the Concord Magazine July/Aug 2000
The Ezine for and about Concord, Massachusetts

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A New Understanding on a Famous Statement

By D. Michael Ryan, the Concord Minute Men's historian, an 18th Century volunteer history interpreter with the National Park Service and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College. See the last installment of the continuing series on this topic here.

(Note: This article and the previous one issue are based upon the author's presentation on April 7 and 9, 2000 for the Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library's Exhibit called "To Support the Truth of It," celebrating the 225th Anniversary of the Concord Fight, 19 April 1775.)
As a local historian, I struggle to find the ancient, real truth of April 19th and what it means in the present. Yet I am aware of and understand what problems might occur in doing so since I have witnessed the unfortunate rewriting and revisionism of history to which I was an eyewitness participant (West Berlin, Woodstock, Vietnam are examples). I take my military background -- 25 years of colonial reenacting and 14 months of combat experience in Vietnam -- and combine them with new, original research and study, to produce my views of the Concord Fight. (See previous article.)

For example, like many, I once believed that Joseph Hosmer's "Will you let them burn the town down" quote was a heroic, righteous, glorious statement uttered in hopes of stirring brave spirits at a pivotal, historic moment. Most historians wish us to believe such. I then looked closer at the man, his life and times, events just prior to the Bridge Fight and most importantly the interpersonal dynamics occurring during the leaders' council. After searching primary (few to none) and secondary (many) sources and coupling my findings with personal experiences, I developed a new view of the historic moment above the Bridge and Hosmer's role.


My contention is that by 9:30am on 19 April, Joseph Hosmer was in a foul mood. A quiet man of influence, naturally modest but the outspoken leader of the Town's younger men, he had not a great liking for the cautious, prudent, class conscious, small elite corps of civilian and military leaders in Concord. They in turn distrusted him.

At a young age, Hosmer's father joined the First Parish separatist movement forming the Black Horse church. At school, Joseph was called the little black colt by classmates (1775 Town leaders). The wealthy, politically influential father of his intended bride, belittled him as not of sufficient money, class or location to marry his daughter. He never managed military experience during the French and Indian War. While he did prosper as a cabinet maker, he remained known as a "mechanic" and on the political fringes of Concord. Yet while the Town leaders embarrassingly stood silent in the face of Tory Bliss's harsh words at the County Convention, it was he who finally rose and delivered a simple, eloquent rebuttal. Still, little recognition was given him but the position of hogreever and a militia lieutenancy.

On the morning of 19 April, as men responded to Concord center in response to the alarm, Hosmer was ordered by Maj. Buttrick to leave his unit (small horse troop), dismount and assume the duties of adjutant. Although firmly debating this command, he did reluctantly obey. Following the decision to abandon the town and retire to Punkatasset Hill, his patience was strained by the time the leaders' council was called. Indecision, caution and lack of leadership prevailed at this gathering which led to a demonstrative speech (according to Benson Lossing's 1835 "Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution") by Hosmer. His alleged words were passed along by grandson-in-law and Concordian John M. Cheney to Josephine Hosmer who published them in a draft "Memoir" for the "Social Circle" in 1869.

Hosmer spoke, "I have often heard it said that the British have boasted that they could march through our country, laying waste to the hamlets and villages and we would not oppose them. And I begin to think it true" he emphatically stated. Pointing to smoke rising from town, he demanded, "Will you let them burn the town down?" This, I believe, was an angry taunt and challenge to the leaders who had always thought themselves his superior. It was not a heroic call to arms, but a surly, nose-tweaking of the establishment. It led to action.

As stated, my views are based on a combination of research, personal study of Hosmer and events, military combat and reenacting experience. I have spent countless days standing above the Bridge and contemplating that 19th of April morning, remembering my repulsive superiors, recalling the fear of combat, hating indecision and thinking of Hosmer. My Vietnam diary contains Hosmer-like comments. I have walked in Joseph Hosmer's leather shoes in order to better understand history and attempt to reach the truth of it.

There was found other examples in literature and at the Library's exhibit (on view through May, 2000) of the dichotomy in truth seeking. You might have even found truth! Subjects to look for include John Buttrick (not David Brown) was elected captain of Concord's second minute company; lack of primary source materials with only family oral tradition to support the Bedford Flag at North Bridge tale; the spy John Howe (1827 Journal) hoax; Acton not Concord men leading the march to the Bridge; the Ammi White "scalping" story; Lincoln's James Nichols debunking the unanimity of cause theory by fleeing the field prior to the Bridge fight; the Concord Main Post Office, 19 April North Bridge mural - fanciful fact, fiction and romance, or truth?

Further Reading
  • "The Shoemaker and the Tea Party" by Alred F. Young, 1999 (theme of memory)
  • "Lies Across America" by James W. Loewen, 1999 (themes of presentist history, "history war")
  • Series I Hosmer Family & Personal papers, Special Collections, CFPLHD Thoreau's Journals (Non. 1841)
  • RW Emerson's Journals and essay "History"
  • All this having been said, now the question is asked, "Who cares?" While the purists want truth and accuracy, does the public or the common person? Do you? Does it matter? Or do we wish to believe what we have been told or what we want, what makes us comfortable, only needing the truths which support our personal views? Can we ever really know the truth of the North Bridge skirmish or 19 April? Was the Concord Fight as important locally, nationally or internationally then as it is now or but a figment of our present historical imagination as to its place in the scheme of things? As with a trip, where the journey is often more important than the destination, so is the seeking of historic truth.

    Our history - the Concord Fight and the 19th of April - for better or worse is fact, fiction, myth, reality, folk tale and all of these, compiled over 225 years as best as we can tell to this point. It has and will again change in writings and storytellings as new evidence is uncovered and views are altered. Some unrefutable facts will stand forever; only their interpretation will change.

    And Samuel Hoar's "first forcible resistance" and Emerson's "shot heard 'round the world" will reflect ideas and values more than specific, physical acts. And I will - like other historian Sir Galahads - continue the quest for the Holy Grail of historic truth, wherever it may lead, hoping to find new perspectives in support of the truth of it.


    Art: Fullmoon Graphics


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