Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Almost done with a very cool book, titled The Minutemen and Their World, by Robert A Groff – Not sure of the author, but it’s apparently out of print anyway… This is a rather in-depth historical treatise on the social, economic, and political forces in play prior to and during the Revolutionary War, (I’ve admitted before to being a history nerd, and I proudly do so again!) Anyway, the particular draw of this book was the fact that its analysis is centered almost wholly on Concord, Mass, my birthplace and the town where I grew up. The insights I’ve gleaned from the read are particularly interesting in a couple of areas: One, how much Concord back then was like the Concord I grew up in, and how those similarities most likely are manifest because so many of the names of the citizens in 1770 where the same ones I grew up with in the 1960s – Funny that. And secondly, how much of the nascent political shaping of the United States came directly from my hometown.

Reading of the events immediately surrounding April 19th, 1775, I noticed prominent names mentioned; Fitch, Barrett, Buttrick, Bartlett, Meriam, and Dawes among others. Funny that, since one of my oldest brother’s best friends was John Fitch, and they’d lived there forever; there is still a Fitch listed in Concord, although I don’t know if they’re the same family. The Barrett’s, who were so prominent in the Concord political life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, very much were still there in my day. Barrett’s Mill Road still exists, although the mill is, of course, long gone… A direct descendant of those Barrett’s is a practicing attorney, (As so many of his kin had been), in Concord to this day, and lives off the Lowell Road, where they lived when I was a child. Bartlett's still live in Concord, the same family of Lucia, my sister’s high school pal. Meriams Corner, where the militiamen lay in wait for the retreating redcoats after the early morning confrontation in Concord, was named for the family of course.

Many have heard of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, but few who were not schooled in New England know why the British were going to Concord on April 19th, 1775 in the first place. In fact, General Gauge had a spy in the midst of the Concord rebels, who had given them detailed information as to exactly what stores of war were stockpiled there, and exactly where they were. Fortunately, the early British mobilization efforts in Boston during the night of April 18th were closely watched by colonists, and a warning had already made its way to Concord: Residents had been up throughout the night moving all the military stores further afield to new hiding places. Furthermore, history records that, in fact, Revere did not ride into Concord crying, “The British are coming,” (He referred to the British troops as “Regulars.”) In fact he did not ride into Concord at all. Final shocker, Revere wasn't alone, either: Unbeknownst to many Americans, he was joined by Dr. William Dawes, (The same family from whence came, in fact, the William Dawes who I babysat for in the early 70’s). Those two made had their way to Lexington to warn John Hancock and John Adams, who had snuck out of Boston to avoid arrest and were quietly lodged at an inn there. A doorman told Revere that Adams' party had left instructions, "Not to be disturbed by any outside noise during the night:" "Noise?!" Revere thundered in response, "You'll have all the noise you'll want soon enough, the Regulars are coming!". He and Dawes endeavored to continue on the way to Concord, but were stopped by a British Patrol. It fell to a young physician from Concord, Samuel Prescott, who had fallen in with Revere and Dawes after visiting his girlfriend, to raise the alarm after they were stopped: A local boy used to sneaking about after dark, Prescott jumped a stone fence with his horse and disappeared into the cold night. Hence, in my hometown, the Birthplace of the Revolution, it was never Paul revere who was honored for spreading the alarm, it was Samuel Prescott and his brothers, who continued on from Concord as far as Maine and New Hapshire, from whence came many, many militiament the next day.

There were more and earlier direct descendants there in my day as well: My father and I regularly played Badminton with Miles Standish – Yes, the direct descendant of that Miles Standish, and Standish’s still live in Concord; Peter, Miles’ son.

And of course, anyone who has visited Minuteman National Historic Park knows that The Buttrick Mansion stands on the heights to the north of the Old North Bridge – Don’t get too sentimental, though, gang – The real bridge was torn down during the revolutionary war, as newer, better roads made the old route obsolete. In any case the mansion is in the right spot, it was indeed the veteran Colonel's home on that fateful day in April.

The socio-political scene outlined by the book emphasizes how highly the townspeople held a sense of community in regard when contemplating what they would do and how they would do it during turbulent times. The author notes that Concordians were generally prosperous and proud people, and that they tended to not pay too much attention to the issues of the wide world, preferring to focus on the needs of their town. Oh, Boy - How that sounds like the Concord I grew up in! Granted, the emphasis on God and church as the center of social life had changed, but truth be told, those trends began during the Revolutionary War, and had cycled back and forth numerous ties in the intervening ages. I remember being at The Concord Country Club in the late 70’s, having just watched the mess of Viet Nam on the TV and wondering about all that – yet here were Concord’s well-healed, tanning by the pool with a tall drink, reading Ms. And The New Yorker: The dichotomy wasn’t lost on me then, and it still isn’t. Ah, the idle rich! Of course people assume that everyone worked harder in the 1700’s, and for many that was true; but for landed gentry, then as in my day, a life of privilege and leisure was the reward of fortune. It was interesting to read that, initially during the war, Concordians of all social strata volunteered and served in the militia and Continental Army, although, in the waning years of the war, when drafts were instituted, the wealthy often chose the suitable alternatives to personal service: Either paying a fine, or hiring a replacement...

Yet not all was idle nonsense, in either day. Fact is, when our fledgling nation formally dissolved our bond with England, (At least in their minds), the new Continental Congress asked the colonies if they would have their representatives form a new Constitution: Virtually everyone said yes – But Concord said no. Concordians argued that a new constitution could not and should not be written without a constitutional convention, wherein the people to be subject to these new laws would be the ones to determine who would write them and what they would be. Concordians believed that even their own chosen representatives to the old government needed to be reconsidered, and were adamant that a new government would be different – Truly of and by and for the people, or not at all. Their first effort failed, but when the watered down constitution that was eventually produced was examined by the colonies, it was found wanting, and the second time was the charm – Concord’s suggestion became the way it was done; it literally was the kernel of the new American government.

Then as now, this is heady stuff to me. I recall many, many April 19ths – The pealing of bells at around 1 a.m., and the clattering of hooves thundering down the lane from Lexington, the rider portaying Dr. Prescott shouting a warning of the advancing British Regulars. The foggy, cold dawn, paddling or walking down to the bridge, hoping to be there before the first cannonade rolled through the still air, but always thrilled with the sound. Or walking in fall through the old, old graveyards; not looking for the famous, but for the unknown who died on that day, and in the long years of that war thereafter. Truth be told, the skirmish at Concord lasted maybe three minutes, after which the British returned to town to look for arms, and the militia dispersed; some going home, some wounded, but most racing through The Great Meadows toward the wooded ridge that overlooked the Bay Road, choosing places to fight. The British called them scum and worse for not standing up and fighting in pretty lines like men were supposed to, but these were fighters trained by the ferocious French & Indian War: In that conflict, every man for himself was the way it was, and guerilla fighting was the only way to survive.

To this day, you can walk along the Lexington Road toward Meriams Corner. The ridgeline rises to your left, the road is not sheltered. There are many places on that lonely road where you sure as hell would not want to be a British Regular. It is still easy to feel what it must have felt like that day. The ghosts of war are close here. The only place I have been where the feeling was thicker is Gettysburg.

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