeople are shaking fists and cursing us loudly. I pay them no mind. I am breathless and thrilled that I've managed to complete the short battle without bayoneting any of my comrades. As we prepare to march off to Concord with orders to destroy stores of munitions, the adrenaline flows amid the chorus of boos and hissing from the thousands who have come from all over the country to watch this spectacle. They really hate us.

If, like me, you live west of Boston in one of the towns along the famed ''Battle Road," you cannot help but notice the reenactors. Dressing up in authentic period garb for any number of historic holidays is a local ritual, like eating chowder or watching the Red Sox. After more than 30 years of spectating and secretly longing for my own musket and tricornered hat, I decided to join the battle last year as an embedded reporter and get a close-up view of the shot heard 'round the world.

Here was my chance to leap into history, dress up, and play war, all on the ultimate Revolutionary War stage.

Beyond the rush of the simulated battle, what I truly sought was the answer to my question of many years: Why do they do it? What is it about this reenactment tradition that gets hundreds of otherwise sane, upstanding men and women to don these 18th-century vestments and attempt to resurrect history?

I had always assumed that if I ever did get up the resolve to participate, it would be as a Minuteman. But a chance meeting with an enthusiastic redcoat persuaded me that the greater fun lay in the traitorous, yet compelling, notion of joining the enemy ranks. If I wondered why someone would dress up as a reenactor, I was doubly curious as to why anyone would enlist with the losers. And here was my chance to find out.

For Christopher Woolf, the sergeant and leader of my regiment, the answer is simple: He is British. Of course, there are plenty of expatriate Brits in America who think this reenactment fervor is sillier than an old Monty Python routine. But Woolf, a news editor at ''The World," a public radio program devoted to international news, has long been a military history buff with a penchant for Colonial American history. He got a taste of military life in his own national guard and found the weekend soldiering with its mix of drilling, drinking, and playing war intriguing. Reenacting is as close to the real thing as one can get without joining up.

''My political sympathies naturally lie with the rebels, but I enjoy being contrary," Woolf said. ''Part of me was motivated by national pride to show that the Brits were not inept. Even I was surprised at how good the British Army was back then. You Yanks are incredibly ignorant of your own history, or rather hoodwinked by your own propaganda. And the Brits look fabulous. Women are suckers for 'scarlet fever.' "

I met Woolf at a dinner, and when he handed me his King's Own Light Infantry Company business card, I asked if he would allow a reporter to join the ranks for a one-time appearance. He agreed immediately, then warned me that I had to take it seriously. That meant drilling with the troops, learning the 1764 British manual of arms and, most daunting, shaving a beard and moustache I had worn since college. British regulars in 1775 were not allowed facial hair.

Anyone who has read Tony Horwitz's 1998 bestseller, ''Confederates in the Attic," knows about the intensity of Civil War reenactors in the South. These ''hardcores" spend copious amounts of time and money on their hobby; starve themselves to achieve the gaunt look of Confederate soldiers, and generally go well beyond the line of reason of say, stamp collectors or model-train enthusiasts. Those who playact the Revolution are not quite as fanatical. What I encountered as a redcoat was a mixture of true devotion to authenticity and an equal measure of self-deprecating humor. These guys are serious but stop at the doorway to lunacy.

At my first meeting with the regiment, I encountered a group of men sewing. In that quest for what reenactors call ''the period rush," the foundation is laid with uniforms they make themselves using the same materials and the same tools. There I met Roger Fuller, a former history teacher who believes with conviction that the British Army was far more interesting than the undisciplined ''rebel scum" who confronted them at Lexington and Concord.

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Watch a reenactment of the Battle of Lexington at explorenewengland.com/travel.

The British Army of 1775 was the most powerful in the world, Fuller asserts. Somewhat paradoxically, though, its soldiers were on the bottom rung of society. So here was a massive fighting force, 3,000 miles from home, reviled on both sides of the ocean, trying to cope with an emerging hostile militia that their commanders badly underestimated. Fuller finds the plight of the British soldier, along with his discipline and bravery, compelling. Plus, that uniform is not only way cool but a business opportunity. Fuller has built a small cottage industry making authentic leather cartridge cases, bayonet sheaths, and other detailed paraphernalia that he sells to reenactors.

Among those in my regiment are a computer consultant, a college administrator, and a waste management engineer, all drawn to the British side by a similar love of history and the lure of an authentic military experience. Some just get their kicks being the bad guys.

Marching out of Lexington, I try to keep a straight face as the jeers rain down on us. I spot my wife holding a video camera and wink. War is hell but one cannot miss a photo opportunity. I am prepared to march the 7 miles to Concord when I realize that the rest of the British soldiers are boarding a bus. I'm stunned. So is Woolf, and he insists that the 4th Foot will march, just as our namesakes did 230 years earlier. Halfway to Concord, the wives arrive in vans and cars and I suddenly find myself transported to the Old North Bridge stuffed in the back of a Honda Civic. Sweating in my tight red wool uniform and exhausted from rising at 3 a.m., I am grateful for the lift if a bit sheepish at our lack of resolve.

We may have been the world's greatest fighting force, but we weren't prepared for what we encountered in Concord. With thousands of spectators lining the trail to the bridge, we march forward, over the famed span, and encounter a massive garrison of determined militia. A shot rings out, followed by volley after volley of musket fire and soon we are scrambling in full retreat. ''Run away!" our officers yell as the crowd cheers our ignominious defeat.

By 10 a.m., a glorious morning has concluded with a solemn ceremony honoring the British dead buried next to the Old North Bridge. We regroup and march single-file through the milling throngs to the Colonial Inn, an 18th-century tavern in Concord Center, and down pints of ale. My regiment salutes me with a hearty ''Huzzah" and tells me that I was a prize recruit and now, an honorary lifetime member. Though the reenactment was thrilling, I suspect that at best, my future will be as what Woolf scornfully calls a ''tulip." I'll only come out in April.

Contact Glenn Rifkin, a freelance writer in Acton, at grifkin@comcast.net.

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