Saturday, April 18, 2009

Aniversary pt. 2

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone,
That memory may their deeds redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

O Thou who made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free, --
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raised to them and Thee.

RW Emmerson

April 19th is an important day in american history, arguably the most American day of all of them. Commonly called Patriot's Day, all but now forgotten, and only an official holiday in Mass and Maine. I just thought id give a reminder to you of those who have gone before you, in this great country, that you might remember them, and learn from them.

I think John Parker, leader and Captain of the Lexington Irregular Militia can do a better job than I of explaining what happened the morning and afternoon of that April 19, 1775, so ill let him speak first, before i try and explain what those happenings meant, and mean, to you.

"I, John Parker, of lawful Age, and Commander of the Militia in Lexington, do testify and declare, that on the 19th Instant in the Morning, about one of the Clock, being informed that there were a Number of Regular Officers, riding up and down the Road, stopping and insulting People as they passed the Road; and also was informed that a Number of Regular Troops were on their March from Boston in order to take the Province Stores at Concord, ordered our Militia to meet on the Common in said Lexington to consult what to do, and concluded not to be discovered, nor meddle or make with said Regular Troops (if they should approach) unless they should insult or molest us; and, upon their sudden Approach, I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse, and not to fire:—Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon, and killed eight of our Party without receiving any Provocation therefor from us."


So, there you have it, thats the gist of it. But what were soldiers doing in Lexington, and why were they worried about irregular militiamen, plainclothes farmers who carried rifles once or twice a week, drilling in the town squares and in fallow fields?

Well, you see, by the mid-1700s the New England colonies had already begun a long legacy of self reliance and self government. Due to the great distance to the old country and its own government, they had been accustomed for generations to managing their own affairs, with little oversight from England. Because England had incurred a great deal of debt from its frequent wars with France, the British Parliament decided in the 1760s and early 1770s, to try to raise some revenue by taxing the colonies directly, something it had not done before. These taxes were not terribly burdensome, but a great many people were disturbed by the principle: the colonies had always governed and taxed themselves, and they resisted the idea of having to contribute to what they saw as an "external" government. When ordered by the Royal Governor not to hold a town meeting, the Boston representatives held it anyway. A local crowd harassing a group of young British soldiers was fired upon in what came to be called the Boston Massacre. For several years these tensions built and built, until they came to a head in the first few months of 1775.

Parliament had ordered the Port of Boston closed, a heavy economic burden for a major trading cente, and had ordered the towns to cease holding local meetings. Massachusetts was effectively put under military rule, but since there was only one major garrison, in the city of Boston itself, most of the people in the countryside ignored the orders and continued to act as they always had. They did, however, begin to collect arms and ammunition, and to reactivate their militia system that had fallen into disuse since the end of the French and Indian War a decade earlier.

The collecting of muskets, gunpowder, cannon, and other arms for use of the town militia was a violation of the orders of the military governor, General Thomas Gage. Gage was aware that these stores were being collected, and his garrison had carried out several missions to confiscate them in the months prior to April 1775. On one occasion, troops had successfully marched from Boston and captured a large supply of colonial gunpowder that was being stored in the nearby town of Somerville. This maneuver enraged the local population, as much because they had been caught off guard as because they had lost their powder. Determined never to let that happen again, the towns refined their elaborate system of alarm riders who were responsible for spreading word of troop movements throughout the countryside. The system was mobilized in February when another military force was sent by ship to the coastal town of Salem to seize a store of powder and arms. Advance warning to the local population allowed them to raise an intervening drawbridge and move the munitions away, and the troops arrived late, and left empty handed.

As the spring came, General Gage received orders from Parliment instructing him to take decisive action to put down the rebellious town governments and to capture those inciting the rebellion. In response to these orders, Gage decided to make another move into the countryside to capture the largest colonial munitions supply, the one at Concord in Middlesex County, about eighteen miles west of Boston. The plan was to move quickly soon after dark with complete secrecy, be at Concord by dawn to seize the supplies, and then return to the garrison in Boston by midday before the colonists could even spread word of what had happened. But the colonists were watching too carefully, and in the small space of Boston secrecy turned out to be impossible.

With advance warning of the government raid, the systems put in place after the Somerville raid sprung into action, from flags to rowboats to gunfire signals through the woods, by the time soldiers reached lexington, no sign of the majority of the muskets, balls and powder they were sent to seize was found. The town's civilian militia, numbering 38, expecting the british before dawn had gathered on the square, in formation, in the middle of the night. When the government soldiers arrived, shortly after dawn they drew a battle line across the green from them and they ordered the militia members to lay down arms and disperse. Some began to disperse at once, being outnumbered by nearly 130 men, but some hesitated, and none layed down their arms, simply walking off towards the town halls. The situation of course was very tense, and there was much yelling to disperse, lay down arms at once... etc, When, suddenly, without warning, and of unknown origin, a shot rang out. Whatever its origin, that first shot started the soldiers firing, without orders, into the dispersing militia. They were immediately ordered to cease fire, but it was too late. When the smoke cleared from those very few minutes of confusion, eight Lexington militiamen had been killed and nine wounded, some bleeding on the steps to their homes facing the green.

The soldiers, who werent quite sure what they were doing at this point, or what their main objective now was, having never been briefed before marching, grew increasingly nervous as they were now told they had to march another several miles to concord, reaching concord about 7am, even as millitia members and citizens gathered on the other side of the bridge having heard, no doubt, that something was afoot at lexington. Again the government soldiers found nothing of the majority of the muskets, balls and powder they were sent to seize. The larger and mostly immobile artillery pieces they were particulary eager to sieze at concord, and expected to find in the usual place, on or near the central green, had been whisked into predug holes in nearby fields and plowed over. As the numbers of those gathering near the bridge broke 100 armed men and women, the safety in numbers the military men had previously held began quickly to errode, as tensions built.

In the center of the town the government search parties set fire to some smaller gun stores they found, and the militiamen assembling near the North Bridge saw the plume of smoke and believed the troops were beginning to burn the town. They marched forward to the bridge positions held by the soldiers, and the troops again opened fire. The Militiamen returned fire, and several more were killed on both sides.

The government soldiers were driven back to the center of the town, and soon the entire force began to march back the way it had come, down the long road to Boston. Even as the regular army fled these citizen soldiers, word of the attack spread through the system of alarms and ready systems now in place. By the hour, more and more militia companies and citizens were arriving from the surrounding countryside, and the troop's retreat turned into a brutal route, a battle three hundred yards wide and eighteen miles long. At every turn of the road a militia company was waiting and fired into the soldier's ranks. The soldiers ordered out by General Gage were fired upon from many houses along the road, and in response their advance parties began burning nearly every building they came to. In the village of Menotomy, between Lexington and Cambridge, the fighting was especially fierce, and the exhausted and terrified British soldiers forced almost every house along the road and killed all the inhabitants.
About eight o'clock on the evening of the nineteenth, the column finally reached the safety of its own lines across the river from Boston. They had been marching for almost twenty-four hours, through the night, the last six hours under heavy fire, They had suffered more than 272 casualties, including sixty-five killed. The fighting civilians had suffered ninety-four casualties, including fifty killed. Twenty-three seperate towns had at least one member of their militia killed or wounded.
No one had called it, and even, perhaps, no one had known it at the time, but the American Revolution had begun. It began in these few new england towns, but soon, it would spread across what would soon be a new nation.

Within two days, 15,000 men from across New England had assembled and surrounded Boston, and the soldiers of the crown were never able to move more than a short distance off that small peninsula again. Three months later, at the request of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, a Virginian rode north to take command of that citizen army that had laid siege to the city. His name was George Washington, and the 15,000 New England militiamen became the American Army. Eleven months later, the garrison at Boston was evacuated by sea and was never seen in New England again.
In a day where news often took weeks to to travel even a few hundred miles, news of this battle spread at almost supernatural speed. By the evening of the nineteenth—the same day—the news of Lexington had reached New Hampshire to the north and Rhode Island to the south. Within four days it had reached New York City, two hundred miles away. By April 26th the news of Lexington had arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia. New Bern, North Carolina, heard the Lexington alarm by May 3rd, carried via ship from Newport, Rhode Island. Wilmington, North Carolina, heard by May 8th, and Charleston, South Carolina, by May 9th, also from the sea. The Shenandoah Valley on what was then the western frontier received the news overland about the same time. And when it reached a far western hunting camp on another part of the frontier, the hunters decided to name their camp "Lexington." That camp today is the city of Lexington, Kentucky.

A forty-year-old Massachusetts lawyer named John Adams, who had been arguing for some time for a political separation from Britain, heard the news on his farm in Braintree that afternoon, and immediately went to see for himself what had happened. He rode that evening along the battle road for many miles, and saw burned out houses, groups of people burying the dead, and refugee families trying to escape farther into the countryside. Adams remembered that day's ride as a turning point in his life; it convinced him that "the Die was cast, the Rubicon crossed." Within a year he would be working with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence, and would go on to become the second President of the United States. Thomas Paine in Philadelphia had previously thought of the argument between the colonies and the Home Country as "a kind of law-suit", but after news of the battle reached him, he "rejected the hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England forever." George Washington received the news at Mount Vernon and wrote to a friend, "…the once-happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched in blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?"

One of the men in Concord on the nineteenth was the town's minister, the Reverend William Emerson. His house that day became a sanctuary for frightened women and children trying to escape the fighting. More than sixty years later his grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would write one of the defining pieces of American literature for a ceremony commemorating the battle at the North Bridge, that poem with which began this history.
"The fight had been the hinge," said the novelist Henry James, many years later, "on which the large revolving future was to turn."

As JAMES M. NICHOLS wrote in his own remembrance of those who fought at Lexington and Concord, in his history of the revolutionary war, in 1886:

It was one of those great days, one of those elemental occasions in the world's affairs, when the people rise, and act for themselves. Some organization and preparation had been made; but, from the nature of the case, with scarce any effect on the events of that dav. It may be doubted whether there was an efficient order given the whole day, to any body of men as large as a regiment. It was the people, in their first capacity, as citizens and as freemen, starting from their beds at midnight, from their firesided, and from their fields, to take their own cause into their own hands.

Such a spectacle is the height of the moral sublime; when the want of everything is fully made up by the spirit of the cause, and the soul within stands in place of discipline, organization, resources. In the prodigious efforts of a veteran army, beneath the dazzling splendour of their array, there is something revolting to the reflective mind. The ranks are filled with the desperate, the mercenary, the depraved; an iron slavery, by the name of subordination, merges the free will of one hundred thousand men in the unqualified despotism of one; the humanity, mercy, and remorse, which scarce ever deserts the individual bosom, are sounds without a meaning to that fearful, ravenous, irrational monster of prey, a mercenary army. It is hard to say who are most to be commiserated, the wretched people on whom it is let loose, or the still more wretched people whose substance has been sucked out to nourish it into strength and fury.

But, in the efforts of the people -- of the people struggling for their rights, moving not in organIzed, disciplined masses, but in their spontaneous action, man for man, and heart for heart, though I like not war nor any of its works, there is something glorious. They can then move forward without orders, act together without combination, and brave the flaming lines of battle without intrenchments to cover, or walls to shield them.

No dissolute camp has worn off from the feelings of the youthful soldier the freshness of that home where his mother and his sisters sit waiting, with tearful eyes and aching hearts, to hear good news from the wars; no long service in the ranks of a conqueror has turned the veteran's heart into marble; their valour springs not from recklessness, from habit, from indifference to the preservation of a life knit by pledges to the life of others. But in the strength and spirit of the cause alone they act, they contend, they bleed. In this, they conquer.

The people always conquer. They must always conquer. Armies may be defeated; kings may be over thrown, and new dynasties imposed by foreign arms on an ignorant and slavish race, that care not in what language the covenant of their subjection runs, nor in whose name the deed of their barter and sale is made out. But the people never invade; and, when they rise against the invader, are never subdued.

If they are driven from the plains, they fly to the mountains. Steep rocks and everlasting hills are their castles; the tangled, pathless thicket, their palisado; and Nature-God, is their ally. Now he overwhelms the hosts of their enemies, beneath his drifting mountains of sand; now he buries them beneath a falling atmosphere of polar snows; he lets loose his tempests on their fleets; he puts a folly into theIr counsels, a madness into the hearts of their leaders; and never gave, and never will give, a full and final triumph over a virtuous, gallant people, resolved to be free.


So, remember, this patriots day, lest these actions, and the lessons they beget, be forgot.

1 comment:

chris horton said...

Great post Rev!

CIII