It was dawn, April 19, 1775, and the British troops who had left Boston earlier that night arrived at Lexington, Massachusetts, in search of caches of arms gathered by American colonialists and hoping to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock.
Assembled on Lexington’s town green was a collection of civilians: militia roused to confront the British by riders like Paul Revere. The British commander ordered the militia to throw down their arms and disperse. Suddenly a shot rang out, fired by an unidentified rifleman. The British troops responded by cutting loose with their muskets, killing eight of the colonials.
Afterward, the British marched toward nearby Concord, still in search of arsenals of weapons, where they were met by a larger force of colonials. After a brief battle, the British forces retreated, and the militia followed them back to Boston, shooting at them from behind trees, hillsides, houses, and stone fences. That day 250 British soldiers died or were wounded, while the militia forces suffered about 90 casualties.
Still to come was the Battle of Bunker Hill, as well as the abandonment of Boston by the king’s troops and naval forces, and more than a year after Lexington and Concord, the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Midnight RideIn 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” about the Boston silversmith who helped spread the news of the approaching British forces “to every Middlesex village and farm.” (Incidentally, Revere never cried “The British are coming!” as the colonialists at that time considered themselves British.)
Some consider “Paul Revere’s Ride” a work aimed at the younger set, perhaps because childhood is when most of us first read or heard these verses. Indeed, Longfellow’s poem begins “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past, Through all our history, to the last, In the hour of darkness and peril and need, The people will waken and listen to hear The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed, And the midnight message of Paul Revere.In addition, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” especially given its mid-19th century origins when such folk ballads were popular, seems aimed at an audience of all ages. Read the poem—the meter suggests the galloping of a horse—and the vocabulary and historical references alone make clear that Longfellow intended this piece for adults as well as children.
Concord BridgeNow there’s an ironic name, Concord. As on that long-ago day in 1775, concord, which is defined as harmony or agreement, was far from the minds of those involved in the shooting match that ensued.
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 hear round the world.In this opening, Emerson gives us two important takeaways on the Battle of Concord. First, the Minute Men and colonial militia truly were “embattled farmers.” Yes, shopkeepers also stood in their ranks, but here’s the point: The first combatants in the American struggle for liberty were not professional soldiers. They were ordinary working-class men.
Moreover, that famous phrase “the shot heard round the world” was accurate. It truly would ring around the world. From these two battles, small as they were, America was born.
Additional TributesOther 19th-century poets paid homage as well to April 19 and those first conflicts of the Revolution.
He hath crawled to the step of his own house-door, But his head hath dropped; he will crawl no more. Clasp, Wife, and kiss, and lift the head; Harrington lies at his door-step dead.Maine poet Dora B. Hunter’s “The Minute-Man” also paid homage to those early citizen soldiers:
Who dared to dream that these scattered groups Could rout the orderly British troops? That these farmer youth half-armed, untrained, Could keep the fame of their State unstained? But when His Majesty’s soldiers came To the spot now wearing so proud at name, The minute-men marched down from the ridge And won the day at the old North Bridge.
Remembering Our DebtsSo who were these men who stood, muskets in hand, against military professionals that April morning?
“Among the oldest was Ensign Robert Munroe, the old veteran officer who had fought other wars on the British side. At sixty-three, he could have been excused from duty as a minuteman, but old men of his type are not easy to put aside, and he joined his two sons and two sons in-law in the field … The oldest of all was Grandfather Moses Harrington, sixty-five, whose youngest son Caleb was with him. ... There were other father-and-son combinations. ... There were also very young men, twelve in their teens and a score in their twenties. Most of them were farmers, but there were also tradesmen among them.”
This April 19, we might pause a moment and reflect on these men and the poets who revered and honored their sacrifice on the altar of liberty. As we endure our own national trials and turbulent times, let’s summon up thoughts of these early patriots. Let’s look back at them and take inspiration from their courage, their convictions, and their fervent love of freedom.