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True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence, a novel by George Alfred Henty

Chapter 4. The Fight At Lexington

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Harold remained for four months longer with his cousin. The Indians had made several attacks upon settlements at other points of the frontier, but they had not repeated their incursion in the neighborhood of the lake. The farming operations had gone on regularly, but the men always worked with their rifles ready to their hand. Pearson had predicted that the Indians were not likely to return to that neighborhood. Mr. Welch's farm was the only one along the lake that had escaped, and the loss the Indians had sustained in attacking it had been so heavy that they were not likely to make an expedition in that quarter, where the chances of booty were so small and the certainty of a desperate resistance so great.

Other matters occurred which rendered the renewal of the attack improbable. The news was brought by a wandering hunter that a quarrel had arisen between the Shawnees and the Iroquois, and that the latter had recalled their braves from the frontier to defend their own villages in case of hostilities breaking out between them and the rival tribe.

There was no occasion for Harold to wait for news from home, for his father had, before starting, definitely fixed the day for his return, and when that time approached Harold started on his eastward journey, in order to be at home about the date of their arrival. Pearson took him in his canoe to the end of the lake and accompanied him to the settlement, whence he was able to obtain a conveyance to Detroit. Here he took a passage in a trading boat and made his way by water to Montreal, thence down through Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to New York, and thence to Boston.

The journey had occupied him longer than he expected, and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson were already in their home at Concord when he arrived. The meeting was a joyful one. His parents had upon their return home found letters from Mr. Welch and his wife describing the events which had happened at the farm, speaking in the highest terms of the courage and coolness in danger which Harold had displayed, and giving him full credit for the saving of their daughter's life.

Upon the day after Harold's return two gentlemen called upon Captain Wilson and asked him to sign the agreement which a number of colonists had entered into to resist the mother country to the last. This Captain Wilson positively refused to do.

"I am an Englishman," he said, "and my sympathies are wholly with my country. I do not say that the whole of the demands of England are justifiable. I think that Parliament has been deceived as to the spirit existing here. But I consider that it has done nothing whatever to justify the attitude of the colonists. The soldiers of England have fought for you against French and Indians and are still stationed here to protect you. The colonists pay nothing for their land; they pay nothing toward the expenses of the government of the mother country; and it appears to me to be perfectly just that people here, free as they are from all the burdens that bear so heavily on those at home, should at least bear the expense of the army stationed here. I grant that it would have been far better had the colonists taxed themselves to pay the extra amount, instead of the mother country taxing them; but this they would not do. Some of the colonists paid their quota, others refused to do so, and this being the case, it appears to me that England is perfectly justified in laying on a tax. Nothing could have been fairer than the tax that she proposed. The stamp-tax would in no way have affected the poorer classes in the colonies. It would have been borne only by the rich and by those engaged in such business transactions as required stamped documents. I regard the present rebellion as the work of a clique of ambitious men who have stirred up the people by incendiary addresses and writings. There are, of course, among them a large number of men--among them, gentlemen, I place you--who conscientiously believe that they are justified in doing nothing whatever for the land which gave them or their ancestors birth; who would enjoy all the great natural wealth of this vast country without contributing toward the expense of the troops to whom it is due that they enjoy peace and tranquility. Such, gentlemen, are not my sentiments. You consider it a gross hardship that the colonists are compelled to trade only with the mother country. I grant that it would be more profitable and better for us had we an open trade with the whole world; but in this England only acts as do all other countries toward their colonies. France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands all monopolize the trade of their colonies; all, far more than does England, regard their colonies as sources of revenue. I repeat, I do not think that the course that England has pursued toward us has been always wise, but I am sure that nothing that she has done justifies the spirit of disaffection and rebellion which is ripe throughout these colonies."

"The time will come, sir," one of the gentlemen said, "when you will have reason to regret the line which you have now taken."

"No, sir," Captain Wilson said haughtily. "The time may come when the line that I have taken may cost me my fortune, and even my life, but it will never cause me one moment's regret that I have chosen the part of a loyal English gentleman."

When the deputation had departed Harold, who had been a wondering listener to the conversation, asked his father to explain to him the exact position in which matters stood.

It was indeed a serious one. The success of England, in her struggle with France for the supremacy of North America had cost her a great deal of money. At home the burdens of the people were extremely heavy. The expense of the army and navy was great, and the ministry, in striving to lighten the burdens of the people, turned their eyes to the colonies. They saw in America a population of over two million people, subjects of the king, like themselves, living free from rent and taxes on their own land and paying nothing whatever to the expenses of the country. They were, it is true, forced to trade with England, but this obligation was set wholly at naught. A gigantic system of smuggling was carried on. The custom-house officials had no force at their disposal which would have enabled them to check these operations, and the law enforcing a trade with England was virtually a dead letter.

Their first step was to strengthen the naval force on the American coast and by additional vigilance to put some sort of check on the wholesale smuggling which prevailed. This step caused extreme discontent among the trading classes of America, and these set to work vigorously to stir up a strong feeling of disaffection against England. The revenue officers were prevented, sometimes by force, from carrying out their duties.

After great consideration the English government came to the conclusion that a revenue sufficient to pay a considerable proportion of the cost of the army in America might be raised by means of a stamp-tax imposed upon all legal documents, receipts, agreements, and licenses--a tax, in fact, resembling that on stamps now in use in England. The colonists were furious at the imposition of this tax. A Congress, composed of deputies from each State, met, and it was unanimously resolved that the stamp-tax should not be paid. Meetings were everywhere held, at which the strongest and most treasonable language was uttered, and such violent threats were used against the persons employed as stamp-collectors that these, in fear of their lives, resigned their posts.

The stamp-tax remained uncollected and was treated by the colonists as if it were not in existence.

The whole of the States now began to prepare for war. The Congress was made permanent, the militia drilled and prepared for fighting, and everywhere the position grew more and more strained. Massachusetts was the headquarters of disaffection, and here a total break with the mother country was openly spoken of. At times the more moderate spirits attempted to bring about a reconciliation between the two parties. Petitions were sent to the Houses of Parliament, and even at this time had any spirit of wisdom prevailed in England the final consequences might have been prevented. Unfortunately the majority in Parliament were unable to recognize that the colonists had any rights upon their side. Taxation was so heavy at home that men felt indignant that they should be called upon to pay for the keeping up of the army in America, to which the untaxed colonists, with their free farms and houses, would contribute nothing. The plea of the colonists that they were taxed by a chamber in which they were unrepresented was answered by the statement that such was also the case with Manchester, Leeds, and many other large towns which were unrepresented in Parliament.

In England neither the spirit nor the strength of the colonists was understood. Men could not bring themselves to believe that these would fight rather than submit, still less that if they did fight it would be successfully. They ignored the fact that the population of the States was one-fourth as large as that of England; that by far the greater proportion of that population were men trained, either in border warfare or in the chase, to the use of the rifle; that the enormous extent of country offered almost insuperable obstacles to the most able army composed of regular troops, and that the vast forests and thinly populated country were all in favor of a population fighting as guerrillas against trained troops. Had they perceived these things the English people would have hesitated before embarking upon such a struggle, even if convinced, as assuredly the great majority were convinced, of the fairness of their demands. It is true that even had England at this point abandoned altogether her determination to raise taxes in America the result would probably have been the same. The spirit of disaffection in the colony had gone so far that a retreat would have been considered as a confession of weakness, and separation of the colonists from the mother country would have happened ere many years had elapsed. As it was, Parliament agreed to let the stamp-tax drop, and in its place established some import duties on goods entering the American ports.

The colonists, however, were determined that they would submit to no taxation whatever. The English government, in its desire for peace, abandoned all the duties with the exception of that on tea; but even this concession was not sufficient to satisfy the colonists. These entered into a bond to use no English goods. A riot took place at Boston, and the revenue officers were forced to withdraw from their posts. Troops were dispatched from England and the House of Commons declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.

It must not be supposed that the colonists were by any means unanimous in their resistance to England. There were throughout the country a large number of gentlemen, like Captain Wilson, wholly opposed to the general feeling. New York refused to send members to the Congress, and in many other provinces the adhesion given to the disaffected movement was but lukewarm. It was in the New England provinces that the spirit of rebellion was hottest. These States had been peopled for the most part by Puritans--men who had left England voluntarily, exiling themselves rather than submit to the laws and religion of the country, and among them, as among a portion of the Irish population of America at the present time, the feeling of hatred against the government of England was, in a way, hereditary.

So far but few acts of violence had taken place. Nothing could be more virulent than the language of the newspapers of both parties against their opponents, but beyond a few isolated tumults the peace had not been broken. It was the lull before the storm. The great majority of the New England colonists were bent upon obtaining nothing short of absolute independence; the loyalists and the English were as determined to put down any revolt by force.

The Congress drilled, armed, and organized; the English brought over fresh troops and prepared for the struggle. It was December when Harold returned home to his parents, and for the next three months the lull before the storm continued.

The disaffected of Massachusetts had collected a large quantity of military stores at Concord. These General Gage, who commanded the troops at Boston, determined to seize and destroy, seeing that they could be collected only for use against the Government, and on the night of April 19 the grenadier and light infantry companies of the various regiments, 800 strong, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Smith of the Tenth Regiment, and Major Pitcairne of the Marines, embarked in boats and were conveyed up Charles River as far as a place called Phipps' Farm. There they landed at midnight, having a day's provisions in their haversacks, and started on their march to Concord, twenty miles distant from Boston.

The design had been discovered by some of the revolutionary party in the town, and two of their number were dispatched on horseback to rouse the whole country on the way to Concord, where the news arrived at two o'clock in the morning.

Captain Wilson and his household were startled from sleep by the sudden ringing of the alarm-bells, and a negro servant, Pompey, who had been for many years in their service, was sent down into the town, which lay a quarter of a mile from the house, to find out what was the news. He returned in half an hour.

"Me tink all de people gone mad, massa. Dey swarming out of deir houses and filling de streets, all wid guns on deir shoulders, all de while shouting and halloing 'Down wid de English! Down wid de redcoats! dey shan't have our guns; dey shan't take de cannon and de powder.' Dere were ole Massa Bill Emerson, the preacher, wid his gun in his hands, shouting to de people to stand firm and to fight till de last; dey all shout, 'We will!' Dey bery desperate; me fear great fight come on."

"What are you going to do, father?" Harold asked.

"Nothing, my boy. If, as it is only too likely, this is the beginning of a civil war, I have determined to offer my services to the government. Great numbers of loyalists have sent in their names offering to serve if necessary, and from my knowledge of drill I shall, of course, be useful. To-day I can take no active part in the fight, but I shall take my horse and ride forward to meet the troops and warn the commanding officer that resistance will be attempted here."

"May I go with you, father?"

"Yes, if you like, my boy. Pompey, saddle two horses at once. You are not afraid of being left alone, Mary?" he said, turning to his wife. "There is no chance of any disturbance here. Our house lies beyond the town, and whatever takes place will be in Concord. When the troops have captured the guns and stores they will return."

Mrs. Wilson said she was not frightened and had no fear whatever of being left alone. The horses were soon brought round, and Captain Wilson and his son mounted and rode off at full speed. They made a _detour_ to avoid the town, and then, gaining the highroad, went forward at full speed. The alarm had evidently been given all along the line. At every village the bells were ringing, the people were assembling in the streets, all carrying arms, while numbers were flocking in from the farmhouses around. Once or twice Captain Wilson was stopped and asked where he was going.

"I am going to tell the commander of the British force, now marching hither, that if he advances there will be bloodshed--that it will be the beginning of civil war. If he has orders to come at all hazards, my words will not stop him; if it is left to his discretion, possibly he may pause before he brings on so dire a calamity."

It was just dawn when Captain Wilson and Harold rode into Lexington, where the militia, 130 strong, had assembled. Their guns were loaded and they were ready to defend the place, which numbered about 700 inhabitants.

Just as Captain Wilson rode in a messenger ran up with the news that the head of the British column was close at hand. Some of the militia had dispersed to lie down until the English arrived. John Parker, who commanded them, ordered the drums to beat and the alarm-guns to be fired, and his men drew up in two ranks across the road.

"It is too late now, Harold," Captain Wilson said. "Let us get out of the line of fire."

The British, hearing the drums and the alarm-guns, loaded, and the advance company came on at the double. Major Pitcairne was at their head and shouted to the militia to lay down their arms.

It is a matter of dispute, and will always remain one, as to who fired the first shot. The Americans assert that it was the English; the English say that as they advanced several shots were fired at them from behind a stone wall and from some of the adjoining houses, which wounded one man and hit Major Pitcairne's horse in two places.

The militia disregarded Major Pitcairne's orders to lay down their arms. The English fired; several of the militia were killed, nine wounded, and the rest dispersed. There was no further fighting and the English marched on, unopposed, to Concord.

As they approached the town the militia retreated from it. The English took possession of a bridge behind the place and held this while the troops were engaged in destroying the ammunition and gun-carriages. Most of the guns had been removed and only two twenty-four pounders were taken. In destroying the stores by fire the court-house took flames. At the sight of this fire the militia and armed countrymen advanced down the hill toward the bridge. The English tried to pull up the planks, but the Americans ran forward rapidly. The English guard fired; the colonists returned the fire. Some of the English were killed and wounded and the party fell back into the town. Half an hour later Colonel Smith, having performed the duty that he was sent to do, resumed the homeward march with the whole of his troops.

Then the militiamen of Concord, with those from many villages around and every man in the district capable of bearing arms, fell upon the retiring English.

The road led through several defiles, and every tree, every rock, every depression of ground was taken advantage of by the Americans. Scarcely a man was to be seen, but their deadly fire rained thick upon the tired troops. This they vainly attempted to return, but they could do nothing against an invisible foe, every man of whom possessed a skill with his rifle far beyond that of the British soldier. Very many fell and the retreat was fast becoming a rout, when, near Lexington, the column met a strong re-enforcement which had been sent out from Boston. This was commanded by Lord Percy, who formed his detachment into square, in which Colonel Smith's party, now so utterly exhausted that they were obliged to lie down for some time, took refuge. When they were rested the whole force moved forward again toward Boston, harassed the whole way by the Americans, who from behind stone walls and other places of shelter kept up an incessant fire upon both flanks, as well as in the front and rear, against which the troops could do nothing. At last the retreating column safely arrived at Boston, spent and worn out with fatigue. Their loss was 65 men killed, 136 wounded, 49 missing.

Such was the beginning of the war of independence. Many American writers have declared that previous to that battle there was no desire for independence on the part of the colonists, but this is emphatically contradicted by the language used at the meetings and in the newspapers which have come down to us. The leaders may not have wished to go so far--may not have intended to gain more than an entire immunity from taxation and an absolute power for the colonists to manage their own affairs. But experience has shown that when the spark of revolution is once lighted, when resistance to the law has once commenced, things are carried to a point far beyond that dreamed of by the first leaders.

Those who commenced the French Revolution were moderate men who desired only that some slight check should be placed on the arbitrary power of the king--that the people should be relieved in some slight degree from the horrible tyranny of the nobles, from the misery and wretchedness in which they lived. These just demands increased step by step until they culminated in the Reign of Terror and the most horrible scenes of bloodshed and massacre of modern times.

Men like Washington and Franklin and Adams may have desired only that the colonists should be free from imperial taxation, but the popular voice went far beyond this. Three years earlier wise counsels in the British Parliament might have averted a catastrophe and delayed for many years the separation of the colonies from their mother country. At the time the march began from Boston to Concord the American colonists stood virtually in armed rebellion. The militia throughout New England were ready to fight. Arms, ammunition, and military stores were collected in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The cannon and military stores belonging to the Crown had been carried off by the people, forty cannon being seized in Rhode Island alone. Such being the case, it is nonsense to speak of the fray at Lexington as the cause of the Revolutionary War. It was but the spark in the powder. The magazine was ready and primed, the explosion was inevitable, and the fight at Lexington was the accidental incident which set fire to it.

The efforts of American writers to conceal the real facts of the case, to minimize the rebellious language, the violent acts of the colonists, and to make England responsible for the war because a body of troops were sent to seize cannon and military stores intended to be used against them are so absurd, as well as so untrue, that it is astonishing how wide a credence such statements have received.

From an eminence at some distance from the line of retreat Captain Wilson and his son watched sorrowfully the attack upon the British troops. When at last the combatants disappeared from sight through one of the defiles Captain Wilson turned his horse's head homeward.

"The die is cast," he said to his wife as she met him at the door. "The war has begun, and I fear it can have but one termination. The colonists can place forces in the field twenty times as numerous as any army that England can spare. They are inferior in drill and in discipline, but these things, which are of such vast consequence in a European battlefield, matter but little in such a country as this. Skill with the rifle and knowledge of forest warfare are far more important. In these points the colonists are as superior to the English soldiers as they are in point of numbers. Nevertheless, my dear, my duty is plain. I am an Englishman and have borne his Majesty's commission, and I must fight for the king. Harold has spoken to me as we rode home together, and he wishes to fight by my side. I have pointed out to him that as he was born here he can without dishonor remain neutral in the struggle. He, however, insists that as a royal subject of the king he is entitled to fight for him. He saw to-day many lads not older than himself in the rebel ranks, and he has pleaded strongly for permission to go with me. To this I have agreed. Which would you prefer, Mary--to stay quietly here, where I imagine you would not be molested on account of the part I take, or will you move into Boston and stop with your relations there until the struggle has ended one way or the other?"

As Mrs. Wilson had frequently talked over with her husband the course that he would take in the event of civil war actually breaking out, the news that he would at once offer his services to the British authorities did not come as a shock upon her. Even the question of Harold accompanying his father had been talked over; and although her heart bled at the thought of husband and son being both engaged in such a struggle, she agreed to acquiesce in any decision that Harold might arrive at. He was now nearly sixteen, and in the colonies a lad of this age is, in point of independence and self-reliance, older than an English boy. Harold, too, had already shown that he possessed discretion and coolness as well as courage, and although now that the moment had come Mrs. Wilson wept passionately at the thought of their leaving her, she abstained from saying any word to dissuade them from the course they had determined upon. When she recovered from her fit of crying she said that she would accompany them at once to Boston, as in the first place their duties might for some time lie in that city, and that in any case she would obtain far more speedy news there of what was going on throughout the country than she would at Concord. She would, too, be living among her friends and would meet with many of the same convictions and opinions as her husband's, whereas in Concord the whole population would be hostile.

Captain Wilson said that there was no time to be lost, as the whole town was in a tumult. He therefore advised her to pack up such necessary articles as could be carried in the valises, on the horses' backs.

Pompey and the other servants were to pack up the most valuable effects and to forward them to a relation of Mrs. Wilson's who lived about three miles from Boston. There they would be in safety and could be brought into the town, if necessary. Pompey and two other old servants were to remain in charge of the house and its contents. Jake, an active young negro some twenty-three or twenty-four years old, who was much attached to Harold, whose personal attendant and companion he had always been, was to accompany them on horseback, as was Judy, Mrs. Wilson's negro maid.

As evening fell the five horses were brought round, and the party started by a long and circuitous route, by which, after riding for nearly forty miles, they reached Boston at two o'clock next morning. _

Read next: Chapter 5. Bunker's Hill

Read previous: Chapter 3. The Redskin Attack

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