As the name Concord implies a place of “peace and harmony” but the small town was quite the opposite of that when the British soldiers that General Thomas Gage had sent out on the evening of April 18th, 1775 to seize and destroy suspected military stores and equipment which were thought to be stockpiled in the town, clashed with colonial militia the following morning at the North Bridge over the Concord River.
Today, no visit to Concord would be complete without a stop at the Old North Bridge – site of the “shot heard ’round the world” – where it’s said that the American Revolution ‘officially’ began. Scholars and historians would probably argue that the revolution kicked off in Boston long before that mid-April morning, but the first shot to be fired in a war that went on to see another 6-1/2 years of fighting before a treaty was finally signed in Paris in 1783 (making the war technically 8 years long) happened in the small town about 45 minutes west of Salem on an equally small wooden bridge over the Concord River.
It was never the intent of the British to engage in a battle in Concord and launch a full-fledged war but instead, it was their hope to convince the colonists to back down and avoid an armed conflict. To that affect, orders given to Lieutenant Colonel Smith, the British officer assigned to lead the expedition to Concord, read as follows:
“Sir: Having received intelligence, that a quantity of Ammunition, Provision, Artillery, Tents and small arms, have been collected at Concord, for the Avowed Purpose of raising and supporting a Rebellion against His Majesty, you will march with the Corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry, put under your command, with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy all Artillery, Ammunition, Provision, Tents, Small Arms, and all military stores whatever. But you will take care that the Soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants, or hurt private property.”
As part of his orders, Lieutenant Colonel Smith was also directed to secure the two bridges in town – the North Bridge and the South Bridge – so as to prevent the rebellious colonists from threatening the mission. As supplies and artillery were known to be hidden at Barrett’s Farm which lay about a mile west of the North Bridge, Lieutenant Colonel Smith sent seven companies across the bridge with the orders to search for and confiscate it. With the colonial militiamen occupying the high ground overlooking the bridge, the commanding officer assigned three companies of light infantry from the 4th, 10th, and 43rd Regiments of Foot under Captain Walter Laurie, a force totaling about 90-95 men, to remain on the western side of the bridge to guard it so that the soldiers who had been sent to search Barrett’s Farm – four companies from the 5th, 23rd, 38th and 52nd Regiments – wouldn’t be cut off should the colonists decide to take the bridge back themselves.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the Massachusetts men – about 400 strong from five companies of Minutemen from Concord and Lexington and five of non-Minuteman militia from Acton, Concord, Bedford and Lincoln – who had amassed on the hill overlooking the North Bridge, believed that the town was being burned down and advanced upon the bridge in what one British officer stated was “a very military manner.” As the rebels advanced toward the bridge, the British troops pulled back to the east side of the river and organized a defense on the opposite side of the bridge.
Shortly after the British regulars moved back across the bridge and the Colonial militiamen advanced towards it, a midst a lot of confusion, several shots rang out from uncertain sources. As no one fell, some of the militiamen assumed that the British troops were simply trying to intimidate them and that they had no intention of opening fire but that illusion was quickly shattered when a volley of shots was loosed from the British side by troops possibly thinking the order to fire had been given. Two Acton Minutemen, Private Abner Hosmer and Captain Isaac Davis who were at the head of the line marching to the bridge, were hit and killed while four others were injured before return fire was initiated when Major John Buttrick yelled “Fire, for God’s sake, fellow soldiers, fire!”
In the course of return fire by the Colonials, four of the eight British officers and sergeants who were leading the troops were wounded by the volley of musket fire and at least three privates (Thomas Smith, Patrick Gray and James Hall, all from the 4th Regiment) were killed or mortally wounded while nine others received wounds. Following the short firefight and confusion, the British ranks – who were vastly outnumbered – broke ranks and the soldiers hurried back to Concord where they waited until noon for reinforcements from Boston.
Even though opinion still differs on exactly what happened that day – including the question of who fired the first shot – the North Bridge, as part of the Minute Man National Historic Park, has become one of the most popular stops for visitors to the area. Those wishing to visit the Old North Bridge – as it is often called – can approach it from one of two directions as you can either access it via the parking area on Monument Street or you can park at the National Park Services’ North Bridge Visitor Center located at 174 Liberty Street and walk down from there. For this post, I will be approaching the bridge from Monument Street though the first time I toured the area, I stopped at the Visitor Center and looked at the exhibits there before making the quarter-mile walk down to the bridge.
As you leave the parking area on Monument Street to cross the street and the allée leading to the bridge, take a moment to view a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s address at the 1875 dedication of the Concord Minuteman Statute which has been chiseled in blocks and alludes to how the local resistance to the King’s troops had far-reaching effects. Once you’ve crossed the street and before walking down the tree-shaded earthen road to the bridge, you might want to take another moment to read a bit about the battle that occurred here so that you’re familiar with your surroundings.
Or you can stop and take a moment – well, four minutes to be precise! – to listen to a recording that explains the Battle at the North Bridge.
If neither of the above two methods of learning about the battle appealed to you, you could always take the time to read the plaque on the rock above which stands nearby a spot where National Park Service Rangers hold informational sessions and across from an obelisk which stands on the eastern end of the Old North Bridge – the side where the British Regulars took up their positions on an April morning long, long ago.
As a way to commemorate the epic battle that was fought here, the obelisk was erected in 1836 by the residents of Concord at a time when there was no bridge at the site. The obelisk marks the spot where “the first of the Enemy fell in the War of that Revolution which gave Independence to these United States.”
On Independence Day, July 4th, 1837, the memorial was dedicated at an event for which Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his poem “Concord Hymn” which was sung as a hymn at the dedication ceremony. The first, and best known, of the four stanzas of the poem are:
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.”
As mentioned above, British military records indicate that there were three soldiers (all privates in the 4th Regiment) that were missing and presumed dead after the North Bridge fight; two of those soldiers are buried on the eastern side of the river near the obelisk and the other is buried in Concord Center. The words on the stone are from the poem “Lines” that was written by the American poet James Russell Lowell.
“They came three thousand miles and died,
to keep the past upon its throne:
Unheard, beyond the ocean tide,
their English Mother made her moan.”
Each year on Patriot’s Day, British reenactors conduct a very moving “Mourn Arms” ceremony and at this time wreaths are laid at the base of the stone in memory of those British soldiers whose lives were lost at the first official battle of the American Revolution. The wreath of poppies pictured above, presented by the British Soldiers Fund, bears a tag that reads, “Remembering British and American soldiers and civilians who died for the causes in which they believed.”
As for the bridge itself, it is the newest Old North Bridge which was constructed in 2005 to replace the previous bridge that was constructed in 1956 – which was the fifth incarnation of the Old North Bridge. The bridge was rebuilt multiple times in 1875, 1889, and 1909 and for a short while, there was no bridge at the site at all. The original “Battle Bridge” – where fighting took place in 1775 – actually stood several hundred yards away and was dismantled by the town in 1793.
New bridge or old, it doesn’t matter in the least to thousands of tourists who come to visit it each year throughout all of the different seasons. Depending on when you’re there, you might find a British Regular guarding the east side of the bridge or a Colonial Minuteman there who can answer any questions that you may have about the battle. Or you just might find a lot of other folks who have come to see a place where history that affected the entire world was made by a group of Massachusetts’ farmers who dared take on the biggest army in the world.
Standing at the western end of the Old North Bridge is Concord’s Minuteman statue that was sculpted by Daniel Chester French, a native of Concord who won the contest to create a statue to honor the 100th anniversary of the battle in 1875. Even though the man in the statue represents no one person in particular and could be any farmer who left his plow and picked up his musket to defend his land and liberty, when Daniel Chester French was researching the statue he made sketches of some of the descendants of Captain Isaac Davis of Acton who was marching at the head of the line and shot and killed instantly during the fighting at the bridge.
A plaque nearby the Minuteman statue was placed there to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle in April of 1975.
The Minuteman statue is a cast bronze statue that was made from seven melted-down cannons that were used during the Civil War that were donated by Congress for the project.The statue, and the 1875 replica of the bridge, were dedicated at a centennial recognition of the original battle on April 19th, 1875.
Northeast from the Minuteman statute is the North Bridge Visitor Center which is located in a brick mansion that was built in 1911 by Stedman Buttrick, a great great grandson of Major John Buttrick, the colonial officer who first ordered his militia to fire upon British soldiers on April 17th, 1775 and thereby commit treason against the British Empire.
In 1962 the National Park Service bought the mansion, its once extensive flower garden and surrounding land from the Buttrick family to be used as a visitor center and administrative offices for the National Park. Although the gardens created and cared for by Stedman Buttrick and his son Stedman have suffered since their purchase by the Park Service, they were once grand enough to have been featured in a 15-page article in the May 1959 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In addition to the gardens on the side of the mansion, visitors will find displays depicting the Colonial Muster Field as well as the stone foundation remains of the homes of William and Ephraim Buttrick.
Stepping inside the North Bridge Visitor Center, one of the first things you’ll see is the map below which gives you an idea of just how large Minute Man National Historical Park is as it contains historic sites from Concord to Lexington to several towns in between.
Several of my favorite things in the Visitor Center are the crystal chandelier that hangs above the staircase, the painting of the North Bridge from a bygone age that hangs on a wall near the entrance, and the piece of the original bridge that was recovered from the riverbed and which is encased above the fireplace.
In another room of the mansion, visitors can see uniforms that may have been worn by the British Regulars and Colonial militamen at the time of the battle and also view “The Hancock”, a rare Revolutionary War cannon that was one of the reasons that the British were in Concord on April 19th, 1775 to begin with. For more information on this extraordinary cannon which is on display through the courtesy of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, please visit the National Park Service’s website.
In addition to the exhibits that can be found in the North Bridge Visitor Center, there is a gift shop and bookstore as well as a video about the battle for visitors to watch which is why it might be a good idea to start there and then walk down to the bridge though certainly it’s quite alright to do it either way!
While you’re in the Concord area and if you’re so inclined, it should be noted that the Concord River is a great place to go for a canoe or kayak ride. I’m sure that seeing the bridge from a slightly different angle on the water is quite interesting though I can’t say for sure I skipped any water activities while we were in town!
It should be noted that the photos in this post were taken on several different occasions with the most notable being on April 16th, 2012 when my friend accompanied me to the bridge just three days shy of the battle’s anniversary. Though I normally don’t care for crowds, I was happy to see that there were a lot of visitors that day – just as there have been on the other two occasions that I’ve stopped by the replica of the rude bridge that arched the flood. It’s an important part of America’s history that all should visit if given the chance if for no other reason than to reflect upon what men were once willing to do to preserve their liberty and freedom.
How to Reach North Bridge Concord MA – Park Timings
The grounds of Minute Man National Historical Park are open sunrise to sunset; gates to the parking lots close promptly at sunset. For the hours of operation for the North Bridge Visitor Center, which vary depending upon the time of year, please check the National Park Service website or contact the Park Headquarters at (978) 369-6993. Additionally, check the Schedule of Events to see what programs might be going on during your visit.