“At 5 o’clock we arrived in Lexington, and saw a number of people, I believe between 200 and 300, formed in a common in the middle of town; we still continued advancing, keeping prepared against an attack through without intending to attack them; but on our coming near them they fired on us two shots, upon which our men without any orders, rushed upon them, fired and put them to flight; several of them were killed, we could not tell how many, because they were behind walls and into the woods.”
From the diary of Lt. John Barker, 4th Regiment of Foot
Today in Massachusetts we mark the start of the Revolutionary War. While many states and political parties have positioned themselves as the height of patriotism, especially in the years after the United States Civil War, we New Englanders, we generations of Massachusetts residents have consistently commemorated the birth of this nation with the Battle of Lexington and Concord; while sending our men and women into harms way to sustain our communal liberty.
It’s a state holiday here, Patriots Day, with the traditional re-eneactment of the battle that prompted the saying The Shot Heard Round the World. We write about this holiday, this birth of out nation breached through a pall of musket smoke and cries of liberty, because it has a strong literary connection.
Surely, hundreds of books have been written about the battle on Lexington green. Many hundreds, if thousands more books have chronicled the Revolutionary War that was perpetuated by the Massachusetts militiamen at Concord and Lexington. But it was an 1837 poem that would cement the importance of this date to future Americans.
Poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson penned that year Concord Hymn. The moving poem was intensely personal for Emerson as his grandfather was there at the battle that soaked the Massachusetts earth. His grandfather William Emerson was at the battle and would serve the Continental Army as a chaplain through the first year of the war. Emerson you see was a preacher who launched passionately into the quest for freedom from the crown. He was there at Lexington, urging his fellow colonials forward into history.
His grandson provided the simplest and most moving literary commemoration of the start of the Revolutionary War.
Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world,
The foe long since in silence slept,
Alike the Conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone,
That memory may their deed redeem,
When like our sires our sons are gone.
Spirit! who made those freemen dare
To die, or leave their children free,
Bid time and nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and Thee.