the Concord Magazine March/April 2001
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Mysterious Militia Man Deserts at the Old North Bridge By D. Michael Ryan, Historian for the Concord Minute Men, a volunteer 18th Century history interpreter for the National Park Service and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College.
Old North Bridge engravingDuring the preliminaries to the fight at Concord's North Bridge, while the colonials mustered on the high ground, many activities occurred, most lost to history through an absence of documentation by the participants. However, one peculiar incident involving a mysterious Lincoln militia man surfaced in 1850 only to be surrounded by doubt.

Receiving the alarm at about 2 AM on 19 April 1775, both the minute and militia companies of Lincoln gathered at the Meeting House and began the march to Concord center where they would arrive near 4 AM. Along the way, fellow townsmen would join the ranks including Amos Baker. Among those marching was apparently one "farmer" named James Nichols (Nicholls).

Little is known of Nichols for his existence is shrouded in mystery. His name appears not in the muster rolls, church listings, assessor or tax records or any other town documents of the period. He surfaces however in the 22 April 1850 deposition of Amos Baker, a Lincoln militia man in 1775 and at age 94 the last survivor of the fight at North Bridge.

As the colonials quietly watched the Regulars at a safe distance, it is most probable that in the minds of at least a few, an uneasiness grew concerning the prospect of fighting the King's soldiers. In the words of Baker, Nichols suddenly offered, "If any of you will hold my gun, I will go down and talk with them (Regulars)." Someone indeed took his weapon and off down the slope did Nichols proceed alone to converse with the soldiers for "some time". Upon returning to his company, he retrieved his musket and stated that he was going home, thus departing the scene before the fighting.

Sources:

  • "A Rich Harvest" by John C. MacLean, 1987.

  • "Heroes of the Battle Road" by Frank W.C. Hersey, 1930.

  • "Affidavit of the Last Survivor" Amos Baker, 22 April 1850

  • (Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library)

  • "Massachusetts Soldiers & Sailors of the American Revolution", 1793

  • (Special Collections, CFPL)

  • "Paul Revere's Ride" by David Hackett Fischer, 1994.

  • Among his other remembrances of Nichols, Baker noted that he was an "Englishman", perhaps meaning that he was an immigrant from England, not born in the colonies. Also depicted was Nichols as "a droll fellow and fine singer".

    While this bizarre Bridge tale is reported by some later historians, it is always based solely on Baker's account. Prior to 1850, no other description of the event occurs in histories, depositions, diaries or writings - British or American. Might Baker have been mistaken in name or fact in a memory clouded by age and time? Yet all other details of his 1850 affidavit related to names and events are quite accurate. Still, why did not the holder of Nichols' gun or a British officer write or tell of the unusual activity.

    Baker's notation of the Englishman concludes with the statement that he later enlisted to go to Dorchester (to make amends for leaving the Bridge before the fight?) and there deserted to the British, never to be heard of again. However, with no supporting documentation and the absence of even a mention of his name in town records, the Nichols tale might easily be dismissed.

    But military records do mention a James Nicholls of Lincoln serving in Cambridge under a Capt. Nathan Fuller in June 1775 just prior to the battle of Breed's/Bunker's Hill. A letter from Fuller requests that his armorer receive guns belonging to Nicholls and others to be made fit for service. In a return (roster) dated 6 October 1775, Nicholls appears as a Private in Fuller's company in camp at Prospect Hill. This is the last mention of James Nichols.

    Some individuals will look at the story of Nichols at the Bridge and surmise that it reflected the doubts of at least a few colonials regarding their situation and the possibility of bloodshed. Others will claim support for the belief in a curious informality of the 19 April battle. Still others see this act as the reason that membership in Minute Companies was voluntary to insure that Tories (not wishing to face the King's troops) would not join the ranks.

    The mystery of James Nichols continues unsolved. Did he really exist and if so, who was he? Why does he not appear in any of Lincoln's town records? Might he have been a transient to town, caught in the chaos of the time who elected to return home? Did he defect to the British in Boston after the battle of Breed's/Bunker's Hill, departing with them on 17 March 1776? A simple, common man, wandering in search of a new life, did he but step onto history's stage by accident for an instant then disappear forever?

    Perhaps some undiscovered diary, family history or misplaced document is still to be found which will unlock the mystery of Lincoln's militia man James Nichols and his curious action at North Bridge. Until then, only the words of Amos Baker survive to recall a strange moment in the history of Concord Town.


    Art: Digital Crafts.
    Engraving of the Old North Bridge courtesy of ArtToday.


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