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

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The first train from Boston arrived at 7:30 A.M. The Concord reception committee received its passengers according to plan. Then more trains arrived. As still more and more trains disgorged their cargoes into the swelling crowds, the committee was overwhelmed in its efforts to guide visitors on their way. No one had imagined that the response to the centennial would be so great.

Major General Francis C. Barlow of New York was chief marshal of the procession. A Concord resident in his youth, he had joined the 12th New York Volunteer Militia as a private soldier on April 19, 1861. After hard and brilliant service he was commissioned a major general in May of 1865, the only Concord private to rise so far through the ranks. Promptly at ten o’clock General Barlow gave the order to march.

President Grant, riding in a carriage, as did many of the other dignitaries, drew little attention from the spectators. They reserved their cheers for General Ambrose E. Burnside, who marched on foot with the First Light Infantry Veterans Association of Rhode Island. The sight of the members of the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, marching past like an engine company, four abreast and two hundred strong, caused the greatest astonishment. No carriages were provided for them even though their dignity required such transportation. Governor William Gaston of Massachusetts was assigned a carriage and he rode in it, a political error that was not soon forgiven.

The procession moved down Main Street through the center of town, around the Green with its memorial to Concord’s Civil War dead, along Monument Street to the monument grounds across the North Bridge, and past the shrouded Minuteman statue to a great oration tent on the hillside where the minutemen, a century earlier, had defended their town. As the President’s carriage reached the site, the statue was unveiled and a cannon boomed.

The oration tent measured two hundred feet by eighty-five feet and was capable of holding six thousand people. A platform, raised about two feet above the ground and with room for two hundred seats, occupied one end. In front of the platform, seats were placed for ladies. The rest of the audience was to stand. Most of the ladies had to stand, too, as their seats were taken by gentlemen who valued comfort above honor.

At eleven o’clock, although the last division of the procession had not yet completed the route, the President of the Day, Judge Hoar, called the meeting to order: “Friends and fellow citizens, in this solemn hour, when the nation enters upon its second century, on the spot which was its birthplace, let us reverently ask God to be with us, as he was with our fathers.”

The Reverend Grindall Reynolds, Chaplain of the Day, then offered a brief and eloquent prayer. He was interrupted in full course by the squeal of tortured timbers and other breaking-up noises. The platform, lacking the stability of the nation, began to collapse under the weight of dignity and deposited President Grant on the ground. “This evidently is not a third-term platform,” a voice called out from the audience to loud applause. Hoar restored quiet and Reynolds completed his prayer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the next speaker; his subject, the statue and the minuteman for whom it stands. “We have no need to magnify the facts,” he said. “Only two of our men were killed at the bridge, and four others wounded. But here the British army was first fronted, and driven back; and if only two men, or only one man, had been slain, it was the first victory. The thunderbolt falls on an inch of ground; but the light of it fills the horizon.”

 

In all of his seventy-two years Emerson had never spoken before a gathering as large as this one. Most of his audience could not hear him. Some signified their displeasure with enough noise to make him inaudible to all. Judge Hoar again came to the rescue. “Fellow citizens,” he roared, “the sovereign people of America are gentlemen, and when they assemble on a public occasion like this, they will keep order and preserve silence!”

Their attention captured once more, the crowd applauded and quieted down. Outside the tent a band marched past playing “Mulligan’s Guards.” Emerson, unruffled, completed his address.

The platform collapsed again while James Russell Lowell was reading an ode he had composed for the occasion. After being hastily repaired, the platform kept itself in the forefront of public attention with a series of slips and tremors that upset its honored occupants one or two at a time. Louisa May Alcott described the scene as “the Centennial Break Down,” and she certainly enjoyed it. “Even the orator tottered on the brink of ruin more than once,” she wrote in an article for the Woman’s Journal , “and his table would have gone over if a woman had not held up one leg of it for an hour or so. No light task, she told me afterward, for when the inspired gentleman gave an impressive thump, it took both hands to sustain the weight of his eloquence.”

George William Curtis, once of Concord and then editor of Harper’s Weekly in New York, was the Orator of the Day. He spoke at great length, interrupted once to permit the departure of President Grant and other distinguished guests who were scheduled to spend the afternoon in Lexington. With the rail connection to Lexington completely clogged, Grant had to ride in a carriage.