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For people living in Massachusetts April 19th is more than the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s Patriots Day — the day and date in 1775 when the British army, stationed in Boston, sent a force across the Charles River in the dark of night, planning a surprise march to Lexington to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and from there to Concord to seize gunpowder and other supplies stored by the disaffected citizenry.
The rebellious farmers had established a militia, the Minute Men, and now aroused by the warnings of Paul Revere and William Dawes — “The British are coming!” — the armed men gathered at dawn on the Lexington Common. The advancing British ordered them to disperse, the Minute Men refused, a shot was fired, the political revolution became an armed insurrection. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, half a mile away, escaped even as the firing of musketry on the Common began. But the locals were no match for the British Regulars who continued their march to Concord where another group of Minute Men had gathered on a rise overlooking at a bridge over the Concord River. The British occupied the town center and left a small detachment to guard the bridge while others searched for the rebels’ military supplies. The Minute Men, seeing smoke rising from town, thought the British had set fires, so they marched down to the bridge and to engage and overwhelm the outnumbered British troops.
Here’s a stanza from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s elegiac commemorative poem written for the monument erected by the bridge:
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.
As the British Redcoats marched back to Boston they were harassed continuously by the Minute Men. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wonderful narrative poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” contains these lines about those events:
You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
In Concord, inscribed over the grave of two British soldiers who were killed in the Concord skirmish, is a stanza of a poem called “Lines” by James Russell Lowell:
They came three-thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English mother made her moan.
(If you’re interested in poetry, we can recommend the elegy by Emerson, and we do enjoy the stirring poem by Longfellow, but we’re happy to avoid Lowell’s knotted and at times incomprehensible verses.)
Nowadays, April 19th is celebrated on the third Monday in April. In Lexington, early in the morning of every 19th of April, no matter when it’s celebrated, the Minute Men gather on the Green under the leadership of Captain John Parker, and the Red Coats come marching in neat rows under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. The armed farmers are told to disperse, but they refuse. A shot is fired, then a fusillade of British musketry, and when the smoke clears, some of the Minute Men have fallen, and the British regulars continue their March toward Concord.