Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

The Midnight Ride

David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride.  New York, Oxford University Press, 1994.

John Bedell

No historical myth touches me like the story of Lexington and Concord. Epic heroes, artists, soldiers, scientists, philosophers, explorers, inventors, lovers and pirates catch my attention, but the men whose acts move me most are the Massachusetts militiamen of 1775. These were not great men in any sense, but ordinary men proud of their very ordinariness. They did not go in search of adventure, but when trouble came they left their homes and marched off to meet it. They did their duty, without posturing or vainglory, and then went back to their farms and their families. To me, there is no other heroism like this simple acceptance of an obligation to fight when one's home is threatened, and no happy ending like going home again, duty done.

The story of Lexington and Concord is a good one, and Fischer here gives it a spirited telling. I have some qualms about the book, which I'll get to later, but the scholarship is very sound without being intrusive, the prose is excellent, and Fischer puts his emphasis on the themes that I find most compelling myself. Fischer raises some fascinating questions about the Revolution. He mentions a curious phenomenon we might call inevitability as a self-fulfilling prophecy, noting that one reason fighting came to America was that men on both sides came increasingly to see it as inevitable. He explains how the very men who participated in Revere's warning ride covered up the true story of it, preferring to present the muster of the militia as a sort of spontaneous rising of the people instead of a broad-based and carefully organized plan. The Revolutionary leaders did not want to be seen as conspirators. They were conspirators, though, and they had brought hundreds of men into their plot. They had dozens of agents collecting intelligence and dozens of riders ready to carry it, they were in touch with all the militia leaders, they had given careful thought to how to raise the whole country against a British thrust in any direction. At the center of it were Doctor James Warren and Paul Revere, but they were only two nodes in a vast, carefully constructed network. Their work paid off on April 19, as they raised in hours a force several times as large as the British could send against them and chased the Regulars back to Boston, beginning the Revolution with a stunning victory.

The story is comprised of many, many smaller stories, some of them very compelling in themselves, and it relates to great events of world history. But at its heart this is a story of men and how they face a time of great crisis.

Part of the fascination of war is how it brings out the character of those forced to confront it, the good and the bad, and in this story I see some of the characteristics I would most want to have myself. Consider, first, the British soldiers, who showed an astonishing degree of bravery and endurance. The leading companies began their march in Boston at 10 PM on the evening of April 18 and did not return until nearly midnight on the next day. It was about 20 miles from Boston to Concord by the route they followed, so they marched 20 miles, the first 15 in darkness, fought a brief action in Concord, and then began their 20 mile retreat, under nearly constant harassing fire from the militia. The larger column sent to rescue the first marched only 30 miles, but they traveled at a faster pace and fought almost constantly across the whole ten miles from Lexington back to Cambridge. Every time the militiamen set an ambush, the regulars formed up as they had been trained, charged the stone walls and woodlots where the colonists were hidden, and routed them. Such an action, even if it lasts only twenty minutes, is profoundly exhausting, and the men of the 47th Foot and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers did it half a dozen times in the course of their 30 mile mission. Nor did they slacken their speed along the way. In fact, they only made it back at all because of the furious pace they set. The marching regulars left the militia they had fought at Lexington and Concord far behind, as they passed and left behind every other body of men that came against them, leaving the road bloody behind them but never faltering until they reached the safety of Charleston. Their officers for the most part performed admirably as well, working hard to limit violence against civilians, exposing themselves to every risk to lead their men to safety. Many of them disliked the job they had been sent to do and hoped for a peaceful solution, but they had their orders and they carried them out, like true professionals.

Paul Revere himself is also worth consideration. In the 60s the historical debunkers brought him into their sights and tried to dismiss him as a bumbler who never even reached his goal but then stole all the glory for himself. All false. Revere was the greatest messenger of the age. He was a brilliant rider, more than once outdistancing younger and better mounted British officers who pursued him. He had already carried secret messages as far as Philadelphia and he had carried warnings of two other British attacks, thwarting an attempted raid on powder stores in New Hampshire. He knew all the roads of Massachusetts, the houses of all the militia leaders, the gathering places of all the companies. His plans were laid very carefully on the night of April 18, and they worked almost perfectly. True, he did not reach Concord, but some of the many other riders he set in motion did. Far from stealing the glory, he said almost nothing about his own part, in keeping with the policy of the Revolutionary leaders.

My heart, though, is with the ordinary soldiers of the militia, not because of how they fought but because of how they went to war. They were not young men like the British Regulars, but mature heads of families; most were in their 30s and 40s. All adult men fit to fight were supposed to be in the militia, and in fact in times of trouble participation was very high. The militia was the men of the community, under arms. The Massachusetts militia was not a new institution in 1775. It had been established at the time of settlement, and it was based on English precedents centuries older. The militia men were supposed to meet regularly for practice on the town "Training Ground". In times of peace they were lax, but when war threatened the pace of their training increased. They were hard at work throughout 1774 and 1775, much to the amusement of the professional British officers who observed them. The officers' letters home were full of jokes at the colonists' expense. "If you ever saw a goose assume an air of consequence, you may catch some faint idea," wrote one. Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines wrote, "if I draw my sword but half out of my scabbard, the whole banditti of Massachusetts will run away." But these officers were mistaken, as some would learn from personal experience. The militiamen may have been sloppy at drill, but they practiced hard at raising their rate of fire and improving their accuracy, skills that made them deadly in defensive fighting. Major Pitcairn was wounded by one of those cowardly banditti on the road back from Lexington, and killed by another at Bunker Hill.

Fischer is at his most eloquent describing the militia and their attitude toward war:

The Regulars of the British army and the citizen soldiers of Massachusetts looked upon military affairs in very different ways. New England farmers did not think of war as a game, or a feudal ritual, or an instrument of state power, or a bloodsport for bored country gentlemen. They did not regard the pursuit of arms as a noble profession.... With a few exceptions they thought of fighting as a dirty business that had to be done from time to time if good men were to survive in a world of evil.

What other way to look at war compares to this? What other justification for fighting is not hollow with selfishness and cruelty? With the world as it is, sometimes we do have to fight, but we should never forget that killing is wicked and that war rots kindness and sense from all but the best hearts. It is a dirty business and should never be thought of as anything else.

In November 1774 the town meeting of Lexington voted to tax themselves "for the purpose of mounting the cannon, ammunition, for a pair of drums for the use of the Training Band of the town, and for carriage and harness for burying the dead." They knew what war meant. They told no reassuring lies about wars without casualties. They knew fighting meant some of them would die, but they voted to make ready for war anyway, and when war came, they went.

I find this attitude majestic in its simplicity. I am by this point in my life well read in the history of colonial America. I know all about the destruction of the New England Indians and the atrocities committed by the colonists in the dirty wars of the frontier. I know about the destruction of the land, the careless farming that denuded the hills. I know about the executions of witches, the shaming and ostracism of heretics. I know their grasping greed, the petty insistence on recording every debt, even the loan of a handful of peas. Yet there is something about the lives of those New England farmers and their outlook on life that touches me deeply. They were unimpressed by pomp and glory. Their politics sometimes seem downright paranoid, but they insisted on controlling their own affairs. They believed in God, work, family, and community; they had little use for celebrity in any form. When Isaac Davis, one of the men who died at Lexington, left his home that morning, he said to his wife, "Take good care of the children." No speeches on duty, no thought of great deeds, just work and family on one side and the need to defend one's home on the other. This is the nobility I admire most.

And yet there are things about the Revolution that make me uncomfortable, some of which are prominent in Fischer's book. To begin with, I have never been sure that the Revolution was a good idea. The policy of the North government was stupid and wrong, but their regime fell not long after the war and other men with different policies took their places. There were many in England who understood that a status we would call Dominion was the only way to keep the colonists bound to the crown, and surely that would have happened before too many years had passed. The British empire ended slavery in 1819; imagine how different American history would have been if that had come to pass peacefully here. I don't presume to judge the decisions of the Revolutionary leaders, who knew their own situation better than I ever can, but I have the benefit of knowing the whole sad story of slavery, the Civil War, and reconstruction. For me that story hangs over the Revolution, and makes me wonder.

The Revolution was a war, and although it was cleaner and less morally outrageous than most wars it was nonetheless a disaster for many. The Iroquois League was nearly destroyed, the slaves were thrust back into their places, thousands were killed. Thinking about the war lures us into a different kind of disaster. Here is Fischer, continuing the passage I quoted above on the New Englanders' attitude toward war:

The New England colonies were among the first states to recognize the right of conscientious objection to military service, and among the few to respect that right even in moments of mortal peril. But most New Englanders were not pacifists themselves. Once committed to what they regarded as a just necessary war, these sons of Puritans hardened their hearts and became the most implacable of foes. Their many enemies who lived by a warrior ethic always underestimated them, as a long parade of Indian braves, French aristocrats, British Regulars, Southern planters, German fascists, Japanese militarists, Marxist ideologues, and Arab adventurers have invariably discovered to their heavy cost.

That, I submit, is the very military vainglory that the Massachusetts militiamen rejected, the same reveling in force and arms that they abominated. To truly honor the men of 1775 we should emulate, not just their determination in battle, but their struggle to avoid vanity and the lust for power. They fought for their homes, not for geostrategy or to save the world, and they fought with real reluctance. They were not much on victory parades, medals, or celebrations; all of that mostly came later, when the Revolution had been won. And they did not brag about their prowess. To be too proud of them is to misunderstand them, because they knew that pride is the deadliest sin. That, to me, is their true legacy, that they could despise the whole business of war even as they waged it, doing what they could to guard themselves against the sins that always come with organized slaughter. They were not cowards, but they were not heroes, either, just men who defended their homes when trouble came.

December 29, 2004


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