I've decided to start an irregular series of postings called "Myths of Lexington and Concord." By "Lexington and Concord" I mean the conflict between the British army and the militias of Massachusetts on 19 April 1775, which started with shooting on Lexington Green, restarted with a skirmish at the North Bridge in Concord, and then became a running battle all the way along the British withdrawal from Concord to Charlestown—hence the alternate term "Battle Road."
And by "myth" I mean "Something which someone somewhere has written down, which I can treat as conventional wisdom to be debunked, thus making what I write seem more original and important." Promising to debunk myths is a valuable tool in marketing history books, or indeed almost any sort of nonfiction.
So my first myth will be the "shot heard round the world." What shot does that phrase refer to, and does the shot deserve such phrase?
There's no question of what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he wrote his "Concord Hymn" in 1836:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,Emerson lauded the militia companies from Concord, Acton, and Lincoln who marched down on the North Bridge. But of course Emerson had a dog in that fight. He was a Concord boy. His grandfather, the Rev. William Emerson, had turned out with the Concord militia that day, and would later die of disease while on campaign. And he wrote his hymn for the dedication of a monument in Concord. Of course Emerson said that what happened in Concord was most important!
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
But already there were folks in Lexington who felt their town deserved more credit. American historians had always pointed to the deaths of several Lexington militiamen at dawn on 19 April as the war's first casualties. In 1775, Massachusetts wanted to portray the British regulars as violent oppressors, so provincial leaders were careful not to publish much evidence of their preparations for a military conflict or of any forceful resistance to the British column before Concord. But fifty years later the men of Lexington got tired of being portrayed as mere victims. They began to insist loudly that they had fired back at the redcoats.
Thus, argued Elias Phinney in his 1825 pamphlet History of the Battle at Lexington, his town deserved credit for making the first forcible resistance to the British army. He published several depositions from survivors to support that claim. Nonsense, answered Concord minister Ezra Ripley; in A History of the Fight at Concord (1827), he published other depositions to show that the Lexington men had done little or no damage to the British column. Thus, by the late 1800s both towns claimed to be the site of the real "shot heard round the world."
And those aren't the only claims about when and where the war started. Ray Raphael argues in The First American Revolution that Massachusetts's political revolution took place in the summer and fall of 1774 as crowds of citizens stifled all royal authority in most of the province—several months before any shooting. People in Salem suggest that military hostilities between the British and Americans began there, with the confrontation between companies of the 64th regiment and locals on 26 Feb 1775. But that face-off turned into a face-saving compromise between Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie and the local elite; no one at Salem wanted to start a war.
So what's my answer as to where the Revolutionary War started?
Why do I consider that the first shot of the Revolutionary War? For the first time British and American military units deliberately confronted each other and used deadly force to seize territory (temporarily) and ordnance (permanently). The London government could not have overlooked the raid on Fort William & Mary; it was an act of rebellion and civil war.
So if I truly believe that, why did I name my blog "Boston 1775" instead of "Portsmouth 1774"? Um. Er. Oops, out of time for today. More myths tomorrow!