‘Twas The Nineteenth Of April In (18)75 — And The Centennial Was Coming Unstuck

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Captain John Parker’s company of minutemen stood in formation, some seventy strong, waiting on Lexington Green in the dim light of early dawn. They had gathered during the night in response to Paul Revere’s warning that the British were coming.

Lexington had been untouched by war, or by the violent, acts of strangers, during all the years since its founding. It had sent troops to fight elsewhere; several veterans of the siege of Louisburg in 1758, during the French and Indian War, were in the ranks this morning, but that was all any of them knew of war. They did not expect war now; indeed, they did not know what to expect. The day of April 19, 1775, was beginning.

Suddenly, the advance guard of British troops, more than ten times the strength of the American contingent, marched into Lexington. An officer ordered the minutemen to lay down their arms and disperse from the town green. A shot rang out— then another, and a third. On command the British troops opened fire, killing eight minutemen and wounding ten. Parker’s men withdrew, and half an hour later the British continued their march to Concord.

Many hours later the British regulars returned to Lexington on their way back to Boston, exhausted, their ranks thinned by patriots’ gunfire. The survivors of John Parker’s company knew what they must do this time, and they did it well. The day of April 19, 1775, was ending. The province of Massachusetts Bay was at war. In time the other American colonies would join in the war against England.

 

The American Revolution wound its bitter course to Yorktown without again touching Lexington and Concord. Men from those towns served in Washington’s armies, but their homes were sate.

After the war the task of building a new nation left little time for the remembrance of things past. Even on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle, in 1800, no observance was held.

The triumphal return of General Lafayette to America in 1824, however, rescued the memory of these small beginnings from oblivion. Lafayette visited Lexington and Concord on September 2, 1824. During the ceremonies in Concord, state senator Samuel Hoar, the son of a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War, declared in his welcoming address that the General was now standing on the very spot where “the first forcible resistance” was raised against the British Crown. Lexington was outraged by his remark and took steps to correct it. Concord rallied with enthusiasm to prove it. Both towns collected depositions from survivors of the battles, quite different in tenor from those gathered in 1775. On the basis of such testimony, Major Elias Phinney published his History of the Battle of Lexinaton in 1825. The Reverend Ezra Ripley published his reply, A History of the Fight at Concord , two years later. The case hinges on the question: Did Captain Parker’s men on Lexington Green return the British fire? Though the argument has never been settled, some good came of it. Neither Lexington nor Concord has again failed to observe the anniversary.

 

Representative Edward Everett spoke at Concord on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle. Wisely, Everett —who was to distinguish himself as, among other things, governor of Massachusetts, a United States senator, and president of Harvard—refused to comment on the controversy. Peace had been so far restored between the two towns by 1850 that a Union Celebration was held in Concord, to which Lexington, Acton, Lincoln, Sudbury, Carlisle, and Bedford sent their official representatives. By this time the Reverend Josiah Adams of Acton had united Lexington and Concord in common indignation at his claim for Acton’s pre-eminence during the battle.

 

“The truth is, it was said so at the time, and ever since,” Adams declared at the centennial celebration of the founding of the town of Acton in 1835, “that when Captain Davis arrived on the ground, no one would agree to go in front. When he arrived they took courage. His spirit was known and they relied on it. And I repeat, that the soul of the action on that morning was the soul of Isaac Davis; and when that soul fled, the action was over.”

Similarly, Deacon Steven Hayward upheld the reputation of Acton at the Union Celebration. In response to a toast offered to the memories of Isaac Davis and Abner Hosmer, both of Acton and the first men to die at Concord’s old North Bridge, he said: “The day we celebrate, the igth of April 1/75, that day made so glorious in our country’s history by the bravery of our people, that day when Concord found the ground , and Acton the men!

By the time 1870 rolled around, both Lexington and Concord were aware that the Centennial anniversary would have special meaning tor a nation still binding the wounds of the War Between the States. They resolved to hold separate celebrations, and they agreed to organize them in such a way that the President of the United States and other distinguished guests could attend the most important parts of each. To take on America’s first Centennial celebration was a serious decision for two small towns to make. Lexington had 2,277 inhabitants; Concord, 2,413. Each expected to receive about ten thousand visitors on the day.