Every historic event is recounted from numerous perspectives, each offering a slightly (or perhaps drastically) different story. Generally, the perspective that is told most often is the one that is remembered by subsequent generations. That’s how it was with events of April 18-19, 1775, and the view that is most and best remembered today has been helped along with the aid of two legendary nineteenth-century poets. The account begins, “Listen my children and you shall hear. . .” and ends “By the rude bridge that arched the flood.”
The event was the clash between colonial militiamen and British soldiers as the British sought to arrest Patriot leaders Samuel Adams (far left) and John Hancock (immediate left), the original “community organizers.” They were also to confiscate the colonists’ arms and ammunition in Concord, Massachusetts. The climax would come when violence erupted at Lexington Common and Concord’s North Bridge.
Between 9 and 10 p.m. on April 18, William Dawes and Paul Revere learned that British troops were ready to head for Lexington and Concord to captured Adams and Hancock and seize the weapons rumored to be stockpiled there. The two men rode to alert the colonists in those towns. After the riders arrived in Lexington with the news, other riders were sent to surrounding towns to gather the militia in case trouble escalated. British soldiers captured Revere; Dawes’s horse threw him. So Samuel Prescott had to get the word to Concord.
The colonists had developed the “alarm and muster” system several months earlier, and it worked well. When the British advance reached Lexington about sunrise on April 19, about 80 militiamen, led by Captain John Parker, and about that many spectators were there to greet them. The militiamen were in plain view and standing in parade formation, not hiding in ambush like guerrillas. Parker order his men, “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
British Major John Pitcairn ordered the colonists to lay down their weapons and disperse. In turn, Parker ordered his men to go home, and many of them started to leave, but none abandoned his weapon.
This is the point at which the “fog of war” produced several different versions of what happened. Some said a colonist fired first. Others said it was a British soldier. But many militiamen, British soldiers, and even spectators said that a shot was fired from among the spectators. Wherever the shot came from, the British fired several volleys without orders and then charged with fixed bayonets. The colonists returned fire.
Meanwhile, the Concord militia, joined by militiamen from surrounding towns, led by Colonel James Barrett, withdrew from that town and toward North Bridge. That’s where they were when the British troops arrived and began searching the town after first securing the South and North Bridges and their route back to Boston.
The soldiers found three large cannons and disabled them. They found and burned several gun carriages. They also found more than 500 pounds of musket balls, which they dumped, along with about 100 barrels of flour, into the mill pond. The fire, however, got out of hand, setting the meetinghouse afire.
Seeing the smoke, the militiamen thought that the soldiers had set fire to the town, and they advanced toward North Bridge. A shot was fired, probably by a British solider, sparking a full volley. The colonists returned fire, and the British began to retreat toward Boston.
All along the road back to Boston, colonists harassed the British. On Brooks Hill, the British charged their harassers, hoping to chase them off, but the colonists held their ground, and the British resumed their retreat. The colonists again attacked them at Brooks Tavern. And again and again all along their route. Exhausted and almost out of ammunition, the British were considering the wisdom of surrendering to prevent the loss of more soldiers’ lives, when they were met by a force of about 1,000 regulars coming to their rescue. The harassment ceased, but the colonists had made a clear statement: they would fight, and even die if necessary, for their liberties.
In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson (far left) penned the words of the “Concord Hymn,” dramatically recounting in memorable rhyme the firing of “the shot heard round the world.” Nearly thirty years later (1863), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (immediate left) ensured the prominence of one of the horsemen who first alerted the colonists of the British threat in “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”
In an age when we sorely need but lack real heroes willing to defend freedom, we can still be inspired by the brave exploits of Revere, Dawes, Prescott, and the militiamen and appreciate the firmness of conviction and the love of freedom of Adams and Hancock. And, to a great extent, we should be grateful to Emerson and Longfellow for preserving our heritage, even if their versions were not perfectly accurate in every detail.
Now, as then, freedom and liberty are fragile. It’s our generation’s responsibility to preserve it for our own posterity. When, years from now, poets and archivists recount modern events, what will they say of our efforts to preserve our liberties? Will they be able to say proudly that we kept it to pass on to our posterity, or will they have to admit that we failed in our solemn duty?