Travel April 2001

A Revolutionary Itinerary

An Englishman tours historic battlefields in Massachusetts and New York
More

Most of the numerous war memorials in Concord, Massachusetts, are to the young men of the town who died while winning America's wars over the centuries, but one is to the losers. Standing at the North Bridge and dated April 19, 1775, it reads,

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.

Like those English soldiers, my countrymen, I had to come 3,000 miles—but on a peaceful mission, to look around battle sites of the War of Independence. Some of these are found in particularly attractive corners of America, and they provide a nice connecting theme for a family holiday. But my visit also gave me an opportunity to ponder the complexities and ironies of history.

My journey began at Lexington and Concord, once a day's march from Boston, now half an hour's drive away. Around there an English tourist always has a home-away-from-home feeling. Despite the differences of topography, flora, and fauna, most vividly amid the garish russets and ochers of the famed New England fall (the time of my visit, last year), in Massachusetts I cannot quite feel I'm in a foreign country. Gloucester and Worcester, Plymouth and Weymouth, Leominster and Sunderland, Oxford and Cambridge: it isn't called New England for nothing. Lexington and Concord both have the recognizable tang of English villages, each with its village green, the Battle Green at Lexington dominated by its Minuteman statue, the smaller Concord green framed by those memorials.

My purpose in making this visit was not to concoct a revisionist interpretation of the War of Independence, although the conflict was politically and morally confused, with right and wrong anything but clear-cut. Not least, there were plenty of Englishmen who warmly sympathized with the Colonial rebels, and plenty of American loyalists, or Tories, who wanted to remain true to their monarch in London—and who would have tried to, if he and his ministers hadn't pigheadedly made their position impossible.

The King of Great Britain, denounced in the Declaration of Independence for his "injuries and usurpations," was kindly in person (the affectionate portrait in Alan Bennett's The Madness of King George isn't a fantasy), and Lord North, his Prime Minister, was "an easy-going, obstinate man, with a quick wit." But they blew it, lacking what might nowadays be called strategic humility. The Coercive Acts were passed, to suppress incipient rebellion, and troops were sent across the Atlantic. Lord Chatham, of all people (Pitt the Elder, who had been his country's victorious war leader in the previous decade), demanded the repeal of the acts: "There is no time to be lost; every moment is big with dangers. Nay, while I am now speaking, the decisive blow may be struck."

So it was, not many weeks after he spoke. By April of 1775 Massachusetts was coming to the boil, with a popularly elected Congress, and a Committee of Safety preparing armed resistance. General Thomas Gage was governor and the commander of the British army in North America, a likable man, married to an American woman, and with no hatred of the colonists. But when he learned that the committee was stockpiling munitions and food at Concord, he sent a detail there to seize the supplies. The story never palls in the telling: warning lights in the Old North Church of Boston, the rides of William Dawes and Paul Revere to rouse the people of Lexington and Concord, and then "the shot heard round the world."

From the archives:

"Chiefly About War Matters" (July 1862)
A dispatch from the Civil War. By Nathaniel Hawthorne

"Paul Revere's Ride" (January 1861)
A poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Thoreau's Wild Apples" (March 9, 2000)
At the end of his life Henry David Thoreau was working on essays commissioned by The Atlantic. One of them, "Wild Apples," has recently resurfaced.

Flashbacks: "Rhetoric of Freedom" (September 16, 1999)
Essays, poems, and speeches in The Atlantic Monthly by Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass.

Flashbacks: "Louisa May Alcott" (July 1995)
Four short stories from The Atlantic Monthly demonstrate Alcott's little-known penchant for romantic fantasy.

First blood was shed at Lexington. When the Redcoats, under Major John Pitcairn, arrived in the morning, they found a band of Minutemen on the common. After some delay firing began, and soon eight colonists lay dead, as the British marched on to Concord. Today both places are sleepy and postcard-pretty, though full of alarmingly luxurious boutiques, antiques stores, and restaurants. The good people of Concord can dine on crab cakes with balsamic-vinegar sauce and other dishes unknown to the Pilgrim fathers, who got by also without Lexington's Whole Health Farmacy and the Center for Acupuncture.

Each town is admirably maintained. Apart from its visitors' center, the Lexington Historical Society keeps several Colonial-era houses impeccably tidy, though be warned if you have a problem with fancy dress: there's a lot of it about in these parts—tour guides dressed in periwigs and breeches, or long skirts. At moments during my tour I felt like the Hollywood producer who said he didn't want to see any more movies where they wrote with feathers. It was in Lexington that Revere stopped with his warning, before riding on toward Concord. A mile to the east of the green stands the Munroe Tavern, commandeered that April day by the British as headquarters and field hospital, while the barkeep himself, William Munroe, was down the road serving in Captain John Parker's company. Those Minutemen had their own headquarters at the Buckman Tavern, where Parker's company met at dawn to await the British. The tavern was restored in the 1920s, but it preserves a door with a hole from a British musket round.

From Lexington to Concord is the five and a half miles of the Battle Road Trail. You pass the Minute Man Visitor Center (a pretty park) and the Hartwell Tavern (more "costumed interpreters") before reaching Concord, with its doubly explosive charge of American military and literary history. A cluster of houses holds memories of Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcott family, and Thoreau's Walden Pond is a few minutes away. Here is the distilled essence of that great Protestant culture of New England which dominated America for generations and is now barely a memory. My first night was spent at the excellent Colonial Inn, doubtless more comfortable today than when it was built, in 1716.

A few minutes' walk from the inn up Monument Street, past the fascinating Old Manse, a house built by Ralph Waldo Emerson's grandfather and once inhabited by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a path on the left that leads to the North Bridge. The site is now innocuous enough, but the mind's eye can picture that April day. After their sharp but inconclusive little engagement in Lexington, the British marched here to face down the rebels, and marched into disaster. The firefight at the North Bridge has been compared to the "Black Hawk Down" debacle described in Mark Bowden's book of that name, when ninety-nine elite American soldiers were helicoptered into Mogadishu, in Somalia, in October of 1993, and brought out after eighteen of their number had been slaughtered.

What North Bridge showed was that sheer technical superiority isn't everything in warfare. Historians have been telling us lately that the fabled Minutemen weren't such hotshots after all. And it's true that the eighteenth-century musket, with its unrifled bore, was a highly inaccurate weapon; true, too, that the Massachusetts militiamen weren't trained soldiers at all. But then, neither were those Somali fighters, who made up for it with ferocity and sheer numbers. And so the British force, cut down by a hail of musket fire, pulled out of Concord and began a grim march to base, picked off by Minutemen firing from behind every hedge and hillock, until they reached Boston, less 274 men killed or wounded, to find that their troubles had only begun.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In