Monday, April 8, 2019

“Ye Villains! Ye Rebels! Disperse, Damn You! Disperse!” - Four More Myths About the Battle of Lexington

Last week the nerds shared four common misconceptions surrounding the Battle of Lexington and its participants. As we lead up to the annual celebration of Patriot’s Day, here are four more common misbeliefs about the April 19, 1775 engagement.

Captain Parker’s Company was not properly armed and equipped
A common misconception about the Battle of Lexington is that Captain John Parker’s Company was sparsely armed and equipped. Starting in the early 19th Century and well into the 20th Century, paintings, images, historical interpretations and fictional accounts of the Battle of Lexington have depicted the town’s militia company as carrying little to no equipment.

However, a review of period documentation, including primary accounts of the Battle of Lexington, town records and probate inventories show that the Lexington Company actually assembled on the common fully equipped for a military campaign. 

Image by Stephanie Godley

On December 10, 1774, the Provincial Congress declared “The improvement of the militia in general in the art military has been therefore thought necessary, and strongly recommended by this Congress. We now think that particular care should be taken by the towns and districts in this colony, that each of the minute men, not already provided therewith, should be immediately equipped with an effective firearm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls . . . [that], as the security of the lives, liberties and properties of the inhabitants of this province, depends under Providence, on their knowledge and skill in the art of military, and in their being properly and effectually armed and equipped, it is therefore recommended, that they immediately provide themselves therewith; that they use their utmost diligence to perfect themselves in military skill”. When the Massachusetts Provincial Congress issued a resolution regarding the arms and equipment to be carried by its minute and militia companies, Lexington quickly responded. Two days after the Provincial Congress order, the Lexington selectmen ordered the militia to appear at the meeting house for an inspection. During the review, deficiencies in arms and equipment were apparently observed. As a result, the selectmen quickly scheduled a town meeting. On December 27, 1774, the residents reviewed their options and voted to form a committee that would oversee measures to ensure the militia was prepared for war. “Votede . . . That seven persons be appointed as a committee of inspections to see that the plans of the . . .Provincial Congresses are faithfully carriede into executione.”

One of the individuals assigned to the committee was Captain John Parker, commander of the Lexington militia. Over the next several months it appears that this committee took steps to ensure the company was properly armed and equipped. As a result of this effort, several men in Lexington personally contributed to Lexington’s effort to properly arm and equip the town’s militia for war. Jonathan Harrington Sr., the father of company fifer Jonathan Harrington, and Phillip Russell were charged with making cartridge boxes and belting for the militia. Jeremiah Harrington was making tow cloth knapsacks while John Parker was possibly making powder horns for the Lexington Company. Jonas Parker was cutting back gunstocks so fowlers could accept socket bayonets and Nathan Simonds was providing blankets to those Lexington militiamen who could not afford them.

So, did Parker’s Company carry cartridge boxes, muskets, bayonets, powder horns, blankets and packs when it assembled the morning of April 19, 1775? There are several pieces of evidence which support the proposition that it did. 

First, in the aftermath of the Battle of Lexington, thirty-three Lexington militiamen signed a deposition asserting they were “alarmed” and appeared at the company parade. The legal term “alarmed” was a 17th and 18th-century legal term describing a militia’s response to an emergency situation. Under Massachusetts colonial militia laws between 1690 and 1773, when a company was alarmed, they were also required to rally armed and equipped for a military campaign. Second, according to the 1776 anniversary sermon of the Reverend Jonas Clarke, there was a debate over whether the company should dismiss and reform at another location. Clarke also discussed how Parker’s Company was prepared to respond to any military emergency, regardless of the location. “Upon this intelligence, as also upon information of the conduct of the officers as above-mentioned, the militia of ths town were alarmed, and ordered to meet on the usual place of parade; not with any design of commencing hostilities upon the king’s troops but to consult what might be done for our own and the people’s safety; And also to be ready for whatever service providence might call us out to, upon this alarming occasion in case overt acts of violence or open hostilities be committed by this mercenary hand of armed and blood thirsty oppressors.”

There is also the official correspondence from Lt. Colonel Francis Smith. In his report to General Thomas Gage regarding the events of April 19th, the expedition commander specifically states the Lexington militia was drawn up in military order, armed and fully equipped. “I think it proper to observe, that when I had got some miles on the march from Boston, I detached six light infantry companies to march with all expedition to seize the two bridges on different roads beyond Concord. On these companies' arrival at Lexington, I understand, from the report of Major Pitcairn, who was with them, and from many officers, that they found on a green close to the road a body of the country people drawn up in military order, with arms and accouterment, and, as appeared after, loaded.”

Finally, there the petitions from several Lexington men or families who described how British troops looted the dead and wounded of their arms and equipment in the aftermath of the skirmish. John Tidd submitted a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature in early 1776 claiming that after he was wounded at the Battle of Lexington, British soldiers robbed him of his arms and equipment. “Petition of John Tidd of Lexington setting forth that on the 19th of April he received a wound in the head (by a Cutlass) from the enemy, which brought him (senceless) to the ground at wch time they took from him his gun, cartridge box, powder horn &c.” Likewise, Benjamin Wellington and two other individuals submitted claims that stated “Petition of Benja Wellington, & others of Lexington, setting forth that they sustained the aforementioned losses by the Kings troops on the 19th of April 1775 viz: Benja Wellington, a gun, bayonet, &c. … Jno Muzzy, a gun, powder horn, &c. Taken from his son … Lucy Parker, a musquet, &c. Taken from her husband … Marrit Munro, a gun & hat taken from him.”

There were very few spectators present at the Battle of Lexington.

One important aspect of the Battle of Lexington that has been often overlooked by historians is the psychological and physical impact upon the civilian populace. David Hackett Fisher argues in his work, Paul Revere’s Ride, that a large number of spectators from Lexington and nearby towns gathered along the edge of the town common to watch how the events would unfold. Unfortunately, Fisher’s assumption is most likely incorrect.

When Lexington’s alarm bell began to toll in the early morning, most residents recognized that a hostile military force was marching directly towards them. With the possibility of the town being subjected to plunder and destruction, a panic set in. Many who lived along the Boston Road prepared to evacuate. Anna Munroe, wife of Sergeant Munroe, started to bake bread for her husband. Later she confessed, “I mixed my bread last night with tears coming, for I feared I should have no husband when the next mixing came.” The Reverend William Gordon of Roxbury noted “the inhabitants had quitted their houses in the general area upon the road, leaving almost everything behind them, and thinking themselves well off in escaping with their lives.” Some escaped with a few select belongings. Others quickly hid or buried valuables before leaving. One 19th century Lexington account suggested many residents “hid their silver and mirrors and many other things in [a] swamp. The Reverend Clarke's family hid “money, watches, and anything down in the potatoes.” Captain Parker’s wife, Lydia, “took all the valuables and hid them in a hollow trunk of a tree standing some distance from the house.” Lydia Mulliken and her daughters, who lived along the Boston road, heard the alarm and hurriedly buried the family’s silver and other valuables by a stone wall near their clock shop, then fled to distant safety. Mary Sanderson gathered her children and “taking such articles as they could hurriedly collect and carry in their arms, by the light of a lantern [made their way] to a refuge, the home of her father in New Scotland.” The Loring daughters scurried to hide the communion silver in a brush heap back of the house before fleeing.

Ralph Earl, The Battle of Lexington, April 19th, 1775, etched by Amos Doolittle

For some women, the flight was particularly difficult. Four women, Sarah Marrett, Amity Pierce, Sarah Reed and Betty White, were still likely bedridden having given birth over the past month. Sarah Reed and her newborn child had to be carried out her home on a mattress by her husband and in-laws. Three others, Dorcus Parker, Elizabeth Estabrook and Lydia Harrington, were all over eight months pregnant. Other women rushed to get their young children to safety. Abigail Harrington, took her toddlers “down a lane back of the house across a meadow to the old place on Smock farm.” Anna Munroe fled from the family tavern with her three young children and hid on a hill behind the establishment.

Several Lexington militiamen in later accounts recounted how they passed the time waiting for the regulars by taking shelter in vacated homes along the Green.

Thus, most of Lexington's women and children who resided along the Bay Road were likely long gone and out of the way by the time Major Pitcairn arrived in Lexington.

However, this is not to say there were no spectators. Instead, period accounts suggest there was a small smattering of spectators who witnessed the battle. Local tradition suggests that the wife of Jonathan Harrington, who was killed in the engagement, was too ill to evacuate and observed the battle from the second floor of her home. Thomas Rice Willard watched the battle from a window in Daniel Harrington’s house, also located at the back of the Lexington common. William Draper, a resident of Colrain, Massachusetts who happened to be in Lexington on April 19th watched the battle from an unknown location. Finally, Thomas Fessenden asserted that as he stood in a pasture, he watched the regulars enter the common and rush the training band “at about half an hour before sunrise.”

There were Loyalists present at the Battle of Lexington.

Wait … what?

When Smith’s expedition departed from Boston, present with the column were the Loyalist guides who either volunteered or were recruited to assist the mission to Concord. Little has been written about the role Loyalists played in Gage’s military operation. A review of primary sources, including Loyalist claims for compensation after the American Revolution, suggests that at least six loyalists were recruited to assist Lieutenant Colonel Smith’s expedition by navigating colonial roads and assisting troops in locating military stores in Concord.

Among the guides were former Harvard classmates and friends Daniel Bliss of Concord and Daniel Leonard of Taunton. Both were well established attorneys who were forced to flee to the safety of Boston in 1774. It was suspected by many Massachusetts Loyalists that Leonard was the anonymous author “Massachusettensis”, who had published a series of pro-government letters drafted in response to the political arguments of John Adams.

Dr. Thomas Boulton of Salem and Edward Winslow Jr. of Plymouth also volunteered for the mission. Boulton was a vocal supporter of Crown policies towards Massachusetts and was forced to flee to Boston in 1774. Winslow held several political and legal posts in Plymouth County. Sensing a radical shift in the political mood in October of 1774, he abandoned his estate and also retreated to Boston.

Another Loyalist was William Warden. Warden was born in Boston and was a shopkeeper, grocer and barber. Unlike many of his station, Warden had been opposed to the political and violent activities of the Massachusetts “patriots” since the Stamp Act. 

Image Courtesy of McAlpin's Corps of American Volunteers

It appears the guides were interspersed throughout the column. Lieutenant William Sutherland of the 38th Regiment of Foot references on two separate occasions a “guide” attached to the front of the column. “When I heard Lieut. Adair of the Marines who was a little before me in front call out, here are two fellows galloping express to Alarm the Country, on which I immediately ran up to them, seized one of them and our guide the other, dismounted them and by Major Pitcairn's direction gave them in charge to the men.” In a separate letter, Sutherland describes how a Loyalist guide identified a captured American prisoner as being a person of importance. “I mett coming out of a cross road another fellow galloping, however, hearing him some time before I placed myself so that I got hold of the bridle of his horse and dismounted him, our guide seemed to think that he was a very material fellow and said something as if he had been a Member of the Provincial Congress.”

When the British light infantry stepped onto the Lexington Green the morning of April 19, 1775, at least one to two loyalist guides were with them. In his petition for compensation to the British Government at the end of the Revolution, loyalist Edward Winslow Jr. asserted he was with the 4th and 10th Regiments of Foot when they advanced on Captain Parker’s Company. Another loyalist suspected of being at the head of the column was Concord attorney Daniel Bliss.

The British Troops and Captain Parker’s Company were not in a standoff.

Most modern depictions of the engagement, including the movie April Morning, depict a brief but tense standoff between both sides before a mysterious shot is fired and the skirmish begins. However, in reality, the entire skirmish was over in less than five minutes.

As the British column closed in on Lexington’s common, a British sergeant reported that a party of colonial horsemen rode out from the village and shouted, “[you] had better turn back, for you shall not enter the town!” One of the mounted men then “presented a musquet and attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan.” According to Lieutenant Sutherland, another individual fired at him from the vicinity of Buckman’s Tavern. He reported this to Pitcairn who then galloped to the front of the column, halted the men and ordered them to load their muskets and fix bayonets. “On this, I gave directions to the troops to move forward, but on no account to Fire, or even attempt it without Orders.”

William Sutherland noted “shots fired to the right and left of us, but as we heard no whissing of balls, I [concluded] they were to Alarm the body that was there of our approach.” Off in the distance, militiamen could be seen hurrying into line. “The road before you go into Lexington is level for about 1000 yards . . . when we came up to the main body which appeared to me to Exceed 400 in and about the village who were drawn up in a plain opposite the church.”

Captain Parker’s men waited nervously for the arrival of the British regulars. As the troops approached, many began to realize the danger they were in. One was bold enough to tell Parker “There are so few of us! It is folly to stand here!” The militia captain, ignoring the outcry, turned to his company and stated “Let the troops pass by, and don't molest them, without they begin first.”

Pitcairn was confronted with a military quandary. If he chose to ignore the militia company drawn up on the village common, he would be leaving an armed opponent to his rear. If he halted, he could exacerbate an already tense situation.

The light infantry officers in the lead company of the column, the 4th Regiment of Foot, resolved Pitcairn’s dilemma by directing their men towards the Lexington militia. The next regiment, the 10th Regiment of Foot, quickly followed. The two lead companies raced towards the increasingly nervous militia. Suddenly, they deployed into a line of battle, continued their rapid advance and began to shout “Huzzah!” Pitcairn, realizing the situation was getting out of hand, “instantly called to the soldiers not to fire, but rather to surround and disarm the militiamen.” Many of the excited troops and officers may never have heard this order as they continued to shout and yell. Lieutenant Edward Gould of the 4th Foot later testified that he could not hear above the noise his men were making.

Image from Hallmark's movie April Morning

Pitcairn and other officers then rode towards Captain Parker and his men. According to Sutherland, several officers began to shout, “throw down your arms and you shall come by no harm, or words to that effect.” Private James Marr of the 4th Foot believed Pitcairn exclaimed, “Stop you rebels!” However, many of the Lexington militiamen later asserted that the officers shouted “Lay down your arms, Damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms?” Militiaman John Robbins, who was in the front rank as the regulars approached, recalled the officers chastised the militia by stating, “Throw down your arms ye Villians, ye Rebels!” Spectator Thomas Fessenden heard an officer order “Disperse you rebels, immediately.” Jonas Clarke, believed he heard an officer demand “Ye villains! Ye rebels! Disperse, damn you! Disperse!”

Recognizing the situation was becoming more and more dangerous, Parker turned to his men and issued new orders. “I immediately ordered our militia to disperse, and not to fire.” Most of the men obeyed his command and began to file off the common. Some, however, either did not hear Parker’s order or chose to ignore it. As a result, several Lexington men held their ground as the light infantry surged forward.

Suddenly, a single shot rang out and the rest is history.

Monday, April 1, 2019

"To Be in Constant Readiness for Action" - Addressing Some of the Myths Surrounding the Battle of Lexington

Yesterday, the nerds had the opportunity to observe the annual dress rehearsal of the Battle of Lexington reenactment. Thankfully, the public interpreters did a wonderful job educating the public about the facts and circumstances surrounding the opening engagement of the American Revolution.

Naturally, this inspired us to address some of the more common myths surrounding the engagement. Without further delay, here is the first batch of common misconceptions and myths we’ve encountered over the years!

The Men Who Stood on the Green Were Called "The Lexington Minute Men”

Lexington’s militia was not known in 1775 as the “Lexington Minute Men”. Available research suggests a formal minute company had yet to be established by April 1775. According to period accounts, including the correspondence from the Reverend William Gordon, the Lexington militia was only divided into two bodies formally known as the Training Band and Alarm List. On the other hand, a minute company simply did not exist in Lexington.

However, depositions from some of the Lexington militiamen in the aftermath of the Battle of Lexington informally referred to their town militia not as the Lexington Training Band, but as “Captain Parker’s Company”. On April 25, 1775, Simon Winship stated the British troops “marched on till they came within a few Rods of Captain Parkers Company.” A day earlier, John Robbins asserted “that on the Nineteenth Instant, the Company under the Command of Captain John Parker, being drawn up (sometime before sun Rise) on the Green or Common.” William Draper stated “I, William Draper, of lawful Age, and an Inhabitant of Colrain, in the County of Hampshire, and Colony of Massachusetts Bay, in New England, do testify and Declare, that, being on the Parade of said Lexington, April 19th Instant, about half an hour before sunrise, the King's Regular Troops appeared at the meeting House of Lexington. Captain Parkers Company, who were drawn up back of said meeting house on the Parade, turned from said Troops, making their escape, by dispersing; in the meantime, the Regular Troops made an huzza, and ran towards Captain Parkers Company.” 

Surprisingly, a third name, “Lexington Company”, was also utilized by the town’s militiamen. In other depositions immediately following the Battle of Lexington, no less than five Lexington men refer to their unit as “The Lexington Company”. “I, Elijah Saunderson, above named, do further testifie and declare, that I was on Lexington Common, the Morning of the Nineteenth of April, aforesaid, having been dismissed by the Officers above mentioned, and saw a Large Body of Regular Troops advancing toward Lexington Company.” According to Benjamin Tidd, “the regulars fired, first, a few guns, which we took to be pistols from some of the Regulars who were mounted on Horses, and then the said Regulars fired a Volley or two before any guns were fired by the Lexington Company.”

Thus, all three names are proper references to the militia unit that fought at the Battle of Lexington.  Unfortunately, the "Lexington Minute Men" term is not one of them.

Captain John Parker Was a Veteran of the French and Indian War

Captain John Parker was the commanding officer of the American militia at the Battle of Lexington. Family tradition credits Parker with considerable military experience prior to the Revolution. It is claimed that he was present at the capture of Louisburg, served during the French and Indian War, fought in Quebec in 1759, and was a member of Roger’s Rangers.

So, did John Parker actually have military combat experience before April 19, 1775? The answer is a resounding NO.

The first time someone claimed John Parker was a veteran of the French wars was in 1893, one hundred and eighteen years after the Battle of Lexington. That year two separate publications asserted Parker had combat experience. The first was written by his grandson, the Reverend Theodore Parker. In his work Genealogy and Biographical Notes of John Parker of Lexington and His Descendants: Showing His Earlier Ancestry in America from Dea. Thomas Parker of Reading, Mass., from 1635 to 1893, the Reverend Parker states “John Parker was at the capture of Louisburg in 1758... was at the taking of Quebec in 1759 . . . [and was] made a sergeant in this war.” A second publication by Captain Parker’s great-granddaughter Elizabeth S. Parker alleged the militia captain “had served in the French and Indian War.” 

Over the next several decades, historians were quick to promote these questionable claims. Unfortunately, there are no official records, journals or surviving artifacts to support the proposition John Parker enlisted in the war effort against the French, let alone saw combat.

One claim occasionally advanced by 20th-century historians is that Parker’s father Josiah served at the 1745 Siege of Louisbourg as an officer. In turn, he must have brought his then fifteen-year-old son John along as a servant. This assertion is nothing more than bunk. There are no records that Josiah Parker enlisted in the Louisbourg expedition. In fact, town records from the period clearly establish that Josiah Parker was in Lexington and actively serving as a selectman in 1745.

Likewise, a review of marriage, baptismal, personal, town and military records all demonstrate that John Parker was also present in Lexington during the French and Indian War. On May 25, 1755, Parker married Lydia Moore in Lexington. In early Spring of 1756, Lydia became pregnant. According to Parker’s own account book, he was satisfying woodworking orders in Lexington during the month of August 1757. She gave birth to a baby girl on November 8th. In the summer of 1758, Lydia became pregnant for the second time and gave birth to a baby girl on January 11, 1759.

While Provincial and Regular troops were laying siege to Quebec, Parker was in Lexington. In June 1759, Benjamin Reed noted that he assembled his militia company and issued bayonets to some of his men. John Parker was one of them. “The following names are a full and Just account of those to whom I the Subscriber delivered Bayonets in the company under my command in Lexington, Benjamin Reed, Captain, June 5, 1759… [49 militiamen listed including John Parker].”

Each of these events occurred after the commencement of a seasonal military campaign. If Parker enlisted with a Massachusetts provincial regiment, he would have embarked in April or May with his regiment for either the New York frontier or Nova Scotia. He would not have returned to Lexington until late November. Unfortunately, he could not have been in two places at once.

However, the fact that John Parker lacked military experience should not take away from his accomplishments immediately following his defeat at the Battle of Lexington. Parker successfully rallied his company and mobilized them for war. Less than twelve hours later, he successfully staged a devastating ambush against a retreating British column. This action alone should put to rest any doubt regarding the military skills of John Parker.

Captain John Parker’s Company Was Not Properly Trained for War

Unfortunately, a very common misconception about Captain John Parker’s Company is that the unit was poorly trained and put little to no emphasis on wartime preparation. This could not be further from the truth. 

Under the guidance of the Reverend Clarke, the town was on a wartime footing as early as 1768. Six weeks before the October 26, 1774 resolves of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress calling for wartime readiness, the Lexington militia was already “training” and “showing arms”. Other accounts suggest that the Lexington men were constantly drilling. According to William Tidd, “said company frequently met for exercise, the better to be prepared for defense.” Likewise, John Munroe recalled, “ the company was frequently called out for exercise, and desired to furnish ourselves with arms and ammunition, and to be in constant readiness for action.”

Lexington’s attention to military detail naturally caught the attention of Pitcairn’s officers when they stepped onto the Lexington Green. The British commander of the expedition to Concord, Lt. Colonel Francis Smith, later reported that his officers noted Parker’s Company was “drawn up in military order”. Ensign Henry De Berniere of the 10th Foot, described the Lexington men drawn up in two “divisions”, with a company-wide space between the two. Ensign Jeremy Lister recalled, “it was at Lexington when we saw one of their Comps drawn up in regular order.” Interestingly enough, Major John Pitcairn claims to have observed the militia company attempt to leave the Green by using the complicated light infantry maneuver of retiring by files. “I observed drawn up upon a Green near 200 rebels; when I came within about 100 yards of them, they began to file off towards some stone walls on our right flank.”

Thus, period accounts clearly establish John Parker and his officers were taking the necessary steps to ensure their men were properly trained for war.

Lexington Had a Cannon on the Eve of the Battle of Lexington?!?

Surprisingly, this myth is true! 

In late 1774, as wartime preparations started to ramp up, many Massachusetts towns were scrambling to obtain artillery pieces. Some of the guns, mostly iron cannons, were taken from coastal defenses around Boston and sent to Watertown.

Two of the guns caught the attention of Lexington. Its residents quickly pressed the selectmen to acquire a pair of cannons for the town. On November 3, 1774 a petition was submitted to “see if the Town will fetch two small pieces of cannon from Watertown, offered by said Town for the use of the Company in this Towne.” A week later, the town approved the purchase of two gun. “Voted. . . to bring the two pieces of Cannon (mentioned in the warrant) from Watertown & mount them, at the Town charge.” 

After approving the purchase of two cannons, in true Yankee fashion, the residents voted to create a committee to explore the cheapest methods of mounting of the guns on carriages and building of ammunition boxes. “Voted . . . That a Comtee of three persons go to Watertown & see what the cost of mounting sd pieces will be & whether the carriages cannot be made by work men in this town . . . Captain Bowmane, Mr. Jonas Parkere & Ensign Harrington . . . Be a Comtee for the sd. Purpose.”

At some point after November 28, 1774, it received the two guns from Watertown. “Voted . . . that the Selectmen receive the two pieces of cannon with their beds of the Towne of Watertowne and give receipts for the same on behalf of the Towne . . . that a committee of three persons be chosen to get the saide pieces well mounted & as cheap as they can. . . Voted . . . £40 for the purpose of mounting the cannon ammunition.” 

By late February 1775, Thomas Robbins of Lexington was already making ammunition cartridges for the guns. On February 27th, the town “Granted an ordere to pay Mr. Tho Robbins 1/9 in full for his trimming the Bales (balls?) & providing baggs to put them in.”

Unfortunately, what became of the guns after February 1775 is unknown. Lexington’s town meeting minutes from the Spring of 1775 were stolen years ago. Records from December 1775 through the remainder of the war do not mention the cannons. Likewise, there are no period accounts suggesting that the pair of guns were used at the Battle of Lexington.

Shortly after the War for Independence, Lexington formed an artillery company. Whether the guns used were the same ones acquired from Watertown in 1774 remains a mystery.

Join us later this week as the nerds continue to address even more misconceptions surrounding the Battle of Lexington and its participants!