Friday, 27 July 2012

The March to Concord.

Off on an excursion, following in the hoof prints of Paul Revere's horse, west from the city centre to Lexington and Concord, towns with twin claims to being birthplaces of the revolutionary war.

It's hard to know exactly when the fires of liberty were lit. Was it when the unpopular Stamp Act was imposed from remote London in 1765? Was the turning point the death of the snowball throwing citizens at the Boston Massacre five years later in 1770? Was it the overrunning of the three East India Company tea-ships and the destruction of 342 chests of their taxable cargo at Griffin's Wharf in 1773?  Or the subsequent decision to turn Boston into a garrison town by filling it with redcoats during the Summer and Autumn of 1774?

What is certain is that by the Spring of 1775 the countryside surrounding Boston was filled with local militia groups, all rallying to the Patriot cause, whilst the Loyalist army, under the command of the treaty seeking General Gage, retained the city itself, looking for an excuse and opportunity to capture Hancock, Adams and the other patriot leaders.

On the night of 18th April 1775 the troops began to leave the city, crossing the Charles River and heading for Lexington, where it was known Adams and Hancock were staying. Dr Warren, the senior member of the patriot's shadow government remaining in Boston, commissioned William Dawes, by land, and Paul Revere, across the river, to use the cover of night, overtake the Loyalist columns and give warning of the march.

By dawn the Redcoats had arrived in Lexington and were met on the green by the local minute men, who'd been up all night in the Buckman Tavern, awaiting their arrival. What happened next is the cause of much debate. Major Pitcairn leading the soldiers demanded that the rebels lay down their arms and disperse. Captain Parker, head of the militia, recognising how heavily outnumbered his company were, concurred. However, in the tiredness and tension shots were fired and minutes later eight villagers lay dead on the grass. With a loud 'Huzzah!' the troops marched on towards Concord, where they had intelligence that a huge stockpile of ammunition had been built up. The first shots had been fired.

Today Lexington is an unassuming place. Dog walkers wander across the historic green barely noticing the minuteman statue and the Parker Boulder. We crossed to the Buckman Tavern and had a fascinating guided tour with a costumed interpreter, who wanted to stress the mercantile interests of the patriots. She was a little nervous coming off script, and apologised that, as a history major, she felt a need to provide a subtler context than the recognised narratives afford. Most colonists, she suggested, saw themselves as British citizens, unable to afford goods shipped from Europe and
 indifferent to the escalating dispute. For them shelter and security mattered more than freedom. The future governance of New England was a matter for debate, but fewer than reported had a desire to risk their citizenship by standing up to the most sophisticated army in the world. Most hoped things would blow over and peace be made between London and the New World.
Given the risks it must have been a terrifyingly tense few hours, then, for the seventy seven men in Captain Parker's company waiting in these small wood panelled rooms for the regular troops to arrive.

We moved onto the Hancock-Clarke House, Revere and Dawes' destination on that fateful evening, where Hancock and Adams were lodging, before boarding the Liberty Ride Trolley bus that links Lexington with Concord.

We'd assumed that we'd be able to hop on and off and explore the various landmarks on Battle Road, but unfortunately the bus only runs three times a day and so we had to be more selective over what we chose to see.

A lot of trouble is going into acquiring property and land between the two towns in an attempt to accurately recreate the two hundred year old landscape through the creation of the Minute Man National Park. We got out at the visitors centre and walked for a couple of miles along a wooded trail to the Hartwell Tavern. It's an evocative walk past several tributes to fallen soldiers, as well as the homes of patriots William Smith and Elizabeth Hartwell, both of who watched in awe and dread as the soldiers boldly marched towards Concord.

We would have continued there ourselves, but without our own transport, were forced to board the final trolley bus of the day to the North Bridge, where facing each other across the Concord river the first order to open fire on loyalist troops was given by Major Buttrick.

The twenty mile redcoat retreat back to Boston was a bloody and ragged affair. Local militia swarmed the woods, hiding behind trees and stone walls, filling in behind the exhausted troops. Atrocities were carried out on both sides as the angry and petrified soldiers tried desperately to get themselves back to barracks. Relief troops were sent to Lexington, but the enraged patriots maintained their pursuit back into Charlestown. Boston was effectively under siege.

Four months earlier George III, sitting pretty in Buckingham House, had predicted events in a letter to his Prime Minister Lord North

'The New England governments are in a state of rebellion, blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent... The people are in a state of mischief and we must either master them or totally leave them to themselves and treat them as aliens.'

The time for diplomacy had passed.

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