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 21, 2014

Sgt. Monroe on Capt. Parker

Yesterday I quoted the Rev. Theodore Parker telling the story of his grandfather John Parker’s words to his Lexington militia company on 19 Apr 1775: “If they want [or mean] to have a war, let it begin here.”

In 1858 Parker told the historian George Bancroft his sources for that quotation:
They were kept as the family tradition of the day, and when the battle was re-enacted in 1820 (or thereabout), his orderly sergeant took the Captain’s place, and repeated the words, adding, “For them is the very words Captain Parker said.”
We know from other sources that the reenactment occurred in April 1822. Theodore Parker was then eleven years old.

The men Parker identified only as his grandfather’s orderly sergeant was William Munroe, who by 1822 had obtained the rank of colonel in the Massachusetts militia. He was a major figure in town whose house and tavern is now operated as a museum by the Lexington Historical Society.

In 1825, three years after that reenactment, Munroe provided a detailed deposition about the fight. He stated:
Between day-light and sunrise, Capt. Thaddeus Bowman rode up and informed, that the regulars were near. The drum was then ordered to be beat, and I was commanded by Capt. Parker to parade the company, which I accordingly did, in two ranks, a few rods northerly of the meeting-house.

When the British troops had arrived within about a hundred rods of the meeting-house, as I was afterwards told by a prisoner, which we took, “they heard our drum, and supposing it to be a challenge, they were ordered to load their muskets, and to move at double quick time.” They came up almost upon a run. Col. Smith and Maj. Pitcairn rode up some rods in advance of their troops, and within a few rods of our company, and exclaimed, “Lay down your arms, you rebels, and disperse!” and immediately fired his pistol. Pitcairn then advanced, and, after a moment’s conversation with Col. Smith, he advanced with his troops, and, finding we did not disperse, they being within four rods of us, he brought his sword down with great force, and said to his men, “Fire, damn you, fire!” The front platoon, consisting of eight or nine, then fired, without killing or wounding any of our men.
In fact, Lt. Col. Francis Smith was not on the common to converse with Pitcairn (not that Munroe would have recognized either officer at that time), and most historians now agree that no British officer gave an order to fire. But for the purpose of this inquiry, what matters most is that in 1825 Munroe did not quote Capt. Parker as saying anything stirring at all.

That 1825 volume by the Rev. Elias Phinney quoted several other Lexington veterans as well. Ebenezer Munroe said, “Capt. Parker ordered his men to stand their ground, and not to molest the regulars, unless they meddled with us.” Joseph Underwood stated:
Capt. Parker gave orders for every man to stand his ground, and said he would order the first man shot, that offered to leave his post. I stood very near Capt. Parker, when the regulars came up, and am confident he did not order his men to disperse, till the British troops had fired upon us the second time.
But no one remembered Capt. Parker saying something like, “If they mean [or want] to have a war, let it begin here.”

In 1835 the famed orator Edward Everett spoke in Lexington, giving a detailed account of the battle, and he didn’t quote Parker saying that, either. If Munroe had indeed repeated those words at the ceremony in 1822, they hadn’t become part of the town lore. They didn’t see print until Theodore Parker told the story in 1855.

In the 1880s the Rev. Carlton A. Staples prepared a “Report of the Committee on Historical Monuments and Tablets” for Lexington and a paper for the Lexington Historical Society. Both appear to quote Parker quoting Munroe quoting Parker. And Staples’s research was the authority for carving “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here” onto the boulder on Lexington green.

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