Harold Murdock’s “The Nineteenth Of April 1775”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

After the publication of Mr. Murdoch’s then very bold essay, some historians—including David S. Muzzey (who was born in Lexington) in the American Historical Association’s journal—accused him of erring on the side of too much sympathy for the position of the British. But later documentary evidences showed Mr. Murdoch to be right. The complete war diary of Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who was easily the most responsible of the junior officers of the day, came to light in the late 1920’s. An extremely valuable letter from Lieutenant Colonel Smith to Major R. Donkin was found in the Gage Papers. Another letter from Lieutenant Sutherland, this one to Gage’s secretary, was discovered by Allen French to have significant supplementary information. Most importantly, Major Pitcairn’s field report to Gage was found and established Mr. Murdoch to have been astonishingly accurate in his analysis of the character, the role, and the feelings of Major Pitcairn—except that Pitcairn was specific in reporting that the firing started when a minuteman’s musket flashed in the pan, and shots followed from other minutemen not on the Common. Another British account of the episode, also discovered after Mr. Murdoch’s essay, was that of Ensign Jeremy Lister of the Tenth Regiment. He agrees with Pitcairn that the Americans fired first. Who fired first still remains a mystery, but the view of the affair held by the British military men as reconstructed by Mr. Murdoch has been solidly confirmed by these later evidences.

That the Lexington company, as a company, did not fire upon the Light Infantry on the Common is, I believe, as clearly proved as any historical fact need be; that certain individuals belonging to the company, or numbered among the spectators, did, before or after the British attack, discharge their pieces, is also clear. The British were subject to the political temptation of magnifying their losses at this point, but all they claim is that a private soldier was wounded, and that Major Pitcairn’s horse was struck in two places. Now it is clear that this wounded soldier tramped on with his company to Concord, while Pitcairn’s horse not only carried him through the morning, but, somewhere about one o’clock, he was still so antic that he unseated his portly rider and ran snorting into the enemy’s lines, with that brace of pistols which are now among the most cherished possessions of the Lexington Historical Society. From these facts, I conclude that the injuries sustained by the British on the Common were of the order known as flesh wounds—either glancing scratches, or contusions inflicted by spent balls fired from distances almost out of range. No Lexington historian has ever contended that Parker’s men were deficient in the knowledge and handling of firearms, or that they were bad shots. Had they disobeyed the order to disperse, and conducted themselves as they are represented in Sandham’s painting, it is certain that Pitcairn’s advance companies would have been torn to shreds, and the hands that signed the depositions of 1775 would all have been clenched in death.

The present version of the Lexington story has been hallowed by long usage, and so it is a matter for some regret that Phinney in 1825 should have been induced to strive against such odds, to prove that this man or that let fly “the guts of his gun,” and that British blood shed by Parker’s marksmen did in the early April dawn anoint the sacred soil of Lexington. It is the more regrettable because unnecessary, the glory and fair fame of Lexington resting securely upon a sound and impressive basis of achievement.…

It is a singular fact that the imagination of no great artist has been stirred to portray the glory of Lexington’s great day in any fashion that does not involve those few moments of tragic confusion on the Common.… Why could not Sandham, in choosing his subject, have turned the hands of the clock back one short half-hour? I can see a picture in the gray of the early morning, the first tinge of dawn flushing the cloudless east, the flicker of guttering tapers, or the dull glow of the taproom fire shining dimly through windows in the Buckman Tavern. The thin line is forming, and dusky groups are moving across the Green, to take their accustomed places. All is silence. The rolling drum has ceased its warning, the last echo of the belfry’s brazen voice has died away; and then through the stillness we seem to hear the rhythmic footfall of marching feet. The King’s troops are at hand; and as we look into the depths of the gray picture, and mark that devoted band standing steadfast by the church, we feel that here is a faithful portrayal of a strangely impressive historic fact.…

“Historic Doubts on Lexington” marked the end of the romantic, insipid view of the origin of hostilities in the war of the American Revolution. To most historians and to other commentators, it was a welcome relief, coming as it did during the almost irresponsible nationalism of the 1920’s. In The Saturday Review of Literature, the Murdoch essay was “prayerfully recommended to over-zealous patriotic societies and the begetters of ‘pure history’ laws.” Charles A. Beard, then at the height of his own powers as a revisionist historian, writing in The New Republic, proclaimed that the essay marked, after a century and a half, the end of Anglo-American hostilities .