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Book Review : Humanizing Our Colonial Forebears

May 01, 1986|DAVID LINDSEY | Lindsey, a professor of American history at Cal State Los Angeles for 30 years, has also taught at the University of Athens, the University of Madrid and the University of Tashkent. and

Red Dawn at Lexington by Louis Birnbaum (Houghton Mifflin: $18.95)

It would be rare indeed to find an American citizen of any age who is unaware of the significance of July 4, 1776, and the hallowed Declaration forever associated with it.

Unfortunately, in too many cases, our educational system has apparently relegated American history to a cursory review of abstract dates, names and events that are somewhat devoid of human interest and human perspective.

American history, rather than being a recitation of abstract facts, can become an absolutely fascinating experience if thoughtfully presented to the many Americans thirsting for knowledge of how our ancestors thought, felt and dealt with their problems.

Louis Birnbaum has given us a dramatic opportunity to relive the truly fascinating events on the New England front leading up to that great Declaration. "Red Dawn at Lexington" is obviously a product of lifelong dedication and intense research by the author. This nonfiction book reads almost like a novel and provides a wealth of knowledge in a very informative, entertaining style.

Where It All Began

The title is based on the incident of April 19, 1775, when a British Royal Marine major, John Pitcairn, lined up several British light infantry companies on Lexington Green and shouted, "Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, and disperse!" Capt. John Parker, commanding 77 militiamen, responded, "Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war let it begin here!"

Birnbaum leads us through such salient events as the Boston Massacre, the escalating tension in Boston leading to Lexington and Concord, the battle of Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill. Finally, he concludes with the capitulation of Boston by Gen. Howe in 1776 and the rise to international fame of the victor, the Virginia gentleman, George Washington.

The Little Things

Woven into this fabric is a plethora of information dealing with such things as the daily routines of the British soldiers and the Colonials; their training, medical care, daily rations; their tactics in battle, and the ordeals and sufferings of both the military and the civilians.

Not only do we become acquainted with George Washington, Samuel Adams, Israel Putnam, Artemis Ward, Paul Revere, generals Gage and Howe, and other notables, but thanks to the many personal diaries that Birnbaum has relied upon, we become acquainted with the junior officers, the non-coms and privates in both armies, the "common" colonial, and their feelings and observations. Suddenly we realize we are not paying reverence to "gods" standing on some elusive pedestal but are dealing with human beings much like ourselves.

"Red Dawn at Lexington" is an excellent addition to American historical literature. Not without appeal for the professional historian, even though it may not provide important new information, its real value will be its great contribution to the amateur historian, Revolutionary War buff, history student, and anyone willing to sit down with an entertaining, human-interest account of some of the most fascinating days of our history.

It is unfortunate that the book fails to include situation maps that identify topographical and cultural features and troop positions on the different dates for the benefit of not only those of us who are somewhat ignorant of the geographical features of the city of Boston, but for modern Bostonians who might not recognize the Boston of 1776.

Birnbaum died in 1983, and "Red Dawn at Lexington" will become a posthumous monument to a man who was an excellent scholar and educator. I regret that I will not have the opportunity to read another fine book by Birnbaum. It would have been a privilege to shake his hand and tell him that his book is excellent and that I highly recommend it.

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