‘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.

Plans for a suitable memorial in Concord had been available for some time but had received little attention. Ebenezer Hubbard had begun putting them together in 1836 when the town erected a monument on the east, or British, bank of the Concord River. Mr. Hubbard was eleven years old in 1793 when the old North Bridge was torn down, the road straightened, and the bridge rebuilt several hundred yards downstream. There was no access, therefore, from the west, or American, bank except through the pasture land of Stedman Buttrick. Thus, the east bank, still linked by a section of the old road to the new, was the logical, if not the sentimental, spot for a monument, and a stone obelisk had been erected. But Hubbard did not like the choice and made his feelings known year after year with the stubborn tenacity of an old bachelor.

He supported his opinions with a gift of six hundred dollars to Concord for the purpose of rebuilding the North Bridge to make the American shore accessible again. His gilt was duly accepted, but at the time of his death in October, 1870, the town had still taken no action on it. His will, however, provided the perfect answer to the question of what the town should do to celebrate the centennial. It read:

I order my Executor to pay the sum of one thousand dollars towards building a Monument in said town of Concord on the spot where the Americans fell, on the opposite side of the riyer from the present Monument, in the battle of the Nineteenth of April, 1775, providing my said Executor shall ascertain that said Monument first named has been built, or sufficient funds have been obtained therefor within five years after my decease; but in case my Executor shall have ascertained that said first named Monument is not built, nor sufficient funds obtained for that purpose within five years after my decease, then I order my Executor to pay over to Hancock, N.H. [where he was born], said sum of one thousand dollars.

Stedman Buttrick expressed his approval of this proposal by deeding to the town about a quarter of an acre containing the western abutment of the old North Bridge “for the purpose of erecting a Monument thereon, and for no other purpose, and on condition that the grantee shall make and forever maintain a fence around the same, and that a bridge shall be constructed across the river from the easterly side to pass to the above premises, and without any right of way over my land.”

Concord appointed a committee at its annual town meeting in March, 1872; it was to report to the next town meeting the following March on Hubbard’s bequest. The committee, in a report signed by its chairman, John S. Keyes, recommended its acceptance. The committee further proposed to place a statue of a Continental minuteman, cut in granite, on the American side of the river and to build a bridge for access to it from the east bank, the work to be completed and dedicated on the one-hundredth anniversary of the battle. A sum of $ 1,500 was to be raised to pay for the statue and its dedication.

“To do this worthily,” the report concluded, “let us avail ourselves of these bequests in the patriotic spirit that inspired the givers, and fully understand that if we, as a community, desire ever to do anything to make our battle-ground more memorable, this is the fittest occasion.” It was a long time coming, but Ebenezer Hubbard had his way at last.

The search for a sculptor began. There were many available, as the Civil War memorial statues in many New England towns still bear witness, but few of them were very good. The committee turned to May Alcott, Louisa May’s artistic sister, for advice. She suggested that Daniel C. French might be the right person. He was a Concord boy in his early twenties whose ambition to be a sculptor she had been encouraging. French came up with a small plaster model of a minuteman; the design was approved by the committee and by the town at a meeting in November, 1873. On his recommendation the material specified for the statue was changed from granite to bronze.

Soon afterward, Judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, Concord’s representative in the 43rd Congress and the son of the Samuel who had been Lafayette’s host in 1824, persuaded that body to vote to Concord the gift of ten condemned brass cannons to supply the metal for the statue. The act was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on April 22, 1874, and the cannons were shipped to the Ames Manufacturing Company in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Daniel French set up his studio on Bromfield Street in Boston to work on this, his first commission. The full-sized plaster model arrived at the Ames plant in the fall of 1874.

 

The pedestal for the statue was cut from the same great boulder of Westford granite that had yielded up the stone for the monument on the eastern bank. It was moved to Concord when the ground froze, and the work was finished during the winter. Carved on it is the first stanza of Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” which had been written for the dedication of the first monument in 1836:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flaa to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled Jarmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.

On the reverse side, as if anyone could ever forget, the inscription reads:

“1775— NINETEENTH OF APRIL —1875.”

The statue was put in place early in April, 1875.

The design of the old North Bridge was well-known. Amos Doolittle had shown it clearly in his engraving, The Engagement at the North Bridge in Concord , which he made in the very year of the battle. The committee intended to copy the design of the old bridge, but on a somewhat lighter scale. However, it soon decided to embellish the plan in the taste of the time. In place of the simple post and beam railings of the original, it substituted graceful patterns of lunettes and cross members in cedar with the bark on. At the center the committee added rustic half-arbors overhanging the water “where pilgrims might sit and watch the river brimming its meadows.” During the first week in April the Concord River was indeed brimming; the meadows were so thoroughly inundated that the raised area where the Minuteman stood was an island cut off from the hillside where the patriots had formed their ranks one hundred years earlier. Fervent prayers were offered for dry erround on the nineteenth.

 

While John S. Keyes and his committee concentrated on the statue and the bridge, other committees planned the ceremonies. As this was to be the first of a series of centennial celebrations throughout the country, its scope was considered from the beginning to be of national interest and importance. Newspapers in New England and beyond printed a letter of invitation expressing the hope that all who were connected with Concord and Lexington by descent or affection would join with them in this commemoration. Special invitations were sent to the officers and citizens of the battle towns, the governors of the thirteen original states, the President of the United States, his Cabinet, and other dignitaries. Concord was so filled by the weekend preceding Monday the nineteenth that the committee revised its estimate of visitors upward to twenty thousand.

Meanwhile, Lexington braced itself for a similar onslaught. The chief attraction of its observance was to be the unveiling of statues of John Hancock and Samuel Adams; both men had been in Lexington on the morning of April 19, 1775. The statues, carved in Italy, had arrived in the nick of time; the two ships they were aboard did not reach Boston until Saturday the seventeenth, only a matter of hours before the ceremonies were to begin.

President Grant and his party arrived in Concord on Saturday evening. The crowd that might have cheered him as he stepped down from his palace car at the Concord railroad station was otherwise occupied. The Concord Artillery, the Ransom Guards of Vermont, and their respective bands offered better entertainment.

Sunday provided a grim preview of bad weather to come. The wind was cold and the sun did not put in an appearance. Church services were held at the First Parish meeting house in the morning and at the Trinitarian Congregational Church in the afternoon. Both services were crowded, and so was the bar at the Middlesex Hotel. Worshippers at the First Parish were favored with a sermon by the Reverend Grindall Reynolds expounding the overlap in the Puritan mind of true religion and true politics, a religious interpretation of the foundations of government that, he said, had allowed the colonists to defy the king with a clear conscience.

 

A reporter from the New York Herald felt himself to be in a foreign land. “As provincial New England could do nothing without preaching a sermon over it, or before it, or after it,” he wrote, “so republican New England found it impossible to celebrate the past without a reasonable amount of preaching.”

 

Two cannons from Battery A, First Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, rumbled through the sleeping town Sunday night and were set up in firing position on Nashawtuc Hill. At eighteen minutes past five o’clock, on Monday morning, April 19, 1875, the first cannon spoke. One hundred rounds signalled the beginning of the republic’s second century. Soon the rolling of drums and the urgent call of bugles joined the pounding rhythm of the great guns. The day had come: the sky was clear, the streets were dry, the temperature stood at 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the railroad lines running both to Concord and Lexington, a monumental traffic jam was already in the making. Concord was served by two lines, the two-track Fitchburg Railroad, which was running trains directly from Boston, and the Middlesex Central Railroad, a single-track line operated by the Lowell Railroad. Middlesex Central trains passed through Lexington on their way to Concord, providing the only rail service from Boston to both towns. Within a few hours the Middlesex Central track was so choked with trains, some as long as thirty cars, that the superintendent of the road telegraphed instructions to Boston to sell no more tickets to Concord. Those who had purchased tickets to Concord, preferring this route to the Fitchburg line, never got farther than Lexington.

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.

At the conclusion of Curtis’ oration, invited guests and ticket holders from the general public moved to the huge dinner tent nearby where places for four thousand had been set on Saturday. The cold dinner did little to warm up the thoroughly chilled celebrants, yet Judge Hoar held their attention for the next three hours of sentiments and responses. Concord could not have chosen a better host for its Centennial celebration.

“I offer as the first regular sentiment of the day,” said Hoar, “the 19 of April, 1775: A glorious day for Lexington and Concord, for the towns of Middlesex, for Massachusetts, for America, for freedom, and the rights of mankind. ‘Every blow struck for liberty among men since the 19th of April 1775 nas but echoed the guns of that eventful morning.’ ”

“First of those who fell, in our memory of the day we celebrate,” he continued, “are the martyrs on Lexington Common. Their deeds, their immortal fame, are now being worthily celebrated by their neighbors and descendents at Lexington. I give you:—The martyrs on Lexington Common: Parker, Monroe, Hadley, the Harringtons, Muzzey, Brown.…

“Fellow citizens, no one from Lexington can be found here today to respond to this sentiment, as I suppose no one from Concord could be found at Lexington to acknowledge any courtesies extended to us. So be it. The legacy of glory will go round, and is enough for all. But I thought it fitting to send, and have sent, in your name, a message to Lexington from Concord, to this effect:—‘Concord sends greetings to Lexington on the hundredth anniversary of the glorious morning, by the hands of the President of the United States. The Great Republic, whose thirtyseven states span the continent from ocean to ocean, is the harvest of which the seed was sown on the igth of April, 1775’ …”

The American Band of Providence J. played appropriate music between each set of sentiments and responses until finally the increasing cold forced the ceremonies to close.

Long before noon the wind settled into the northeast and picked up speed. Low clouds scudded over the town, leaving behind a dusting of snow. General Gage was roundly damned by all for ordering his troops to Concord so early in the season one hundred years past. The fifty thousand or more visitors for whom there was no room in the tents were truly in distress. They had seen the procession pass, but that was all the entertainment they were offered. Nearly every place serving food was devastated before two o’clock. Nearly every visitor went hungry.

Even the Middlesex Hotel, in the center of the town, proved unequal to the demands placed upon it. Concord was a shire town in those days with an active courthouse. Lawyers, litigants, their supporters, and their opponents all found neutral ground in the bar and dining room of the Middlesex Hotel. The hotel proprietor therefore knew how to handle large numbers of people, had made his preparations well, and greeted the beginning of the Centennial with confidence.

Late Sunday afternoon, however, his confidence received a severe blow. In the midst of his best business in years his bar was closed for the day by order of the selectmen. On Monday he wisely limited the services of his dining room to those who could produce “boarder’s tickets” and called upon the police to keep out the others. Despite these precautions, a starving and half-frozen mob took the hotel pantry by frontal assault, held it briefly, and was then tossed out by the hard-working defenders.

The crowning blow of the day to the Middlesex Hotel came a little later. The selectmen closed the bar again, providing the indignant proprietor with ample leisure to watch bootleggers doing a land-office business in the street outside.

Concord had marked its historic spots with signs during the week before the Centennial. They had received more visitors during this Monday than they had had during all of the years since they first became historic. As the cold air soaked relentlessly through their bodies, visitors turned their attention away from such attractions as old tombstones toward their own survival. Before six o’clock most of them had taken’the railroad cars back to civilization, food, and warmth. They were more fortunate than those who had chosen or were forced to spend the day in Lexington, some hundred thousand persons in all. There the single-track Middlesex Central line was at a standstill. Hardly a vehicle was moving on the streets. Earl Percy’s cannon could not have cleared the way to Boston that night. And the dining tent, where 3,500 guests were to be fed, was a shambles; police officers had been unable to stop hungry hordes from storming the place before it was officially opened to ticket holders at three o’clock, by which time there was hardly anything fit to eat. As the Boston Evening Transcript reported: “The only thing that was warm at the centennial dinner in Lexington was the ice cream.”

Concord’s Grand Ball was held in the spacious and steam-heated hall of the Middlesex Agricultural Society on the bank of the Sudbury River west of the Fitchburg Railroad station. Brilliant gaslights made it blindingly clear that an enthusiastic decorations committee had left no inch of space in the hall undecorated. President Grant did not return for the festivities; he had decided to remain in Lexington, where he attended a grand levee and planted an elm tree. Without any slackening of ardor, despite Grant’s absence from Concord, about three hundred couples danced through the night, many of the ladies wearing colonial dresses long treasured in their attics. The sun was rising as the last of the dancers headed for their beds, just twenty-four hours after the thudding of cannon had saluted the beginning of the Centennial.

It had indeed been a glorious day.