Remembering the shot heard round the world
Patriots’ Day was last Monday in Massachusetts and a few other places near and far from the Bay State. I have always thought Patriots’ Day a worthy day to remember. The holiday commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord. These twin battles were fought in 1775 and are considered the opening act of our Revolutionary War. They are the battles that made the Ralph Waldo Emerson phrase “the shot heard round the world” famous.
When I was a youngster, every elementary school student learned about Paul Revere’s midnight ride alerting the Boston countryside that the British were coming. We also learned about the signal lanterns from the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church, one if by land and two if by sea. A British force of 700 grenadier and light infantry led by Colonel Francis Smith was indeed coming by sea across the Charles River to Cambridge and on to Concord in the predawn hours. The British were looking for arms, cannons, and gunpowder. Thanks to the midnight riders, the Patriots in Concord had been sufficiently warned and the majority of the munitions were hastily scattered.
The Redcoats reached Lexington and encountered Captain John Parker and 70 or so town militia on the green. The town folk turned Minutemen had been at the ready for hours many were lost to Buckman’s Tavern for warmth and spirits. Interestingly, the British chose experienced troops for this mission, but they were more of an all-star team that had not previously fought together rather than a cohesive unit. The officers and enlisted men were not familiar with each other.
Only a part of the British force peeled off for the Lexington Green. It was not an orderly operation for the 250 British Light Infantry. A British officer ordered the ragtag Minutemen to “Throw down your arms, ye villains, ye rebels, damn you disperse.”
Captain Parker’s intention was to disperse. Many Minutemen froze in place on the Green. Someone in the shadows fired at the British. It could have even been someone from the tavern. Many militiamen never left the warmth and spirits of the tavern. Both sides, from a military perspective, blundered into a skirmish. There were 8 Minutemen killed and 10 wounded. Only a single British casualty was recorded.
The town of Concord is 18 miles west of Boston. The most interesting part of the Battles of Lexington and Concord is not discussed in elementary schools. I will not detail the fighting in Concord beyond to say the Minutemen in place accorded themselves well and proved they would stand up to the British Regulars. It is safe to say that the Redcoats were ready to return to the safety of Boston in the dawn hours of April 19th after failing to secure any munitions of consequence. By Concord, 2,000 colonial minutemen had answered the call to aid their patriot brothers and were engaging the British all the way back to Boston.
The origin of the minutemen is interesting. They were self-trained militia organized by town, civilian soldiers who made themselves available to mobilize on a minute’s notice to respond to threats. In many cases, they were led by someone in town who was a veteran of the French and Indian War. Militia members were drawn from a handful of town families. It is safe to say they were a tight-knit group. Minutemen were drawn across class, being farmers, tradesmen, lawyers, and physicians. Among the Minutemen at Lexington was a black slave, Prince Estabrook, wounded in the skirmish, and later recovered to join the Continental Army.
I believe the Massachusetts Minutemen fought for something more tangible than what we celebrate as democracy today. They were protecting their homes, livelihoods, and families that April morning in 1775. They bristled against having the British regulars and military governments tell them how to live their lives. They were willing on a minute’s notice to defend what was theirs.
On that April day in 1775, Minutemen from towns thirty miles away answered the call to arms and descended on Concord to chase the British Regulars back to the safety of Boston. Men from the Massachusetts towns of Beverly and Lynn took part. Minutemen from Acton, Andover, and Bedford fought alongside them. Minutemen from Reading, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, and Danvers hid behind stone walls and fired on Redcoats retreating back to Boston. The day following Lexington and Concord found over ten thousand militia from Massachusetts and other New England colonies surrounding Boston and making it a city under siege.
Patriots Day is an under-recognized holiday and one at the heart of the American experience. I will pause every April 19th and remember.
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