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Actors in our revolution

By Lane Hartill / April 11, 2000

On the morning of April 19, 1775, 200 British regulars marched onto Lexington Green, 11 miles from Boston. Their aim was to destroy a supply of arms and supplies in nearby Concord. Lined up on the green were 77 militiamen. The British commander ordered them to put down their weapons and disperse. But as they turned to leave, still holding their arms, a shot was fired - no one knows who did it. Without orders, the British began firing. In moments, eight Colonials were dead, 10 wounded. One soldier was hurt. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, visitors gather annually to watch people reenact the first engagement of the Revolutionary War (April 15 this year). Each actor is checked head to toe for historical accuracy. We thought you'd like to see what well-dressed patriots and British soldiers were wearing.

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Male landowners aged 16 to 60 served in the militia. They trained two to four times a year, and officers were elected. (So-called minute men drilled three times a week and were supposed to respond rapidly. They were also paid - very modestly.) The militia didn't have uniforms, so they wore their everyday clothes.

COCKED HAT: The wide brim of the typical farmer's hat, made of wool felt, could be tied up if he were going into town. Flipped down, the brim protected him from the elements.

WAISTCOAT: A sleeveless woolen waistcoat was worn under an outer coat, also of wool. Waistcoats could be quite ornate, and often passed from father to son. As the outside layer of cloth became worn, the garment could be taken apart and 'turned' so the inner layer was outside.

POWDER HORN: Muzzle-loading flintlock muskets, used by both sides, fired round leaden balls. Gunpowder was kept dry in powder horns made from cattle or ox horns. They were often inscribed with rhymes, references to battles, names of towns, diary entries, and maps.

SHOES: Most shoes were made to fit on either foot. They didn't have a 'right' or a 'left.' Militiamen and Grenadiers would have worn the same kind of shoes. Boots were mainly for horseback riding. Some historians contend that officers ordered their men to switch right and left shoes every day. Today's reenactors insist that would have been a bad idea. It's better to have each shoe mold to a particular foot, they say. And once you've got a pair broken in, you don't want to swap them around.

UNMENTIONABLES: Underwear was a luxury. But the linen 'longshirts' they wore hung down to mid-thigh. This protected them from their itchy wool breeches. At night, the shirt was worn to bed as a nightshirt. Bathing, incidentally, was rare, especially in the winter. It was thought to be unhealthy.


The tallest and strongest soldiers were grenadiers. The name is derived from the grenades they used to throw. By 1750, grenades had been abandoned, because the range and accuracy of guns had increased. Still, grenadiers wore brass match cases on their crossed leather belting as badges of honor. The cases had held slow-burning hemp fuses used to light the fuses on grenades. On April 19, 1775, grenadiers arrived after light infantry had already skirmished with the Colonial militia on Lexington Green.