In the footsteps of the minutemen

Massachusetts: The historic towns of Lexington and Concord provide a window onto the world of Revolutionary America

Destination: New England

March 26, 2000|By Tom Brosnahan | Tom Brosnahan,Universal Press Syndicate

Roused from their beds by Paul Revere and William Dawes, minutemen gathered in the darkness on Lexington Green in Massachusetts early on the morning of April 19, 1775.

Joined in Lexington by Samuel Prescott, the riders continued on their mission: to warn inhabitants of country towns within 20 miles of Boston. The British were sending an expeditionary force to find and destroy weapons caches that the Colonial militias had been building up in preparation for the inevitable battle with their British rulers.

Finally, as daylight was breaking, the redcoats arrived. Shots rang out. Eight colonists fell. A few hours later, in nearby Concord, more shots were fired, and two more colonists lay dead -- but the British had lost a dozen.

Those shots fired in the small Colonial towns were "heard 'round the world." The revolution to begin a country founded on the principle of guaranteeing its people "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" had begun.

Fast forward to last year. The Rev. Gary Smith, senior minister at First Parish in Concord, was on the phone, applying for a corporate credit card for church expenses. The card company agent asked the usual questions: name, address, type of business. Then, "How long has this business been in operation?" the agent asked.

"Three hundred and sixty-three years," Smith replied.

Silence on the line.

"I'm gonna have to get my supervisor."

It's a typical Concord story. The congregation of First Parish in Concord was "gathered" in 1636, less than a generation after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

In the year 2000, the past and the future march side by side in Lexington and Concord. But these New England towns take the past very seriously, in particular the start of the American Revolution here 225 years ago.

Celebrating Patriot's Day

Concord, founded in 1635, is now a charming town of 18,000 people; Lexington, founded in 1640, is almost twice as large, with 30,000. But in 1775, they had 1,500 and 1,000 citizens, respectively. Both were more than a century old when the first battles of the American Revolution were fought on their turf.

The anniversary of the battles is Patriot's Day, an official holiday in Massachusetts, celebrated this year on Monday, April 17. At dawn, the Lexington minutemen will line up on Lexington Green just as they did 225 years ago to await the regulars.

British troops, in scarlet uniforms, will march down Massachusetts Avenue from Boston and line up facing the minutemen on the green. Taunts will be exchanged, muskets will be raised, shots will ring out, the chill spring air will be filled with gunsmoke and men will fall "wounded" to the ground.

Barking orders, the British officers will regroup their troops and march them off to Concord, where the Concord minutemen, joined by companies from surrounding towns such as Acton, Bedford and Littleton, will await them at the Old North Bridge.

To local residents, the events of that April 19 are as fresh in memory as though they had lived them. Just ask Clint Jackson, a former national park ranger and founder of the Duke of Gloucester's Fifth Regiment of Foot, a corps of British Colonial history re-enactors. Resplendent in the scarlet "lobsterback" uniform and gear he made himself by hand, Jackson is a volunteer historical interpreter at Concord's Old North Bridge on Sunday afternoons.

"I was a member of the Lexington minutemen," he says, resting his authentically crafted muzzle loader on the tip of his perfectly polished black boot. "Then one Patriot's Day, during the re-enactment of the battle at Lexington Green, I saw the British troops marching toward us in perfect uniforms, with perfect military bearing. That was enough for me. I joined the 10th Regiment of Foot, but later decided to found my own unit, so I re-founded the Duke of Gloucester's Fifth Regiment of Foot. We make our uniforms and equipment ourselves, and we work hard to make them as authentic as possible."

In 1875, at the centennial celebration of the battle at the North Bridge, philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson read his famous poem about "the shot heard 'round the world," as Daniel Chester French unveiled his statue of "The Minute Man." One hand is on a plow, the other is gripping a flintlock. Poem and statue have become symbols of the American Revolution.

Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and other Concord authors thrived in the town's spirit of freedom and principled resistance. Thoreau advocated a simple life in nature over the norms of polite society in town. The site of his one-room cabin at the edge of Walden Pond, a three-mile, 40-minute walk from Concord's train depot, is now a place of pilgrimage for people interested in nature, ecology and a life rich in meaning yet simple in substance.

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