When Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord, penned his stirring lines about “embattled farmers” standing by Concord’s North Bridge and firing “the shot heard ’round the world,” he conveniently neglected the exchange of musket fire earlier on the morning of April 19, 1775, when Redcoats and Colonial militia faced off on Lexington’s green. Perhaps unintentionally, Emerson set in motion a friendly rivalry between the towns over Revolutionary primacy. It comes to a head each year on the third Monday of April, Patriots Day, when reenactors stage the two skirmishes and subsequent running battle, known collectively to schoolchildren everywhere as the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Here’s how the towns stack up on some Revolutionary essentials:
Lexington: “If you’re not here by 3:30 a.m., stay in bed,” advises Bob Beckwith, assistant manager of the Lexington visitors center, a musket ball’s toss from the Battle Green. The encounter occurred just before dawn (reenactment scheduled for 5:30 a.m.) and Lexingtonians forgo sleep in favor of historical accuracy. The crowd is at least five deep around the green by the time militia men come swarming out of Buckman Tavern to meet the columns of British regulars marching up Massachusetts Avenue. Smart townies arrive at the last minute and erect stepladders to see above the crowd. www.patriotsday.com
Concord: The folks of Concord have it much easier, since the encounter at North Bridge didn’t take place until around the more civilized hour of 9:30 a.m. Ceremonies with costumed Colonial militia and British regulars are scheduled for 8:30 a.m., but rangers advise spectators to arrive an hour earlier. www.nps/mima
Advantage: Lexington. After the reenactment, spectators can enjoy one of several pancake breakfasts in nearby churches.
Lexington: The bronze on the Battle Green is commonly called “The Lexington Minuteman.” It was sculpted by Henry Hudson Kitson, purportedly to represent John Parker, elected captain of the Lexington militia. Tradition says that his order to the men was: “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Concord: The masterful bronze “Minute Man” sculpted by Daniel Chester French shows the farmer-soldier with musket and plow — an image used repeatedly by the US government to sell war bonds. It was the first major commission for Concord native French, who was in his early 20s at the time.
Advantage: Concord. In a remarkable example of fiscal wizardry, Concord sold the foundry 10 cannons captured at the Battle of Louisburg in 1758. Although the statue cost $1,583.62, the town made a profit of $7.89 on the metal.
Lexington: The Old Burying Ground, behind the First Parish Church northwest of the Battle Green, contains graves dating to 1690. The mostly slate stones have weathered the centuries and reflect all the marvelously macabre conventions of Colonial-era markers. A 6-foot granite obelisk remembers Captain John Parker, commander of the Lexington militia on April 19, 1775. He survived the battle but succumbed to tuberculosis that September.
Concord: The Old Hill Burying Ground overlooks Monument Square from a rocky rise and is said to have been selected because the land was too steep to farm. Graves here date to 1677. Concord’s North Bridge commander, Major John Buttrick, who gave the order to fire on English troops, is buried here, along with 40 other veterans of the Revolution.
Advantage: Concord by a hair. The steep rise of the stones makes the more dramatic setting.
COLONIAL WATERING HOLE
Lexington: The Buckman Tavern (1 Bedford St., 781-862-5598, www.lexingtonhistory.org) was the town’s busiest in the 18th century. John Parker gathered his militia men here in the predawn hours of April 19, 1775, to await the arrival of the British regulars. The structure is restored as closely as possible to that fateful day, and even displays some of the muskets used in the battle.
Concord: The central portion of Concord’s Colonial Inn (48 Monument Square, 978-369-9200, www.concordscolonialinn.com) served as a storehouse for arms and provisions — which is precisely what the British regulars hoped to seize on April 19, 1775. A doctor treating wounded from the battle used the Liberty Room as a hospital, room 24 as an operating room, and room 27 as a morgue.
Advantage: Concord. The property is still an active inn and restaurant. The Village Forge Tavern has live music Wednesday through Sunday nights.
Lexington: The Lexington visitors center (1875 Massachusetts Ave., 781-862-1450, www.lexingtonchamber.org) has a terrific selection of books about the American Revolution, but it also carries a huge array of Revolution-themed souvenirs, including plastic toy soldiers. Lexington throws down the gauntlet of Revolutionary primacy by emblazoning T-shirts, sweatshirts, and mugs with the slogan “Birthplace of American Liberty.”
Concord: As you might expect at a National Park Service site, the North Bridge Visitor Center (174 Liberty St., 978-369-6993, www.nps.gov/mima) also carries a great selection of books but is less overtly commercial about its souvenirs. Many goods have an educational bent — a spyglass, a handcrafted maple fife, a T-shirt with directions on loading and firing a musket. Nice beer glasses bear the image of Daniel Chester French’s “Minute Man” statue.
Advantage: Lexington. Souvenirs are supposed to be a little tacky.
Lexington: The Old Belfry (Massachusetts Avenue and Clarke Street) is a 1910 replica of the 1762 original that rang out the alarm to call the militia to come face the British troops. At the time of the battle, it sat on the green but the replica was built on the original hilltop site. Although there is little to see, visitors have beaten a clear path to the structure.
Concord: William Emerson, grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, watched the skirmish at North Bridge from the back of the house now revered as The Old Manse (269 Monument St., 978-369-3909, www.thetrustees.org). On April 30, 1775, he wrote in his journal, “This Month remarkable for the greatest Events taking Place in the present Age.”
Advantage: Concord. The Old Manse went on to witness the birth of Transcendentalism. Besides, an original beats a replica every time.
SHOT HEARD ’ROUND THE CUP
Lexington: It takes similar attention to detail and love of machinery to pull a perfect shot of espresso and to fine-tune a finicky racing bike. Ride Studio Cafe (1720 Massachusetts Ave., 339-970-0187, www.ridestudiocafe.com) does both with panache, combining great coffee and high-end bicycle sales and service.
Concord: Sally Ann Food Shop (73 Main St., 978-369-4558, www.sallyannsbakery.com) also pulls a good espresso, but baked goods are the main focus. Accompany that shot with an oatmeal cookie with chocolate chips, nuts, and a creamy maple glaze.
Advantage: Lexington. Both spots offer a pick-up to keep early risers going, but Ride features a single-source espresso of the week.
Lexington: The National Heritage Museum (33 Marrett Road, 781-861-6559, www.nationalheritagemuseum.org) has a fabulous exhibit called “Journeys and Discoveries: The Stories Maps Tell.” Among the maps on display are some published in Europe that show the battle actions at Bunker Hill, and a larger one detailing Revolution battle theaters throughout the Colonies. Moreover, through April 20, the museum will display its copy of the Lexington Alarm Letter written only hours after the Lexington skirmish to alert Colonies to the south that war had broken out. (Note that the museum is closed Sun-Tue.)
Concord: Period rooms in the Concord Museum (53 Cambridge Turnpike, 978-369-9763, www.concordmuseum.org) show how Concordians lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Henry David Thoreau might have been famous for his asceticism, but the museum has the largest extant collection of his few belongings. Nor does the museum neglect the Revolution, with its collection of firearms from the period and even one of the lanterns believed to have been hung in the belfry of Old North Church to signal the direction of British troops.
Advantage: Draw. Historical touchstones remind us that history — including warfare — is personal.