Enlightened Senses: A Sensory History of April 19, 1775

Civilian evacuees on Battle Road
Civilians fleeing the fighting on April 19, 1775

Photo by Laurie Semple McCarthy

By Thompson Dasher, Park Ranger, Minute Man NHP
The five senses have long played a crucial role in how people perceive the world around them. You may remember your own visit to Minute Man NHP from the cool breeze by the Concord River, the smell of pine needles on Fiske Hill, or possibly the sound of a musket firing demonstration at Hartwell Tavern. These sensory memories help define our experiences, and are likely what we will share when recounting them to others. In many cases, we are able to fully tap into each of our senses and utilize them with very little difficulty. However, there are many times when our senses can become overwhelmed - trying to find the right exit in the chaos of rush hour, listening for your food order in a busy restaurant, or finding out that milk in the fridge has indeed gone bad. No matter the case, these periods also shape our sensory experience, albeit in a very different, unnatural manner. For the eyewitnesses of April 19, 1775, the jarring sensory abnormalities shaped their memories of that day in ways they could have never anticipated.

These historical actors had vastly different ideas surrounding sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing than we do today. For example, the rich, meaty flavor of a meal in colonial America might be hardly palatable to our modern taste buds, just as a Flamin’ hot Cheeto would likely melt the tastebuds of the average Puritan. The continuous change in sensory standards that occurs is of course natural, and dependent on factors such as technological advancements and social standards. Such change has also created a sensory barrier that can make it difficult to truly reconstruct the experiences of people in the past. However, certain ideas may remain relevant and relatable to us today, and by exploring how people used their senses 250 years ago, we can better understand just how individuals interpreted the event that began the American Revolution.

Enlightenment philosophy offers us a glimpse of how people utilized their five senses throughout the eighteenth century. French mathematician and Encyclopédie editor Jean Le Rond d’Alembert asserted that “all our direct knowledge can be reduced to the ideas that we get from our senses.”[1] The ability to ascertain the truth through the use of one’s senses was of paramount importance during the age of reason. By determining what was indeed true, a person could find mental security and fully comprehend their surroundings. Philosophers such as John Locke also recognized that a person’s ability to conceive complex ideas was based on their sensory experiences. Essentially, he posited that people could conjure up any idea as long as they had some sensory basis from their own experiences. [2]

This leaves an important question: just how influential were these teachings to the average person in the eighteenth century? They had been posed by a relatively small group of educated philosophes in Europe, and would seemingly have difficulty disseminating through the lower classes. The answer lies in the breadth of the Enlightenment itself. It was not simply an exclusive academic movement limited to European parlors and salons, but a wide-reaching sociological phenomenon affecting all aspects of Western society, including life in the colonies. With particular respect to the senses, many changes began to occur in daily life thanks to the global nature of the Enlightenment. Certain products such as new foods, spices, and perfumes began circulating, which amplified the importance of one’s taste and smell. New dyes expanded the average person’s color palette, changing their previous ideas surrounding sight and color. Also, and perhaps most importantly, new technologies like the printing press necessitated the enlightenment of one’s own senses as they became important parts of everyday life. People had begun to view their senses differently, and the writings of our aforementioned philosophes reflected this shift.

Under ideal circumstances, people from all walks of life could now better comprehend their evolving environment through an enlightened approach to their senses. However, such an approach was not necessarily set in stone. Periods of heightened anxiety have the ability to drastically alter one’s sensory perception. The battlefield of April 19, 1775 was one such example, as everyday sights, sounds, tastes and smells took on new meanings for those who experienced them. In this article we will examine the sensory accounts of three people who witnessed the events of April 19, 1775: Elijah Sanderson, a spectator at Lexington common, Rebekah Fiske, a woman who was forced to flee her home, and Ensign Jeremy Lister, a British officer who was wounded in the day’s fighting. For each of these individuals, the day’s traumatic events impacted their senses in different ways, and had a profound effect on how each of them remembered their experiences.

All Was Smoke
In the early hours of April 19, Elijah Sanderson was fast asleep by the fireplace in Lexington’s Buckman Tavern, having already experienced an eventful night. Earlier, he and a number of other mounted Lexington men had been detained and interrogated by a British patrol. Though no harm had been done, Sanderson’s horse had been taken, which forced him to walk all the way back to the town center though a swamp. The alarm had been spread by the time he returned, but the people of Lexington maintained their apprehensions. Uncertainty filled the air as the citizens wondered: were the regulars really on their way to town?

The first signs of light that morning revealed the truth for Elijah Sanderson. He awoke to the sound of a drummer beating assembly and then saw the Lexington Militia formed up on the town green. Sanderson fell in with the Militia, gazed down the Bay Road, and saw that “[t]he British troops were then coming on in full sight.”[3] His eyes had now confirmed his suspicions from the night before. As the Regulars marched onto the green, Sanderson stepped out of line before an Officer rode forward and ordered the Militia to disband. What happened next was a sensory shock to all, particularly Elijah Sanderson, who retained a visual memory of the incident for fifty years before giving his account.

“All was smoke when the foot fired… I looked, and, seeing nobody fall, thought to be sure they couldn’t be firing balls, and I didn’t move off.”

Sanderson had found it difficult to imagine that soldiers of his own government would have fired upon its citizens. However, the blanket of smoke that began to cover the town green had made it difficult to truly perceive the truth. Sanderson hadn’t yet realized that his eyes had betrayed him. He turned to see Solomon Brown taking cover behind a stone wall, then noticed something that very quickly changed his mood.

“I saw the wall smoke with the bullets hitting it. I then knew they were firing balls…I saw blood where the column of the British had stood when Solomon Brown fired at them. This was several rods from where any of our militia stood; and I then supposed, as well as the rest of us, that that was the blood of the British.”

Now, Sanderson’s eyes had exposed the harsh reality that the British Soldiers were shooting to kill, yet he refused to believe that the blood he saw was from one of his fellow countrymen. In this moment, Sanderson had attempted to use sight to rationally deduce the truth of the matter. However there was no way to be sure what was the cause of the grisly sight he witnessed. The sensory confusion he experienced left him scarcely able to comprehend the “truth” of what his eyes had presented him with. Though he tried to convince himself of the truth, the sensory impact of battle left a great deal of uncertainty - uncertainty that still existed in his mind when he gave his account over fifty years later.

A Sound of Death
The crackling of musketry had broken the relative predawn silence at the Fiske family’s farm on the edge of Lexington. Rebekah Fiske, along with her husband, father-in-law, and a number of people they had enslaved heard the events of April 19 as they unfolded, and remembered these otherworldly sounds for years to come. In 1827, Rebekah recounted her experience to a reporter from the Harvard Register, taking special note of what she was able to hear:

“[A] report of musketry was once more heard, and in broken and incessant volleys. It was a sound of death to us. All now was trepidation, fever, and rushing to arms; women and children bewildered and scouring across the fields.”[4]

For people in the eighteenth century, sound was an objective, indisputable sense that could reveal the truth to someone at a distance without the need to be up close and personal.[5] While many recognized that one’s eyes could deceive them, there was something undeniable about certain sounds. For Rebekah Fiske, the sound of approaching musket fire confirmed that her worst fears had become a reality.

Being directly in the path of this “sound of death,” Rebekah knew she needed to act. As the domestic caretaker of her household, she was not only concerned with her own safety, but also for that of her aged father-in-law and husband, who was afflicted with a “certain indisposition.” She grabbed a few prized possessions before she and her husband carted her father-in-law away to a neighbor’s house, which was already vacated. There, she noted that “The dreadful sound of approaching guns was still ringing in my ears.” Despite having reached a perceived site of safety, Rebekah’s ears revealed that she and her family were not out of harm’s way. She then hid in the house’s cellar to wait out the approaching maelstrom of battle. While in the dark cellar, she was able to peep out and catch a glimpse of what unfolded outside, finally discovering the source of the horrid sound she had been hearing all morning.

“I at last discovered the enemy coming down a long hill on the highway partly upon a run and in some confusion, being closely beset by ‘our men’ in flank and rear. The terrific array of war soon came fully into view, and as soon passed off again from before my eyes, like a horrid vision, leaving only a cloud of smoke behind and the groans of the dying, who were strewed in its wake.”

Though Fiske’s account was likely embellished through a nineteenth-century retelling, the sights and sounds she experienced still held their meaning over fifty years after the fact. These sensations were a stark departure from those of everyday middle-class life in the Massachusetts countryside. Though they would certainly be jarring to anyone today, the weight they carried in 1775 is beyond our comprehension. At a time when entire communities had worked together to protect themselves from violence, the undeniable sound of it closing in shattered worlds. These sensory experiences would haunt people like Rebekah Fiske long after the fact.

The Taste of Defeat
Twenty-two-year-old Jeremy Lister of the 10th Regiment of Foot was wounded. A colonial musket ball had shattered his elbow at Meriam’s Corner, and he now staggered along the Bay Road under a hail of musket fire. Though he had been briefly treated by a surgeon’s mate in Lexington, he was exhausted, in immense pain, and in desperate need of nourishment. In his memoir he wrote, “From our long fateagueing [sic] march and loss of blood for 9 miles want of provisions having not had a morcel [sic] since the day before, I begun to grow rather faint…”[6] Lister began searching for something, anything to bring him relief and refreshment from what he was experiencing. Many of his fellow soldiers had already eaten the few rations they had packed with them in their haversacks, but not all. Lister recalled:

“Seeing almost immediately after a soldier eating a little bisquet and beef I beg’d to partake with him he generously comply’d and gave me half what he had which was about a mouth full each—When we proceed on our march, I beg’d of a Granadier of our Regt to give me a little water in my hat out of a horse pond which he did and refresh’d me a good deal.”

In that moment, the mouthful of beef and biscuit and the stagnant water from a horse pond was divine providence for Ensign Lister. Any other day, the young officer would have likely turned his nose at such pitiful scraps. However, in the chaos of April 19, those few bites and sips meant the prospect of survival in a dire situation.

This relief was only temporary. Lister found himself constantly seeking cover as he continued along the Bay Road, under the incessant fire of colonial forces. He finally reached the safety of the Charlestown Peninsula before crossing back into Boston and returning to his lodgings at 9 pm, almost 24 hours after the operation had begun. Stumbling into the home of Mrs. Miller, he made a single request – tea – the beverage of the Empire that had caused so much trouble in recent years. Lister’s host had a number of guests visiting, who were apparently surprised at the Ensign’s request. He wrote,

“[Mr. and Mrs. Funnel] pronounc’d me light headed in asking for tea, I ought instantly to go to bed, but persisting in having some tea before I left the place, it was brought. The imagination may conceive, tho. it is be-yond the power of words to express the satisfaction I felt from that tea, notwithstanding I was interrupted with a thousand questions.”

For Jeremy Lister, the warm, aromatic beverage hit a bit differently that night. It was a familiar sensation that brought relief from a day of unfamiliar ones. The stinging pain he still felt in his elbow, his ringing ears from the din of battle, the gruesome grisly sights he witnessed – now all seemed in the past as he sipped on salvation. He had returned to Boston changed forever by the sensory experience of battle, but still made time for tea.

[1] d’Alembert, Jean le Rond. “Discours préliminaire des éditeurs (Juin 1751).” In Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raissonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc.,edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), edited by Robert Morrissey.

[2] Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

[3] Deposition of Elijah Sanderson in Phinney, Elias, and Wallace Stevens. History of the Battle of Lexington: On the Morning of the 19th April, 1775. Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825. Also published in Kehoe, Vincent, “We Were There! April 19, 1775” 1974.

[4] Account of Rebekah Fiske in “Battle of Lexington.” The Harvard Register No. 4, (1827): 112–14.

[5] Purnell, Carolyn. The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

[6] Narrative of Ensign Jeremy Lister, Harvard University Press, 1931. Also published in Sawtell, Clement, The Nineteenth of April, 1775. Lincoln, MA, 1967.

Last updated: November 12, 2022