Monday, October 27, 2008

Don't Know Much About History...Part II

We're back!

Not back home (yet), but back to blogging after a month-long hiatus. During that month, we continued to explore the eastern United States (Boston, Plymouth, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., among other places) and we visited friends and family. We have some catching up to do and so I'll get right to it.

But first, a warning: Thar be history ahead, mateys!



"Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere..."

So wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863.

"Paul Revere? Lexington? Concord? The American Revolution? Yawn. Who cares?"

So thought me in the 1950s. And the 1960s. And the 1970s.

Then a funny thing happened. Once I had lived long enough to have some history myself, I realized how important history really is. What happened long ago really does have an impact on us today. Who knew?

And so, ever since my historical epiphany, I've been rather interested in history (understatement ;-D ). Yet there were still some events that existed for me only in history books. They remained as dry as the pages their pertinent names and dates were printed on. I previously blogged about one of those events: the Viking presence in North America 500 years before the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus. That came alive for me when we visited L'Anse aux Meadows, the site of a 1,000 year old Viking settlement in Newfoundland. There's nothing like walking in the footsteps of Leif Ericsson, sitting in what was his longhouse, and seeing actual archaeological artifacts from that time to make you a believer.

And now I'm delighted to say that I can add yet another entry to my list of "Historical Events That I Now Give A Damn About."

The American Revolution.

It became real for me the day Art and I visited the villages of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. Lexington and Concord...where, on April 19, 1775, militias made up of farmers and shopkeepers and clergy and doctors took up arms - for the first time - against their King and the British military. Lexington and Concord...where the first shots were fired, where the first fatalities were recorded. Where the American Revolution began.

I give full credit to Minute Man National Historic Park for my American Revolution awakening. The park is located between Lexington and Concord, and the folks there have taken a very busy and pivotal day in the history of our country and have created interpretive exhibits and preserved historical sites (including battlefields) that clearly and compellingly tell the story of that very significant day. The people, the places, the events of April 19, 1775, are now so real to me that it feels like it must have happened mere months ago, not 233 years ago.

I found myself responding especially to those exhibits that cast some of the well known participants of the American Revolution (in particular, Samuel Adams and John Hancock) in a new and much more realistic light. Ironically, it was seeing these folks as mere mortals instead of the larger-than-life heroes they usually are portrayed as (especially in elementary and high school history books) that made them so much more real to me, so much more interesting.

In addition, I was fascinated by the stories that gave long overdue credit to people who played highly significant roles in the American Revolution, but somehow, and sadly, never made it into the history textbooks. At least not the basic ones I had while in school. I was especially taken with the story of Dr. Samuel Prescott.

Dr. Prescott lived in Concord, which is west of Lexington (which is northwest of me, this is important to the timing of what's to come). On the night of April 18th, 1775, the good doctor was in Lexington, courting his lady love who lived there (yes, courting...remember, this was the 1700s ;-D ). But their courting was put on hold when they received the news that Paul Revere had arrived in Lexington with word that British troops (known as Regulars) were on the move west, toward Concord. They were marching under orders from General Thomas Gage, Britain's top man in Massachusetts at the time, and were to seize and destroy military stores and equipment that General Gage knew were stockpiled in Concord.

Back in the 1770s, the most direct route from Boston to Concord was through Lexington, so Revere wanted to warn the good folks of Lexington that 700 British soldiers would soon be marching through their small village. But Revere also had another reason for stopping in Lexington that night. Samuel Adams and John Hancock - two of the colonial rebels' biggest guns and sharpest thorns in the side of King George III - were guests of Lexington's parson that night. There were real concerns that the British Regulars were also on the lookout for Adams and Hancock with the intent of arresting them.

But back to our Dr. Prescott. Hearing the news that the British troops were on the way to his town, he bid his lady love goodbye and headed back home. He soon caught up with Revere, who was now, having delivered his warning to Lexington and Adams and Hancock, on his way further west to Concord. But Paul Revere was not alone on this leg of his ride. He was accompanied by William Dawes, another midnight rider who had been dispatched from Boston at the same time as Revere. Dr. Prescott's timing in meeting up with Revere and Dawes was perfect, for the three men soon met up with a group of British soldiers. The outcome?

Paul Revere was captured. He never made it to Concord.

William Dawes escaped, but was thrown from his horse and walked back to Lexington. He never made it to Concord, either.

And Dr. Samuel Prescott? He also escaped and was the only one to successfully make it to Concord with the news that 700 British troops were on their way.

Well, then.

That will teach me to learn history from a poem. For in Longfellow's poem, there is no mention of William Dawes. And - even more significant, I feel - there is no mention of Dr. Samuel Prescott. Longfellow has Paul Revere - and Paul Revere only - reaching Concord. What is up with that? And with all due respect to Mr. Revere, he (and William Dawes) had volunteered for this potentially dangerous mission. But Dr. Prescott was just a young doctor, out late (very late) courting his gal. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time to help. And he did. Now THAT would make a great poem.

Now for some "Midnight Ride Trivia" (because you never just might find yourself on "Jeopardy" one day with the category of "Famous Midnight Rides")...

Firstly, as Revere and Dawes rode through the countryside on their different paths to Lexington, they warned folks in all the small villages along the way. Many residents of those villages then set out on horseback to deliver warnings to yet other villages. It is believed that by the end of the night, there may have been as many as 40 "midnight riders" galloping throughout the immediate countryside!

In addition, contrary to what I have believed most of my life, Paul Revere did not shout out "The British are coming! The British are coming!" as he rode through the villages. For one thing, the colonial rebels really didn't want any British patrols in the area to know that THEY knew that 700 British soldiers were headed towards Concord. Also, the residents of all these villages were all still British subjects and many still considered themselves British. So to shout out "The British are coming!" would not have been all that alarming.

Paul Revere's warning (according to Paul Revere himself and to eyewitness accounts, and not shouted, but personally delivered to members of the various village militias) was "The Regulars are coming out."

Yeah, I know. It doesn't have the same ring to it.

Now for a few photos...

Captain James Parker

This statue, on the Lexington Battle Green, pays tribute to Captain James Parker - farmer, former soldier in the French and Indian War and commander of the Lexington militia on April 19, 1775.

The Lexington Common, later renamed the Lexington Battle Green

This is the very spot where Captain James Parker and 77 members of the Lexington militia stood as 700 British Regulars marched down the road towards them. Except for the fact that they had to march right by it, the small village of Lexington was of very little interest to the British troops on the morning of April 19, 1775.

But Captain Parker and his men had decided to make a statement. So there they stood, muskets at their sides, on the Lexington Common as dawn approached. There were no plans to stop the British troops and Captain Parker had ordered his men not to fire. But still, there they stood.

Many historians believe that as experienced a soldier as Captain Parker was, he would have known that the British troops would not just simply march past a group of armed men. He would have known there would be some interaction. So what was Captain Parker thinking? That question can actually be answered by posing yet another question. What was Samuel Adams thinking?

Remember, Samuel Adams was in Lexington when Paul Revere arrived with his news about the British regulars moving towards Concord. He had worked passionately and tirelessly for ten years to keep the idea of rebellion against Britain alive in the colonies. In early 1775, he had been increasingly dismayed by the colonists' apathy, even in British-beleaguered Massachusetts. He needed something to happen, something outrageous, something that would convert that apathy to outrage. And the outrage to rebellion.

So is it possible Adams believed the advancing British troops might provide the "wake up and smell the coffee" event he had been waiting for? Was he behind the potentially inflammatory decision for 77 men to face off against 700?

Many historians think so.

But Captain James Parker - not Samuel Adams - was responsible for the safety of the men in the militia. All of them neighbors, many of them relatives. So when the British major in command of the first group of Regulars to reach Lexington ordered his troops to move from the road and onto the Lexington Common (he was not about to file by this armed militia - no matter how small it was - and then have them at his rear), and when he then ordered the Regulars to surround and disarm the militia, Captain Parker made the only decision he could. He ordered his men to disperse. He also - and this is very important - ordered them not to fire. Equally important is the fact that the British major had also ordered his men not to fire.

It was perhaps not what Samuel Adams had in mind, but what happened next served his cause just as well.

Someone - and to this day, no one knows who - did fire their musket. The British soldiers then broke ranks and began firing at random, ignoring orders from their own officers to stop. Not surprisingly, there was return fire from the militia. By the time the British troops were back under control, eight Lexington militia members lay dead. One British soldier was wounded.

After the disastrous unplanned stop in Lexington, the British Regulars continued on to their primary destination of Concord.

Upon reaching Concord, around 7:00 A.M., the commander of the Regulars separated them into three groups. This division proved critical two hours later.

One group was ordered to stay in the village of Concord to search for and destroy military supplies. This they did with - according to many colonial eyewitness reports - a great amount of courtesy. Another group was ordered to cross the North Bridge, west of the village, and search for and destroy military stores and equipment that were known to be hidden at the farm of Concord's militia commander, Colonel James Barrett. The final (and smallest) group was ordered to stay at and guard the North Bridge in order to keep the militia - who were gathered on a ridge just west of the bridge, just watching the British soldiers - away from the village.

The North Bridge over the Concord River (complete with a "redcoat"!)

According to many historical accounts, the British Regulars were having a much easier time of it in Concord until two things happened. Firstly, the numbers of militia present on that ridge grew steadily as men from villages to the west of Concord joined them there. The news of the British army's mission had been taken far beyond Concord itself. And, not surprisingly, word was now spreading quickly about what had taken place in Lexington at dawn.

The second thing that happened was this: a decision was made by the British troops in the village to burn any wooden "contraband" they found, rather than simply smash it. The smoke rising from the bonfires set for this purpose was spotted by the ever-growing numbers of now seriously concerned militias on the ridge.

There was real fear that the British Regulars were setting fire to the entire town. By this time, the number of men on the ridge had grown to 400. They now outnumbered the British troops stationed at and around the North Bridge, 4 to 1. Around 9:00 A.M., with orders from Colonel Barrett to not fire unless fired upon, the combined militias (now regarded as the first American army under a unified commander ever to take the field) began moving down the ridge towards the North Bridge.

The 84 British troops at the bridge were on the west side of it, with the river and the bridge at their back. Not a prime position for them to be in as 400 angry men advanced towards them. So the British soldiers scurried back across the bridge and attempted to get in a defensive formation to prevent the militia from advancing any further. As in Lexington, a shot was fired. But unlike Lexington, depositions taken from members of the colonial militia, as well as British soldiers, point to a warning shot being fired by one of the Regulars. That shot was followed by others from the British before their commanding officer could stop them.

Two minutemen were hit and killed, and four more were wounded. The militia was then ordered to return fire. Or, to phrase it in a different way, for the first time in the North American British colonies, British subjects were ordered to fire upon British soldiers, killing three of them.

The "shot heard round the world." There was no turning back now.

The story of what happened next, as the remaining British soldiers attempted to make their way back to Boston from Concord, has been told in countless books. If you, perchance, have had your interest in early American history piqued by what happened at Lexington and Concord (as I obviously had), I encourage you to search out a couple of those books. Treat yourself to a rip-roaring adventure that ultimately led to the creation of our United States.

The Minuteman Statue

In 1875, on the 100th anniversary of the the battle at North Bridge, a contest was held to create a monument honoring the minutemen and the militia. A young man from Concord by the name of Daniel Chester French won the contest. The Minuteman statue is cast from bronze that was melted down from Civil War cannons. Daniel Chester French went on to become a great sculptor and is perhaps best known for the seated Abraham Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

The statue depicts a farmer who leaves his plow and picks up his musket to defend his land and his liberty. The statue does not represent a particular person (like the Lexington statue of Captain James Parker), but rather is representative of the nature of the minutemen, many of whom were farmers. It is known, though, that Daniel Chester French did make sketches of some of the descendants of the first colonial killed at the North Bridge.

These days, the terms militia and minutemen are often used interchangeably. But back in the 1700s, there was a definite difference between the two. All minutemen were members of the militia, but not all militia were minutemen. Minutemen were selected - based on their physical strength and reliability - from a town's militia to form a special force. Usually about 1/4 of a village's militia would serve as minutemen.

Now to wrap up this history-in-a-nutshell lesson (are those sighs of relief I hear? ;-D ), I earlier mentioned "the shot heard round the world." A famous phrase that no doubt most of us associate with the American Revolution. But many folks (including me, prior to our visit to Lexington and Concord) were uncertain as to whether the "shot" referred to Lexington (where the first shots of April 19, 1775, were fired), or to Concord (where the order to fire upon British troops was first ordered).

We learned that the phrase comes from a poem titled "Concord Hymn" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, written in 1837 for the dedication of a monument on the North Bridge in Concord. Emerson's grandfather was at North Bridge on April 19, 1775, and their family home is within sight of the bridge. Here is the first stanza of that poem:

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.

In the end - and this is only my opinion - it doesn't really matter where that shot was fired. The fact that it was fired at all is what is truly important. The fact that a bunch of British colonials bravely decided that the rights of their family and friends and neighbors were worth risking their lives for...that is what I take from this poem. And that is what I take - humbly and appreciatively - from our visit to Lexington and Concord.

If you have read this entire blog entry, I thank you. I have discovered that I cannot help myself when it comes to history...I am smitten.

--- Barbara (currently near Knoxville, Tennessee)
Day 140
Total miles: 11, 558