Travel Log: Look Closer

The Red Boat

(Bangor, Maine; July 27, 2018) You should always look closer.

One of the great things about doing an extended road trip is that it gives you the chance to kick over a few rocks you’d otherwise miss if you were on a more restricted timetable. However, the basic principle is still one you can practice whenever you’re traveling, or even puttering around your own hometown.

Always look closer.

Massachusetts recently gave me a great example of the value of looking closer. A visit to Lexington and Concord on July 22 showed me how much more there is to discover when you get past the historical headline and look closer at what really happened somewhere. I am not denigrating the “historical headline,” as I put it. Not at all. The historical headline is important because, like the headline on a news story, it summarizes the most famous and, perhaps, most significant, events of that place. This creates the “hook” that draws us in to the story, but the story is inevitably deeper than we often think.

The Shot Heard ‘Round the World is a famous line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 “Concord Hymn” which commemorates the action at Lexington and Concord. The short form of this story is known to most Americans: in early 1775 the first battle of the American Revolution was a double action at the towns of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. These small battles marked the colonies’ earth-shaking challenge of the superpower of its day: Great Britain. “Schoolhouse Rock” did a great piece on this event back in 1976 and was so effective most of us who watched it with our Saturday morning cartoons can still sing the refrain.

Buckman Tavern
Buckman Tavern was the gathering point for the militia in Lexington in 1775.  Today it is a museum.  Lexington, Massachusetts.  July 22, 2018.

However, Ralph Waldo Emerson and “Schoolhouse Rock” only addressed the historical headline in order to introduce people to the story. Go to Lexington and Concord. Look closer, and find how just how much more complex the situation in 1775 really was.

When the British approached Lexington at 5:00 a.m. on April 19, 1775, people on both sides of the political gulf separating Britain from the colonies were in a foul mood. The British army was heading to Concord to confiscate arms and ammunition. The Patriot line that met them in Lexington was not intended to fight, but to be a peaceful show of force protesting the British action (sort of an early version of a picket line). The Patriots, led by Capt. John Parker, were under orders not to fire unless fired upon.

Parker’s own actions belie the actual belligerent intent of the colonist. He ordered his 80 militiamen to disperse after they stood in ranks (note—they stood in ranks and were not hidden behind barricades or any other threatening position). Paul Revere himself recalled Parker saying, “Let the soldiers pass by. Do not molest them without they begin first”. Only in accounts given many, many years after the battle (when fact was beginning to evolve into legend) was Parker credited with saying “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” In reality, despite tempers running high, most likely no one got up that morning declaring, “Hey, let’s start an empire-shattering war today!” As with many things…the situation escalated as the day went on.

The “battle” at Lexington was really a one-sided skirmish that started when someone (British or American, no one will ever know) fired in the dark. The British opened fire and charged with bayonets. Eight Lexington men died and ten were wounded.

The action then stalled for nearly four hours as the British went on to Concord. A small contingent was left to hold the Old North Bridge while the rest went on to confiscate arms and ammunition. As colonial militia gathered on one side of the bridge, and the British contingent stood on the other, a second, anonymous shot rang out, and all hell broke loose for a short time. However, again the British pulled their forces back (giving the colonists a clear victory) and began the return march to Boston.

Old North Bridge, Concord
Visitors examine the reconstructed Old North Bridge, site of the action at Concord following the skirmish in Lexington in April 1775.  Concord, Massachusetts.  July 22, 2018.

The lull in fighting lasted until noon when colonial forces jumped the retreating British and a running battle began that lasted most of the day (going right back through Lexington, mind you). The action went on so long the British actually ran out of ammunition, describing the scene as being surrounded by a ring of fire. The colonist laid siege to Boston; a few months later the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought, Washington took command of the Continental Army, and the war was on.

It all nearly didn’t happen. As I said, no one got up that morning intending to start a war. However, tensions had been growing steadily for several years. People were angry. The colonists felt as if they were being treated like a conquered people instead of Englishmen and women with full rights. The British felt the colonists were flouting their rightful authority and promoting treasonous ideas. In any case, the war did not inevitably have to start at Lexington and Concord; in fact, a slight shift in the actions by any of the players would have averted it. But…tensions escalated until the British found themselves trapped in a running battle.

Lexington was a protest, a demonstration by the colonists, and was never intended by the militia to be a fight. They formed in ranks as if on parade, and Capt. Parker strictly ordered his men not to fire unless fired upon…and then ordered them to disperse after the British regulars showed up in overwhelming force. British officers spent most of the “battle” at Lexington trying to get their own troops back under control (apparently the British troops were royally pissed off at the colonist and the anonymous gun shot shocked them into trying to teach the upstart colonials a lesson).

However, the Patriots were also royally pissed off by this point, and gathered at Concord, their own sense of injustice inflamed by the loss of their compatriots at Lexington. Thus the accidental decimation of a protest at Lexington resulted in a scene of armed, organized resistance at Concord. The colonial militia formed up and gave proper battle to the British regulars, and it seems the point of no return was reached. The war was on.

Take some time to kick over a few rocks closer wherever you are. You will always be amazed by the complexity of the story you’ve discovered. Let the historical headline be your introduction to the story, but look closer and see the details “Schoolhouse Rock” did not have time to convey.

Battle Green
Placed in 1779–while the Revolutionary War was still being fought–the Lexington battle monument is the oldest battle monument in the country.  The remains of the eight Patriots who were killed during the 1775 Battle of Lexington were reinterred to this site in the 19th century.  Lexington, Massachusetts.  July 22, 2018.

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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