THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION COMES TO CAMBRIDGE
On 19 April 1775,
British and American soldiers exchanged fire in the Massachusetts
towns of Lexington and Concord, setting off the American Revolution.
This three part series explores the early days of the war from a Cambridge perspective.
Part I: Setting the Stage: Cambridge Before the War
In the mid-18th century, Cambridge was only a village. About 800 people lived within the present city limits, most of them near Harvard Square. One span, the Great Bridge, crossed the Charles River at the site of todays Anderson Bridge (at the foot of John F. Kennedy Street). The eight-mile trip to Boston, via Brookline and Roxbury, occupied the better part of a day. An alternate route through Charlestown involved "the inconvenience of crossing a large Ferry."
What set Cambridge apart was Harvard College, one of only a dozen such institutions in British America. As the oldest and most prestigious, the "college at Cambridge" attracted students throughout the colonies.
The majority of the towns residents were descendants of the early Puritan settlers. They worked as farmers, artisans, or tradespeople, worshiped in the Congregational church, and relied on local resources for their livelihoods. Many would fight for independence from British rule.
A much smaller group of wealthy families, many of whom were related by blood and marriage, lived on sizeable estates in the village and along todays Brattle Street and Elmwood Avenue. Some also owned sugar plantations in Jamaica and Antigua in the Caribbean. A contemporary observer wrote: "Seven families had here farms, gardens, and magnificent houses, and not far off plantations of fruit. . . . Never had I chanced on such an agreeable situation." These families were all members of the Anglican parish of Christ Church (Zero Garden Street), and in the coming conflict would support the Crown. Adversaries labeled them Tories or loyalists.
Cambridge families of all political persuasions owned slaves, but most were held by the wealthy Tories. They worked as household servants, farm hands, gardeners, and craftsmen. An unknown number of free black citizens also lived in Cambridge.
Cambridge voters spoke out at an early date against the taxes imposed by the British Parliament. Beginning in 1765, the Town Meeting recorded its opposition to the Stamp, Townshend, and Tea acts. At least two Cambridge residents, John Hicks and Joshua Wyeth, participated in the destruction of 46 tons of tea in Boston Harbor on 16 December 1773a protest later called the Boston Tea Party. As punishment, Parliament enacted a new series of acts, including the Regulatory Act, which abolished most elected governments in Massachusetts and replaced them with officials appointed by the king. Three Cambridge loyalists, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Oliver (who lived at Elmwood, 33 Elmwood Avenue) and Judges Samuel Danforth and Joseph Lee (of 159 Brattle Street, now home of the Cambridge Historical Society) were named to the Mandamus Council created by this act.
A conflict over gunpowder stored in the Provincial Powder House (still standing near Tufts University in Somerville) heightened tensions. The province and its towns were to share the powder, but the towns had removed their allotments. When William Brattle, a Cambridge loyalist, so informed the British commander, General Thomas Gage, the British became concerned that patriot elements might seize the provincial powder as well. On 1 September 1774, British soldiers removed 250 half barrels of powder from the Powder House. One detachment marched to Cambridge and carried off two small cannons.
The next day, thousands of citizens gathered on Cambridge Common and in Harvard Square to protest both the seizure of the gunpowder and the appointments of their neighbors to the Mandamus Council. A chance appearance by Benjamin Hallowell, one of the most hated customs officials in Massachusetts, resulted in shots being fired into the air; rumors began to circulate that war had broken out in Cambridge. That night, citizens demanded that Lt. Gov. Oliver resign from the council. He obeyed, noting: "My House at Cambridge being surrounded by about Four Thousand People in Compliance with their Commands I sign my Name." Over the next seven months, almost all the Cambridge loyalists left their homes and sought shelter in Boston.
Part II: Sounding the Warning: 18-19 April 1775
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town tonight,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,
One if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Though every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."
. . .
Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street,
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed to the tower of the church,
Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead, . . .
. . . suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.
. . .
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere . . .
And lo! as he looks, on the belfrys height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns!
Longfellow, "Pauls Reveres Ride"
from Tales of the Wayside Inn (Boston, 1863)
As April 1775 approached, rumors abounded in eastern Massachusetts: the British armys next target would be the gunpowder and supplies stored in Concord; John Hancock and Samuel Adams, the patriot leaders who were staying in Lexington, would be arrested. By Tuesday, 18 April, the British were ready to act. After nightfall, the two lanterns burning in the belfry of Bostons Old North Church alerted Paul Revere and other watchers that the British soldiers (called "redcoats" or "regulars") would advance by water. Two men rode out of Boston that night to alert Hancock and Adams in Lexington: Paul Revere and William Dawes, who had an hours march on Revere. (1)
Revere followed a long route through Somerville and Medford. Dawes took the eight-mile land route, leaving Boston by Roxbury Neck (safely passing through the British sentries posted there) (2), entering Cambridge over the Great Bridge (at the site of todays Anderson Bridge), and riding along the present J.F.K. Street and Massachusetts Avenue toward Menotomy (Arlington). (3)
Later that night, the regulars rowed from Boston Common across the Charles River to present East Cambridge, landing near todays Second Street. Due to a shortage of boats, it took about two hours for all the troops to cross. About 2:00 a.m., the redcoats finally began to march down todays Gore Street into Somerville. They re-entered Cambridge at Beech Street and took the Great Road (Massachusetts Avenue) to Lexington. At 5:00 a.m., the first shots of the Revolutionary War were exchanged on Lexington Green. A second engagement took place four hours later at Concords North Bridge.
That morning, 1,000 British reinforcements under Lord Percy had left Boston following the land route used by William Dawes a few hours earlier. On reaching the Great Bridge, they discovered that the residents of Cambridge (4) had removed its planks to prevent their crossing. The thrifty citizens, however, had merely stacked the boards on the Cambridge bank of the river; the troops replaced them easily and continued through town unmolested. At Lexington, Percys detachment encountered the retreating British.
Word of the fighting at Lexington and Concord spread quickly, and the Cambridge militia responded promptly.
Part III: Retreat: Deadly Skirmishes in North Cambridge
Word of the fighting at Lexington and Concord spread quickly. Some of the Cambridge militia marched toward Lexington; others readied an ambush at Harvard Square to await the redcoats return. One resident of Cambridge, Hannah Winthrop (1), described the scene in a letter to a friend.
Not knowing what the event would be at Cambridge at the return of these bloody ruffians, and seeing another brigade dispatched to the assistance of the former, looking with the ferocity of barbarians, it seemed necessary to retire to some place of safety till the calamity was passed. . . We were directed to a place called Fresh Pond, about a mile from the town, but what a distressed house did we find it, filled with women whose husbands had gone forth to meet the assailants, seventy or eighty of these, with numbers of infant children, weeping and agonizing for the fate of their husbands.
Toward sunset the fatigued regulars returned to Cambridge in full retreat. At Watsons Corner (2) (the present intersection of Rindge and Massachusetts avenues) Cambridge patriots lay in wait behind a pile of barrels at, but were surprised by flanking redcoats. John Hicks (3) and Moses Richardson of Cambridge and Isaac Gardner of Brookline were killed, as was William Marcy, a "simple-minded youth" who thought he was watching a parade. A marker at 2158 Massachusetts Avenue commemorates the skirmish.
Down the street, at Coopers Tavern (4), the redcoats turned off the main road onto the present Beech Street. They avoided the ambush in Harvard Square, but several British soldiers died in a second skirmish near the corner of Beech and Elm streets. The remaining British troops retreated to Charlestown.
With the fighting on April 19, 1775, the War for Independence had truly begun. That night, the provincial Committee of Safety, the overseers of colonial civil defense, met in the home of Jonathan Hastings (5), on Cambridge Common. General Artemas Ward was chosen as the first commander-in-chief of the New England militias and selected Hastings house as his headquarters.
Within days, more than 20,000 armed men from all over New England had gathered in Cambridge. The Tories vacant estates, the empty Christ Church, and even Harvards brick buildings (6) all served as barracks, officers quarters, and hospitals. Soldiers camped on Cambridge Common in tents and other makeshift shelters. By order of the Committee of Safety, Harvard College canceled classes on May 1. More than 1,600 troops were quartered in the college buildings. (7) The New England men gathering on Cambridge Commona rowdy and unkempt crewwould become the core of George Washingtons new American army.
The information in this series has been excerpted from "Washington Takes Command: Cambridge During the American Revolution," by Charles Bahne and the Map Committee of the Historic Cambridge Collaborative. This publication is available for only $1.00 (includes shipping) at the Historical Commission and Historical Society. Follow the link at the bottom of this page for more information on this map publication.
Thank you for following this special history series.