A tale of April 19, 1775

Today is Patriots Day, a legal holiday in Massachusetts commemorating the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which is popularly held to be the first battle in the American Revolution. I used to be a licensed tourist guide in Concord, and I delighted in helping people get past the myths that have grown up around April 19, 1775: so I would help people understand that Paul Revere never made it to Concord (he was captured by the British in Lincoln); that there weren’t any Minutemen on Lexington Green but rather the Lexington Militia; and that nobody said “The British are coming!” because on April 19, 1775, the colonials had not yet declared themselves to be a separate country and still probably thought of themselves as British.

One of my favorite myth-busting stories told how there wasn’t a firm line between the colonial soldiers and His Majesty’s troops. By April 22, 1850, Amos Baker, the sole survivor of the Battle at the North Bridge in Concord told a story of how one of those who had gathered with the Minutemen and Militia companies in Concord decided before the battle that he just wasn’t going to fight. Here’s the story in Baker’s own words:

“Before the fighting begun, when we were on the hill, James Nichols, of Lincoln, who was an Englishman, and a droll fellow, and a fine singer, said, ‘If any of you will hold my gun, I will go down and talk to them.’ Some of them held his gun, and he went down alone to the British soldiers at the bridge and talked to them some time. Then he came back and took his gun and said he was going home, and went off before the fighting. Afterwards he enlisted to go to Dorchester and there deserted to the British, and I never heard of him again.”

Thus, contrary to myth, some of the colonial Minutemen and Militiamen had doubts about what they were doing — and at least one of them, James Nichols, acted upon those doubts.

Baker’s story comes from “The affidavit of Amos Baker, of Lincoln, given April 22d, 1850; he being the sole survivor of the men who were present at the North Bridge, at Concord, on the 19th of April, 1775, and the only man living who bore arms that day” (reprinted as an appendix to An oration delivered at Concord: on the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the events of April 19, 1775 by Robert Rantoul [Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1850], pp. 134-135).