the Concord Magazine May/June 2001
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Emerson, the Bridge and the British

By D. Michael Ryan, a Sergeant with the Concord Minute Men and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College.


Squill on the Concord River

Just downstream from the Old North Bridge, a more pastoral scene than on April 19, 1775: masses of early springtime blue squill in bloom.
Many colonial church ministers in 1775 sided with the Whigs against British oppression. They were not pacifists and spoke strongly in favor of American freedoms. Among their numbers was the Rev. William Emerson, pastor, First Parish in Concord, who according to one British spy was "a very bad subject of his majesty."

Using his pulpit to indicate the injustices of British rule, Emerson was selected chaplain to the Provincial Congress when it met at Concord in October 1774 and served the same capacity with the local militia. His fiery words enticed minute company enlistments and at a March 1775 muster he sermonized, "Behold God himself is with us for our Captain and his priests with sounding trumphets to cry alarm..." Some weeks later his Tory brother-in-law Daniel Bliss would flee Concord.

The time for action to replace words came on the morning of 19 April 1775 as British regulars fresh from killing Americans on Lexington Green approached Concord. At the first sounding of the alarm bell, Rev. Emerson mustered on the Common in his black minister's frock, musket in hand. As rumors swirled about and courses of action were discussed, tradition has it that Emerson exhorted, "Let us stand our ground; if we die, let us die here." Encouraging a frightened 18 year old Harry Gould, the Reverend said, "Stand your ground Harry! Your cause is just and God will bless you."

The Old Manse, circa 1950

The Old Manse as it appeared in the 1950's.
Calmer, more reasoned minds prevailed and the outnumbered American force moved toward North Bridge, a short distance from the Rev. Emerson's manse, on their way to Punkatasset Hill. The minister "glanced anxiously" toward his home, then crossed the field to look after his family's safety. The lane and grounds of the manse were filled with women and children looking for protection and hence their minister commenced consoling and feeding them. His wife Phoebe was dismayed that he did not enter the house to attend to her as she needed him as much as they.

Questions have arisen as to whether Emerson remained at the manse or crossed the Bridge to join his fellow countrymen. One story has him watching the activities with his family from an upstairs, north window. Another story notes that he was not just a spectator but stayed with the men, encouraging them in the battle. His own words in a diary, though impersonal, read as if he was in the ranks with the colonials. His use of "we" could include himself as personally involved or merely refer to the Americans as a whole.

Family tradition holds that Emerson did not enter the manse. Granddaughter Sarah Ripley Ansley wrote that she never heard that he stayed in the house but had always been told that he was out all day with the others. Another granddaughter remembered that her grandmother watched from the house windows to where her husband was and thought him cheering the men on but not fighting himself as he was a minister. Great granddaughter Phoebe Ripley Chamberlain also stated it was a mistake to think Emerson remained in the house.

Sources

"Know these Concordians" by Dana McLean Greeley 1975

"The Day of Concord and Lexington" by Allen French 1925

"Concord: American Town" by Townsend Scudder 1947

"History of Concord, Mass." by Lemuel Shattuck 1835

Perhaps the most accurate account of Emerson's activities comes from the "Letter" of Rev. William Gordon, Roxbury, who days after the battle personally spoke with his friend in Concord. This document reflects that as the Americans approached the west side of the Bridge, Emerson went to the east side to see what would occur and thus was closer to the British lines. He saw Davis and Hosmer fall and was uneasy until the Americans returned fire driving the British from the Bridge. Thus in Emerson's own spoken word, it appears that he remained at the manse though outside but was at the Bridge when the fight took place.

In an interesting aside, Gordon's "Letter" noted that as the British retreated, they left behind dead and wounded. One of the latter was Lt. Edward Gould who might have been killed by the victors had not a minister present prevented such. Since Emerson was nearby, he may have been the life-saving hero. While no other accounts of this event exist, it should be noted that Gould was able to hobble to Concord center and following his capture in Menotomy was interviewed by Gordon. Emerson's morning concluded when his breakfast was interrupted by the British units returning from Barrett's farm.

On 16 April 1776, Emerson would join the American army as a chaplain and depart Concord for Ft. Ticonderoga. He never returned for at age 33 on 20 October, he died of camp fever and was buried in Rutland, VT.

The Rev. William Emerson would be remembered as a patriot, a man of God overseeing his church, a citizen joining countrymen in a common cause and a family man loving and protecting his wife and children. And most of all, Concord's minister would be remembered for being at the Bridge with his men on 19 April.


Photos: Top, ©2001 Richard Stevenson
Bottom, ©Martin Studio
Backgrounds: Classic Themes.


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