the Concord MagazineApril, 1998

Hidden Concord
An Unfurled Flag: The Concord Fight and Controversy

By D. Michael Ryan, a sergeant/drummer with the Concord Minute Men and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College
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british soldiers in the woodsTo what flag did Emerson allude in his 1836 "Concord Hymn"? Was any flag - British or American - displayed in Concord on the 19th of April, 1775? Or was the famed author using but poetic figure of speech unsupported by historic fact?

While the presence of at least one flag is documented, its exact design is seemingly lost. As British troops entered Concord, Lt. Barker noted "... taking possession of a hill with a liberty pole on it and a flag flying...". Historian Shattuck wrote, "Here in the rear of Reuben Brown's stood the pole on which the flag of liberty was first unfurled."

Other accounts verify the pole and its flag standing on a burial hill across from the meeting house but few describe the defiant banner itself. Speculation ranges from the New England pine-tree flag; to a red flag with a white canton containing a pine-tree or the Cross of St. George; to an all white banner with a green liberty tree. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty had posted a liberty pole and hoisted to its top a red banner. Hon. John Keyes in Hurd's "History of Middlesex County" and Josephine Swayne's "The Story of Concord" state that the pine-tree flag representing freedom flew from the Concord pole. Whatever the design, the flag's symbolism was not lost on the British as they destroyed both it and the pole.

Some believe that Lt. Col. Smith's military expedition carried the King's and possibly Regimental Colours into Concord. Such standards, borne by ensigns, generally accompanied troops into battle for morale, as a rallying point and to align attacking units. Several ensigns (including Lister wounded at Meriam's Corner) were with Smith's column.

However, accounts of the day's events describe the British soldier's unifoms, their music, swords and bayonets glistening in the sun but no flags. Smith's force consisted of the elite Light Infantry and Grenadier companies of each regiment in Boston, joined for a rapid marching search/destroy mission, not for battle. No complete regiment participated and thus flags would not have been carried. This coupled with a total lack of evidence regarding British colours entering Concord lead to the belief that none did.

The Bedford Flag
The final possibility for a flag in Concord on April 19th is the most perplexing and controversal, since its basis in fact relies mostly on family tradition, supposition and theory. This banner is the legendary "Bedford Flag".

Told is the story of Nathaniel Page, Jr., an "elected" cornet/ standard bearer of the Bedford Minute Company who, receiving the 19th of April alarm, grabs the ancient cavalry troop flag (designated by the men as their standard) and marches to Concord. Also told is the tale of the flag (having been laid down) being played with by town boys and serving as a rallying point before the exchange of fire with the British at North Bridge. Page is said to have carried the flag all day, and then into Cambridge for 7 days, before returning both himself and the standard home, neither to ever see service again. Unfortunately, little positive, original documentation exists to substantiate these and other such stories.

Mystery and contradiction seem to surround the Bedford Flag. First thought to be a 17th Century horse troop standard, it is now believed to be dated from the 1720s. While generations of Pages were commissioned "Cornets" to carry a flag, Nathaniel Jr. was not nor is there documentation to show he was elected to the position (which did not exist in minute companies). Nor is there evidence that the flag was accepted as the Bedford Minute Men's standard. Questions arise: Why was the flag carried on April 19th but not at other musters (for example, the March 13th regimental drill)? Is the arm/dagger on Minute Company Commander Capt. Wilson's tombstone a replica of the flag's? How does such a historic flag, which disappear until Centennial ceremonies in 1875 and then again in 1885 when donated to the Town of Bedford, develop a storied past?

Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of primary source evidence that the flag was at North Bridge. Not a single mention of it is made in the myriad of diaries, letters, eye-witness accounts and depositions - British and American alike. Had such an unusual standard appeared on the field, without doubt an officer or soldier in either opposing ranks would have noticed. All that is certain is that a Nathaniel Page, Jr. was with Bedford in Concord and that the family had possession of an ancient flag. The conclusion must be that the banner did not appear at the Concord fight.

Hence it appears that the only flag present in Concord on the 19th of April was unfurled atop the liberty pole. And, most likely, Emerson's use of "their flag" was but poetic imagery, not referring to a specific banner. At least his notes and papers document nothing to the contrary.

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"Their flag to April's breeze unfurled..."
from The Concord Hymn, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Related Links

The Town of Bedford community Webpage

More Bedford Flag info

This year's Patriot's Day events schedule

Patriot's Day Main Street Magic Show

Complete text of Emerson's "Concord Hymn"

More Concord revolutionary history info and links

Ralph Waldo Emerson links and reading list, as well as other Concord arts info and links.

"History of Middlesex County" by D. Hamilton Hurd, 1890
"We Were There" by Col. Vincent J-R Kehoe, 1975
"History of the Bedford Flag" (Draft) by Sharon McDonald, 1994
"Facts and Legends Associated with the Battle of April 19, 1775" by Douglas Sabin, 1995
"Paul Revere's Ride" by David Hackett Fischer, 1994
"Beneath Old Roof-trees" by Abram E. Brown, 1891
"Wilderness Town" (1968); "Flag of the Minute Men" (1965) by Louise K. Brown
"Descendants of George Abbott" by Maj. Lemuel A. Abbott, 1906
Photo: In the April Woods. Part of the Patriot's Day Reenactment. ©Richard Stevenson
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