By: David Wilson
On April 19th, 1775, about 700 British troops marched on the town of Concord, Massachusetts to raid a stockpile of armaments and supplies that American colonists had collected. Under Major-General Francis Smith and Major John Pitcairn, the Regulars made the seventeen-mile trek from Boston Common to Concord, beginning at two am. The signal from the Old North Church in Boston told riders Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott that the British were coming. The British Regulars met the militiamen on the Lexington Battle Green. Here is where the famous “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired by an unknown gunman, but he is suspected to have been a militiaman shooting from within Wright’s Tavern across from the green. The militiamen soon realized that they were vastly outnumbered, and the fled down the road to Concord, warning the citizens as they went. Despite Paul Revere’s capture along the Battle Road, the midnight riders were able to warn the Concord Minutemen with enough time for them to prepare for a battle at the Old North Bridge.
With the British dressed in their traditional “lobsterback” uniforms, and the colonists in essentially regular, civilian clothes outfitted with powderbags and ammunition sacks, the two parties met on either side of the bridge. The colonists were reinforced by militias from surrounding towns, who marched with a fife and drum corps signaling their location to their allies.
The Minutemen were dug in on the Buttrick-land side of the bridge, with the regulars on the road side of the bridge. The British troops were commanded by an extremely inexperienced Captain Walter Laurie, and the colonists were led by Colonel James Barrett, who was responsible for the weapon stockpiles that the British were searching for.
The British fired first to begin this standoff, killing two colonists. This was the catalyst for the battle, which received the famous response from Major Buttrick, when he ordered his men to “Fire, for God’s sake, fellow soldiers, Fire!” With this return fire, four British soldiers were killed. After a number of volleys back and forth, it was clear to the British regulars that they were vastly outnumbered, and they fell back to the town center, and then retreated back to Boston.
This was the first colonial victory of the American Revolution, serving as an inspiring morale booster for Americans. The underdog colonists defeating the powerhouse British was unexpected, to say the least, and that energy helped mobilize support for the Patriots early on. While the war would be long and costly, Britain’s eventual recognition of American independence brought with it a wave of pride that swept through the newfound country. This pride lingered into the next century, and indeed is still very present today, reinforced by America’s victories following the Revolution. During the nineteenth century, American society focused a great deal on commemoration of events, erecting monuments all over the country. Two monuments were erected at the Old North Bridge, the first in 1836, and the second on the centennial anniversary of the battle, April 19, 1875. The 1836 Monument is an obelisk that uses somewhat aggressive language towards the British. It stands on the eastern side of the bridge, where the British stood decades before. It was for this memorial’s dedication in 1837 that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the “Concord Hymn”, most famously reading “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.”
With Americans, and particularly Concord residents, still feeling an immense amount of pride for their victory in the first battle of the Revolution, the inscription on the monument does not shy away from the truth about what happened at the bridge, nor does it sugarcoat the deaths of the British who were killed there. The memorial reads, “Here On the 19 of April 1775 was made the first forcible resistance to British aggression On the opposite Bank stood the American Militia Here stood the Invading Army and on this spot the first of the Enemy fell in the War of that Revolution which gave Independence to these United States. In gratitude to GOD and In the love of Freedom this Monument was erected AD 1836.”
The 1875 Monument is possibly one of the most well known monuments in New England, and is often used as a symbol of Massachusetts. It is the logo for the U.S. Army National Guard, and is depicted on the Massachusetts quarter, the U.S. Saving Bonds, and World War II War Bonds. It is a statue sculpted by Daniel Chester French, entitled “Minute Man”. It depicts a colonial farmer holding a plow handle in one hand and a musket in the other. He looks strong, independent, and hardworking- the qualities valued by Americans of the revolutionary era. The statue is constructed out of seven melted-down Civil War cannons. The statue was erected on the centennial anniversary of the battle, along with the centennial bridge, one of five bridges that have stood at the location since the 1760’s. Engraved upon the seven foot high base of the statue is the first stanza of Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”, written thirty-eight years previously.
These monuments that were erected in the 1800s and prior boast American pride and British downfall. Indeed, the Americans overthrowing the British crown was inspiring to downtrodden countries across the globe, sparking revolution in France in the 1780’s and all over Europe, perhaps on a smaller scale. The Americans did, in fact, have a lot to boast about, and it was not until the twentieth century that Americans admitted that the fallen British soldiers should be recognized as well. Upon the turn of the twentieth century and America’s strengthening relationship with Britain and the other world powers, Americans felt that the harsh language on the monuments at Concord should be balanced out, since their new allies had once fallen there. This was the motive behind the installation of two plaques on the site.
One of the plaques is entitled “Concord Fight” and describes the events that took place on the nineteenth of April, 1775. It tells the story of the brave American colonists who defeated the feared British that day on the North Bridge, recounting the orders given and the lives lost. Unlike the other monuments at this site, however, this plaque ends with a statement about the current relationship between the Americans and the British. The plaque reads, “On the morning of April Nineteenth, 1775, while the British held this bridge, the minute-men and militia of Concord and neighboring towns gathered on the hill across the river. There the Concord adjutant, Joseph Hosmer, demanded, ‘Will you let them burn the town down?’ There the Lincoln captain, William Smith, offered to dislodge the British, the Acton Captain, Isaac Davis, said, ‘I haven’t a man that’s afraid to go!’ ad the Concord Colonel, James Barrett ordered the attack on the Regulars. The column was led by Major John Buttrick, marching from his own farm. His aide was Lt. Colonel John Robinson of Westford, the Minute-men of Acton, Concord, Lincoln, and Bedford followed, after them came the militia. At the British volley Isaac Davis fell. Buttrick cried, “Fire, fellow soldiers, for God’s sake, fire!’ and himself fired first. The British fled; and here began the separation of two kindred nations, now happily long united in peace.”
The final line of this inscription is one that changes the meaning of Minute Man National Historical Park. The monuments not only represent the Americans who won there, but also the British who lost there. Additionally, the plaque is clear in stating that there is no longer hostility between the United Sates and Britain, and that the two nations are now close allies. It became important to Americans to remember the enemies slain on their land because it was clear that the USA and Britain were becoming strong allies in world powers and it was time to recognize the war between the two. In 1910, four years before the First World War broke out, Concordians believed that it was time to recognize the British lives lost, which resulted in a fourth monument at the site, the Grave of the British soldiers. The massive headstone is placed into a rock wall along the road approaching the bridge from the east. The grave is marked for Thomas Smith and Patrick Gray, the first two soldiers killed at the battle. The headstone is often decorated with British flags, even though the actual bodies are buried about eight feet in front of the grave at the base of the grass section around the obelisk. This grave reads, “They came three thousand miles and died/ To keep the past upon its throne. Unheard beyond the ocean tide, Their English mother made her moan.”
This grave is quite significant because like the Concord fight plaque, it is one of the first in America to acknowledge the death of the enemy at a battle site. The grave is a marker of the improvement in the relationship between Britain and America over the 19th century, offering a tribute in order to balance out for the harm done. It also serves as a sort of peace offering, or truce, or a symbol of a new beginning that is now arguably the most powerful alliance in the world.
Throughout its history, America has been a military powerhouse, and its dominance began at this site in 1775. Along with this power comes respect, and this monument park is a tribute to the lives lost that fateful day in April. Each year on the anniversary, the U.S. Army Honor Guard as well as local militias put on ceremonies reenactments of the battle. April 19th, 1775 has been a monumental day in American history, and Minuteman National Historical Park is a sight worth seeing for anyone who appreciates American history. It commands an immense of respect and sobers any visitors, who recognize the site as the beginning of the revolution that founded America.