The battle of North Bridge in Concord should remind Americans what we stand for.
‘The shot heard round the world”
The phrase comes from the opening stanza of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” (1837) and refers to the first shot of the American Revolution. According to Emerson’s poem, this pivotal shot occurred at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, where the first British soldiers fell in the battles of Lexington and Concord.
“Concord Hymn”, is a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson written for the 1837 dedication of the Obelisk, a monument in Concord, Massachusetts, commemorating the Battle of Concord, the second in a series of battles and skirmishes on April 19, 1775, at the outbreak of the American Revolution.
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 which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Historically, no single shot can be cited as the first shot of the battle or the war. Shots were fired earlier at Lexington, Massachusetts where eight Americans were killed and a British soldier was slightly wounded, but accounts of that event are confused and contradictory, and it has been characterized as a massacre rather than a battle. The North Bridge skirmish did see the first shots by Americans acting under orders, the first organized volley by Americans, the first British fatalities, and the first British retreat.
Americans think of July Fourth as Independence Day — the anniversary of their nation’s birth, signaled by the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But if you really want to celebrate the country’s birthday, you might do that today.
It’s Patriots’ Day. In a time of national tumult and division, let’s all raise a toast, and shed some tears.
Recognized in just four states, Patriots’ Day commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord, where the American Revolution began on April 19, 1775. Every American should know the tale.
For the embattled farmers, the stage was set in February 1775, when the British Parliament declared the existence of a rebellion in Massachusetts. In Concord, the colonists were storing munitions, and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress calmly resolved, “the military force of the Province ought to be assembled, and an army of observation immediately formed, to act solely on the defensive so long as it can be justified on the principles of reason and self-preservation.”
The colonists received word that on April 19, British soldiers would be coming to Concord to remove the munitions. As they made their way there, the British defeated the colonists’ assembled militia in Lexington, killing eight people, and marched on toward Concord.
The closest thing to a contemporaneous account is a small, riveting book published in 1827, under the title “A History of the Fight At Concord on the 19th of April, 1775,” by the Reverend Ezra Ripley, “with other citizens of Concord.” It’s based on the testimony of people who were actually there.
As Ripley and his co-authors tell the tale, the officers in Concord on that day included Colonel James Barrett of Sudbury, Major John Buttrick of Concord, and Captain Isaac Davis of Acton. Davis explained his willingness to defend Concord this way: “I’m not afraid to go, and I haven’t a man that is.”
Barrett gave unambiguous orders to members of the militia: “not to fire, unless the British should first fire on them.” He directed them to march over North Bridge and to await further orders. In the meantime, the British “were very expeditious in destroying all the public stores they could find.” They burned down the local courthouse.
A growing number of armed colonists assembled at North Bridge. From neighboring Acton, Captain Davis arrived with his company. The group “was composed of military officers, volunteers and citizens, the proprietors of the soil, the substantial yeomanry of the then province” — including plenty of farmers. The colonists could see the smoke rising from the town’s center, and the triumphant flags of “the invading troops of the mother country.”
Then and there, they resolved to defend the town, or die in its defense. Still the orders remained: Do not fire unless fired upon.
The original North Bridge was dismantled in 1793 by the town of Concord because its use as a bridge had become impractical; a new bridge was erected a few hundred yards away. The bridge was rebuilt multiple times in 1875, 1889, and 1909. The current replica was built in 1956 and was based on drawings of the bridge built in the 1760s. The bridge was restored in 2005.
In 1836, when there was no bridge at the site, the residents of Concord erected a memorial obelisk on the east side of the river, the side closest to the town center. Inscribed on the eastern (approach) side of the monument is:
“HERE On the 19 of April 1775, was made the first forcible resistance to British aggression On the opposite Bank stood the American Militia. Here stood the Invading Army and on this spot the first of the Enemy fell in the War of that Revolution which gave Independence to these United States. In gratitude to GOD and In the love of Freedom this Monument was erected AD. 1836.”
The confrontation started when the British shot into the Concord River. The Americans saw them as mere warning shots, not aimed at them. But a minute later, the British followed with a volley, killing Captain Davis, who was shot in the heart. He left a widow and five children.
Witnessing this, Major John Buttrick, a leader of the Concord militia, leaped up from the ground and exclaimed, “Fire, fellow soldiers, for God’s sake, fire.” According to those who were there, “The word fire ran like electricity through the whole line of Americans,” and “For a few seconds, the word, fire, fire was heard from hundreds of mouths.”
Acting as one, Concord’s embattled farmers followed Buttrick’s order. (That’s the shot heard round the world.) They killed two British soldiers and wounded several others. The rest immediately retreated. In the words of Ripley and his co-authors, “They appeared to be very much alarmed, and ran with great speed.”
The Americans had won the first engagement. The war was on.
The events of April 19, 1775, were the culmination of decades of new thinking about equality, freedom and self-government. With amazement, John Adams wrote that “Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride, was never so totally eradicated from so many Minds in so short a Time.”
David Ramsay, one of the nation’s first historians (himself captured by the British during the Revolution), marveled that Americans were transformed “from subjects to citizens,” and that was an “immense” difference, because citizens “possess sovereignty. Subjects look up to a master, but citizens are so far equal, that none have hereditary rights superior to others.”
If you want to understand American exceptionalism, that’s a good place to start. And if you want to understand the nation’s character, you would do well to focus on Concord’s embattled farmers — united, keenly aware of the risks, and without a single one afraid to go.
Happy Patriots’ Day to all.