A Day in April That Some Past Poets Implore Us to Remember

A Day in April That Some Past Poets Implore Us to Remember
"The Battle of Lexington," by William Barnes Wollen. National Army Museum. (Public Domain)
Jeff Minick

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.

And so was born the American Revolution.

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.

The battles fought on that April day, which eventually led to the creation of an American republic, were not forgotten by later generations. Poets of the 19th century, in particular, remembered and celebrated the heroism of these early patriots.

Midnight Ride

In 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.)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868. (Public Domain)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868. (Public Domain)

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.”

Yet this interpretation seems wrongheaded for two reasons. For one, the poem may have been written, as some critics claim, to inspire New England on the eve of the Civil War. Here are the last lines:

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 Bridge

Now 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.
In “Concord Hymn,” which was sung to commemorate the completion of the battle monument on that site in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson begins with these well-known lines:

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.

American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1857. (Public Domain)
American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1857. (Public Domain)
The other stanzas of Emerson’s short piece enjoin Americans to remember these “heroes” who dared “to die and leave their children free.”

Additional Tributes

Other 19th-century poets paid homage as well to April 19 and those first conflicts of the Revolution.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a physician, father to a Supreme Court Justice, poet, and essayist (his book “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table” was a huge success in his lifetime), wrote “Lexington” in his early 20s, with its reminder—much like the one issued by Emerson—to “tell to our sons how their fathers have died.”
As part of a longer poem called “Psalm of the West,” Southerner Sidney Lanier’s “The Battle of Lexington” also dramatically celebrated the dead of this conflict. Here, Lanier describes the death of Caleb Harrington, who did indeed fall as the poet tells us:

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 Debts

So who were these men who stood, muskets in hand, against military professionals that April morning?
Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution website gives us the following description of those who opposed the British forces at Lexington, in an excerpt taken from Arthur Tourtellot’s book “Lexington and Concord: The Beginning of the War of the American Revolution”:

“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.”

American physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., circa 1879, Armstrong & Co. Boston, Mass. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (Public Domain)
American physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., circa 1879, Armstrong & Co. Boston, Mass. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (Public Domain)

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.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.