At the very first exhibition of American courage, which proved so fatal to the British troops in their excursion to Lexington and Concord, Sergeant Smith showed himself a skilful marksman. Learning from rumor, which seemed to have spread that night with a speed almost miraculous, the destination of the detachment, he arose from his bed, equipped himself with cartridges and a famous rifle he had used at Lovell’s fight at Fryeburg, saddled his horse, and started for Lexington meeting-house. Meeting with a variety of hinderances, and twice escaping narrowly from some straggling parties of the red-coats, it was late when he arrived on the ground, and the troops were already on their rapid retreat towards Boston.Longtime Boston 1775 readers will recognize this anecdote as a rewrite of “The White Horseman,” a “legend” that appeared in the Boston Pearl literary magazine in 1835. There were no mounted riflemen active on 19 Apr 1775, much less fifty years earlier at “Lovewell’s Fight” in Maine.
Learning that the people were all abroad, lining the fences and the woods to keep up the fire upon the enemy, he started in pursuit, and in the course of a few miles, on riding up a hill, he found the detachment just before him. Throwing the reins upon his horse, and starting him to full speed, he rode within a close rifle-shot and fired at one of the leading officers. The officer fell; and the sergeant, retreating to a safe distance, loaded his rifle again, and again rode up and fired, with equal success. He pursued the same course a third time, when the leader of the retreating body ordered a platoon to fire at him.
It was unavailing, however; and a fourth, fifth, and sixth time, the old rifle had picked off its man, while its owner retreated in safety.
“D—n the man!” exclaimed the officer, “give me a musket, and I'll see if he bears a charmed life, if he comes in sight again.” It was but a moment, and again the old white horse came over the brow of a hill. The officer fired, but in vain; before the smoke of his charge had cleared away, he too had fallen before the unerring marksman, and was left behind by his flying troops.
When the day had closed, the wounded were collected by the neighbors upon the road, and every kindness rendered to them. The officer was not dead, and on being laid upon a bed where his wounds could be examined, his first question, even under the apprehension of immediate death, was, “Who was that old fellow on the white horse!”
In the first published version of this tale, the old fellow was named “Hezekiah Wyman.” There were men named Hezekiah Wyman in Middlesex County in 1775, and scholars have tried to identify one of them with the man in the story. But as this republication shows, back in 1845 authors didn’t view the details of the tale as historical. “Hezekiah Wyman” could become “Sergeant Smith” as long as the core of the story remained entertaining.