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A supplement to @percival ‘s post on this topic.
“During the whole affair, the rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance and resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed they knew too well what was proper, to do so. Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself very much mistaken.
“For my part, I never believed, I confess, that they would have attacked the king’s troops, or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday.”
– Lord Percy, April 20, 1775
The quote is from Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer which I recently reread and Lord Percy is referring to the final part of the British retreat from Lexington to Charlestown, along what is now known as Battle Road, on April 19, 1775. Percy led a relief column out of Boston that morning to support the British force sent late the prior evening to seize Patriot arms stored in Concord.
When Lord Percy arrived in Lexington at mid-day he found a panicked British force hastening back from Concord in disarray, stunned by the resistance of the local citizens and the number of casualties inflicted upon them by the locals, whom, until that day, they held in contempt. If Percy had not shown up it is doubtful any of the original British force would have returned to Boston. Under the direction of Lord Percy the combined force fought its way back with the most violent action of the day taking place in Menotomy (now Arlington).
Lord Percy’s observation was perceptive. For the most part, he was not encountering local farmers spontaneously taking positions behind walls to shot at his soldiers. These were regiments organized by local Massachusetts towns and under the direction of William Heath, a Roxbury farmer who had taught himself the rudiments of military strategy and thought deeply in advance how to deal with British regulars. The local regiments did not fight the British from fixed positions but rather formed a moving circle of skirmishers around the entire enemy column during this last phase of the British retreat.
Learning about the little-known Heath and the patriot military strategy is one of the joys of reading Fischer’s book. While it reclaims the legacy of Paul Revere it also tells the entire story of April 19 in great, and very readable, detail. Revere was much more than the man who made his famous ride. He was instrumental in the years leading up to the events of April 19, becoming the key link between the artisans and tradesmen of Boston and the elite businessmen and lawyers like John Hancock, Joseph Warren and Sam Adams. He is seemingly everywhere, involved in every key event.
On the night of April 18-19, Revere was captured by the British on the road between Lexington and Concord. Released later that evening he made his way to Lexington, where he had previously stopped to warn Hancock and Adams, who were staying at a house next to the Town Green, of the British expedition. On his return, he helped relocate the two patriot leaders to a more remote location and then learned they had left a large chest full of sensitive documents at a tavern on the Green! Recruiting an assistant they removed the chest and carted it across the Green as dawn broke passing through the Lexington militiamen assembling there and seeing the approaching British troops. As Revere reached the nearby woods he heard the first shots of the American Revolution.
Fischer is one of our great narrative historians and while Paul Revere’s Ride is scholarly and full of fascinating footnotes at the end, it is also a rollicking and exciting tale as told by the author. Washington’s Crossing, about the darkest days of the Revolution in late 1776, is another narrative masterpiece by Fischer.
In his introduction, Fischer explains his continued belief in the power of the narrative even as other approaches have come to dominate historical scholarship:
Pathbreaking scholarship in the 20th century has dealt mainly with social structures, intellectual systems, and material processes. Much has been gained by this enlargement of the historian’s task, but something important has been lost. An entire generation of academic historiography has tended to lose sense of the causal power of particular actions and contingent events.
An important key here is the idea of contingency – not in the sense of chance, but rather of ‘something that may or may not happen’ . . . An organizing assumption of this work is that contingency is central to any historical process, and vital to the success of our narrative strategies about the past.
To that end, this inquiry studies the coming of the American Revolution as a series of contingent happenings, shaped by the choices of individual actors with the context of large cultural processes.
Fischer’s first book, originally his doctoral thesis, is Albion’s Seed, the most important book ever written about the cultural differences between the British groups that settled America and their impact on the strands of American culture that powered this country throughout its history, at least until recent decades.
While modern academic theory has reduced all those of European origin into a faceless, indistinguishable blob of white supremacy, Albion’s Seed reminds us of the strikingly different cultures from different geographical areas within England that settled in various parts of the New World – Puritans in New England, Quakers in the mid-Atlantic, Cavaliers in the South and the Scots-Irish in the backcountry. Cultural and religious traditions in these groups varied tremendously and those differences carried over into America.
In the introduction to Paul Revere’s Ride, Fischer speaks to the cultural traditions he identified in Albion’s Seed writing:
Paul Revere’s idea of liberty was not the same as our modern conception of individual autonomy and personal entitlement. It was not a form of “classical Republicanism”, or “English Opposition Ideology”, or “Lockean Liberalism”, or any of the learned anachronisms that scholars have invented to explain a way of thought that is alien to their own world.
He believed deeply in New England’s inherited tradition of ordered freedom, which gave heavy weight to collective rights and individual responsibilities – more so than is given by our modern calculus of individual rights and collective responsibilities.
His genius was to promote collective action in the cause of freedom – a paradox that lies closer to the heart of the American experience than the legendary historical loners we love to celebrate.