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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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Solomon Brown Stays Out Late

In April 1775, Solomon Brown was an eighteen-year-old growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, the son of a local deacon. He was also crucial in at least one way the momentous confrontation between the town’s militia company and the British military on the 19th of that month.

On the 18th, Solomon visited Boston, and early in the evening he stopped into William Munroe’s tavern (shown above) to tell Munroe, a sergeant in the Lexington militia, that on the way home:
he had seen nine British officers on the road, travelling leisurely, sometimes before and sometimes behind him; that he had discovered, by the occasional blowing aside of their top coats, that they were armed.
That quotation comes from Munroe’s testimony decades later. He said that he immediately assembled a small squad to guard the parsonage where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying because Patriots widely (but wrongly) thought the royal authorities intended to arrest those men.

Meanwhile, Solomon went on to Buckman’s tavern near the center of town and repeated what he had seen. Elijah Sanderson recalled:
After some conversation among the citizens assembled there, an old gentleman advised, that some one should follow those officers, and endeavour to ascertain their object. I then observed, that, if any one would let me have a horse, I would go in pursuit. Thaddeus Harrington told me, I might take his, which was there. I took his, and Solomon Brown proposed to accompany me on his own horse. Jonathan Loring also went with us. We started, probably, about nine o’clock…
According to an 1891 profile of Solomon Brown by his son, the teenager at first objected that he had “had his horse in use through the day, when Minister [Jonas] Clark replied to him that he would be provided for, and soon led out his own horse saddled and bridled for his use.” That profile conflicts with contemporaneous sources on some points, but this seems like an odd detail for the family to make up.

In any event, the three Lexington men set off to the west. After about an hour they saw the British officers. Unfortunately for them, those officers saw them first. According to Sanderson, “One rode up and seized my bridle, and another my arm, and one put his pistol to my breast, and told me, if I resisted, I was a dead man.”

The officers, under the command of Maj. Edward Mitchell, made the three men dismount in a wooded area of Lincoln. They held Solomon and his companions for hours, questioning them repeatedly. In 1775 the men complained that their captors “searched and greatly abused them,” but decades later Sanderson recalled the questioning as persistent but civil. It was a pleasant night, but still not a pleasant experience.

By 2:15 A.M., according to Sanderson, the officers had added two more detainees: “Allen, a one-handed pedlar,” and Paul Revere. However, the British failed to stop Dr. Samuel Prescott from getting past the patrol on the back trails to Concord.

The Lexington men heard Revere tell Mitchell that the provincial militia had already been alerted to their army’s march. This was apparently a last-ditch attempt to make the British field commanders call off the mission, and it had some effect. The officers decided to rendezvous with the column marching west.

Mitchell ordered Solomon and the other detainees back on their horses, and they all rode east “at considerable speed.” As they approached Lexington, there was a burst of gunfire up ahead—perhaps militiamen discharging their guns before going into Buckman’s tavern for a late-night refreshment or nap. The officers stopped to confer—was the column being attacked?

Maj. Mitchell decided to let all their prisoners go. The Lexington men testified in 1775 that the officers “cut the horses’ bridles, and girths, turned them loose, and then left us,” heading for Lexington. Now it was the locals’ turn to worry about an attack—what would those officers do when they got to the center of town? Sanderson recalled:
We then turned off to pass through the swamp, through the mud and water, intending to arrive at the meeting-house before they could pass, to give information to our people.
The men saw the officers arrive at the town meeting-house, but then ride on to the east. Solomon Brown and his companions went into Buckman’s tavern to describe their experiences.

TOMORROW: Shooting and being shot at.

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