Last updated: January 25, 2022
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Early Plans and Indecision
Inspiration for the 1836 Battle Monument came while planning the 50th anniversary of the War for Independence in the greater Boston region. In early April 1825, the Bunker Hill Monument Association formed an agreement with the town of Concord to help fund a new monument to commemorate the fighting on April 19, 1775.
From the beginning, the monument plan met resistance by local citizens protesting the proposed location at the center of town, nearly half a mile from the site of the famed North Bridge. Disregarding local opinion, officials laid the monument cornerstone at the square during the fiftieth anniversary celebration. A lead box was placed under the cornerstone containing historical currency and other relevant documents.
During the following two years, officials made little progress in completing the monument. Local citizen John Shepard Keyes recalled,
“the reason being that the funds collected in Concord by the Bunker Hill Monument Association, and appropriated to building the Concord monument were withheld or squandered so that ours was left-This huge granite block some 4 feet cube [and] was a favorite climb for the boys…and I can just remember the alarm of the great illumination, the bonfire of huge tar barrels that were piled up on it by some of the rowdy element a few years after its dedication, and burnt one dark night, in mockery of its unfinished condition.”
Unfortunately, the fire damaged the cornerstone beyond repair, and the time capsule mysteriously disappeared.
Commemorating the North bridge
After years of inaction, local citizen Reverend Ezra Ripley donated a segment of the original North Bridge Battleground to the town of Concord. This small tract of land offered a new opportunity for commemoration. Although the famed North Bridge was long gone, the parcel included the original roadbed leading to the bridge site, and the grave of two British soldiers killed during the battle. After acquiring the land, a town committee worked with Solomon Willard, construction supervisor of the Bunker Hill Monument, to design the obelisk, and artisan James Wilkins to construct the monument. The twenty-five-foot obelisk consisted of four pieces of white granite cut from a single boulder placed on top of a granite foundation. Inset into the east face of the obelisk would be a white marble slab inscribed with a brief account of the battle at the North Bridge.
Yet again, the monument met controversy, as John Shepherd Keyes later remembered, the monument,
“…had been standing some six months, getting built after a dozen years fight over it in town and although then considered a masterpiece by many, was severely criticized by not a few and especially the inscription! …The committee… asked various leading men to write an inscription, and then attempted to select one from those handed in to them. It was not easy for them to decide, they liked parts of each, but none entirely. Therefore…they undertook the task of composing one out of portions of those submitted. ‘Here on the 19th of April 1775,’ was common to nearly all and so was taken it would be hard to say from whose, ‘Was made the first forcible resistance to British aggression’ this from Dr Ripley’s whose controversy with Lexington turned on those very words forcible resistance. On the opposite bank stood the American militia and here the first of the enemy fell,’ was from the lawyer like special pleading of Hon Sam Hoar ‘In the war of that Revolution which gave Independence to these United States’ was from another pen, and the concluding sentence was Mr Emerson’s ‘In gratitude to God and the love of Freedom this monument is erected AD 1836.”
Construction of the monument began in 1836 and concluded with a dedication ceremony on July 4, 1837. Again, John Shepard Keyes recalled the event
“I remember it so well it was a very hot sunny July day, after the noon salute and bell ringing the village became as quiet as of a Sunday. About three oclock the procession escorted by the military companies…consisting mainly of the townspeople men women and children came slowly along the common and passed up the road to the Old North Bridge, there were assembled about the monument about two or three hundred seated on the grass, who listened to a prayer by Mr Frost an oration by Samuel Hoar and then Mr. Emersons hymn was sung by all who could join, in full chorus. This hymn was printed on slips of paper about 6 inches square and plentifully supplied to the audience I kept mine, and have a part of it now, and notice the alterations Mr Emerson has since made in it by comparing this with his book of poems. The last verse begins ‘O Thou who made those heroes dare to die or leave their children free’ Reverend John Wilder prayed and Dr Ripley gave a very solemn benediction for was not his lifes work and effort accomplished in this monument erected and dedicated on the spot he had selected.”
As J.S. Keyes remember, the 1837 event also unveiled Emmerson’s famed poem “The Concord Hymn,” and coined the title “The Shot Heard Round The World.”
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.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Words Matter: The Legacy of the 1836 Monument
The creation of the 1836 monument marked a new era of myth and memory concerning the events of April 19, 1775. In this new era the language and actions of commemorating the Concord fight inspired two centuries of intense debate. When local officials began planning the 50th anniversary of the battle debate emerged about the terminology used to describe the events. At one point, Concord Citizen Hon. Samuel Hoar referred to the North Bridge fight as the “fist forcible resistance” to British aggression. This seemingly innocuous statement inspired a robust response from several citizens of Lexington, who argued the Battle Green marked the location of first resistance.
Using sworn testimony from members of the Lexington Militia recorded in 1775, the Citizens of Concord crafted a historical argument that Captain Parker did not order the Lexington Militia to fire on the British soldiers that morning. The resulting whirlwind of combative debate played out over the better part of a decade and struck a fever pitch when Concord unveiled the 1836 Battle Monument featuring the line “Here On the 19 of April, 1775, was made the first forcible resistance to British Aggression.” In pointed newspaper articles, Lexington citizens attacked Concord’s choice of words. This debate later expanded to include controversy over “the first shot”, on the Lexington Green and Emmerson’s “Shot Heard Round The World” at Concord’s North Bridge. Fractured over the terms and timelines, the schism between Lexington and Concord created competitive commemoration throughout the 19th century. In 1875, for the Centennial Celebration the two towns hosted separate commemorations and actively argued over the attendance of important officials such as President Ulysses S. Grant.
Today the battle monument stands as a firm reminder of the power historical narratives hold. In some regards, the monument speaks more to the thoughts and feelings of the people who erected it than to the events of April 19, 1775. After placing the 1836 battle monument at the North bridge, the town of Concord dedicated vast resources for improving and maintaining the battleground. During the early 19th century, the community of Concord worked together to cultivate a scenic park at the North Bridge site. This massive undertaking involved moving original stone walls, installing drainage ditches, planting hundreds of trees, and crafting new monuments of stone and wood. Future generations later expanded upon this movement to preserve and commemorate the battle site and eventually turned the ground over to the National Park Service with the creation of Minute Man National Historical Park in 1959.
John Shepard Keyes, Autobiography, transcribed from ms. in John Shepard Keyes Papers, William Munroe Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library, Concord, Mass., Concord Free Public Library website, http://www.concordlibrary.org/uploads/scollect/doc/Autobiography_final.pdf
Dietrich-Smith D. 2004. North Bridge Unit: Cultural Landscape Report, Minute Man National Historical Park, National Park Service. Cultural Landscape Report. National Park Service, Northeast Regional Office; Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. Northeast Regional Office.
Lemuel Shattuck, A History of the Town of Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts: From Its Earliest Settlement to 1832 : and of the Adjoining Towns, Bedford, Acton, Lincoln, Carlisle, Containing Various Notices of County and State History Not Before Published, (Acton, Massachusetts: Russell, Ordiorne, and Company, 1835), 333-351.