Men and Women We Must Remember
Paul Revere, yes. But many others fought America's battle for liberty
By now you've probably seen some reference to April 19's place in history. Perhaps a news brief summarizing David Koresh's fiery finale in Waco, Texas, or a feature story memorializing victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.
But, long before these events were captured by TV for constant refrain on Hard Copy, April 19 was a date to remember. April 19 is the day this nation was conceived.
At about 6 a.m. on the 19th of April, 1775, Samuel Adams surveyed the green at Lexington in the colony of Massachusetts and said to his friend John Hancock, "Oh what a glorious morning!" He wasn't talking about the weather. An hour earlier a great war had begun.
Almost every American knows of Paul Revere's ride and of the way colonists hid "like Indians" to chase the redcoats back to Boston.
But how many know of the bravery of the Lexington women who risked being hanged for treason to hide gunpowder, muskets, and food from the British regulars who searched their homes?
Or of the American spies who kept track of British troop movements?
Or of the post carriers who nearly killed their horses to spread news of the battle to the ends of the colonies?
10 p.m. - the British assemble
It was at 10 on the evening of April 18 that 700-plus British regulars assembled on Boston Common. They had orders to confiscate the arms and munitions that the colony's leading radicals had stored in Lexington and Concord. As they crossed the Charles River, two lanterns were hung in the steeple of the Old North Church. The lanterns launched riders Paul Revere and William Dawes to Lexington to warn of the coming danger.
Revere arrived at the home of Jonas Clarke at midnight. Two sentries were posted to protect the Clarkes' guests, Adams and Hancock, who were wanted by the government. The sentries told Revere not to make any noise.
"Noise!" Revere retorted. "You'll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out!"
By 2 a.m. on April 19, 130 townsmen had assembled on the Lexington green. They agreed to keep still and not engage the regulars "unless they should insult or molest us." During the next few hours, most of the "minutemen" slinked back to their homes or to Buckman Tavern.
5 a.m. - the alarm sounds
When the alarm was sounded near 5 a.m., 70 men (almost half of Lexington's adult male population) answered, including Jonas Parker, who was more than 60 years old. Women and children followed, coming to see what all the ruckus was about.
The ruckus was caused by Maj. John Pitcairn's six companies of regulars marching onto the green. Pitcairn ordered the townsmen to drop their weapons and disperse. Some trudged away, but only under orders from their captain, John Parker. Others, including Jonas Parker (related to Captain Parker), stood firm. Not one laid down his musket.
Naturally, the British said the rebels fired first, and vice versa. Some regulars reported seeing shots fired from a house, while Pitcairn and others reported that the first shot flashed from behind a stone wall. American observers thought a mounted redcoat fired first.
Before Pitcairn's troops left, half an hour after they arrived, eight townspeople were dead, including old Jonas Parker who had been shot and then bayoneted where he stood. One man, Jonathan Harrington, died on his own doorstep as his wife and children watched.
Most Americans don't think knowing the date of America's first battle for independence or the names of the men and women involved is useful. They consider it trivia.
This is not trivia
It's not. Those who resisted the British that day and for the next six years were the founders of a nation and of a culture.
Lexington's minister was a patriot named William Emerson, grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nathaniel Hawthorne's grandmother watched the battle. Herman Melville's grandfather was at the Boston Tea Party. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's grandfather commanded Paul Revere during the war, and Henry David Thoreau's grandfather served under Revere.
We owe these people more than our freedom; they helped found our national identity as well.
William Emerson's brother-in-law was one Daniel Bliss, a Tory (and a lawyer). A month before the battles at Lexington and Concord, Bliss gave two British spies food and shelter, then escorted them to Boston. Emerson said of this event, "Verily our enemies are of our own household."
The same can be said (perhaps a bit hyperbolically, perhaps not) of those Americans who think history unimportant. Without a collective memory a nation cannot maintain its purpose and character. If we forget the men and women who gave us liberty, we will forget what a precious and rare commodity liberty is, and we may risk losing it.
* Andrew Cline is director of publications at the John Locke Foundation, a public policy think tank in Raleigh, N.C.