It means “agreement or harmony between people or groups” so it’s a little ironic that Concord Massachusetts is best known as the setting for “the shot heard round the world” where the first British soldiers were felled in what was to become the American revolution.
Of course history’s never that clear cut and there was a little skirmish earlier at nearby Lexington, where members of the local militia died. But there were no British casualties, so North Bridge is the accepted place where the bloody battles began.
Today Concord is a peaceful little town which boasts the historic and supposedly haunted Colonial Inn, a cemetery full of literary greats and The Trail’s End café that serves the best commercially produced key lime pie Pork Belly has ever tasted. It passed the 3 main tests of a good eatery – friendly staff, freshly prepared food and packed with regulars.
We began our exploration on a hot summer’s day at the North Bridge Visitors Centre, just outside the town and it was here we found a clear explanation of a term that had previously left us a bit baffled. A Minute Man was part of the well-prepared civilian militia the colonists independently organised. While most were farmers and rural tradesfolk, the Minute Men took their skills to such a level they could be ready at a minute’s notice, hence the name.
The centre also shows a beautifully filmed re-enactment of what it must have been like to be at Concord’s North Bridge on that fateful day. We found that most sites of historic interest on our trip had these well-crafted and emotive offerings. They’re a great way to get across the history while stirring the emotions. For two sceptical Brits they seem overly patriotic. We spent time later debating what a British version would have been, agreeing it would be a little less sure of the facts, a teeny bit irreverent and with more than a dash of Monty Pythonesque humour. But I admit to being moved by these short films wherever we went and I willingly put aside my usual cynicism.
What actually happened at North Bridge?
By April 1775 British troops were pretty much in charge of the city of Boston, suppressing resistance wherever it reared its head. But out in the countryside local militias were being raised and trained for possible hostilities.
On the evening of 18 April around 700 British Army regulars in Boston were given secret orders to capture and destroy any military supplies held by colonists at Concord. News of the expedition was rapidly sent out by patriotic riders like Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott and the local militias were ready.
The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. Eight militiamen were killed but the British had just one casualty and the march continued, with the regulars heading for Concord where they split up to search for the supplies.
A hundred took up a back-stop position at the North Bridge, facing around 400 local militiamen. Smoke rising in the distance sparked fears amongst the colonists that their town was being burned and the fighting began, with casualties on both sides. The King’s men fell back from the bridge and rejoined the main body of the British force which was forced to march back to Boston, defeated.
It was the spark that lit the flame.
Old North Bridge today
Much has changed since those days; the houses are gone and the bridge itself has been repaired several times although it has now been restored to what it would have looked like in 1775, just a little higher to allow for local river traffic. What remains is a pleasant walk through the fields with information boards and monuments to the fallen on both sides.
Costumed guides are on hand to talk about what life was like for both the colonists and the marching British regulars, many of them raw recruits, inexperienced in combat.
At the larger Minute Man National Park a few miles east of Concord you can trace the route taken by the British on that fateful day, see where they captured Paul Revere and the remains of the houses of the principal players. At North Bridge the only remaining house is The Old Manse, built in 1770 for the Reverend William Emerson, grandfather of writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. The elder Emerson was the town minister at the time of the battle and witnessed the fight from his farm fields while his wife and children saw it all from the upstairs windows of their home. No doubt this family history inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn and the “quote about that fateful shot heard around the world.
Today the house is open to the public sharing its history and literary connections; both Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here for several years.
At this point most people retrace their steps and hop back in the car to visit the town or the bigger Minute Man park, but we discovered there was a small but clearly marked trail that takes you along an old railway branch line and across a wooded ridge down to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. No, not the one in New York State famous for Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman, but the one where the literary greats of Concord lie buried on Author’s Ridge.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord
It’s a peaceful and beautifully maintained cemetery just a short walk from the town centre. The draw for me was the chance to pay my respects to the literary great and good of Concord. It’s easy to find the graves of Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne as visitors leave pens, pencils and quills at the graves of their favourites.
I was there for Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, who based the adventures of Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth on her own family experiences growing up in genteel poverty in Concord.
Orchard House, the inspiration for the March family home, is where Louisa spent her early, somewhat unconventional years and she wrote the book here at a “shelf desk” her father built especially for her. It’s not far from the cemetery, on the Lexington Road just a little way out of the town.
By the time we’d found Orchard House the day was stretching towards evening and there was another local resident we needed to honour; Ephraim Bull, inventor of the Concord Grape.
The Concord Grape
Anyone who’s eaten that American classic, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, will probably have tasted the Concord grape. Pretty useless for wine it makes excellent juice and jam. Dear old Ephraim spent years perfecting the variety and never made a penny from his success. Now in private ownership Grapevine Cottage is easily missed. We had to ask an off-duty Ranger (who was delighted to instruct us on how to pronounce Concord properly in the old New England Way – our British “o” vowel causing him much amusement) only to find it was just a few doors down from Louisa’s home.
By now we were hot and tired and decided to use GPS to find a shortcut back to Old North Bridge. Pork Belly ploughed ahead in best Boy Scout mode, crying ‘Follow me’ and pushing his way through the briars. I will draw a veil over the resulting ramble except to say I’m glad it was a hot dry summer because otherwise I might have lost my shoes in the mud. I was never more glad to see the chimneys of The Manse appear ahead of my weary eyes.
Our advice? Take the slightly longer and more boring road back.
But we did get to see cute chipmunks though.
More information about Concord
The area around Concord was originally known as Musketaquid, an Algonquian word for “grassy plain.” The town itself was established in 1635 by a handful of British settlers.
The deal was signed under an ancient oak known as Jethro’s Tree beneath which Major Simon Willard and his associates bought from the Indians “6 myles of land square”.
Today it’s a thriving tourist destination and forward thinking township – in 2012 it became the first community in the United States to ban single-serving PET plastic bottles.
The Minute Man National Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. At popular times they have Park Ranger talks, highly recommended, and costumed guides who are a fount of knowledge.
Details of The Old Manse can be found here
For more on Orchard House visit their website
For more information on walking trails near Concord check out the Bay Circuit Trail website
Love to visit but got no budget? take a look at Pork Belly’s travel competitions page and be lucky.