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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Monday, April 25, 2011

“Solomon Brown fired at them”

Yesterday I described Solomon Brown’s experience on the night of 18-19 Apr 1775: carrying news of British army officers on patrol, being captured by those officers, being released. The deposition that the teenager and two older companions signed a few days later, complaining about how those officers had detained them, leaves the impression that that’s all he did.

Indeed, the depositions that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress published in April 1775 say little about anyone resisting the British military in Lexington on the morning of the 19th. The purpose of those documents was to convince readers that the army had fired without provocation on a peaceful assembly (of armed militiamen who had been out all night).

I’ve come to approach Revolutionary depositions as usually truthful in what they say, but also prone to significant omissions. In 1775 the folks at Lexington didn’t deny firing back at the redcoats. Rather, when folks were talking with the Patriot magistrates who collected their depositions, the question just didn’t seem to come up.

In 1825 local historian Elias Phinney wanted to make the case that Lexington had been the site of the first forceful resistance against the royal troops—i.e., that the men of his town had fired back, and done at least a little damage. And young Solomon Brown turns out to have been a crucial figure in that aspect of the event as well.

Elijah Sanderson was one of the two men detained along with Solomon for several hours the previous night. Here’s part of his description of the shooting on the green for Phinney:
After our militia had dispersed, I saw them [i.e., the regulars] firing at one man, (Solomon Brown,) who was stationed behind a wall. I saw the wall smoke with the bullets hitting it. I then knew they were firing balls. After the affair was over, he told me he fired into a solid column of them, and then retreated. He was in the cow yard. The wall saved him. He legged it just about the time I went away. In a minute or two after, the British musick struck up, and their troops paraded, and marched right off for Concord.

I went home after my gun,—found it was gone. My brother had it. I returned to the meeting-house, and saw to the dead. I saw blood where the column of the British had stood when Solomon Brown fired at them. This was several rods from where any of our militia stood; and I then supposed, as well as the rest of us, that that was the blood of the British.
Abijah Harrington, one of Lexington’s representatives in the Provincial Congress, added:
A day or two after the 19th, I was telling Solomon Brown of the circumstance of my having seen blood in the road, and where it was. He then stated to me, that he fired in that direction, and the road was then full of regulars, and he thought he must have bit some of them.
A more dramatic description of the teenager’s activity in those minutes was supplied by his son G. W. Brown in 1891. This account was clearly based on decades of local writing as well as family traditions:
Solomon Brown went [from the common] to the right across the Bedford road and jumped over a stone wall. As he landed upon the ground a ball from the enemy passed through his coat, cutting his vest. Another about the same moment struck the wall. He then dropped down behind the wall until their attention was drawn from him.

He then took a circuit in their rear around to the Buckman tavern, where he supposed many of the company had taken refuge, entered the back door, and on going over the house found no one except the pedler [named Allen], who was for a short time prisoner with him on the Concord road the night previous.

He then went to the front door and opened it, when to his surprise the rear portion of the enemy stood in his front, the army having made a halt. No sooner had he stepped in the open door-way than a bullet from an enemy’s gun struck the doorpost about midway. Another following it struck the door near the top.

He then stepped back a little, placed his gun near the muzzle against the door casing, aimed at an officer standing in the ranks of the enemy and fired. Not waiting to see the result he hastened through the house and out at the back door where he entered and made a hasty retreat through the fields.

Being discovered by the enemy, a shower of bullets went whizzing by him until he had reached a distance of some forty rods, when he slipped and fell, and although his clothing bore testimony of the close proximity of some of their bullets, not one marred his person.
And as long as we’re talking about firing from Buckman’s tavern, here’s a detail that militia sergeant William Munroe gave to Phinney:
The front platoon [of the regulars], consisting of eight or nine, then fired, without killing or wounding any of our men. They immediately gave a second fire, when our company began to retreat, and, as I left the field, I saw a person firing at the British troops from Buckman’s back door, which was near our left, where I was parading the men when I retreated. I was afterward told, of the truth of which I have no doubt, that the same person, after firing from the back door, went to the front door of Buckman’s house, and fired there.
How do we reconcile the details of these accounts? G. W. Brown was probably mistaken about his father having lined up on the green; earlier accounts don’t suggest Solomon was among those men. Instead, the teenager appears to have been all around Buckman’s tavern (shown above, courtesy of the Lexington Historical Society).

Phinney concluded that Solomon had fired “from a wall” in the front of the tavern, and that a different person had fired from its back door. But the Brown family came to understand that he had been at the back door before going inside to fire from the front. And Munroe understood that one man had fired from both spots—meaning at different times.

Apparently Solomon did something to attract the redcoats’ fire early on—which brings us to the report of Lt. William Sutherland that the first shot had come “from the Corner of a house to the right of the Church”—i.e., Buckman’s tavern. Another curious detail is Solomon’s surprise at opening the front door of the tavern and finding part of the army massed in front of him. If they had been shooting at him already, even from the green, why was he surprised?

Did regulars shoot at Solomon for a while before he went into the tavern, as he shot from the front door, and then again after he ran out the back? Did the British rear guard shoot at Solomon separate from the first companies on the common? Does that fit with descriptions of how long the firing lasted?

All the accounts from Lexington state that Solomon Brown didn’t fire until after the regulars had begun the shooting. But of course that’s what they would say. What if Solomon fired the first shot, then ran through the tavern and fired another, and finally “legged it” as bullets flew around him?

If so, it’s easy to understand why. Solomon Brown was eighteen. He’d seen armed officers slipping into his town. He’d been captured at gunpoint and held by those officers for several hours in the middle of the night, deprived of his horse (or his minister’s horse), and left to race back home. For this teenager, the war might already have started.

Then again, the first shot at Lexington could have come from someone whose name has been forgotten, or could have been an accidental discharge that the regulars interpreted as an attack. I’m not convinced Solomon Brown bears any responsibility. But he’s the first guy I’d want to take a deposition from.

10 comments:

Robert S. Paul said...

This being the internet, I expect to start hearing things like, "Solomon Brown fired the first shot! It's been proven, now!" over the next few years.

Charles Bahne said...

(1) As for the veracity of the depositions published in 1775, remember that a deposition was collected from Paul Revere, then returned to him unpublished. He said specifically that he couldn't tell where the first shot had come from. So there was clearly selective culling of the depositions before they were published. It would be great if we could find some more of those unpublished, rejected depositions.

(2) I recall David Hackett Fischer saying, at a lecture soon after "Paul Revere's Ride" came out, that a teenage boy, with a reputation of being what today we would call "emotionally disturbed", had been seen with a gun near the tavern that morning. So it seems there are multiple possibilities for a "young person" to have fired that "first" shot from the area around the tavern.

J. L. Bell said...

Solomon Brown’s already getting bad press. An article in Human Events in 1999 said, “It is an unproven legend that Brown fired ‘the shot heard round the world’.”

Ten years later, the Lexington Minuteman reported, “Many historians believe Solomon Brown of Lexington fired the shot.”

In between, in 2005, I shared some of the thoughts in this posting in a presentation at Minute Man National Historical Park.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Revere’s first deposition went unpublished, though that was probably because it said too much about the Patriots’ military preparation than about the first shot.

Lexington researcher Rick Beyer recently noticed that there are two versions of Capt. John Parker’s deposition, though they don’t differ significantly in what they say.

Paul Revere’s Ride discusses the possibility of an emotionally disturbed youth hatcheting a regular near the North Bridge in Concord. That seems not to have been the case, but the similarity makes me wonder if the stories have intertwined.

About the first shot in Lexington, an endnote in that book mentions local lore that Buckman got angry at Brown for shooting from his tavern because he was attracting army fire. But it’s also dubious about some Buckman traditions.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

This is quite interesting. Of course, the late information from the 1800s is always dubious. Based on the quotes above, it almost seems like the British had marched out primarily to shoot at Solomon Brown.

Regarding the hatcheting situation at Concord's North Bridge: the fact that the town kept the details, and the name, of that incident under wraps has made me wonder, after reading the above, if there was not some concerted effort here as well to cover up undesireable information. That is, what if Brown did fire first, and it was known, but covered? I don't think so, but it is an interesting conspiracy to ponder...

Derek

J. L. Bell said...

In the case of the first shot at Lexington, the event was so chaotic and unfocused that the locals may not even have required a conspiracy to distort the truth, but rather confusion and conflicting accounts followed by a consensus on what “must have happened.”

RFuller said...

In the case of Ammi White, the fellow that tomahawked an already severely wounded British light infantryman at the North Bridge, I have seen no accounts of him being mentally disturbed. He later became a clock-casemaker (some of his work is on display in the Concord Museum), and he later moved to New Hampshire. He never saw what the fuss about dispatching the wounded man was about, apparently.

The cover-up -literally- began in earnest that day, as the colonists hurriedly buried the bludgeoned British soldiers on the side of the road. The mission of the colonists in their fight was to show the British people and their government that Americans were not murderers or savages, but rather, wronged fellow Englishmen.

Therefore, to keep the tale and the colonists' role therein unblemished, they buried the bodies quickly (as well as any others that had been brutalized) to minimize further eyewitnesses to their condition.

They then took sworn depositions, and got the stories on a fast packet to England, before Gage and his officers could get their story straight and sent off to Lord Germain in London.

J. L. Bell said...

Before the name of Ammi White surfaced in print, Fischer wrote, some people in Concord blamed the tomahawking on a “loutish boy” who was working for the Emersons.

It’s not clear where that “loutish” comes from. Hawthorne’s Old Manse suggested the youth was working for the Emersons, but didn’t characterize him further. Josiah Adams’s 1835 oration in Acton called him an “excited and thoughtless youth.” Adams and another writer said that the man later expressed great regret for the act, so they kept his name secret.

Fischer credits Ruth R. Wheeler with being the first historian to name Ammi White in print, but in fact James H. Stark did so in The Loyalists of Massachusetts (1910).

AD said...

I agree with your assessment that the depositions are basically trustworthy. For what it’s worth, I don't see the omissions about American return fire as telling. What does it matter if they talked about return fire when it was not in dispute that the Americans fired extensively on the British later in the day. The important point to establish was that the British were the aggressors and that specifically they had fired on unoffending men (Parker's company, which was leaving the green).

You offer an interesting position on Solomon Brown that I hadn’t previously considered. He fired on the British from a place of partial concealment. None of the sources claim he fired before the British did (they seem to indicate the opposite), but there is a fuzziness about the descriptions and one can infer he might have been the first to pull the trigger. Arguably he was more motivated than others to act aggressively, and all-in-all, it’s more plausible that he fired first than any other person on hand for whom we have a name and a clear sense of his actions.

But, I’m surprised to see, as you reveal in the Comments, that some people see his culpability as essentially established. My immediate objection to taking this too far is that British accounts of the first shot don't seem to mesh well with the Brown-firing- first theory.

I don’t need to repeat these for your benefit, J.L., but should someone else still be reading these comments, they are:

Pitcairn: "some of the rebels who had jumped over the wall, fired four or five shots at the soldiers, which wounded a man of the Tenth, and my horse was wounded in two places, from some quarter or other and at the same time several shots were fired from a Meeting House on our left"

Lister: "they gave us a fire then ran off to get behind a wall."

Sutherland: "3 shots were fired from the corner of a large house to the right of the Church when we came up to the main body… I heard Major Pitcairn's voice call out 'soldiers don't fire, keep your ranks, form & surround them, instantly some of the villains who got over a hedge fired at us"

J. L. Bell said...

The fact that the Lexington depositions of 1775 don’t mention the locals returning fire while those collected decades later is significant in two ways.

It shows that the first set wasn’t collected to produce a complete picture of the event, but rather one portion of it.

Furthermore, since returning fire showed that the militiamen on the common were carrying loaded guns, that casts a different light on the danger they posed to the army column.

Several British officers did indeed report militiamen firing from behind a wall or hedge. We might presume at least some of the British soldiers shot at what they thought was the source of such fire. And what local man was observed being shot at while “stationed behind a wall”? Solomon Brown.