In recent times, wars have taken place “over there” for Americans, but at the start of our nation’s War of Independence, the war was right here in Massachusetts. After retreating from Lexington and Concord, British troops locked down the city of Boston, and patriot militia surrounded them in the countryside. A major battle would soon take place in Charlestown.
That’s the setting for “Boston at War: Letters of Abigail and John Adams,” a presentation by historical interpreters and actors Patricia Bridgman and Thomas Macy this Sunday at the Stoughton Historical Society.
Adams scholars and living-history performers, Bridgman and Macy have more than 40 years of living-history experience between them. The Beverly residents appear as Revolutionary America’s most famous couple regularly at the Adams National Historic Site in Quincy and have given public programs at many other venues.
“You refer to them as Mr. and Mrs. Adams,” Dwight MacKerron, the president of the Stoughton Historical Society, said of their first-person character interpretation.
“They try to stay in character when they answer questions. If you ask a question about something that happens 10 years down the road, they can’t answer,” he said.
The society offers regular public programs in its 1903 building, a former library given to the town on the condition that one room always be reserved for the historical society. Eventually the town turned the whole building over to the 250-member history group. Impressed by performances elsewhere, the society invited Bridgman and Macy to present a program on the Revolutionary period a couple of years ago.
“We look forward to their new program,” MacKerron said last week.
In the view of historians such as David McCullough, Quincy’s Adams family tops the list of First Couple role models for their devoted, productive relationship between equal partners.
While Adams was working his way toward the dangerous but fruitful decision of complete separation for the Colonies from their British masters, Abigail was insisting on the importance of issues besides independence. Her famous advice to a husband away from home helping to plan their nation’s future was “Remember the ladies.”
Because the two were away from each other so often, with John leading the Congress toward revolution and then guiding its war effort, a large trough of letters between them has allowed historians to look into their relationship.
Sunday’s program focuses on the period in 1775 when hostilities had broken out, although the Colonies had yet to declare their independence. Skirmishes took place outside Boston. South Shore harbor towns feared British invasion.
Home with her four children in the part of Colonial Braintree that later broke off to become Quincy, Abigail shared her worries for her family’s safety in her letters to John.
“A general attack by the British was expected daily, and every town was in a constant state of alarm,” MacKerron writes in the society’s newsletter. “Several skirmishes were fought within sight and sound of the Adams homestead in Braintree, and the roar of cannon fire often kept the household awake at night.”
“My heart bled for the poor people of Boston,” John Adams himself would write in his memoirs of that time, one of the sources Bridgman and Macy draw on, “imprisoned within the walls of their city by a British Army, and we knew not to what plunder or massacres or cruelties they might be exposed.”
When the sounds of a great conflagration reached Abigail on June 17, she took her two older children to nearby Penn’s Hill to see the smoke rise from the battle of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, the first major encounter between massed troops on both sides. This scene, with its fearful emotions and bloody aftermath — casualties were high on both sides — formed one of the memorable moments in the widely viewed HBO series “Adams” five years ago.
A couple of centuries ago, what is local history to us was very important history for the world.