A tumult outside the shop caught both men’s attention then, as a small crowd surged past the door to the smithy. Robert and Charles caught shouts from the crowd, “War! War has begun!” and hurried out to hear what the cause of the ruckus might be. At the head of the crowd was a rider, with dried foam crusting his horse’s flanks, attesting to a hard drive.
Hurrying to catch up, Robert asked a man rushing along at the periphery of the crowd, “What is this about?”
“He carries an account of a fierce and deadly battle between a militia of men in Lexington, near Boston, and a brigade of the British. Blood has been spilled, and the war has begun!” The bell of the nearest church began to toll now, bringing more people into the streets to learn what had happened.
The rider was being directed to the home of the organizer of the local militia, the self-styled “Committee of Safety,” where he dismounted and carried his post within. Milling about with the crowd that had gathered, Robert heard angry voices trading ever-wilder rumors.
The British had slaughtered a militia, bringing canon to bear against light arms. No, they had caught the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in their deliberations, and begun hanging them on the spot for treason. They had gone house to house in Lexington, looking for weapons and powder, and had killed all who gave any resistance. A church in Concord was in flames, and the fellowship locked within.
Nothing seemed too outrageous to be passed along, from one person to the next, as they awaited the true contents of the missive. Finally, the door opened, and the rider took a fresh horse someone had fetched for him, and rode off at a full gallop, leaving a small, persistent group of well-wishers and rumor-mongers who had streamed out behind him.
The local committeeman emerged now, and began reading from a sheet held in trembling fingers, his voice carried away by a fitful breeze.
“Received this morning, four o’clock and forwarded by the committee in Princeton, a letter addressed to various and sundry persons, including the delegates from Connecticut and Massachusetts now in Philadelphia, dated this Wednesday near ten of the clock, in Watertown.
“To all friends of American liberty be it known that this morning before break of day, a brigade of some one thousand to twelve hundred men under arms landed at Cambridge and marched to Lexington. They there found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired with no provocation whatever, killing six men outright, and wounding four others.
“An express from Boston informs us that another brigade marches from there, supposed to be about another thousand men… I have spoken with several persons who have seen the dead and wounded… ‘Tis signed by one J. Palmer of the local Committee of Safety there.”
He lowered the page in his hand and bowed his head. “May God grant mercy to their souls and receive them in their honor.” Lifting his eyes to the crowd again, his manner changed suddenly now, and he roared, “To arms, men! Prepare yourselves! The war is begun and ‘tis only a matter of time before the King’s men are here as well. If you have a weapon and will not use it—” his gaze fell upon Robert and Charles, marked as Quaker by their hats “—I beseech you to make it available to those who will. Likewise, if you have powder or bandages or other useful materials, come and speak with me to ensure that I know if it.”
He surveyed the crowd, taking their measure. “We must stand together now, as patriots all, lest the British find us unprepared, an easy target for their object of putting us down into abject servitude. Now is the moment we have been preparing for; now is the time to set aside our factions and our bickering and to come together. The King has made plain his intent—he means to crush us, to make the streets run red with our blood, that he may then squeeze us wholly dry with his taxes. Will you have it?”
A ragged shout in answer rose from the crowd, “No!”
“He means to deny us the most basic rights of an Englishman, and yet demand that we enrich his treasury with the sweat of our brow. Will you have it?”
He led the crowd this time, his fist shooting into the air as he shouted with them, “No!”
“He means to send his agents into every home, seek out every voice that dared question his tyranny and still it forever. Will you have it?”
The crowd lifted fists into the air and roared back as one, “No!”
He roared back, “Then let us stop it!” His fist still raised, he marched down the steps of his home and led the crowd down the street toward the meeting-house where the militia had been gathering for the past months. Robert and Charles split away from the crowd and started back to the smithy, somber and quiet.
Recently, I’ve discovered that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was active in the Revolution, serving on Philadelphia’s Committee of Correspondence, in Pennsylvania’s Convention, marching with Benedict Arnold to Montréal, and finally, accepting the duties of Barrack-Master General to the Continental Army (after having been dismissed from service for cussing out President Hancock and the Continental Congress). Quite a colorful character, my forebearer was.
Let’s go back to that first item in his list of service, though… I just found a transcription of the letters passing along the news from that fateful April day in Massachusetts, and immediately after it passed through the town of Trenton, as I wrote, its very next stop was in Philadelphia, where it was received, acknowledged, and sent on its way by four men… one of whom was my direct ancestor.
My novels have always been personal, focusing on the circumstances and experiences of regular individuals who lived through and took part in the events I depict. But this — this is bringing it right home. Ooof.