We’ve been visiting Minute Man National Historical Park for years. The miles of walking paths through the idyllic New England countryside make this a nice spot to visit, even if it wasn’t a National Park. The town of Concord is fascinating on its own due to the unique community of writers who lived there in the mid-nineteenth century, but the Minute Man National Historical Park is all about the battles of Lexington and Concord.
On April 19, 1775, several hundred British soldiers left Boston in search of arms believed to be stored in Lexington and Concord. They also sought to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams who were hiding out in Lexington, plotting revolution (and maybe their signatures, insurance and brewing empires). Messengers rode out ahead of the troops, warning of the coming British action, and a group of armed insurgents gathered to meet the solders. Shots were fired at Lexington and again in Concord. American rebels, growing in numbers, chased the British regulars back to Boston, under fire the entire way. While some areas of intense fighting are not included in the park, Minute Man National Historical Park preserves some of the important sites of the start of the Revolutionary War.
The Battle Road
My wife and I recently started at Fiske Hill at the eastern end of the park and walked west. The trail traces the route of the riders warning of the British advance, the British Regulars as they marched toward Concord (after killing some colonists in Lexington), and the return route of the British as they fled the colonist attack. The trail is a great walk, with kiosks and significant historic sites to learn about while walking through a park-like forest. Stone walls typical of New England line either side of the road. There are lots of tourists, but more locals riding bikes, walking dogs, running and even a few sunbathers on the lawn.
Granite mile posts mark every quarter-mile. One side indicates the distance to Concord Center, the other the distance back to Boston. I sympathize with the Redcoats, the poor brutes. They’ve been stationed across the ocean from their homes, and endured the stresses of being an occupying force. Then they spend all night marching from Boston to Lexington, have a skirmish there, and arrive at 7 AM in Concord to search out the hidden munitions. There is another attack, and they flee under fire all the way back to Boston. The poor slobs.
Longfellow and Paul Revere
A large stone monument marks the spot where Paul Revere was captured by the British before he completed his mission. Two riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes, left Boston to warn of the British advance. Revere left Boston by rowboat, landed in Charlestown and rode a northern route to Lexington. Dawes took the southern route, riding down the Boston Neck, across the bridge into Cambridge and on to Lexington. After meeting up in Lexington, the riders continued together toward Concord, where they ran into Samuel Prescott around one in the morning. Prescott was returning home from a late night visit with his fiancé. Prescott, who was active in the cause, continued on with Revere and Dawes toward Concord. The men were stopped by a patrol of British soldiers. Revere was captured. Dawes escaped (but was apparently unheard of for the rest of the night). Only Prescott continued on to Concord completing the mission.
I once noticed a set of golden horseshoes in the cement representing Dawes’s route in Cambridge. I never knew that Paul Revere wasn’t the only rider that night, although it is logical when one thinks about it – the message needed to get to leaders in Lexington and Concord. I blame Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for the dumbing down of this piece of American history. In his epic poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, Longfellow takes some creative license and paints Paul Revere as the hero, downplaying the other riders. Longfellow decided to make a hero of Revere. Paul Revere also published his own story, Dawes and Prescott did not, proving that a little self promotion ensures your place in history. (Not that he doesn’t deserve it. Revere was very active in the Sons of Liberty and important to the cause.)
While Longfellow is guilty of myth making and ignoring all the men who also alerted neighboring town militias, perhaps we should thank him. This is one of the few parts of Revolutionary War history that I know. Really, this is the majority of what I know. Beyond the story of Paul Revere’s ride, I know that there was the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge was cold, and Benedict Arnold was a traitor. I don’t know when the war ended, the terms of the treaty, or really anything important beyond these few stories. Longfellow ensured that I at least remembered something, incomplete as it was.
The North Bridge
Just west of Concord’s town center is the Old North Bridge over the Concord River. Here the militia faced off against the British regulars. The militia fired and killed some of the regulars. The regulars broke rank and fled, starting off a 17 mile retreat under fire to Boston Harbor.
A Daniel Chester French statue honoring the heroic minuteman stands at the bridge, along with a lot of Park Service reenactors telling the story of the day. It is fitting that Daniel Chester French sculpted the memorial. He was a favorite of two local Concord families (the Alcotts and the Emersons), and was encouraged to pursue his craft by Louisa May Alcott’s sister Mary. His most famous sculpture is Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.
The Visitor Center is small, with a few exhibits and a small but busy gift shop. When we visited the park and browsed the shop, my wife wondered if I wanted the child-sized park ranger uniform complete with the Smokey Bear hat and shorts. If only they made them in adult sizes!