“All history is modern history,” the American poet Wallace Stevens remarked. Each of us understands the world from the perspective of our own experience. So we reinterpret the past in terms of the present in order to comprehend it — we remake all history into modern history.
A striking example is our changing image of how well or ill the British troops behaved in their fateful march to and from Concord on April 19, 1775. Over the centuries, Britain has gone from enemy to trusted ally, and so we might expect some mellowing of opinions. But surely the change also stems from the sad wisdom about human nature accumulated by Americans as our nation has suffered and matured through many wars since the battles at Lexington and Concord.
The earliest accounts of April 19, 1775, depict the British soldiers in the most grotesque and vivid terms. According to the “official” report of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, drafted a few days after the events, the minute men gathered on Lexington green were merely a “small party of the inhabitants … determined to be peaceable spectators” as the Redcoats marched by, but British soldiers “seeming to thirst for blood,” fired “unprovoked” on the Americans as they were dispersing and killed eight men. Then, “not content with this effusion of blood, as if malice had occupied their whole souls,” the British kept up their “dismal carnage” until the retreating minute men were beyond musket range. Marching on to Concord, the Redcoats encountered more local “inhabitants … collected upon a bridge” and again unprovoked, opened fire and killed two. At this point, these peaceable inhabitants, “roused with zeal for the liberties of their country, judging life and every thing dear and valuable at stake, assumed their native valor and returned fire.” The British, now forced into retreat, began a march of “devastation … almost beyond description,”
such as plundering and burning of dwelling houses and other buildings, driving into the street women in child-bed, killing old men in their houses unarmed. Such scenes of desolation would be a reproach to the perpetrators, even if committed by the most barbarous nations, how much more when done by Britons famed for humanity and tenderness.
Hastening to gather an army at Cambridge to lay siege around the British in Boston, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety warned each town about the character of the foe:
The barbarous murders committed on our innocent brethren Â· have made it absolutely necessary that we immediately raise an army to defend our wives and children from the butchering hands of inhuman soldiery, who, incensed at obstacles they met with in their bloody progress, and enraged at being repulsed from the field of slaughter, will, without doubt, take the first opportunity in their power to ravage this devoted country with fire and sword.
Much of this, of course, can be attributed to the keen eye our founding fathers had for a good piece of political propaganda. Historian Arthur Tourtellot adds another explanation in his book,Lexington and Concord. The principal author of these documents,
Dr. Benjamin Church, was a member of the Committee of Safety, but he was also a British informer who had drawn the suspicions of Paul Revere’s own network of patriot spies. Tourtellot suggests that Church’s vivid language was his desperate effort to squelch doubts about his loyalty.
But propaganda has no value unless cast in terms that have a ring of truth for the intended audience. To modern ears, eight dead and ten wounded at Lexington may seem less than the “bloody butchery” proclaimed by the Salem Gazette, but it was one fourth of the town’s militia men assembled on the Lexington Common. The twelve citizens of Menotomy killed during the British retreat were perhaps one of every ten adult males in the town. Indeed, the day-long running battle on April 19, 1775, exposed these small communities to a war terror that Massachusetts had not known since the last great Indian conflict — known as King Philip’s War — a hundred years earlier.
The horrors of battle came again to small American communities with the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. And in reading the historical recollection of Lexington and Concord delivered as a speech in 1864 by Rev. Samuel Abbot Smith of Arlington (then called West Cambridge), one can see how Smith’s judgments of the British soldiers had been tempered by his own generation’s experience of war. It is well to remember the context here. Britain had outlawed slavery long before the United States did, but Britain followed policies during the Civil War that angered many in Massachusetts, such as allowing the South to build warships in Britain that then raided Northern shipping. Smith’s lecture, published as West Cambridge, 1775, is a very nice account that gives the citizens of Arlington proper credit for their role on April 19th. He leaves out none of the details of British behavior — a house set afire here, a looting there, two unarmed men bayoneted in a tavern. Yet there is little bitterness or anger in his tale. For Smith’s generation, what they needed in order to bear up under their own burdens of war was not anger at British indignities but renewed devotion to great principles of liberty. For Smith, the British soldiers are not quite fully human, but they are no longer just grotesque butchers. Their role in his tale is to give Patriots a reason and opportunity to be brave and to make sacrifices, so that Smith’s listeners would also be inspired to sacrifices. A year later, Smith himself was dead, at the age of 36, from a fever contracted while ministering to wounded soldiers in Virginia.
By the time historian Allen French wrote his book, The Day of Lexington and Concord in 1925, America had again experienced a terrible war, although this one raged through European and not American towns and villages. Britain had been an ally in WW I, and no doubt that helped many forget that just prior to the war, Britain was our most formidable rival on the high seas and in world trade, and a hated oppressor for the Irish immigrants who were increasingly prominent in Massachusetts. French’s book makes extraordinarily good reading, as he sifts fact from popular myth in elegant style. Here at last the British soldiers emerge as fully human. As French understands them, they are boys and men enraged because of a rumor that Patriots had scalped fallen British soldiers with a hatchet; frustrated and angry at fighting an opponent they often could not see; terrified from hour upon hour of retreating under heavy fire, without food or rest; desperate for their lives, setting fire to houses to prevent ambush; bayoneting old men because old men were in fact trying to kill them. Sobered by his own generation’s experience at war, French remarks:
There is no denying the things that happened. Non-combatants were killed; … When the troops entered Charlestown in the dusk, a boy put his head out of a window. Too many times during the retreat, faces had appeared at windows, to be followed by musket fire — and the boy was shot at and killed. Soldiers who entered houses set fire to them in their rage, or wantonly smashed whatever invited their rifle butts. … Their officers complained of the men’s looting, and were ashamed of it. All of these things happen in war. But on the other hand, … we of this generation, who have seen the fair face of Europe laid waste, know that at least this [British] visitation was light.
Allen French concludes with a thought that has relevance for our own age as well: blessed by years of peace that had preceded the Revolution, our forebearers had mistakenly persuaded themselves “that war, that thing of hate and fear and anger, can be gentler than it is.”
Arthur Tourtellot’s Lexington and Concord and Allen French’s The Day of Lexington and Concord are available in the National Park Service’s museum shops at the Old North Bridge in Concord and the Battle Road Visitors Center in Lexington. Samuel Abbot Smith’s West Cambridge 1775 is available at the Jason Russell House museum in Arlington.