A Revolutionary Itinerary

An Englishman tours historic battlefields in Massachusetts and New York

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.

One other name synonymous with independence is now part of Boston. If you've been lunching in one of the good Italian restaurants of the North End, right behind The Atlantic Monthly's office, you can work off the effects of rigatoni and Valpolicella by walking briskly along North Washington Street, across the Charlestown Bridge, and up Breed's Hill, the actual site of most of the Battle of Bunker Hill and now a pleasant quarter covered in what an English estate agent would call "des. res." (desirable residences). Finally, you can ascend the monumental obelisk that crowns the hill, all 294 steps of it, and, if you aren't panting too much, look down on what was once a battlefield and enjoy a glorious view of the city.

In 1775 the topography of the bay was quite different: three distinct peninsulas, like stubby fingers, stuck out seaward. To the south was Dorchester Heights (one day to become part of Irish South Boston), where American artillery drove out the British in March of 1776 in another critical encounter of the New England campaign. The middle peninsula was Boston itself, almost an island, linked to the mainland by a narrow neck, with its road to the village of Roxbury. North of Boston was the third, small peninsula, between the Charles and Mystic Rivers. Here Breed's Hill looked down on Charlestown, at the end of the point, which the patriot militias had fortified.

In June of 1775 the Second Continental Congress was debating the next course of action, with Franklin, Jefferson, and Hancock among the debaters. They still held back from a formal declaration of independence, but they agreed to accept the Massachusetts militias as combatants, and appointed Colonel George Washington as commander in chief. Washington was preparing to arrive when he was brought the news of the Battle of Bunker Hill, on June 17. The lines of battle are arrayed in a diorama next to the obelisk. Technically it was a victory for the British, who attacked the patriot fortifications—but a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was: out of 2,200 British soldiers 1,034 were killed or wounded, including one in nine of all the officers the British lost in the whole war.

For a complete contrast to the gentle landscape of those New England battlefields, I traveled on to the Hudson River Valley. Nothing had prepared me for the gaunt beauty of Lake Champlain. Framed by the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, the lake was, when I crossed it on a little ferry between the towns of Charlotte and Essex, covered with a shimmering veil of fall mist. Coming here brought home the enormous importance of this valley in the war, as a route from Canada to the sea and as a barrier dividing New England from the rest of the Colonies. A beautiful map hanging at Crown Point, one of the forts that dominate the upper Hudson, helped me to understand. Its text says that it was based on Lord Amherst's survey of 1762 and printed in London in August of 1776 at 53 Fleet Street (hard by a couple of bars where I used to dally, come to think of it). A little farther down the valley is the magnificently imposing Fort Ticonderoga, restored and well preserved for family outings. In the time between Concord and Bunker Hill it was captured by that somewhat dubious figure Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, who sent Ticonderoga's cannon to Massachusetts, further to tilt the military balance.

Fifty miles farther south is the haunting field of Saratoga. It was very still and lonely when I found it, on the last stage of my pilgrimage, only birdsong and crickets disturbing the silence of the woodland and long grass, dotted with little memorials. Here it was that "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne retreated with his harassed army, which had seemed only weeks before to be scattering the rebels; here that on October 17, 1777, he surrendered, in what was not only the turning point of the war but also one of the most desperate defeats in British history.

Here I sat and thought about the struggle. The War of Independence was a heroic conflict, but what one made of it depended on who one was: English, American, French, Indian (the French and Indian War was just a decade past when the new war began), black slave. This point was in effect made at the time by the greatest of all English Tories, Samuel Johnson. There was no more bitter critic of the American rebels in the 1770s than Johnson, who deplored their disloyalty to their rightful King. But with his hatred of slavery and of the oppression of the weak by the strong, Johnson had more to say than that. He had already written, in 1759, what is I think the greatest of all anti-colonial essays. Johnson imagined an Indian chief watching an English army passing toward Quebec to fight the French, remembering the days when his people were masters of woods and lakes, before "a new race of men entered our country from the great ocean."

Those invaders ranged over the continent, slaughtering in their rage those that resisted, and those that submitted, in their mirth ... and when ... [they] have destroyed the natives, they supply their place by human beings of another colour, brought from some distant country to perish here under toil and torture ... They have a written law among them, of which they boast as derived from him who made the earth and sea ... Why is not this law communicated to us? It is concealed because it is violated. For how can they preach it to an Indian nation, when I am told that one of its first precepts forbids them to do to others what they would not that others should do to them.

That was written some sixteen years before the Declaration of Independence listed among its grievances that the King had encouraged "the merciless Indian Savages." And it was Johnson also who saw the great canker at the heart of the American cause: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" That isn't something you will find in more old-fashioned American accounts of the war, although the exhibits I visited were admirably fair-minded to all sides. It was gratifying to learn that Gage gave orders not to "plunder the inhabitants"and that Pitcairn stopped his troops from bayoneting Minutemen.

In Concord one of the memorials is to those who fell in "The War of the Late Rebellion"—a phrase that a Tory might have used for the War of Independence but that here means the Civil War. Two more are for the great world wars of the twentieth century, and one is for the Vietnam War, in which five Concord men died, one of them called Emerson. With almost any of these wars it is too easy to say that men on one side died "to keep the past upon its throne"—or that this is always the wrong thing to do. In his 1999 book Five Days in London, May 1940, which details the time when Winston Churchill had to decide whether to negotiate with Adolf Hitler or continue the war, John Lukacs contrasts Hitler, who was "not a traditionalist" but rather "the greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century," with Churchill, whose own great asset that epic spring was "the deep-seated conservatism of the British people," who were mutely determined not to yield to that horrible new tyranny. Wasn't "the past" the right side then?

Visiting these beautiful, poignant battlefields made me think of that. And of something else: what I. F. Stone said when some pip-squeak, politically correct avant la lettre, asked him how he could admire the notorious slave owner Thomas Jefferson. His response stands as an epitaph for that war from which the American nation was born: "Because history is a tragedy and not a melodrama."