On Saturday, April 7, 2014 I was in Boston attending the National Science Teachers Association conference. After the Aerospace Educators Luncheon featuring astronaut Joe Acaba was over, I decided to take the afternoon and explore the city. I had never been to Boston before, and this might be my only chance. I had always loved studying the Revolutionary War, but had never really known all the details of the events that led up to the War. I hope through this post to put the events and the places together for you and help clear up some the same misconceptions I’ve always had.
It was about 3:00 when I set out from my hostel at 40 Berkeley St. I had already walked around the area enough to know my way to Boston Common, where my exploration began. I crossed to a pavilion and on to the northeast corner of the Common, where the Massachusetts State House stands. It was finished in 1795 when Samuel Adams was governor of the state, and the dome was originally sheathed in copper by Paul Revere from his newly established copper sheeting business. It is now gilded in gold.
Speaking of Paul Revere and Sam Adams, they apparently laid down a time capsule as the state house was finished, which was just rediscovered about a week ago as I write this (Dec. 27, 2014). There was water leaking around part of the foundation, and workers discovered the box as they were making repairs. They plan to open it in a few days. Much of what I was about to see and explore was influenced by those two men, and a type of electronic time capsule about them and the city they walked in is what I want this blog post to be.
Just across the street on the edge of the Commons stands a memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, a Colonel in command of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. This was the all black regiment that led the assault on Ft. Wagner in July, 1863. Many lost their lives in that charge, including Colonel Shaw. Their experiences training and gaining equal pay and treatment were immortalized in the movie “Glory.” This is the original monument – I have seen a gilded plaster copy of it in the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C.
The Freedom Trail basically starts here; to walk it, one must follow a red line of bricks laid into the sidewalks. It zigzags across the city, over the Charles River, and ends at the Bunker Hill Memorial. From the State House it crosses the Commons to the southeast corner and the North Park Church. It turns past the church and passes the Granary Burial Grounds, where Paul Revere and Sam Adams are buried. The victims of the Boston Massacre are buried here as well. More on this later.
I followed the line of red bricks past one of the first schools in America and past the Old City Hall. I turned a corner where the route looped back on itself, and bought a hot dog from a street vender’s cart. There was a bookstore there called the Old Corner Bookstore that I poked around in for a moment before continuing. It wasn’t until later, researching the route, that I discovered it was frequented by Thoreau and Emerson. Since I couldn’t get out to Concord to see Walden Pond (I teach at Walden School, after all), it was good that I at least got to browse where he used to browse.
I passed a Potbelly Sandwich Works and I was still hungry (the hot dog had only whetted my appetite), so I stopped in and got a Wreck. It was tasty. Had I known what I was about to find, I might have waited. I walked on past the Old State House, a red brick building with a spire trimmed in gilded edges. There were so many things to see, and so many historic plaques to read that I didn’t notice a plain circle of cobblestones inset into the walkway. It was the site of the Boston Massacre.
The Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War) had cost the British a great deal, and new sources of revenue were explored. Parliament thought it only natural that the Colonies should pay back the cost of protecting them during the war, and a series of taxes were levied on Colonial goods, including molasses, sugar, paper, etc. During the late 1760s, the colonists began to protest, for both economic and political reasons. Sam Adams wrote instructions for the delegates of the Massachusetts Assembly that pointed out a leading concern for the colonists: did the Parliament in England have the right to levy taxes against the Colonies without their permission or representation?
As the protests grew, mobs destroyed customs houses, hung public officials in effigy, and became increasingly vocal and agitated. Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer for Great Britain, proposed a series of acts that would also raise revenue to directly pay governors and other public officials (instead of them being paid by the colonial assemblies), thereby removing them from colonial control. More protests broke out, and the situation spiraled downhill.
The Crown appointed governor, fearing what he saw as lawlessness in Boston, asked for British soldiers to be posted in the city. Instead of ensuring the peace, the soldiers’ presence only fanned the flames. In 1770, a group of British regulars was harassed by a mob of angry Bostonians. No one is entirely sure what happened, but the soldiers opened fire and five men were killed outright or died from wounds and another six were wounded. Sam Adam’s second cousin, John Adams, made himself a name as a lawyer by defending six of the British soldiers, getting them acquitted on the grounds that they were only following orders.
This incident became the rallying point for an escalating series of protests against the British government’s policies. Paul Revere created a famous engraving of the massacre, which was printed and colored by hand. Most of the Townshend Acts were repealed, but one remained: the tax on tea. This law was strengthened and enforced, giving the East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade and cutting out the middlemen tea merchants in the colonies. It also undercut the price of tea, thereby killing the profit of tea merchants who were smuggling in Dutch tea. Several ships loaded with tea were stuck in Boston Harbor unable to unload their cargo. The governor refused to let them leave, thereby supporting the Crown’s policies. When a fresh wave of protests broke out, Governor Thomas Hutchinson disbanded the Boston Town Meeting, which was the local city government. Sam Adams called for a town meeting anyway, and thousands showed up on the evening of Dec. 16, 1773.
I passed Faneuil Hall, where this meeting was held. Emotions ran high, and a group of about 100 men left the meeting and headed down to the harbor, where they proceeded to dump the tea into the water.
The British government overreacted again, passing a series of laws called the Coercive Acts (known as the Intolerable Acts in America), which closed Boston Harbor and repealed the Charter from King Charles that allowed Boston to have self-government. British soldiers were quartered in prominent citizens’ homes, partly to act as spies. They were allowed to search and seize any properties that might be used to support the growing rebellion without a warrant. No public meetings were allowed and arms were confiscated; basically, Boston was under siege.
I crossed the square by Faneuil Hall to the Quincy Market, then and now a gathering place and market in what was then central Boston. There are three long buildings side by side, much like shopping malls today with individual businesses lining the hallway in each building. There was a street band playing in the square, and I couldn’t help contrasting this with the civil unrest and anxiety that marked those days in the early 1770s. When I saw the different food venders in Quincy Market, I wished I had left some room for chowda or crab cakes or other local fare. I will remember next time. I ran into Coral Clark with some other SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors there.
I followed the red line beyond Quincy Market. It led further north into an alleyway past the Green Dragon Pub. This is not the original pub, which was located nearby on Union Street, but it gives a feeling of what it might have been like.
Even before the Boston Tea Party, the leaders of the protests had to go into hiding. A group of men called the Sons of Liberty met in the basement of the Green Dragon to plan their next moves. They organized Committees of Correspondence to carry the news of the British crackdown on Boston to the other colonies and to convince them that common action was needed. Governor Hutchinson was recalled, and a new governor appointed by the Crown: General Thomas Gage. He had previously served alongside George Washington in the French and Indian War and was promoted to be the commander in chief of all the armed forces in the colonies. As governor he enforced the Coercive Acts and cracked down on dissent. He dissolved the Massachusetts Assembly, partly because they had sent delegates (including Sam Adams) to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
I crossed over into the old North End of Boston, continuing to follow the red line. I missed a turn at an intersection and continued along Hanover Street. I noticed a crowd of people lined up to enter a shop on the street. It was called Mike’s Pastry, so I took some photos. I had seen people carrying boxes from Mike’s already as I walked through the city, so I figured this must be a well-known place. The signs inside show they serve many types of cannoli, as well as Boston cream pie. I didn’t take the time to stand in line, but decided I must visit here if I ever get back to Boston. When I returned home to Utah, I asked one of our part-time teachers, Grady, about Mike’s and he confirmed it is considered the best place for pastries in Boston. Grady had taken a year out from college to work on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and had come to know Boston well.
I retraced my steps and found the red line again, which had made a zig to pass Paul Revere’s house. It zagged back to Hanover and on to the Old North Church. In the courtyard leading to the church is a large statute of Paul Revere on horseback. I could hear Longfellow’s words reflecting in my mind:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
Sam Adams and John Hancock were considered public enemies, and left Boston to stay at a friends’ house in Lexington. The Minutemen militias in the communities around Boston started stockpiling arms in case of hostilities. The situation had become explosive. To prevent further provocation, the British soldiers were removed from the city and stationed on boats in the harbor and on Castle William, an island in the harbor.
Hearing of the caches of arms in Middlesex County, Gov. Gage ordered troops to march on Concord and seize the cache there. Although not in the official orders, he also wanted to apprehend Adams and Hancock. What he didn’t know was that his own personal physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, was a Son of Liberty and passing on the Governor’s every move. The group was warned of Gage’s intent to seize the arms, but they didn’t know one thing: how would the British Regulars move – by land from Charlestown or by water up the Charles River? Lookouts saw the British moving up the river, embarking near the north end of the Commons, so Revere hung two lanterns in the North Church belfry to signal a rider across the river, then decided to ride out himself. He asked friends to row him across the river to Charlestown. Even though the river was guarded at that time of night, he was able to slip past the British ships and reach the north shore of the river without incident.
William Dawes was also dispatched by Dr. Warren to give the alarm. They took separate routes through Middlesex County, and at each stop more riders spread in every direction, until dozens of men and one woman were rousing the countryside that the British soldiers were on the march. Revere took a northerly route from Charlestown; Dawes traveled south across Boston Neck and around to Lexington.
It’s unlikely Revere or the others said, “The British are coming!” since all of the Americans considered themselves to be British. They probably would have cried something like, “The Regulars are coming out!”
Revere made it to the Hancock-Clarke home in Lexington first, followed shortly by Dawes. They warned Adams and Hancock that the Regulars intended to arrest them and helped them pack up and leave. Then they decided to ride on to Concord in case the arms cache was the real target. Dawes had been instrumental in smuggling several cannon out of Boston, which were hidden in Concord, and he wanted to ensure their safety. They met Dr. Samuel Prescott on the way, who agreed to ride with them. They were waylaid by British sentries on the road to Concord and decided to make a break for it, each scattering in separate directions. Dawes rode into a local house’s courtyard and yelled that the Regulars were coming. Fearing the house’s occupants would turn on them, the soldiers turned back. But then Dawes’ horse bucked him off and he had to walk back to Lexington. Revere was apprehended and held captive. Only Prescott made it to Concord to warn the militia there.
I walked up over the hill past Copp’s Burial Ground and down to the walking trail along the river. It was too late for me to walk across the bridge and climb Bunker Hill, but I could look across to the monument there and the masts of the U.S.S. Constitution in the naval yard. As I watched, a canon boomed out and the United States flag was lowered from the yardarm of the Constitution. I imagined what this area looked like back then, as Revere, Dawes, and others rode out to warn the countryside.
The British expedition was poorly organized and they didn’t get all their men and supplies over the river to Cambridge until after midnight. The men had to unload the barges in knee high mud and water, and then faced a 17-mile march to Concord. As they marched toward Lexington, they heard the sounds of alarm being raised all around and knew they had lost the element of surprise.
The column of about 500 British regulars could see militiamen running toward the commons in Lexington as they marched up the road. The colonial militia was beginning to form up in the square as others were running behind the fence lines along the road toward the green. The colonial leader, John Parker, ordered his men to hold their fire unless they were fired upon, but he was suffering from tuberculosis and his voice was not well heard.
The redcoats saw the militia forming on Lexington Green and the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Francis Smith, ordered Major John Pitcairn ahead. Just at sunrise on April 19, Pitcairn marched his men rapidly into the square yelling “Huzzah!” He hoped to surround and confuse the colonists. At this moment a shot or two rang out. It is not known for certain who fired it. I’ve read eyewitness accounts and sworn affidavits from both sides, including colonials and Regulars. The colonials swear that Pitcairn gave the order to fire. The British all swear that they first heard several shots coming from the colonials (probably from the militiamen hiding behind fences), and that Pitcairn was merely trying to defend his men. This was the “Shot heard round the world.” In the confusion, no one knows for sure. It wasn’t much of a battle – merely a skirmish. Eight colonists were killed and the rest withdrew.
The British marched on to Concord. But the intentions of the British had been known days in advance, and the most of the arms were already moved away. The Regulars searched through the town but found only a few buried cannon, some ammunition, and some food stores. Prescott’s warning gave the militia time to form up properly, and they stayed on a hill overlooking the town as the regulars searched. More militia were arriving continuously from outlying farms until they outnumbered the Regulars. The British captain in charge of defending the North Bridge was inexperienced and became spooked by the nearby militia units. He retreated back across the bridge and set up a formation more appropriate for street fighting than for fighting on open ground. One of the Regulars fired a warning shot as the militia advanced, and several other regulars joined in. The colonials fired back and several British were killed.
Seeing that his mission to Concord was useless and fearing an organized attack, Lt. Col. Smith ordered a withdrawal from Concord. More militia arrived and harried the British; they fought a running battle all the way back to Lexington, where they received reinforcements. They rested briefly, then withdrew back toward Charlestown, fighting all the way, and trying to maintain disciplined columns while the colonists ran a shifting engagement. They would ambush the British from every defensive position, including groves of trees, bends in the road, and houses. The 1700 British Regulars marched in a military square with flanking parties sent out to drive the Americans from their positions, but the colonials simply faded back and around the British to harass them again. The British were exhausted and short on ammunition whereas the Americans were now almost 4000 strong. By the time they made it to Charlestown, the British had suffered far more casualties than the Americans.
That’s how the Revolutionary War began. It might not be what you read in Longfellow’s poem, but there it is. As a history teacher, I’m fascinated by the first-person accounts of what happened and the decisions that led to revolution. It seems the British government completely misunderstood the needs of the colonists, and botched the whole thing. Of course, the Sons of Liberty were definitely radical hot heads who forced the issue through protests and outright rebellion. What was the Crown to do but make an example of them? But everything they did only made the situation worse.
As night came on I walked back through Boston to the Commons. A bitterly cold wind began to blow off the harbor, and I was glad to get back to the warmth of my room at 40 Berkeley. I’ve learned so much more about events that led to the Revolution by walking through the very streets where it happened. I must return some day and also visit Lexington and Concord and see the places where it all started. I hear a new miniseries called The Sons of Liberty will air on the History Channel in January. I hope they get it right.