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American Revolutionary War sites around Boston

In 2019, on a trip to Boston, I visited some American Revolutionary War sites in and around the city. While there, I shot some videos to record what I saw, and recently I edited the footage into three little documentaries about important episodes of the first year of the American Revolution.

Confrontation at North Bridge in Concord

North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts is one place where the American Revolution began. There were two small skirmishes that took place in the area west of Boston on April 19, 1775. The first of them was at dawn in Lexington, a little to the east of Concord. The other skirmish took place at North Bridge in Concord at about 11 AM.

The American forces (the Massachusetts Militia and the Minutemen) and the British faced off against each other on opposite sides of the bridge. The British tried to march over the bridge, and they fired on the Americans, and the Americans fired back. Two people were killed on both sides. Then the British started retreating back to Boston. With this skirmish, there was no doubt that the American Revolution had begun.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

An imposing obelisk on top of Breed’s Hill in Boston commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was fought there in the summer of 1775. Following the brief clashes at Concord and Lexington (mentioned above), Bunker Hill was the first major battle of the American Revolution.

You might be wondering: Why is the battle named Bunker Hill if it took place on Breed’s Hill? The Continentals had been under orders to fortify Bunker Hill in order to encircle the British who were occupying Boston, but instead they fortified Breed’s Hill. Nevertheless, the “Bunker Hill” name stuck, and the battle is named after a hill where it didn’t take place!

The Continentals built their fortifications on the top of the hill, where the monument and park are located now. On June 17, the British launched an assault on the American fortifications. Two waves of British troops marched up and were cut down. Finally the third wave was able to overrun the American defensive works, because the Continentals had run out of powder to fire their guns.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was technically a British victory, but the British only won after suffering very heavy losses. The Continentals, for their part, felt that they had won a moral victory, because they had fought well against the British and stood their ground when their positions were overrun.

Dorchester Heights and the Siege of Boston

After the Batttle of Bunker Hill, the British and the Americans were in a stalemate: the British occupied Boston, while the Americans surrounded them outside the city. To get the British to leave Boston, the Americans set up cannons on the top of Dorchester Heights, a hill to the south of the city.

The cannons were actually British cannons, which had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain back in May 1775. Teams of oxen dragged 60 cannons from the fort through the wilderness to Boston. Once the British saw the cannons go up on Dorchester Heights in early March 1776, they decided it was time to get out of town. They sailed out of Boston harbor, and 1,000 loyalists went with them.

In the early 1900s, the anniversary of the British leaving Boston in 1776, March 17, was established as the holiday of Evacuation Day in Boston. Irish immigrants, who lived in large numbers in the area around Dorchester Heights, adopted the holiday and merged it with their own holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, which happens on the same day.

A visit to the USS Constitution

The USS Constitution was one of the first frigates built for the US Navy in the early years of the American republic. The Constitution was authorized in 1794 and launched in 1797 from Hartt’s shipyard in Boston. The ship fought in the Quasi-War with France in the late 1790s, the Barbary Coast War in the early 1800s, and—most famously—in the War of 1812. Later it served as a training ship and a diplomatic vessel.

View of the USS Constitution from the starboard side.

View of the USS Constitution from the starboard side.

Nowadays, the Constitution never leaves its home port of Boston. Even so, it is is still an officially commissioned warship of the United States Navy. Active-duty naval officers in period-era uniforms give tours of the ship. Visitors can explore the upper and lower decks of the ship, including the gun deck, where the ship mounted 24-pounder cannons for use in engagements against pirates or warships from other countries’ navies.

Gun deck of the USS Constitution. The cannons are reproductions.

Gun deck of the USS Constitution. The cannons are reproductions.

Port side of the USS Constitution, with the cannons protruding from their ports on the gun deck.

Port side of the USS Constitution, with the cannons protruding from their ports on the gun deck.

The USS Constitution is one of the world’s oldest ships, and the oldest one anywhere that is still afloat. It is a living relic of the great age of sail and the founding years of the American republic.

The stern of the USS Constitution.

The stern of the USS Constitution.

An eagle insignia on the entrance to the top deck of the ship. The eagle was a commonly-used emblem in the early years of the American republic.

An eagle insignia on the entrance to the top deck of the ship. The eagle was a commonly-used emblem in the early years of the American Republic.

For more information about the Constitution, see:

Heroes and villains in northern Mexico

Chihuahua, a city of about a million people, is the capital of the state by the same name in northern Mexico. Chihuahua city is about four hours south of Ciudad Juárez and the border with the United States. Mexico City is a long way away from Chihuahua, but Chihuahua is nevertheless very much a part of Mexico.

Mexico is a country that loves its national heroes, and there are two heroes that loom particularly large in Chihuahua: Miguel Hidalgo and Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Both of them were real people who did real things, but like national heroes everywhere, they have been mythologized. This myth-making supports a particular image of what Mexico is or should be.

Mural of Miguel Hidalgo’s death, in Palacio Gobierno, Chihuahua.

Mural of Miguel Hidalgo’s death, in Palacio Gobierno, Chihuahua.

Miguel Hidalgo started the rebellion against Spanish rule that led eventually to Mexico’s independence. Hidalgo was a Catholic priest in the town of Dolores in central Mexico, and it was there that he declared his revolt on September 16, 1810 (111 years ago today). He led an irregular army to some early successes against the Spanish, but ultimately he was defeated and captured. The Spanish executed him in Chihuahua on July 30, 1811. It would take another ten years of bitter fighting before Mexico would finally win its independence from Spain.

Heroic equestrian statue of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez.

Heroic equestrian statue of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez.

Pancho Villa was an important figure in a later period of upheaval in Mexican history, the Mexican Revolution. He was a bandit working in the mountains of northern Mexico, reputed for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like Robin Hood. In 1910, he threw in his lot with Francisco I. Madero and the Constitutionalists, who were fighting to overthrow the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. After Díaz was defeated and Madero became president, Madero’s general Victoriano Huerta turned against Villa, who barely escaped execution and fled to El Paso. Huerta ended up betraying Madero as well, overthrowing and assassinating him in a coup.

Meanwhile, Villa built up his own army, División del Norte, which helped defeat Huerta. Crucially, he retook the border town of Ciudad Juárez for the Constitutionalists. But before long, Villa had a falling-out with the new leader of the Constitutionalists, Venustiano Carranza. He was sidelined in Mexican politics as Carranza got official diplomatic recognition from the United States. In March 1916, he demonstrated that Carranza did not in fact control all of Mexico by raiding the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Villa’s band killed about twenty people before escaping back across the border. The US Army followed in hot pursuit. This punitive expedition, led by General John J. Pershing, spent the better part of a year chasing Villa around northern Mexico, but they were never able to catch him. (It ended when the US Army was recalled from Mexico to fight in Europe in World War I.)

Ultimately, Villa surrendered to the Mexican government after Carranza’s death in 1920. He retired from the outlaw life and settled on a ranch, but his old enemies caught up with him and assassinated him in 1923.

Both Hidalgo and Villa are remembered as being heroes, but the reality, as usual, is a little more complicated. Hidalgo is the father of Mexican independence, but Mexico was not freed from Spanish rule until more than ten years after his death. The man who actually liberated Mexico was Agustín de Iturbide, but he isn’t well-remembered in Mexico anymore. The reason is that he briefly ruled Mexico as an emperor, but Mexico shortly afterward turned toward republicanism. Iturbide went into exile; when he returned to Mexico in an attempt to return to power, he was executed! Hidalgo was never an emperor of anything, and thus he is a much more palatable national hero for the republic of Mexico.

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Monument to Hidalgo, across the street from Palacio Gobierno.

As for Villa, he was by trade a bandit, and he could be incredibly cruel. He and his followers were responsible for countless murders in northern Mexico. The Mexican Revolution is remembered as being a story of good guys and bad guys. The good guys were the Constitutionalists: Madero, Villa, Carranza, and others; while the bad guys were the counter-revolutionaries, notably Díaz and Huerta. But the Constitutionalists didn’t just fight the counter-revolutionaries; they also spent a lot of time fighting each other! In death, Carranza and Villa have been made into heroes of the revolution, but they were enemies of each other in life.

None of this is to say that Mexico shouldn’t remember Hidalgo or Villa, or not have national heroes at all. Every country needs its heroes. But when we remember our heroes—whatever country we are from—we shouldn’t be satisfied with the nationalistic myths. Instead, we should view these people with a more critical eye, to see the aspects of their story that the nationalistic myths might obscure.

Another equestrian statue of Pancho Villa, this one in Chihuahua city.

Another equestrian statue of Pancho Villa, this one in Chihuahua city.

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