J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Real Fight at Concord Bridge

The thumbnail image to the right is N. C. Wyeth’s “Fight at Concord Bridge.” It shows Concord’s “embattled farmers,” apparently standing athwart the town’s North Bridge, blocking the British troops.

In the same spirit is this painting, which allposters.com doesn’t credit to a particular artist. The site labels it “American Minutemen Fight to Hold Off the British Army at Concord Bridge, April 10, 1775.” That’s not only nine days early, but misrepresents how the fighting at the North Bridge in Concord went down.

Many people conceive of that skirmish as the local militiamen taking a stand on the bridge and refusing to let the British troops cross. In fact, the two forces’ movements were much more complicated.

When Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s British expedition came into view east of Concord, the militia companies assembled in town turned and marched west, away from the regular troops and across that North Bridge. They took positions on high ground that overlooked the Concord River, eventually ending up more or less where the North Bridge Visitor Center is now.

Lt. Col. Smith sent seven companies of light infantrymen to that bridge. Four of those companies crossed and went two miles beyond to search the farm of militia colonel James Barrett, where Gen. Thomas Gage had heard (correctly) that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had hidden weapons. The militia didn’t try to block that search party. Three other British companies remained near the bridge, on either side of the Concord River, in order to guard their comrades’ withdrawal route.

The regulars down by the river watched the militia up on the rise. The militiamen, numbers growing, watched the regulars. The situation was so static that one English-born farmer from Lincoln, James Nichols, walked down the hill to talk to the soldiers, then walked back up and said he was done for the day—he wasn’t interested in fighting his countrymen.

Then some men on the hill spotted smoke from the center of Concord. The grenadiers there had found some cannon carriages and extra wheels, piled them up, and set them on fire. The flames threatened the town house. Officers ordered soldiers to douse the fire, but by then it had done too much damage—not to the building, but to the stalemate back at the bridge.

Lt. Joseph Hosmer asked Col. Barrett, “Will you let them burn the town down?” After hearing from other officers, the militia colonel ordered an advance. Two militia regiments began to march down toward the bridge and the three British companies guarding it.

Clearly outnumbered, those regulars withdrew to the town side of the bridge and started to take up the planks to keep the militia regiments from crossing. To the locals, that looked like more property destruction. Men shouted down at the redcoats, and the militia companies kept marching.

As Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie and Lt. William Sutherland tried to get the British soldiers in formation to protect themselves, three soldiers fired without orders. Capt. Isaac Davis and Pvt. Abner Hosmer of Acton were killed, and four other men were wounded. The provincials fired back, hitting four British officers, killing three privates and wounding five more. The redcoats retreated at a run back to the center of Concord.

Thus, the “embattled farmers” of Middlesex County weren’t trying to keep the redcoats from crossing the Concord River—it was the other way ’round!

TOMORROW: In pulling back from the North Bridge, the British left four companies cut off behind enemy lines. What happened to them?


Rag Linen said...

Great post, J.L. The allposters.com image is "The Fight at Concord Bridge" by F.C. Yohn. Click here to view the appropriately titled and cited version on allposters.com.

According to this source, it was used "to illustrate 'The Story of the Revolution,' as told in Scribner's Magazine by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge."

Peter Fisk said...

Has the Joseph Hosmer quote been reliably documented? I recall reading skepticism about it. (Though it certainly sounds more credible than the "Corporal Joe" Munroe story, of course.)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Rag, for the additional link. It looks like Yohn (1875-1933) created a color painting (my link), which was then reproduced in monotone (your first link) for cheaper mass reproduction.

Lodge’s 1903 description of the North Bridge skirmish leaves out a lot, including the search party at Barrett’s (even though the book shows a picture of Barrett’s house) and the amount of time the forces stood eyeing each other.

J. L. Bell said...

Peter Fisk, here’s an interesting article about Hosmer’s pointed question. D. Michael Ryan discusses how that quotation probably reflected Hosmer’s iconoclastic attitude toward older-generation leaders like Barrett.

Lemuel Shattuck quotes those words from Hosmer is his 1835 history of Concord, which—absent a deposition or letter from the 1770s—is about as strong as we can get about details of individual actions in this battle.

Of course, we can still be skeptical. But the fact that it’s so easy to read those words as critical of the town fathers makes me see the quotation as more likely accurate than not. That remark isn’t the sort of bland, reassuring heroism that we invent to smooth over rough spots.

Peter Fisk said...

Thanks, J.L. I had read D. Michael Ryan's article awhile ago. Upon a little further research, I learned that Joseph Hosmer was almost 40 years old on the day of the battle (b. 27 Dec 1735), which made me wonder about the degree to which he would have been the spokesman for the younger generation of men. It's possible, of course, but from reading the Ryan article I was expecting Hosmer to have been in his 20s.

I'm not disputing that the Hosmer quote is quite credible and plausible -- just pondering.

Roger W. Fuller said...


I am still troubled by the James Nichols story. I don't think there was anybody with that name on the rolls of Lincoln's militia companies in April of 1775, although there was somebody with a similar name who deserted to the British from a colonial military unit later during the Siege of Boston.

David Hackett Fischer brings up the story in Paul Revere's Ride, and offers three sources: Josiah Adams' "Letter to Lemuel Shattuck" (Boston, 1850) , now available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=9Zhs64BDNHYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Josiah+Adams'+%22Letter+to+Lemuel+Shattuck%22&source=bl&ots=jbDHz_m7x8&sig=A_sLUQC5G-AwFP637TRBQOCRSUA&hl=en&ei=Zqa8S7KGDIP-8AbB7LjRCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Nichols&f=false ; Amos Baker's Affidavit of the Last Survivor; http://books.google.com/books?id=1d8TAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA133&lpg=PA133&dq=%22Amos+Baker%22+%22Affidavit+of+the+Last+Survivor%22&source=bl&ots=8Ls2v0qrzD&sig=6MDIvqeIbvS6hbBBwkYKyD3rEGQ&hl=en&ei=fqi8S9naJsH78Aa4pf3TCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CAgQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Amos%20Baker%22%20%22Affidavit%20of%20the%20Last%20Survivor%22&f=false and "An oration delivered at Concord: on the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of tyhe Events of April 19, 1775, by Robert Rantoul, p. 134., http://books.google.com/books?id=Pm8BAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Rantoul,+%22Oration%22,&source=bl&ots=0GWMIgkwwc&sig=6aEQhWaXnVhfpnQokUslWywpbWM&hl=en&ei=KKO8S8yQL4KC8gbU_qDmCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Amos Baker's affidavit (sworn when he was in advanced old age, 94, to be exact) is the source used in Adams' and Rantoul's works.

In fact, Amos Baker's affidavit is the only mention of this whole episode on either side that day. No British accounts mention it, and it would have been highly suspect for a colonist to have left the ranks of an opposing militia company to approach the regular troops without some challenge made by an officer or NCO. The whole story sounds suspect, unsubstantiated except by one man over seventy years later, and was promulgated by various writers in the 19th and 20 th century to emphasize that peer pressure was not what kept the militia at the bridge facing the regulars, but rather steely, unified resolve. It ignores the reality of the legal and social pressures facing militia service- there was no volunteerism about it. It was civic duty. Mutiny or desertion bore severe penalities. Therefore, it looks to this observer, that, without more confirmation of Amos Baker's tale, that it may very well be a well-meant, but inadvertently invented, story combined from different memories of seven decades earlier.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, James Hosmer was forty years old, with a wife and several kids, so he was an established citizen. As a lieutenant and adjutant, he also had official stature within the militia. Yet James Barrett was sixty-five, and thus old enough to be Hosmer’s father, as well as being three ranks above him.

Hosmer had also spoken out in town meeting against Daniel Bliss, who had the genteel status that came from being son of the town minister, a Harvard-educated lawyer, and rich. So Hosmer seems to have been one to speak his mind, even if he bumped up against traditional deference.

J. L. Bell said...

Here’s a shorter link to Amos Baker’s 1850 testimony about James Nichols.

I find it credible for a few reasons, despite the lack of other support. First of all, it really goes against the dominant image of Middlesex farmers standing in “steely, unified resolve” against an obvious threat. I see how once the story was in print some authors spun it as evidence that the militiamen who stayed made their own decisions. But that’s precisely because the first lesson we can draw from the Nichols story is that the locals were not “unified” in believing the redcoats were a threat, that one guy who talked with them thought they weren’t. Given the dominant ideology, it makes more sense to me that this was a story that leaked out well after the event than that Baker came up with a tale that made a reassuring point.

Second, Baker’s other remarks about Nichols’s personality (he obviously remembered the guy with some pleasure) are extraneous to the incident, so they bear the ring of truth. Baker also mentions that Nichols went over to the British in Boston later, so if there’s other documentation for that it confirms one of the affidavit’s details.

If Nichols had gone home as Baker described, would his name show up on lists of men who deserved compensation for marching on 19 Apr 1775? I doubt it. Are there other militia lists from Lincoln before April?

Why would Nichols’s militia officers not have stopped him from going to speak to the British? Well, he was volunteering to gather information for them, and leaving behind some valuable property (his gun). Why would the British have spoken to him? He was coming without his gun and speaking in a possibly familiar accent, and we know of many other soldier-civilian interactions in Concord that morning before the battle began.

Could the militia have stopped Nichols from leaving? Not without causing a disturbance at a delicate moment, and weakening their ranks further. The Nathan Barrett family preserved a tale about a militiaman going home with his weapon, reportedly after the shooting at the bridge; notably, they never put that into print, suggesting that perhaps people kept similar stories to themselves.

Why did no witness report this incident at the time? It probably didn't seem important. It was short, inconsequential, and didn’t fit the story either side wanted to tell about the other force being hostile. And of course we don’t have any sources from British enlisted men, nor further info on Nichols himself.

Peter Fisk said...

Thanks as always for the excellent information, J.L.

My earlier mention of "Corporal Joe" Munroe (whose legend is clearly a myth) got me thinking about another old-man legend of that day -- that of Hezekiah Wyman. You alluded to Hezekiah's story back in a 2007 post. Any chance you'll be able to write about him in greater detail at some point? What makes his story interesting to me is that there appears to be some truth to it, unlike the Joe Munroe/Monroe/Munro tale.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m hoping to tackle Hezekiah Wyman this month after the battle anniversary, as a tie-in to the “Paul Revere’s Ride” anniversary. Longfellow’s first draft contained an allusion to the Wyman legend.

Thanks for the “Corporal Joe” link. I’d missed that one completely!

Peter Fisk said...

When you get to Hezekiah, I nominate this
as the most outlandishly fabricated version of his story.

Highlights: That version makes him "nearly 80" rather than in his mid-50s. Then in the very next paragraph he is 80, not "nearly 80." It also has him seeing the action on the Green from a window in his house (pretty good, though, that a man "nearly 80" could see so clearly from Woburn to Lexington!). This story even has Capt. Parker, rather than his cousin Jonas Parker, getting bayonetted.


Heck, might as well go for the trifecta:

Hezekiah Wyman, "Corporal Joe" Monroe, and Noah Wiswall.

Those three together constitute an interesting range old-man-hero tales of April 19, 1775. All three of these guys were real and were in fact present that day in some capacity. The tale of Joe's actions that day seems to be completely made up. But Noah's tale is actually plausible, and he is indeed recognized by the DAR as having marched with the militia on the Lexington Alarm (ancestor# A126962). I would put Hezekiah in the middle of the range between the other two. He, too, is credited by the DAR for service that day (ancestor# A129083). His tale is clearly more true than "Corporal Joe's" but probably more embellished than Noah Wiswall's.

... I guess to really complete the range with a demonstrably true old-man-hero story of April 19, 1775, we could add Henry Putnam Sr., who was verifiably in his 60s and was killed in action at Menotomy that day.

Peter Fisk said...

Re: James Nichols

D. Michael Ryan has also written of doubts about Nichols' existence.

Here's my crazy hypothesis: If Nichols did exist, maybe he was a mole, a spy for the Regulars, who simply blended in with the Colonials during all the confusion. That would provide a plausible reason for him to want to parlay with the Regulars (to report on the strength and intentions of the militia forces). It would also explain how he could safely and confidently approach the Regulars, *and* not be worried about the consequences of "deserting" the militia. It's also consistent with the apparent fact that there is no evidence of said James Nichols in town records.

J. L. Bell said...

Actually, the earliest publication of the Hezekiah Wyman legend is even more unbelievable; at least this 1856 version gets the name of the Lexington captain right.

There was definitely a man named Hezekiah Wyman in Middlesex County in April 1775. But that’s not surprising—the Wyman family was among the first settlers in the region, and Hezekiah was a much more common name then than now.

As to whether the documentable Hezekiah Wyman has any connection to the story told about a Hezekiah Wyman decades later, I have serious doubts.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not surprised that there’s no mention of James Nichols in Lincoln town records before April 1775. Baker spoke of him as an “Englishman,” meaning someone born in England, which implies he was a relatively recent arrival without property, family, or ties to the town’s Congregationalist meeting.

Mike Ryan’s article describes documentation for a gun-owning man from Lincoln named James Nicholls two months later. He had to come from somewhere.

I doubt Nichol(l)s was a British plant. I’ve read Gen. Thomas Gage’s intelligence files, and his operation, which appears to have relied on officers and gentlemen, wasn’t that crafty. In addition, Baker recalled aspects of Nichols’s personality which suggest more than a day’s acquaintance.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone found Nichols’s name on a British army muster roll from months before the war (i.e., he had deserted, or mustered out) or weeks after he vanished from the American lists (i.e., he enlisted or re-enlisted). But at this point in 1775, I think Nichols was most likely what Baker’s story describes: a working man stuck between two conflicting parts of the British Empire.