Modern history


image A Rural Panic in New England

Nor will old Time ever erase the horrors of the midnight cry preceding the Bloody Massacre at Lexington.

—Hannah Winthrop

AFTER THE MILITIA marched away, early in the morning of April 19, the mood was dark in the towns they left be-JLJL hind. Nearly everyone believed that this was no mere drill or demonstration. On both sides, there was a strange and fatal feeling that bloodshed was inevitable.

The people of New England did not wish for war. This was not a warrior culture. It did not seek glory on the field of valor, and showed none of the martial spirit that has appeared in so many other times and places. There were no cheers or celebrations when the militia departed—nothing like the wild exultation of the American South at the outbreak of the Civil War, or the bizarre blood-lust of the European middle classes in 1914.

The people of New England knew better than that. In 140 years they had gone to war at least once in every generation, and some of those conflicts had been cruel and bloody. Many of the men who mustered that morning were themselves veterans of savage fights against the French and Indians. They and their families knew what war could do. The mood in Massachusetts was heavy with foreboding.

In the town of Acton, Hannah Davis always remembered the terrible moment when her husband left her. He was about thirty years old, and the captain of Acton’s minute company. She was twenty-nine. Their children were very young, one of them a babe in arms. The season had been sickly in the Davis household. That morning all the children were ill, some with the dreaded symptoms of canker rash, a mortal disease that ravaged many a New England household. The Davis household had been awakened before dawn by an alarm rider. While Hannah comforted her crying children, the minutemen of Acton trooped into her kitchen, filling that small feminine space with the strong masculine presence of their muskets, bayonets, tomahawks, and powder horns.

Hannah remembered later that “my husband said but little that morning. He seemed serious and thoughtful; but never seemed to hesitate as to the course of his duty.” As he left the house, Isaac Davis suddenly turned and faced his wife. She thought he wanted to tell her something, and her heart leaped in her breast. For a moment he stood silent, searching for words that never came. Then he said simply, “Take good care of the children,” and disappeared into the darkness. Hannah was overwhelmed by an agony of emptiness and despair. By some mysterious power of intuition, she knew that she would never see him again. 1

Other women shared that feeling as they watched their husbands march away. After the men were gone these individual emotions flowed into one another like little streams into a river of fear that flooded the rural towns of Massachusetts. On a smaller scale, it was not unlike the grande peur that swept across the French countryside in 1789, when ordinary people were suddenly consumed with a sense of desperate danger. 2

The great fear in New England began with the first alarm that was spread by Paul Revere and the other midnight riders. We remember that moment as a harbinger of Independence. For us, it was an event bright with the promise of national destiny. But at the time it was perceived in a very different way—as a fatal calamity, full of danger, terror, and uncertainty. Many years afterward, Hannah Winthrop recorded her feelings of the moment, which were still very strong in her mind. “Nor will old Time ever erase,” she wrote, “the horrors of the midnight cry preceding the Bloody Massacre at Lexington.” 3

Hannah Winthrop lived in Cambridge, where her husband John taught natural science at Harvard College. He was an elderly man, and not in good health. They lived near the Lexington Road, and felt themselves in harm’s way. In company with many others, Hannah Winthrop’s first impulse was to flee. She later wrote, “Not knowing what the event would be at Cambridge … it seemed necessary to retire to some place of safety till the calamity was passed. My partner had been a fortnight confined by illness. After dinner we set out not knowing whither we went, we were directed to a place called Fresh Pond about a mile from the town.”

On the road they met a throng of fugitives who also sought safety in flight. When they reached Fresh Pond, the Winthrops stopped at a home by the road, and found it full of terrified refugees. “What a distressed house did we find there,” Hannah wrote, “filled with women whose husbands were gone forth to meet the assailants, 70 or 80 of these, with numbers of infant children, crying and agonizing over the fate of their husbands.”

The great fear had already taken possession of that teeming crowd. Hannah Winthrop and her invalid husband decided to flee again, this time to northern Massachusetts. “Thus,” she wrote, “with some precipitancy were we driven to the town of Andover, following some of our acquaintances, five of us to be conveyed by one tired horse and chaise.” The burden was too heavy for the horse, and the five refugees had to take turns in the chaise. “We began our passage alternately walking and riding,” Hannah Winthrop later recalled, “the roads [were] filled with frightened women and children, some in carts with their tattered furniture, others on foot fleeing into the woods.” 4

The narrow country roads were jammed with traffic. Militiamen were advancing toward Lexington and Concord—some as individuals, others in small parties, many in entire companies marching behind a fife and drum. At the same time, women and children and noncombatant men were fleeing in the opposite direction. Carts and coaches were piled high with cherished possessions. Along the shoulders of the roads were forlorn groups of fugitives, the broken shards of shattered families who were traveling sadly they knew not where—anywhere that took them farther from the great fear that followed them.

While some people took to the roads, others hid themselves in the woods. In Lexington many families of the militia left their homes and disappeared into patches of forest. It was later remembered of Rebecca Harrington Munroe, whose male relatives made up a large part of Captain Parker’s company, that this “worthy lady,” with “other families in Lexington, fled on the 19th of April 1775, with their children to the woods, while their husbands were engaged with the enemy and their houses were sacked or involved in flames.” 5

Others ran to their neighbors and sought safety in the midst of others, sometimes in places very bizarre. In Charlestown on April 19, Jacob Rogers remembered, “I… put my children in a cart with others then driving out of town. … We proceeded with many others to the town’s Pest House.” This was a remote building where smallpox victims were confined. Others in Charlestown went to a building near the training field, “full of women and children in the greatest terror, afraid to go to their own habitations.” 6

Many hoped to find a place of sanctuary in the churches of New England. Lexington’s meetinghouse was a large but fragile wooden building, sheathed in clapboards that could scarcely have stopped a pistol ball. It stood directly in the path of the approaching British Regulars, and very much in harm’s way. Even so, the people found spiritual strength in their place of worship. 7

Some of the clergy did what they could to help their frightened congregations. A craven few fled for their lives. In Weston after the militia left town, clergymen Samuel Cooper and Samuel Woodward became refugees themselves, fleeing first to Framingham ten miles west and then to Southborough, taking with them a cow and a skillet and a few provisions. 8 In Menotomy, Deacon Joseph Adams fled from his own house to the home of the minister Samuel Cooke, and buried himself in the hayloft of the minister’s barn.9But most ministers stayed and tried to comfort members of their congregations who came for help. At Concord, on the morning of April 19, many terrified people hurried to the house of their minister, the Reverend William Emerson. Even as the fighting went on only a few yards away, an eyewitness remembered that “the lane in front of the house was nearly filled with people who came to the minister’s house for protection,” While soldiers marched and countermarched, William Emerson worked outside in the yard, moving among the women and children, and giving them bread and cheese and comfort. 10

The minister’s wife, Phebe Bliss Emerson, was deeply frightened. According to family tradition, Phebe was “delicate,” a euphemism that commonly referred to a mental state rather than a physical condition. She had heard the alarm from her African slave Frank, who came running into her chamber with an axe in his hand, shouting that the Redcoats were coming. Phebe Emerson turned as white as a Concord coverlet and fainted away on the spot. When she revived, she looked around for her husband and saw him outside in the yard, helping people of the town who had gathered in front of the Old Manse. Phebe Emerson rapped sharply on the windowpane to get her husband’s attention, and told him that “she thought she needed him as much as the others.” 11

Many people managed their fear by keeping very busy. In Watertown, tax collector Joseph Coolidge went off as a volunteer to show a militia company the road to Lexington. His wife busied herself by digging a hole, and burying the town’s tax books for safekeeping. 12 Alice Stearns Abbott, then a child of eleven, later remembered that she and her sisters Rachel and Susanna awakened early. “We all heard the alarm,” she recalled, “and were up and ready to help fit out father and brother, who made an early start for Concord. We were set to work making cartridges and assisting mother in cooking for the army. We sent off a large quantity of food for the soldiers, who had left home so early that they had but little breakfast. We were frightened by hearing the noise of the guns.”13

Drinking men, of whom there were many in the rural towns of Massachusetts, dealt with their fears in a different way. In Menotomy two brothers-in-law named Jason Winship and Jabez Wyman took refuge in the Cooper Tavern. While confusion reigned around them, they ordered large mugs of flip, a potent drink much favored by tavern topers in the 18th century. They were sitting directly in the path of the British soldiers. Others warned them to flee for their lives. But as the alcohol warmed their spirits, they began to forget their fear. Jabez said to Jason, “Let us finish the mug, they won’t come yet.” 14

The great fear was great because it was so general and all-encompassing. It became a broad undifferentiated emotion, feeding on anxieties that had nothing to do with the immediate cause. In the town of Framingham, ten miles southwest of Concord, a local inhabitant remembered that “soon after the men were gone, a strange panic seized the women and children living in the Edgell and Belknap district. Someone started the story that ‘the negroes were coming to massacre them all!’” An historian of that town remembered that “nobody stopped to ask where the hostile negroes were coming from; for all our own colored people were patriots. It was probably a lingering memory of the earlier Indian alarms, which took this indefinite shape, aided by a feeling of terror awakened by their defenceless condition, and the uncertainty of the issue of the pending fight.” 15

Here was another parallel between this American great fear and the grande peur in France in 1789. The same range of apprehensions appeared in different forms: French peasants worried about “brigands,” while Americans feared the rising of their slaves.

In both countries, strangers became suspect. The women of Framingham prepared to defend themselves against they knew not what. One townsman remembered that “the wife of Capt. Edgell and other matrons brought the axes and pitchforks and clubs into the house, and securely bolted the doors, and passed the day and night in anxious suspense.” Many accounts stress the effect of “anxious suspense” on the nerves of noncombatants. A large part of the great fear arose from uncertainty. 16

But others were clear enough about what should be done. A case in point was the town of Pepperell, twenty miles northwest of Concord. When the men of Pepperell marched away the women came together and held their own town meeting. They organized themselves into a military company, and elected as their captain Prudence Cummings Wright, wife of a leading townsman, and mother of seven children. “Prue” Wright, as she was called, was a deeply religious woman who had joined the Congregational church in 1770. Her family was divided in politics. Her brothers were active Tories, but she and her husband were staunch Whigs. They christened their infant son Liberty Wright.

Young Liberty Wright died in March 1775, and their daughter Mary had been buried only nine months earlier—a loss so heavy that Prudence Wright left her own household for a time and went home to her parents in New Hampshire. But by April 19, 1775, she was back again, and the women of Pepperell elected her to lead them. She appointed Mrs. Job Shattuck as her lieutenant, and organized the women into a company called “Mrs. David Wright’s Guard,” They dressed themselves in their husbands’ clothing, armed themselves with guns and pitchforks, and began to patrol the roads into the town.

These women of Pepperell kept patrolling even after dark. They were guarding a bridge that night, when a rider suddenly approached. The women stopped him at gunpoint and forced him to dismount. He proved to be a Tory named Captain Leonard Whiting. They searched him, found incriminating papers, marched him under guard to Solomon Rodger’s tavern in the town center and kept him a prisoner that night. The next morning he was sent to Groton, and his papers were dispatched to the Committee of Safety for study. The Pepperell town meeting later reimbursed Mrs. Wright and the women of her company for their service. With a hint of condescension, the men voted “that Leonard Whiting’s guard (so called) be paid seven pounds seventeen shillings and six pence by order of the Treasurer.” But on the night of April 19, there was nothing of that attitude in Captain Leonard Whiting, when Prue Wright stopped him at gunpoint and threatened to kill him if he did not obey. 17

Tories were arrested in many New England towns. At Scituate on the South Shore of Massachusetts, Paul Litchfield noted in his diary that “very early in the morning of April 20, the town “received news of the engagement between the king’s troops and the Americans at Concord the day before, upon which our men were ordered to appear in arms immediately.” Litchfield was sent to guard the coast, in fear of British attack from the sea, a feeling that was shared in many coastal communities. His company “about eight o’clock took two Tories as they were returning from Marsh-field, who were kept under guard that night.” The next day they arrested four Tories more, and confined them in the meetinghouse.

The great fear continued for many days throughout New England. “Terrible news from Lexington, … rumor on rumor,” John Tudor entered into his diary, “men and horses driving past, up and down the roads. … People were in great perplexity; women in distress for their husbands and friends who had marched. … All confusion, numbers of carts, etc. carrying off goods etc. as the rumour was that if the soldiers came out again they would burn, kill and destroy all as they marched.” 18

On the North Shore of Massachusetts, there was a special panic called the “Ipswich fright.” A report spread through Essex County that British soldiers had come ashore in the Ipswich River and were murdering the population of that town. The rumor traveled at lightning speed up and down the coast. It was written that “all the horses and vehicles in the town were put in requisition: men, women, and children hurried as for life toward the north. Large numbers crossed the Merrimack, and spent the night in deserted houses of Salisbury, whose inhabitants, stricken by the strange terror, had fled into New Hampshire.” 19

The panic infected Salem, where John Jenks recorded in his diary on April 21,1775, “A report was propagated that Troops was landed in Ipswich.” Jenks heard the next day that “the report was false, no troops came there.” But he and his fellow townsmen decidedto take no chances. On the 23rd of April he wrote, “moved my goods up to my Uncle Preston in Danvers. A great number of teams was employed to carry provisions out of the town.” 20

In Newbury, a messenger appeared at an emergency town meeting, crying, “Turn out, for God’s sake, or you will all be killed. The Regulars are marching on us; they are in Ipswich now, cutting and slashing all before them.” 21 In the interior town of Haverhill, the Reverend Hezekiah Smith, pastor of the Baptist Church wrote in his diary, “a most gloomy time. … Repeated false alarms, and terrifying apprehensions.” He held a day of fasting and prayer in his meetinghouse, as did many other ministers throughout New England. 22

The same emotions spread to the interior of Massachusetts. They were felt at Sudbury, twenty miles inland, where Experience Wight Richardson kept a diary that was running record of her anxiety. She feared not for herself but for others: for her only son Josiah Richardson who went off to “fite” and for other men and families in her town. In particular, she feared for the people of Boston. “We are afraid that Boston people a great many will starve to death,” she wrote. “O Lord! Appear for them I pray thee. O King Jesus help us I pray thee.” 23

The great fear reached as far as the town of Sutton, forty miles from the coast, and persisted there for many days. After April 19, the town’s minister David Hall wrote, “That night there was several alarms. I was up most of the night and prayed with our minute companies a little before day.” He comforted his congregation for many days. “A dark and melancholy week we had,” he noted in his diary. 24

The great fear also spread to Loyalists in Boston and even to the Regulars themselves. Admiral Samuel Graves later remembered that a wave of hysteria swept through the British troops, who were suddenly conscious that they were in “the neighbourhood of so enraged an host of people, breathing revenge for their slaughtered countrymen, and vowing to storm Boston, seize upon and demolish Castle William, fortify Point Alderton, burn all the men of war, and cut off every Tory.” Graves recalled that “each of these reports through the fears of some and wickedness of others was industriously circulated, during the first week or two after the battle of Lexington, and some of them gained credit … such rumors spread abroad, could not but excite on our part the utmost attention.” 25

Among the American leaders, the great fear gave them yet another task. At the same time that they worked to raise the alarm in Massachusetts, they also labored to quiet the anxieties of the people. The network of couriers continued to function for many days, keeping the towns informed about the course of events, but without laying their fears to rest. It was typical of this Calvinist culture that people interpreted this time of suffering as a divine judgment on their own depravity. For many Sundays afterward, the ministers of Massachusetts preached from the first verse of Lamentations: “The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning. The crown is fallen from our head; woe unto us, that we have sinned.” 26

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