by Joe Wagner
The engagements along what has become known as “Battle Road” between Concord and Boston MA., on April 19th, 1775, were the beginning of our Revolution, and the things that happened along that road were unique and interesting events in more than the obvious historical way. If you have read John Galvin’s book, “The Minutemen”, with its incredible detail of names, units, times, etc., as just one example, you realize someone went to a lot of trouble to gather copious amounts of detailed information. Compare the records of Battle Road to the rest of the war, when we often know almost nothing of the details of even major battles and other significant events. The detail concerning April 19th, 1775 is available because of politics. So much detail is available on the events of that one day because the patriot politicians of Massachusetts wanted to publicize the overwhelming response of the American people to the tyrannical acts of the British army. They wanted to prove to the world the broad-based support the rebellion had among the common people, and the strength they could bring against the British army. To document this story, the Whigs of Massachusetts interviewed and wrote down the story of virtually every individual person who played any role in the events of April 19th. This record provides a most complete picture of revolutionary America, not only of the battle, but of life and times in colonial New England. Here are two stories from that record:
One Big Family
One unusual and important feature of these documentary records is that the typical small New England town of 1775 was almost literally one big family. The intermarriage and in-breeding resulting from geographical isolation, little travel, and a natural social insularity helped produce social circumstances that would be hard to understand from 200 years distance.
Let’s look at Chelmsford, MA as an example. Chelmsford is a community located about 15 miles north of Concord. They sent their militia company to Concord that day and fought along Battle Road. If you can locate a list of the Chelmsford militia company roster, you’ll see there are 61 names on it in April 1775. If you look for men with common last names, it becomes a striking roster. Find the last name of Spaulding, and count the family members. You’ll find there are FIVE of them –in this one company. Now look for Peirce. There are FOUR of them. Also the name of Marshall – FOUR of them. The Parkers and Dunns – THREE each. Parkhurst, Richardson, Keyes, Chambers, Fletcher – TWO each. Even the commander, Colonel Oliver Barron, had a relative, Private Moses Barron, serving under him. There are many likely stories to be found here – Sergeant Silas Spaulding’s name is listed right above John Spaulding, the company drummer – his son perhaps?
Look at another even more striking example. The town of Lexington, MA was located about 13 miles west of Boston, and in 1775 had a population of 755 individuals. Their company of militia numbered on its rolls 141 men between the ages of 16 and 60. As the town did not have a “minute” company, which was usually made up of the younger members of the community, nor an “alarm list”, made up of older citizens, the militia company contained virtually every able-bodied male in the township.
Like Chelmsford, among those 141 men there were only 59 different last names, and only 27 of those 141 men (19%) did not share a last name with another member of the company. The most common name on the Lexington militia roll was that of Munroe, with 16 members of the family enrolled, each one of them a brother, father, uncle, or cousin to every other. There were 13 Harringtons, 11 Smiths, and 8 Reeds. There were five more names with four members each, three with three members, and 37 pairs of men sharing a last name.
In the first battle of the morning on April 19th, 1775, 75 of the 141 members of the Lexington Company were present on the green. When the smoke from the British volleys had cleared, of the Munroe family, two were killed and two were wounded. Of the Harringtons, two were killed. The Brown family had four members enrolled, all of whom were present that morning. One was killed and one wounded. In all, 20 of the 75 militia present were killed or wounded.
The point to be understood about these company rosters and the men in these units is that it was not just a military unit. It was a gathering of friends and neighbors, who were also relatives. They were fighting not only with friends and neighbors, but with brothers, fathers, sons, and cousins. What a cohesive and self-supporting fighting force it must have been. Whatever their training or experience, they went into the battle with the people they knew and loved and depended on. The sense of morale and dedication such a unit would have is hard to imagine, and the impact of seeing your friends and relatives fall must have been tremendous for those who survived that day.
No doubt his friends in the Light Company, 10th Regiment of Foot, chided Private Thomas Johnson unmercifully as they continued their march from Lexington to Concord. Only two weeks in the Regiment, he was unlucky enough to be the sole casualty among the British companies engaged with the American militia on Lexington common that early morning of April 19th, 1775. He suffered a wound in the thigh, and while he may have felt this day a great misfortune, it was actually his lucky battle. He survived the day on Battle Road, and returned to Boston, while many of his compatriots did not.
Private Johnson recovered from his wound. He returned to active service with the 10th Light Company just in time to board a small boat, cross from Boston to Charlestown harbor and march up Bunker Hill. There another patriot musket ball found him and this time his luck had run out. He died in Boston on June 23, 1775.