- Historic Sites
Harold Murdock’s “The Nineteenth Of April 1775”
Forty years ago a Boston banker suggested that the Battle of Lexington had become a myth, and later evidence proves him right
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
If you will examine our faithful reproduction of the Doolittle print, you will notice that the British are firing by platoons and that the Lexington company is dispersing in all directions. Even the magnifying glass fails to reveal any member of that company in an attitude of resistance; no suggestion of a return fire, or even of loading. One wonders why the title was not engraved, the “massacre,” instead of the “battle, of Lexington.” Evidently our Connecticut soldiers felt that the facts of the case, or political expediency, justified such a treatment of the subject. Then we should glance at the reduced replica of this print, which Doolittle executed in 1832 for Barber’s History of New Haven. There could have been no political considerations to influence him at that time. Lexington was then stoutly asserting the belligerency of her minute-men; and yet, as you will see, Doolittle varied in no detail from his conception of nearly sixty years before. It is still a massacre, perpetrated upon armed but unresisting men.
The next picture to be noted, in chronological order, is Pendleton’s lithograph, executed about 1830. Pendleton had evidently given heed to the current controversy and to the Lexington depositions of 1824. The British are firing, the minute-men are dispersing, as Doolittle portrayed them, but eight devoted souls are still facing their enemies, six of whom are returning the British fire while two are loading.…
When we come to the Billings sketch, executed a quarter of a century later, and which was used to adorn the first edition of Hudson’s Lexington in 1868, we find the dispersing confined to the extreme left of the line, while the firing has been extended to a round do/en or more. The Sandham painting of 1886 throws off all restraint and departs definitely from the Doolittle idea. Here at last is a battle, indeed. Where in Sandham’s spirited work is there any sign of wavering, any suggestion of dispersing? The line holds firm from end to end, while, unterrified by the running blaze of British musketry and the sight of stricken comrades, the minute-men stand grimly to their work, emptying their firelocks at close range into the broad and glittering target offered by the Light Infantry. Is this a true picture of what occurred on Lexington Common, or does it violate the truth beyond the limits of poetical license? I shall have occasion to refer to this picture-again, but for the moment I leave this query with you, as suggesting the basis for an historic doubt.…
The rivalry between Concord and Lexington for the glory of shedding the first British blood was carried to even greater extremes tlian Mr. Murdoch alleged. As the intertown feud went on, the heroics ascribed to the minutemen became so preposterous that if their bravery should not be questioned, their sanity could be doubted. The towns refused to celebrate the centennial jointly in 1875, and President Grant, the (Governor of Massachusetts, and other dignitaries were whisked back and forth between Concord and Lexington throughout the day like shuttlecocks. The result of all this was such a mishmash of fact and fancy that Mr. Murdoch needed no new sources to create a radically revisionist account of what really had happened on April 19, 1775. He needed only to take a calm, cold look at the existing material.
Let me say at the outset that I am in possession of no evidence regarding my subject that has not been accessible to historians for years. It is not my purpose to laud villains or to depreciate heroes; but as all the actors who played their part at Lexington were Englishmen, and professed loyalty to the British King, I shall discuss the episode as belonging as much to English as to American history. The Tory and the Redcoat will be given a fair hearing on the stand.…
Earl Percy, whose principles were all of the Whig persuasion, had come over well affected toward the Province; but, before he had been in Boston two months, he was writing home: “The people here are a set of sly, artful, hypocritical rascalls, cruel and cowards. I must own I cannot but despise them compleately.” Captain Evelyn, a less conspicuous officer, writing to his reverend father, in 1774, declares: “You who have seen mobs, generous ones compared to these, may have some idea of the wretched situation of those who were known or suspected to be friends to the King or government of Great Britain. Our arrival has in a great degree restored that liberty they have been so long deprived of, even liberty of speech and security to their persons and property, which has for years past been at the mercy of a most villainous mob.” So you will see how natural it was that the army came into sufficient agreement with Mr. Samuel Adams to declare that dangers did threaten the Goddess of Liberty in the Province of Massachusetts Bay.…
Under the stress of local circumstances, reenforced perhaps by instructions from London, [General] Gage felt himself obliged to take some steps to assert the outraged dignity of King and Parliament. So the expedition to Concord was decided upon, and every precaution taken to ensure secrecy.