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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
The bell ringing in Lexington's belfry summoned the town's militia to the Common early in the morning--word had just come from Paul Revere, a Son of Liberty and messenger from Boston, that the red coats were on the march. In the dark the men, mostly farmers, gathered to listen to the news, and to talk about what to do. The danger wasn't immediate, so the captain of the company, John Parker, dispersed his small force for the time being--some went home, others adjourned to nearby Buckman Tavern to sip a hot, strong brew.
Rider after rider went out from the Common, heading down what is now Mass Ave, searching for the British. A few were captured; others didn't return. Just before dawn, with the royal forces only minutes away, a young Minuteman wheeled his horse into the Tavern yard screaming his report. The Minutemen assembled in two long, thin lines on the Common, neither blocking the road to Concord, nor backing down, in a symbolic stance by an outnumbered and outgunned militia.
Shot Heard Round the World
The British forces, none too keen on marching by and leaving an unprotected flank that trigger-happy colonials might pepper, marched on to the Common. Their commander ordered the farmers to lay down their weapons and disperse--and, since the alternative was to be shot, most of the Minutemen began to do just that. But as they walked slowly off the Common, someone fired a single shot. Whatever its source, it incited the British-- disobeying orders not to fire, the regulars leveled one volley and then charged across the green, shooting and bayoneting the colonials.
Dying With Grace
The attack hastened the militia's retreat; others, though, turned around and fought. One old man knelt by his shot-filled tricorner hat and fired ineffectually at the British until he was stabbed through the heart. Another, Jonathan Harrington, was mortally wounded but managed to crawl across the common to his doorstep before dying in the arms of his wife.
The Bells Toll
The exchange lasted only a few minutes. The British fired a victory salute, let loose a few huzzahs, and set off for Concord. From behind walls and trees, the Minutemen emerged to pick up the bodies of eight dead and carry them to the town's burying ground.
They were buried in a makeshift grave, covered with pine boughs to prevent the British from finding and desecrating it, should they return. Then the Minutemen headed toward Concord to fight the British again. The American Revolution had begun, 205 years ago yesterday.
The day that started so well for the British ended catastrophically. Rebuffed in their one military encounter at Concord, they reassembled for the march back to Boston. But by now, thanks to Revere, William Dawes, Samuel Prescott and the dozens of other outriders who had spent the day rousing area patriots, thousands of colonials hid in the woods and behind the fences, lining the route back to the city. They routed the British, beginning at Meriam's Corner between Lexington and Concord, and gunned down the straight-shouldered regulars like the ducks in a penny arcade sitting ducks, thus proving the British military machine was not invincible.
The Cambridge Connection
Patriots Day was celebrated across the Bay State yesterday, in Lexington and Concord with parades and on Cambridge Common, where Cambridge Mayor Francis H. Duehay '55 delivered a traditional address. It was in Cambridge that Revere borrowed the horse that carried him to Lexington. In Cambridge Common, Minuteman and militia from around the Commonwealth camped, sealing the British in Boston. Gen. George Washington arrived to take command of the American troops--and within a year the starved-out British evacuated Boston.
"Not only did they hold brave convictions which challenged the authorities but they translated their convictions into action," Duehay said in yesterday's address. "The lesson to be learned is that to believe in an ideal, it is necessary to act on its behalf."
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