Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"The secret anniversaries of the heart," Part 2: Lexington Green. The White Cockade and "Parker's Revenge."

The holiest of all holidays
are those kept by ourselves
in silence and apart;
the secret anniversaries of the heart.
- - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Nation Makers by Howard Pyle.

Two years ago, I stood on the green at Lexington and observed the first Oath Keepers rally, a solemn and moving occasion. It was the first time I had been to Lexington and Concord, although I had visited Boston way back in 1969 and seen the Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, and the Granary Burying Ground where Paul Revere and the Boston Massacre patriots are buried.

Unfortunately, much of my experience in Massachusetts two years ago involved barking moonbats, but while there did manage to pick up another copy of The Minute Men -- The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution by General John R. Galvin.

(I had been making do for almost twenty years with a xerox copy I made at work late one night. Note: Galvin's book is one of the must reads on the Revolution for Threeper's. Others on my short list include Paul Revere's Ride and Washington's Crossing, both by David Hackett Fischer; The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young; Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill by Richard M. Ketchum; King's Mountain: the Epic of the Blue Ridge "Mountain Men" in the American Revolution by Hank Messick; and two biographies of Sam Adams -- Samuel Adams: A life by Ira Stoll and The Grand Incendiary: A Biography of Samuel Adams by Paul Lewis.)

It was a well-timed purchase, for I used it as a guide book while we shuttled back and forth to the Green and Concord Bridge, in between moonbattery. You cannot understand any battle unless you walk the ground, and even though much of the surrounding area is tremendously built up, The Minutemen was very helpful in helping me trace the remaining battlefields.

The one thing that seems clear in retrospect was that Captain Parker was not anxious for a fight, and the fight when it came, happened -- perhaps -- almost by accident. Galvin:

In the first light of that morning, Captain John Parker stood on the side of the green near the Buckman Tavern, where he could look past the meetinghouse and down the road toward Boston. Parker had been elected the commander of the Lexington militia company at its organization. He was a tall, heavy-set, ruggedly handsome man, a veteran of the past war, and a stern commander who took no back talk once he had given an order. The men liked him, and he could inspire them to remarkable efforts, as he was to prove more than once that day. At the time of the battle he was forty-five years old, the father of seven young children. Strong as he looked, he was to die of tuberculosis six months later, while serving with Washington's Continental Army.

Parker had not arrived at the green until after midnight. Dawes and Revere had passed through already with their warning for Hancock and Adams, and about half the men in Parker's company were formed in their regular mustering place on the green, waiting for orders.

But Parker had no orders to pass on to them. The Provincial Congress had announced its intention to use the militia and minute men to defend the province . . . Beyond the order to be ready to march, however, the regiments had no specific assignments. Nothing was said about what to do if the town happened to be directly in the path of the oncoming regulars.

This made matters difficult for the militia and minute man companies of the towns close to Boston and those along the line of march to the supply depots at Worcester and Concord. The companies could not be expected to stand against brigades of of regulars, but at the same time the defense of the home town always had been the first mission of the militia. -- pp. 120-121.

Parker consulted with his militiamen. Galvin writes, "In this case, the consultation was probably a renewal of an earlier general agreement 'not to meddle or make with said regular troops,' but to let them pass on through the town (as long as they did not cause any damage) and to wait for orders from the regimental commander or the Committee of Safety." One of Parker's horse-mounted scouts returned to the village with the news that the Regulars were coming up the road and Parker had his drummer beat assembly. Seventy-six men responded to the call and formed in two long ranks on the green behind the meetinghouse.

The men were still getting into formation when Parker looked down the road and saw the regulars coming over the hill toward the town. It must have been a heart-stopping sight as that seemingly endless column poured into view, the six light companies out in front with flankers off about a hundred yards to either side, and the grenadiers now only about a quarter mile behind. There were only minutes left now for a decision -- Parker could stand fast, or order his men to fall back off the green and relinquish it to the British.

Since one o'clock in the morning, after he had consulted with his men and then dismissed them to rest and wait, Parker had been thinking about this moment. He was aware that this was not the first column of redcoats ever to march out of Boston, and if Revere and Dawes were correct about the number of troops, it was not the biggest, either. Whole brigades had been on the roads lately, although not out as far as Lexington, and not at night.

He knew also what the other companies of militia and minute men had done when faced with a British force on the march to their towns. In February a handful of men at Marblehead had stopped Colonel Leslie and the whole 64th Regiment; a few weeks later the Cambridge minute men tore up the planking of the bridge there and (it was siad) stopped the 1st Brigade. The same brigade was turned away from Watertown when the militia rolled two cannon up to their bridge over the Charles. He also knew that in dozens of marches through the countryside in the past months, the regulkars very often had marched within firing distance of groups of provincials, some of them armed, as at Watertown, and had not fired. . .

There was no bridge at Lexington, no barrier to defend, but on the other hand there was nothing in the town the British could consider an objective of their march. . .

There is no doubt, of course that the last few moments before contact were filled with confusion and that many considerations influenced Parker's decision. Not the least of his worries was the knowledge that armed opposition to the King's troops could be the proof of a charge of rebellion, punishable by death. Although the whole story will never be known, it seems clear that Parker did intend some kind of confrontation with the oncoming British; but a point worth remembering is that he was not blocking the road to Concord; he had positioned his men within musket range of the road, but not on it, and in formal parade ground formation, not in ambush.

He wanted to maintain the honor of the company and the town. He thought that with the formation and place he had selected, he still had certain options -- discussion with the British leaders, a graceful falling back, keeping the column under observation -- left open to him. Finally. he could not bring himself to believe that, without further provocation, the regulars would attack his parade ground formation. He was mistaken. -- pp 123-124.

No one knows who fired the first shot, or whether it was intention or accidental. One regular was slightly wounded. but eight minute men lay dead and other nine wounded -- one out of every four of Parker's men was a casualty. Parker, with his unit, fled the green.

The clash may have been unintentional, the actual "shot heard 'round the world" could have been an accident, but it was no accident that the Lexington minute men were in that position. The militia resistance to the Crown was the result of years of political preparation and over a year of militia training, provisioning and revitalization, as Galvin's book certainly proves. The minute men on the Green that morning were there to make a point as free Englishmen. That they stood there daring the regulars to fire, outnumbered as they were, was for a purpose and it was an incredibly brave thing to do. The Lexington minute men were, in today's parlance, daring to "open carry" longarms as a political point.

A year ago today, in northern Virginia, within spitting distance of Mordor on the Potomac across the river, free men and women once again stood with longarms displayed to make a political point. I was proud to be among them, humbled to be able to speak to them, and for them.

The scene was hardly as fraught with danger as 1775, still there were threats from various bad actors, and worse, folks who claimed to be on "our side" slandered us and made dire predictions of violence that we were said to be deliberately provoking. Some of these even claimed nonsensically that I was "a British secret agent." Folks who had pledged to be there took counsel of their fears and dropped out, but in the end, like Gideon at the river, we had enough to make our point.

Patriot's Day -- 19 April -- is sacred to us for a very good reason. It is our touchstone to the Founders, who showed us how free men should stand against a tyrannical government. Take John Parker for example.

In what Galvin calls "a miracle of leadership," Parker regrouped his men after the opening shots on the green.

Somehow he was able to transform the scattered and demoralized soldiers into a fighting unit again, determined to avenge the loss of their comrades by meeting the British on their return from Concord. The brave men marched westward out of town at ten o'clock, the fifer playing The White Cockade as they headed for the Lincoln-Lexington line. -- p. 181.

The British might return by the same route they had used on the way out or they might pass south of the town, through Waltham. Parker gambled that they would come back on the shortest route -- through Lexington -- and he hoped to give them a proper reception this time. . . Parker had been maladroit in his attempt to meet and deal with the regulars while in a parade ground formation earlier that morning, but when it came to preparing an ambush, Indian style, his awkwardness disappeared. Besides, the intentions of the British now were obvious, and there was only one thing to do: fight them as hard as he could.

Parker selected the hill east of Nelson's Bridge as his ambush position. It was the first hill inside the Lexington line, and in the absence of further orders he felt that it was still his primary duty to defend the town. The hill would provide him a clear view of the regulars as they came down the road, while at the same time concealing his men. The slopes of the hill was quite abrupt, spotted with outcroppings of ledge, and covered by trees and tangles of brush. The approaches from the west and from the south were across 200 yards of open fields, and to the north Pine Hill rose 100 feet above the road, making any attempt to flank his position quite difficult and slow. He placed his men, upwards of 100 of them now, on a line about halfway up the slope and well-hidden. Each man cleared an opening in the brush -- just enough to get a good view over his musket barrel down the road to the west. Then began the long wait.-- pp. 180-182.

Parker waited until the regulars came right to his position and begin to pass. There three or four companies of regulars presenting their flanks to him when he opened with a shattering volley that felled dozens, including the British commander Colonel Smith, hit in the thigh and knocked from his saddle. The front of the column stopped cold and the rear backed up behind it, allowing the provincial troops following to catch up and get around the column and continue the ring of fire. Forever since, this place on the road has been known as "Parker's Revenge."

For me, the lesson of 19 April 1775 was not at Lexington Green, but at Parker's Revenge. Knowing the ferocity of the British regulars, having tasted bitterly of its power, Parker and his men still rallied, came back and gave the King's men their just desserts.

If you remember anything about John Parker and his men on this Patriot's Day anniversary, remember that. They stood, they lost, they ran, BUT THEY CAME BACK. And in the end, though many did not live to see it, the original Three Percenters WON.


Anonymous said...

Those who endure are the victors. I've often heard it said about Vietnam that our enemies wanted to win the war, while our leaders just wanted to win the election.

Andrew in SC said...

Thanks for the reminder, Mike. I was proud to stand with you and the rest of the Threepers last April.

Dedicated_Dad said...

And - if forced - we will again!

fgd-anchorage said...

Great read. Thanks. I wonder if the tune, "White Cockade" is set for the pipes?

Wonderful video.

Anonymous said...

Comment to post by Disciple of Night:

"But America's fighting forces did not fail us. 'You know, you never beat us on the battlefield,' I told my North Vietnamese counterpart during negotiations in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. He pondered that remark a moment and then replied, 'That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.' " -- Gen Frederick C. Weyand USA