As I described in my first posting about Hezekiah Wyman, the great power of his legend is how it describes the fear of the British soldiers each time they spot the white-haired farmer on his white horse, riding closer for another shot. To quote from “The White Horseman”:
“Ha!” cried the soldiers, “there comes that old fellow again, on the white horse! Look out for yourselves, for one of us has got to die, in spite of fate.” And one of them did die, for Hezekiah’s aim was true, and his principles of economy would not admit of his wasting powder or ball.Descriptions of such British fears and the nickname “Death on the pale horse” remain in the story as retold more calmly in Henry Smith Chapman’s History of Winchester and David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride. That emotion is what made the tale stick in my mind the first time I read it.
But what evidence supports those statements? None of those tellings and retellings cite any specific accounts from British soldiers, prisoners, deserters, letters, memoirs, or newspapers. In fact, back in 1835 when the Hezekiah Wyman legend was first published as “The White Horseman,” historians had very few eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Lexington and Concord from the British side. Even now, we have several from officers, but almost none from enlisted men.
And to my knowledge, none of the surviving accounts mentions the soldiers fearing a man on a white horse. There’s a single statement about mounted provincials, from Lt. Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Regiment, first published in 1926:
Those Rebels who came in from the flanks during the march, always posted themselves in the houses and behind the walls by the roadside, and there waited the approach of the Column, when they fired at it.While acknowledging “generally good marksmen,” Mackenzie didn’t describe any of those men as noticeably deadly. He didn’t describe men firing with their guns laid across their saddles. He didn’t describe a white-haired rider on a white horse. In sum, there’s no British evidence for the parts of the story that make Hezekiah Wyman seem special.
Numbers of them were mounted, and when they fastened their horses at some little distance from the road, they crept down near enough to have a Shot; as soon as the Column had passed, they mounted again, and rode round until they got ahead of the Column, and found some convenient place from whence they might fire again.
These fellows were generally good marksmen, and many of the used long guns made for Duck-Shooting.
As I’ve noted, there was a Hezekiah Wyman with a white horse who lived within riding distance of the fighting. But there’s no contemporaneous evidence or reliable family lore that he took part in the battle.
There are hints that the author of “The White Horseman” was aware of some Middlesex County oral traditions about 19 Apr 1775. But even if a story was going around about an old marksman striking fear into soldiers as “Death on the pale horse,” that was inspired by what Americans wished the British had felt. At most, the real Hezekiah Wyman would have been riding along with a bunch of other farmers on horseback, creeping down to a house or wall near the road, and shooting with “generally good” results.
In the end, I don’t see big contradictions or anomalies in the tale of Hezekiah Wyman to show that it must be fiction. But it’s not up to us to disprove any story we inherit from the past. The weight of the evidence has to be there for us to believe it. Barring new discoveries, I think the evidence for this tale is too light to shift it from literary legend to historical episode.
(Photo above by Alex Starr, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)