On this day, April 19, 1775, two skirmishes occurred between the British Redcoats and colonial militia in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. These events together are seen as the opening “battles” of the American Revolution. The confrontation that happened in Concord, in particular, would later be known as “the shot heard ’round the world,” a phrase coined by American poet and writer – and Concord native – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
And in October 2015, I visited the place where it happened with the Sister during the last leg of my U.S. History vacation. Yes, I requested and planned a vacation with my friends around seeing Revolutionary History sites, and you’ll be hearing more about that in time on this blog. Concord wasn’t originally on my itinerary and is not a place I thought I’d see given that it’s a small town and a bit out of the way from Boston, but when my friend Tracey* offered her hospitality at nearby Lowell (another historical town – an old mill town, in fact) and a ride to Concord, I couldn’t say no. She knew to tempt me with Revolutionary and literary history (and apple cider donuts).
From what I saw of Concord**, it is tiny – completely walkable – and its draw is very nerdy. If you don’t love American literature or history, you probably wouldn’t think of visiting there. The Sister and I were dropped off at the visitor’s center in the morning, and we were greeted by the nicest woman, who gave us maps and directions and seemed really happy by my enthusiasm for the historic sites and the fact that we weren’t just asking for the restroom. Armed with that information, the Sister and I walked through the heart of the town and up towards the Old North Bridge, where the first battle of the Revolution went down. We were side-tracked a lot because it was Fall in New England, and the opportunity for leaf-peeping was irresistible***, but also, we were struck by how much history there was in just that mile or so stroll.
We passed markers for fallen Redcoats, the quaint Colonial Inn which houses a tavern where the Sons of Liberty had stockpiled weapons for their militia, and the spot where Henry David Thoreau was jailed for civil disobedience. We saw beautiful colonial style houses, leaf-strewn forest paths, and historical houses – like the Old Manse and the Robbins House.
When we reached the Old North Bridge, it was sprinkling and we joined the small group of people on the nearby benches huddled under their umbrellas to listen to the brief NPS Park Ranger talk about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The Redcoats had been ordered to capture and destroy the arms that had been stockpiled in Lexington and Concord, and the colonial militias had mustered in case of armed conflict. It’s unclear what happened in Lexington that caused shots to be fired, but by the time the Redcoats reached Concord, the militia there was on high alert with the news from Lexington. The British regulars split up to search Concord proper and Barrett’s Farm. The group headed for the farm met with the Concord militia at the Old North Bridge, where shots were exchanged over the bridge with fatalities on both sides.
The British Regulars never found the arms (the Patriot colonials had been warned and moved everything – see Paul Revere’s ride and the like) and ended up retreating back to Boston, harried the entire way as more and more Minute Men heard what had happened and streamed towards that main road. That led to the siege of Boston.
But looking at the idyllic Concord river, framed by a gently sloping hill and autumn foliage, it was surreal to think this is where the Revolution started in earnest. A replica of the original bridge spans the river at the original spot. A memorial obelisk stands on the East Bank, marking where the British approached; a grave to their fallen is also on this side of the river. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his poem “Concord Hymn” (where the “shot heard ’round the world” phrase is from) for the dedication of the obelisk.
On the opposite bank is the statue Minute Man by Daniel Chester French, who is most famous for sculpting the Lincoln Memorial. The first stanza of Emerson’s poem is inscribed at its base. If you walk past the statue, you can either follow the path up the hill to the NPS Minute Man National Historic Park visitor’s center or the path to Barrett’s Farm.
Concord, while mostly famous to me for being where the Revolution started, is also the site of a second “revolution” in the mid-nineteenth century. This one was literary and centered around Concord thanks to its many American author-residents. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a founder of the Transcendentalism school of thought, lived here and indeed has family roots here stretching back to the American Revolution. The “shot heard ’round the world” happened in his grandfather’s backyard, literally. When you tour The Old Manse house, you can see the Old North Bridge from the upstairs window, right where Phebe Emerson and her children watched the skirmish unfold.
This house was later rented out to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia. You can see the sentiments Sophia etched with her diamond ring into the upstairs windows (her husband joined in too),and Hawthorne wrote an entire collection of stories about their stay there. Thoreau planted the still-existing vegetable garden outside the house as a wedding present to the couple. The Hawthornes loved living here but were eventually evicted when they couldn’t pay their rent, hah.
Speaking of Thoreau, Walden Pond is only a 2 mile walk from the center of town and there’s a replica of the shack Thoreau lived in when he wrote Walden. Unfortunately, the Sister and I didn’t make it out there because we spent too much time at the Old North Bridge. We did, however, walk past the Wayside House (where the Hawthornes lived after they left the Old Manse), see Emerson’s other Concord House, and we toured Louisa May Alcott’s house. Yes, the author of Little Women grew up in Concord too. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside Orchard House, where Louisa wrote Little Women, but it was lovely. You can still see the really beautiful art Louisa’s youngest sister May (whom she based the character Amy on) painted and sketched throughout the house.
All of these authors are buried in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow cemetery. The Sister and I also missed this because we wandered into the wrong part of the cemetery, but that’s okay. Sometimes, spontaneity rules the day. We watched the sunset from the hill, surrounded by worn 18th century tombstones under the fire-orange leaves of a gorgeous tree. And then fearful of meeting with a ghost, the Sister and I made our way back to the street and phoned for our ride back to Lowell.
It was a great day. I’d walked in the footsteps of history, seen an actual Stamp Tax stamp (!), and basically toured the house where the real life Little Women lived. I couldn’t quite believe I’d made it out there to the birthplace of the Revolution.
What place did you think you’d never see? Or what is a place you really want to visit?
*Incidentally, Tracey's birthday is also today (4/19). No wonder we're friends. **Concord is actually pronounced /ˈkɒŋkərd/ (as in 'conquered') by residents! ***Leaf peeping: so amazing that I dedicated an entire post to it. Supplement: (Book) Nature | Ralph Waldo Emerson (Book) Mosses from an Old Manse | Nathaniel Hawthorne (Book) Walden / (Civil Disobedience) | Henry David Thoreau (Book) Little Women | Louisa May Alcott (TV) Sons of Liberty | History Channel