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THE MOST IMPORTANT ROAD IN AMERICA
HE road between Boston and Concord is the most important in America, for it was on this road that America was made. The halt of the British troops Lexington long enough to a fire the first fatal shots, their advance to Concord, the brief contest there and the beginning of the flight, their second arrival at Lexington, where they cast themselves down with their tongues hanging out like those of dogs after a chase, as a British account had it, then the flight on to Boston, with the British constantly dropping under the fire of the sharpshooters – that day and that road marked not only the beginning of the war, but foretold its close. The clear-sighted Burgoyne wrote of the fight at Lexington that, although it was but a skirmish, in its consequences it was as decisive as the battle of Pharsalia.
As if to make the day in every respect typical, the most prominent of the English was the gallant Percy, later to be Duke of Northumberland and master of countless miles of countryside and of Alnwick, one of the greatest castles in the world. But the English soldiers, though thus led by one of the proudest of the English peerage, fell back in rout; neither English peerage nor English soldiers were to be masters in America.
That day, the 19th of April, 1775, was curiously the day of the white horse. It was a white horse that the future Duke of Northumberland rode, as he galloped here and there along the frightened line, exposing himself freely to the fire of the farmers. And most marked among the Americans was a gray-haired farmer on a white horse; Wyman of Woburn – how Scott would have loved such a man and such a name! And during the miles of retreat, and to the very edge of Boston, Wyman of Woburn seemed like a pursuing fate, as safe from English shot, on his white horse, as was Percy from American shot on his, but galloping across fields and over the low slopes, setting his horse at the stone walls, time and again firing with such unerring aim that an appalling cry of dread of him went through the British ranks.
It is difficult, at this day, to realize what bravery was required to stand up against the British troops. It was not only resistance to apparently overwhelming authority, not only resistance to the British government, but resistance to the King, at a time when the brief episode of Cromwellianism had been long deplored and forgotten, and when to oppose the King seemed not so very different from opposing Heaven itself.
Unrest had been growing. The British officers, in Boston, were told that the men of New England were about to rise and that warlike supplies had been gathered at Concord. So eight hundred soldiers were sent out, under Lieutenant-Colonel Smith and Major Pitcairn, to destroy the supplies there and to capture, if possible, John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were reported to be in hiding at Lexington.
It was on the night of the 18th that Paul Revere was sent out to warn the countryside. He reached little Lexington in the darkness, and the minutemen of the village were aroused and toward daybreak they gathered on the triangular village green. The green was then, as it is now, a place of quiet beauty, of charm, edged with huge elms and ash trees and faced by homes of dignity. The grass grows very, very green, as is curiously usual with the grass on battlefields. Lexington is still a village of such charm as befits a great national happening, in spite of the coming in, with the passage of years, of somewhat of the unpicturesque. There are cedars set pictorially on the stony slopes; there are oaks by the roadside; there are grounds of sweet spaciousness and elms in lovely vistas. And the village, although it has been a point of pilgrimage for a hundred and fifty years, is still entirely without tourist characteristics. A beautiful white-pillared meeting-house looks out over the green, but the meeting-house which stood at the very point of the green, in 1775, has vanished. A few of the old houses still remain, such as the fine square Harrington homestead, facing the green with its prim little low-setting eaves. An old monument stands on a little mound on the green, with the bodies of the men slain on that great day buried around it, and on this monument and on tablets throughout the village are descriptions that must thrill the heart of every American, particularly impressive being the simple marking of the line where a few men made the first actual stand against England.
It was a lovely April morning; from two o'clock the minutemen had been ready; and as the early dawn was beginning to appear they gathered once more, for news had come that the British were actually at hand. It was now about half-past four.
In all some fifty or sixty Americans formed, in two narrow parallel rows. The British came in sight, their arms glinting and their red coats glowing in the soft spring light. Catching sight of the Americans, they broke into double-quick, but, "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon; but if they want to have a war let it begin right here," said Captain John Parker; and the bravely solemn words are engraved for all time upon a boulder that has been placed where he stood. Major Pitcairn rode forward and sternly ordered the minutemen to disperse; but they stood firm, and swiftly there came a volley against them and a number fell. Several were killed; others were wounded. There were a few scattering shots in reply. The Americans dispersed. And the British hastily resumed their march toward Concord. That was all – all, except, that from Lexington came freedom.
Never was there greater capriciousness of happening than in the different fates of two Jonathan Harringtons who stood with the line at Lexington: for one Jonathan Harrington, mortally wounded, dragged himself to the door of his own house, fronting the green, and died at the feet of his young wife, whereas the other Jonathan Harrington lived longest of any of the company, not dying until seventy-nine years afterwards, and at the great age of ninety-eight.
The road from Lexington to Concord, along which the British continued and back over which they were to hurry in disastrous retreat, is still a sweet and a charming road, a road of wildness, with. rarely a house to be seen in the six miles of its length, and thereby a road that gives a deep impression of its lovely loneliness in early days.
Bordered for a short distance by trees that arch over the entire width of road – thus it begins. It climbs a rolling sweep, lush with greenery, and then, passing beyond a little group of modern houses, becomes a narrow lane with widely sweeping views. It goes twistingly on, bordered by ancient stone walls. Continuously there is loneliness. Purple hills billow into the distances. The road goes up and down over little sloping rises; it is rarely straight, but goes constantly bending. There are pine trees, there are ponds and pools, there are thick masses of piney woodland, there are groves of little white birches, there are fall asters and the scarlet sumac. There is much of rock and ruggedness, and, rounding a rocky bluff, the road bends with the bending hill away, and you come to one of the spots where the British, retreating, tried in vain to rally; and here all is as wild as on that April day of so long ago, and perhaps, even wilder; there were likely enough a few more houses in this region then than there are now; indeed, a glow of red in a lonely spot on the farther side of a bleak swamp turns out to be the fruit of an ancient orchard, where no longer is there either house or barn. Always there is a foreground of forest or the distant sweep of tree-covered hills; it is astonishing, the continued loneliness of effect, and this but a few miles out from Boston.
And thus, past lines of birch that overhang the road, and gracious elms that dot the open glades, and walls of stone that fence the rocky fields, we go on into sweet and charming Concord – a place that, once known to the full of its attractiveness, remains a wistful memory.
A trolley leads from Boston to Lexington, following for much of the distance the route taken by the British, but from Lexington to Concord it follows another road, leaving this part untouched and unspoiled.
Concord is felicitously named, for it has an atmosphere of peace; but it was far from being a place of concord with the British! When the British reached Concord they were separated into several parties, which searched houses and destroyed gun-carriages and powder, and at the old Wright Tavern, still standing, Pitcairn stirred his brandy and vaingloriously declared that thus should the blood of the patriots be stirred. And it was stirred! – but not precisely as he meant it.
A party of perhaps a hundred went through the village to the bridge over the Concord River, following what was then a public road, though afterwards the line of road was changed, leaving this a cut-off at the bridge, and it is now a quiet spot beside the water, among the trees, away from traffic.
The Americans, outnumbered by the main body of the British, had retreated to this bridge, and with the passing of the hours hundreds and hundreds more came hurrying in.
The Continentals stood at one side of the "rude bridge that arched the flood" – how perfectly Emerson phrased the entire scene, in the first stanza of his Concord lines! The bridge that literally arched the river long since disappeared, but the new structure reproduces it in shape and size; and the stream that now moves on with such full gentleness moved on with sweet, full gentleness on that long-ago April day.
"Here Once the Embattled Farmers Stood": Concord
The Americans were under the command, in a sort of informal way, of Captain Buttrick; they had not heard. of what had occurred at Lexington; they felt that the solemn responsibility lay upon them of war or peace.
The British came to the other side of the bridge. Captain Laurie was in command. And what thoughts the name of a Laurie evokes! For the home of Annie Laurie actually exists in Maxwellton in Scotland, and what is deemed her portrait is there shown, and portraits of several military Lauries are upon the walls. It would be curious indeed if this Laurie at Concord was a kinsman of the beloved Annie.
The British halted; there was angry parley; then the British fired and two Americans fell dead and several were wounded; instantly the Americans fired and . two Englishmen were killed and nine were wounded.
There was no thought of retreat on the part of the Americans. Captain Laurie drew off his force and retreated toward the main body of the British at the center of the village, The Americans cut across the hills to intercept all of them at Merriam's Corners. And it is a curious fact that another party of a hundred or so of British, returning over this very bridge from a search for munitions, a little after the conflict there, saw no combatants, alive, of either side.
The British knew now that the entire countryside was roused, and they decided upon a retreat. They started doggedly back to Lexington, fired at by sharpshooters hidden behind barns and houses and stone walls, but before they reached Lexington the retreat became a frantic rout and they were in direst straits.
At Lexington, there was a brief respite, for at this point they were met by a reenforcement of a thousand men who had been hurried out from Boston, under Earl Percy, at the first news of real trouble.
Percy did all that bravery and ability could do. He placed field cannon so as to sweep the road and ridge and hold the Americans briefly in check. He had quite a number of the wounded men treated. He made his headquarters at the Monroe Tavern, a square-fronted old building, still existent, on the main road; and the farthest point of his advance has in recent years been marked by a stone cannon set at the roadside.
Earl Percy, Duke of Northumberland as he was to become, seems to stand in a special degree for the regime of the aristocracy that the Revolution overthrew. And personally he won the reputation of being a most brave and likable man. I remember a portrait of him, in the office of the president of Harvard, and it shows him with full eyes, arched brows, and extremely long Roman nose, and a pleasant expression, dressed in a uniform with facings and epaulets and with lace at the breast and at the cuffs. He was idolized by his soldiers, for he was always doing some thoughtful kindliness, such as sending home to England, at his own expense, the widows of those of his regiment who were killed at Lexington and Bunker Hill. His picturesque presence seemed to mark the futility of the greatest of the English nobility in the face of our Revolution.
The retreat of Percy and Smith and Pitcairn from Lexington to Boston was galling and disastrous. Tablets along the roadside tell much of the tale, but they do not tell of the burning of houses by the British soldiers and they tell little of their killing of unarmed men; the British were maddened by the incessant shooting from right and left, and got quite beyond the control of their harassed officers. A party of soldiers set upon an old farmer of over eighty, after he had slain two of them, and they clubbed and shot and stabbed him into unconsciousness. Besides general bruises he had seventeen bayonet wounds! But, octogenarian of enviable stamina that he was, he recovered and lived to nearly the century point!
It was a sultry day, a day of early and intense spring heat, which made the carrying of gun and accouterments for twenty miles of deadly retreat after twenty miles of night advance, a heavy task.
It was almost eight o'clock when the soldiers came to the edge of Boston and found safety under the guns of their battleships in the harbor. Not till then did the pursuit cease. On that day the British loss was almost three hundred men, to less than a hundred of the Americans; the British lost more in this defeat by farmers than they had lost to capture Quebec!
Here at Concord the scene may still be visualized. Here is the famous road, leading into the heart of the village, with the low ridge bordering it at one side and level meadows sweeping off at the other; here are bullet-marked houses standing that witnessed the gathering and the flight. Here is a beautiful old church, not indeed the one that stood here in 1775, but one heedfully following that design and giving completion to the general effect, with its beauty of detail and proportion. And at the bridge, the brimming river calmly flows, and close beside the battlefield still stands the sweet Old Manse, weather-worn, dun-colored, almost gloomy, shaded by great pines and fronted by an avenue of ancient ash trees; and at the side of the house is the old road to the bridge, lined by a mighty double line of gloomy firs, and in their shade is the grave of the first two of the British to be killed, who, as the inscription has it, came three thousand miles to die.
The minister's wife watched the skirmish from the Old Manse, from the window of a room afterwards to be the study, in turn, of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. For this ancient Manse has associations even better known than those that connect it with the battle. In fact, when Concord is mentioned, it is probable that more people think of its literary associations than of its connection with our warlike history. And probably no house was ever given a more charming description than was given by Hawthorne to this romantic Old Manse, to which he and his wife came to make the first home of their married life. But both Emerson and Hawthorne moved, in turn, to other homes in the village.
The house which was the home of Emerson for the best part of his lifetime, a square-front building of much dignity, is but a few minutes' walk from the center of the village, on the road along which the British advanced and retreated. Emerson was dearly loved by the entire village; he seems to have been the beneficent deity of the place, though ever far from being a rich man. When, returning from a visit to Europe, he found that the townsfolk had repaired his house, which had been injured by fire, and that they had gathered to give him a loving welcome home, he was too much overcome to speak, and could only bow his head and move silently toward his door, only to force himself to turn, for a moment, to show his heartfelt appreciation, and to say that he was sure this was not a tribute to him, an old man, returning home, but to the "common blood of us all, one family, in Concord." The best of the world were his friends, in person or by correspondence, but he none the less loved to meet his humble neighbors, and to take his part in town-meetings – and he even joined the fire company! He had come to Concord after forever giving up the ministry; he had driven over, in a chaise, from Plymouth, with his bride – the drive being his wedding journey – and he had lovingly made his home in the lovely town.
The house is owned by descendants of Emerson, and his library is maintained just as he quitted it; there is the same reddish carpet with its great roses, there are the same chairs, the same Boston rocker, the same table, the same row of book-shelves, ceiling-high and crowded with mellow books; and every evening his lamp is lighted just as if he were expected to come in.
Emerson and Hawthorne liked and respected each other, but there was little personal communion between them, for Hawthorne was everything that Emerson was not, and Emerson was everything that Hawthorne was not. The solemn Hawthorne, easily bored, would never put himself out to interest or be interested by those whose companionship he did not enjoy, and he kept from intercourse with the townsfolk whom Emerson treated in such neighborly fashion. Naturally Hawthorne often grew as tired of himself as of others. Once, when his wife went away on an absence of some days, he determined, so he wrote in his journal, to speak not a word to any human being during the entire time of her absence; only to find Thoreau come to his door, whereupon he grudgingly admits him, and reluctantly confesses to his journal that to hear Thoreau talk is like hearing the wind among the boughs of a forest tree.
Thoreau, that other man of Concord, must have been intensely interesting; that both Emerson and Hawthorne admired him would alone be tribute sufficient; he was manly, he was a marvelous observer of trees and plants and animals; he would sit so silently, to watch some forest animal, that, as Emerson records, the animal would itself go toward him, in fearless curiosity, to watch the watcher!
It was here, in Concord, that the peripatetic Alcotts found their home; more even than in Boston. They had three successive homes in Concord, and that which is particularly associated with their life, the house in which Louisa M. Alcott wrote her "Little Women," has remained practically unchanged since their time. It stands charmingly at the foot of the wooded ridge, not far from the Emerson house, but on the opposite side of the road. Beside it is the little building once famous as the School of Philosophy; and surely there was never any other American place where such an undertaking could have seriously and successfully been carried on! Bronson Alcott, forgotten as he is, was the kind of man of whom Emerson could say, in all seriousness, that he had the finest mind since Plato; and before taking this statement with a critical smile, perhaps we ought to reflect that few ever knew as much of both Plato and Alcott as did Emerson!
The home of the later years of Hawthorne – Hathorne, the novelist's ancestors spelled it, but he changed it by adding the "w " – is next to the "Little Women" home of the Alcotts – whose name, by the way, was changed by the philosopher from Alcox. The house, which Hawthorne, on acquiring it, pleasantly named the "Wayside," had itself been one of the earlier homes of the Alcotts, and such unphilosophical things were done to it as quite destroyed its pre-Revolutionary aspect. It was never among the finest of the old-time homes; the general type, hereabouts, largely from the absence of dormer windows, was not nearly so attractive as in much of old New England. Hawthorne made further alterations to please his own taste, and developed the place into a pleasing home, quiet and attractive. It is hemmed in by solemn evergreens, and from its place at the foot of the ridge looks out across the sweeping meadows.
On the low hills behind the center of the village is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and here lie buried Louisa May Alcott and her father, and the nature lover Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne; "there in seclusion and remote from men, the wizard hand lies cold."
At the very center of the village, on the ridge-side, stands a more ancient graveyard, where lie the early pioneers; and among the ancient headstones, flaking and blackening with time, I noticed one that was particularly black and flaked: with difficulty the inscription was deciphered, and it is to the effect that the stone was designed by its durability to perpetuate the memory, and by its color – its color! – to "signify the moral character," of a certain Abigail Dudley, on whom Time has played so ungallant a jest.
One of the very oldest houses of Concord is maintained as a local museum, and within it are fascinating relics of the past: old china, old furniture – notably some Jacobean chairs and a court cupboard, dear to any collector's heart – with things remindful of the writers of Concord; and also there are memorials of the great day at Concord, the day of the fight at the bridge – and that is something that, with its lessons, should never be overlooked or belittled or forgotten. As one of the wisest of American humorists long ago paraphrasingly said – and every really great humorist has wisdom as the basis of his humor – "In the brite Lexington of youth thar aint no sich word as fale."
It is odd, that a little place like Concord should have won such a mingled reputation for loveliness, fearlessness and literature. I remember meeting a scholarly Englishman, on a St. Lawrence steamer, who had landed at Quebec, as he told me, in order to see Canada first, but who would soon cross the boundary. "Most of all," he said, "I wish to see Concord, for it is classic ground." And that is it. Concord is classic ground.