Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lexington and Concord - This Day in History

Historians do not always agree about the happenings of this day in colonial history. There are many accountings of what became the 'First Battles of the American Revolution.' I speak of course of the battles of Concord and Lexington. Many dispute the number of men present on the colonial side, if they were in fact militiamen at all. There is even dispute among scholars as to who fired the first shot. Some say the British, some say the colonist. That shots rang out between the men and forever changed our history is not disputed.

The issue of which side was to blame at Lexington and Concord grew during the early nineteenth century. For example, older participants' testimony in later life about Lexington and Concord differed greatly from their depositions taken under oath in 1775. All later said the British fired first at Lexington, whereas fifty or so years before, they weren't sure. All now said they fired back, but in 1775, they said few were able to. The "Battle" took on an almost mythical quality in the American consciousness. Legend became more important than truth. A complete shift occurred, and the Patriots were portrayed as actively fighting for their cause, rather than as suffering innocents. Paintings of the Lexington skirmish began to portray the militia standing and fighting back in defiance.

In the early dawn on April 19, 1775 according to one account approximately 70 armed Massachusetts men stood face to face on Lexington Green with the British advance guard. Another version states that the men of Massachusetts were not at all 70 in number, nor were they militiamen, but just residents of the small settlement of Concord.

That there was indeed a confrontation and that it had results in not in dispute. When I lecture on the Revolution, I always remind my audience that they are always two sides, sometimes more to every story in history. This historical event has it's legends too.

We know that a shot, some say unordered, the 'shot heard around the world' officially began the American Revolution. A volley of British rifle fire followed by a charge with bayonets leaves eight Americans dead and ten wounded. The British regroup and head for the depot in Concord, destroying the colonists' weapons and supplies. This they were ordered to do by General Gage. 

The engagement at Lexington has often been styled a battle, but in reading many sources the engagement at Lexington was just a minor brush or skirmish. As the regulars' advance guard under Pitcairn entered Lexington at sunrise on April 19, 1775, a Lexington "training band", emerged from Buckman Tavern and stood in ranks on the village common watching them, spectators watched from along the side of the road.

Their leader was Captain John Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian War, who was suffering from tuberculosis, and was said to be difficult to hear at times, a fact not left out. Interestingly, of the men who lined up, nine had the surname Harrington, seven Munroe (including the company's orderly sergeant, William Munroe), four Parker, three Tidd, three Locke, and three Reed; fully one quarter of them were related to Captain Parker in some way. This group of men were part of Lexington's "training band", a way of organizing local militias dating back to the Puritans, and not what was styled as a full minuteman company.

It is important to remember that Captain Parker was clearly aware that he was outmatched in the confrontation and was not prepared to sacrifice his men for no purpose. Captain Parker hoped that the Regulars would march to Concord, find nothing, and return to Boston, tired but empty-handed. He positioned his men carefully. He placed them in parade-ground formation, on Lexington Green. They were in plain sight (not hiding behind walls), as British accounts have it, and not blocking the road to Concord. They made a show of political and military determination, but no effort to prevent the march of the Regulars. Many years later, one of the participants recalled Parker's words as being what is now engraved in stone at the site of the battle:

"Stand your ground, don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." 

According to Captain Parker's sworn deposition taken after the battle. Yes they took despositions even back then.

First Shot?
A British officer, probably Pitcairn, but accounts are uncertain, as it may also have been Lieutenant William Sutherland, then rode forward, waving his sword, and called out for the assembled throng to disperse, and may also have ordered them to "lay down your arms, you damned rebels!" Captain Parker told his men instead to disperse and go home, but, because of the confusion, the yelling all around, and due to the raspiness of Parker's tubercular voice, some did not hear him, some left very slowly, and none laid down their arms. Both Parker and Pitcairn ordered their men to hold fire, but a shot was fired from an unknown source.

Here are some copies of articles on the account taken from the June Edition of Gentleman's Magazine in 1775. It gives a richer perspective of the happenings of this day.

Take This Link To Read

When I speak today as a historian, I bring copies of paintings with me to show my audience. Some paintings portrayed the Lexington fight as an unjustified slaughter. The issue of which side was to blame grew during the early nineteenth century. My audiences all refect on what they see, and make comment that in one picture the patriots are small and seeming to be running away from the British. In another picture of a painting, quite the opposite in strength and resolve is seen in the colonial men and the the 'militiamen' are taking the upper hand.

One must remember that too often legend become more important than the truth. Understand that a complete shift may have occured in the telling of this famous day in our countries history. Nobody except the person responsible knew then, nor knows today with certainty, who fired the first shot of the American Revolution.

I respectfully leave you with the imortalized words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, written about the events at the North Bridge in his 1837 "Concord Hymn". This is how generations of Americans have learned our history in the 19th century No one will dispute that it helped to forge the identity of our nation.

"By the rude bridge that arched the flood
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world."

Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn"

Bradford, Charles H (1996). The Battle Road: Expedition to Lexington and Concord. Eastern National. ISBN 1-888213-01-9.
Brooks, Victor (1999). The Boston Campaign. Combined Publishing. ISBN 9780585234533.
Chidsey, Donald Barr (1966). The Siege of Boston: An on-the-scene Account of the Beginning of the American Revolution. Crown. OCLC 890813.
Coburn, Frank Warren (1922). The Battle of April 19, 1775: In Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville, and Charlestown, Massachusetts. The Lexington historical society. OCLC 2494350.
Dana, Elizabeth Ellery (1924). The British in Boston: Being the Diary of Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own Regiment from November 15, 1774 to May 31, 1776. Harvard University Press. OCLC 3235993.
Davis, Kenneth C. (2009). America's Hidden History. London: Collins. ISBN 0061118192.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1837). "Emerson's Concord Hymn". National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-10-02.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1875). Proceedings at the Centennial Celebration of Concord Fight, April 19, 1875. Town of Concord. OCLC 4363293.

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