Playing the Redcoat

The Boston Globe
April 16, 1995, Sunday, City Edition
LENGTH: 1268 words

HEADLINE: Playing the part of a redcoat is role they relish;

BYLINE: By Mark Sullivan, Special to the Globe

Most actors judge a good performance by the applause it receives, but not the members of His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot, who play the redcoats at Patriots Day battle reenactments in Lexington and Concord.

“In our case, it’s how loud they boo,” said Leo Lynch of Woburn, former commander of the re-created 18th-century British army regiment. Lynch, who for 10 seasons played a colonel at the head of the redcoat troops, has been spat at, had coffee thrown at him and had one spectator try to knock him down.

“It just goes to show how good our portrayal is,” said the 69-year-old retired telephone company engineer.

The five dozen members of His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot, who practice their drills monthly at the St. Bridget’s Parish Hall in Lexington, share a taste for history, spit-and-polish and theatrical showmanship. “There’s one constant thread that runs through them all – ham,” said Lynch. “One absolute requirement is a sense of humor.” A contrarian streak also helps, since playing a British redcoat at a Concord or Lexington celebration of American rebellion is, in itself, rather rebellious.

“If I was in a Civil War regiment, I’d probably be a Confederate,” said 10th Regiment drummer Eric Borgman, a 24-year-old aspiring actor and filmmaker from Westwood.

Besides playing the villains every Patriots Day at Lexington and Concord, the re-created British regiment – commanded by David Mahoney of Weymouth – has acted in battle scenes for television programs, including a recent mini-series on the American Revolution broadcast by the Arts & Entertainment cable network.

The regiment, whose other TV credits include appearances in “Spenser: For Hire” and the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie “April Morning,” has been contacted about appearing in a planned movie version of historian David Hackett Fischer’s book, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

And during royal visits to Boston by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, the regiment has served as an honor guard. The unit also regularly participates in battle re-creations at historic sites such as Ft. Ticonderoga and Ft. Niagara. Next October, they will journey to Bermuda to participate in a military tattoo.

“When we go places, we’re given forts to play in,” said 10th Regiment member John Langan, 27, a Newton attorney.

The idea of fielding an accurately drilled and outfitted 18th-century-style British infantry regiment was hatched in the early 1970s by a Chelmsford makeup artist, Vincent Keough.

Keough sought to improve on the amateurish red vests and cardboard bishops’ miters that then passed for British uniforms at reenactments of the North Bridge fight in Concord.

Traveling to England, Keough researched the history of the 10th Regiment of Foot, a Lincolnshire infantry unit that fought at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. Keough now lives in California.

Permission was received from the British government to re-create the regiment – still in active service today – as it was in the days of King George III.

“The 10th Regiment of Foot do an excellent reenactment of British troops during the American Revolution,” said the British consul general in Boston, John Owen. “The only shame is the outcome of the battle never changes.”

Today’s regimental re-enactors remain sticklers for detail. Uniforms are cut from 18th-century patterns, using wool, linen, cotton and silk. Buttons and cap plates are cast from antique molds in pewter, brass and silver.

The pastime is not inexpensive. The cost of a flintlock musket, tailor-made red wool coat and accompanying kit runs more than $ 1,000.

Among the accoutrements of the well-dressed 18th-century British infantryman is the queued wig, which 10th Regiment private Scott Smith is happy he doesn’t have to wear daily.

“It starts to get things in it,” observed Smith, who said he washes his wig once or twice a year in Woolite and cold water. The 28-year-old shipping clerk from Melrose added: “It’s interesting the first time you have to walk into a beauty shop to ask for hairpins and curlers.”

The troopers of the 10th Regiment are a diverse lot, including many one might not, at first, expect to see carrying the colors of the British crown.

Perhaps a third of His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot, Lynch said, are Irish Americans like himself.

Many of the foot soldiers of the old British Empire, members note, came from Ireland. “Where do you think they got the cannon fodder?” said Paul O’Shaughnessy, 38, a Newton engineer who joined the 10th as a Lexington teen-ager.

While the heavily Hibernian membership gives the regiment an authentic touch, Langan conceded: “My Irish grandfather is spinning in his grave seeing me wearing a red coat.”

In fact, former commander George Ames of Concord is as Yankee as they come. When Ames’ great-great-grandmother’s home in Castine, Maine, was occupied by British officers during the War of 1812, she wrapped the family silver in sealskin and buried it in the cellar.

Sixty-five-year-old former Marine colonel Ames is a direct descendant of Fisher Ames, the Massachusetts congressman who two centuries ago was the most venomous of the old Federalist Party’s orators, outspoken in his disdain for the democratic mob.

In the often harsh partisan debates that marked American politics in the 1790s, radical followers of Thomas Jefferson, enamored of the French Revolution, accused conservative Federalists like Fisher Ames of being pro-English monarchists.

Today, a distant descendant of the Federalists’ leading polemicist spends his spare time in a British officer’s red coat firing at American Minutemen.

The fulfillment of a Jeffersonian’s most dire prophecy? “Perhaps,” George Ames allowed, with a chuckle, noting also that his wife, Gillian, is British.

The re-created 10th Regiment has maintained close ties with the real-life British unit that inspired it.

The present-day 10th Regiment of Foot – known as Her Majesty’s, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth – is currently based in Germany and manned fighting vehicles in the Gulf War.

On visits to Europe for ceremonies with the British unit, American commanders of the re-created 10th have been treated like regular British Army officers. Lynch recalled being assigned his own batman, or aide, to serve him tea.

Officers from the American group will be in England on April 30 when Princess Margaret, patroness of the real 10th Regiment of Foot, presents the British Army unit with new colors.

At the Old North Bridge in Concord last Sunday afternoon, four colorfully uniformed members of His Majesty’s – George the Third’s – 10th Regiment of Foot practiced bayonet charges for a newspaper cameraman.

Drawing an audience of curious tourists, the troopers soon found themselves answering questions like seasoned park rangers and posing for snapshots. A little girl gawked speechlessly at drummer Borgman, towering tall in his grenadier’s bearskin, as a child might stare at a guard at Buckingham Palace.

“People really like it. They’re curious,” said Langan. “People have been reading history books. They want to see it up close.”

A question commonly asked of British soldiers at Patriots Day battle reenactments, Smith said, is: “How do you know when to die?”

Smith is credited with some expertise in this area, having been killed on camera eight times – including one close-up death scene – during the recent A&E Network mini-series.

Smith said he usually decides to keel over when he’s feeling hot, or if his musket stops working. “If your gun’s misfiring,” he said, “it’s no fun, so you fall down.”

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1 Response to Playing the Redcoat

  1. Pingback: The Regulars are Coming Out_April 19th, 1775 | History Stuff That Interests Me

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