By D. Michael Ryan, company Historian with the Concord Minute Men, an 18th Century volunteer historic interpreter with the National Park Service and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College.
I haven't a man that is!"
Thus on 19 April 1775 did Capt. Isaac Davis respond to the query if he was afraid to lead his Acton minute company and the colonial column "into the middle of the town (Concord) for its defense or die in the attempt".
Details of the moments just preceding the eventful Bridge fight are limited or shrouded in the silence of time and report. It is certain that upon sighting smoke rising from Concord, Col. Barrett ordered Maj. Buttrick to march the assembled force into the town. How and why the Acton minute company led this expedition have been debated and interpreted for years even to the point of tirades in support of Acton by the Hon. Josiah Adams in 1835 and 1850.
Several explanations of Acton's activities at the Bridge have been set forth. Rev. Ezra Ripley wrote that upon arriving at the muster field, Davis' company "... passing by the other companies, took the right of the whole, which placed him nearest the Bridge, and in front, when they marched toward the enemy." Was this an act of brashness or military ignorance? Davis and his company were junior in rank and the place of senior honors was on the right.
Lemuel Shattuck and several others claim that the colonials were in the process of marching when Acton arrived on the west road, passed in front of the column, moving toward the Bridge and halted. Capt. Brown's Concord minute company then moved two abreast up the north side of the road equally in front. This might indicate that both the Acton and Concord units advanced to the Bridge alongside each other. Indications exist that discrepancies in the manner of march might have been due to the way in which the old roads meandered to the Bridge. Yet even Shattuck admits that precise positions of each company present could not be fully ascertained.
What most likely occurred can best be surmised through participant depositions, first hand accounts, letters and other documents. Upon receiving the alarm, Davis mustered his company noting, "I have a right to go to Concord on the King's highway and I will go to Concord." His men were perhaps the best trained and equipped each with a musket, cartridge box (to facilitate rapid firing) and bayonet supplied by gunsmith Davis. Since November 1774, they had trained twice weekly including marksmanship at a firing range behind Davis' house.
Acton's route of march took it over the Strawberry Hill Road near Barrett's farm where they turned east, passing the Widow Brown's tavern. Charles Handley, age 13, watched them disappear up the back road (upper or east) to Buttrick's farm and the Bridge. Upon reaching the high ground, Davis noted the troops aligned as they had been at the 13 March regimental muster (minute companies on the right, militia on the left facing the Bridge) and thus took his assigned position on the appropriate left of the line. He then joined the officer's conference in progress.
Barrett listened as officers and supposedly civilian representatives nervously discussed the situation and possible courses of action. It was a tense moment for citizen soldiers making military decisions. What should be done about the stores at Barrett's farm? Would the British attack? If so, would they fire or charge bayonets? As smoke rose from town, the decision was made to march. Capt. Smith volunteered his Lincoln minute company to dislodge the British from the Bridge. Buttrick, commander of the column, supposedly offered the lead to a Concord captain who allegedly noted that he would rather not. As bayonets had been discussed and only Acton was so equipped and best trained, Davis was asked if he was afraid to go and gave his famous answer.
Tales have circulated that the veteran warrior Barrett, not Buttrick, selected the energetic, respected, thoughtful, fearless Davis for the task since trouble was expected. Suspected frictions (maybe political and/or church related) among the officers has been put forth as a basis for decisions. Regardless, Davis drew his sword, wheeled his company from the line to the right and proceeded down the hill to the causeway leading to North Bridge. With him marched Buttrick and LTC Robinson of Westford. During the insuing fight, Davis was killed immediately, perhaps snatching the spirit from the colonial troops.
In April 1875, Rev. Grindall Reynolds stated that to debate the position of units belittles and insults a great event and those who participated. Whether Acton led or marched alongside Concord; whether it was chosen due to courage or bayonets, will never fully be known. The courage of Concord's men and their captains (3 of 4 would be wounded by day's end) cannot be doubted.
It is enough that in fact Acton men joined forces with fellow citizens of Old Puritan Concord to which they had once belonged and that their captain "sealed devotion to liberty as the first officer to shed blood" because neither he nor his men were afraid to go.
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