One of the best parts of working on Women & the American Story (a.k.a. WAMS, our curriculum guide in women’s history) is stumbling upon documents that can (and should!) be easily integrated into the standard US history curriculum. My most recent find of this nature is Anne Hulton’s letter describing the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The letter offers a refreshingly frank account of an event that has been so glorified for so long that we’ve lost all touch with the reality of it. So to celebrate the 244th anniversary of this critical moment in American Revolutionary history, let’s take a closer look!
Let’s start with a little backstory about Anne, an English woman who experienced a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anne arrived in Boston in 1768, just as outrage over the British Parliament’s taxes on the American colonies was reaching a fever pitch. As a British colonial woman, Anne had no economic or political power, and very limited opportunities to even share her thoughts on politics in public. In theory, then, none of this should have been a problem. Anne certainly didn’t think so, because she shared with friends that she hoped to set herself up in trade or buy a farm in the colonies, indicating that she meant to stay.
The problem was that Anne came to Boston to live with her brother Henry Hulton. Henry was the newly appointed Commissioner of Customs in Boston, a.k.a. public enemy No. 1 for all of the budding Patriots who felt that England had no right to levy taxes in the colonies. Anne’s early letters to friends back in England frequently reference the stress and anxiety this caused her family. In these letters, she often seems bemused by the violence engulfing the colonies, certain that at some point, everyone will have to come to their senses and calm down.
Which brings us to April 19, 1775, and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. So much about this battle has been elevated to the status of myth: Paul Revere’s midnight ride, “the shot heard ’round the world,” the tipping point between civil unrest and open rebellion, the first battle of the war that became the American Revolution. The story of this battle is so embedded in American history canon that it’s one of the few things every single American child will learn about during the course of their education. The trouble is, we’ve lost all sense of what it meant to the people who lived through it. And that’s why Anne’s letter from April 1775 is invaluable for the modern classroom teacher.
Anne is by no means an objective observer. How could she be, when she probably got all of her information about the events of the battle from her brother and his colleagues in government? But her perspective can be refreshing. For example, she is humorously dismissive of the midnight ride, saying simply that the Patriots “had a signal it’s supposed by a light from one of the Steeples in Town.” She is also certain that it was the Minutemen who fired first on Lexington Commons. “They fired on the troops and ran off,” is her brief account of the start of the battle, a curt entry into a debate that still rages among American military historians.
It is Anne’s narrative of the British march from Lexington to Concord that really brought the incident to life for me in a way no American textbook ever had. Her description of how the troops “found two or three of their people lying in the agonies of death, scalped and their noses and ears cut off and eyes bored out” paints a vivid picture of the brutality of the fighting. “All the road being enclosed with stone walls served as a cover to the Rebels, from whence they fired on the Troops still running off whenever they had fired, but still supplied by fresh Numbers who came from many parts of the country,” captures the nightmare the British troops experienced facing no clear enemy they could stand and fight. Anne doesn’t shrink from discussing the violence committed by the British, gloating that when shots came from homes lining the road that “the soldiers entered those dwellings and put all the men to death.” And when her hero, Lord Percy, appears with fresh troops and artillery to relieve the beleaguered British soldiers, it feels like a scene straight from The Lord of the Rings.
Even Anne’s errors are fascinating for what they reveal about how news of the battle was circulated in Boston. She reports that the casualty figures for the day were 50 British soldiers killed and about 100 more wounded, and that exact figures for the Patriots are unknown but “near 1,000 of ‘em had fallen.” In truth, casualties for the Patriots were lower than the British: 49 killed and 39 wounded, against 72 killed and 179 wounded on the British side. But her account likely reflects the way the colonial government tried to spin the narrative of the day in their favor.
Anne’s letter ends with a chilling description of the siege of Boston. In her account, 20,000 Patriot Minutemen surround the city (the reality was 15,000), and all communication with the countryside is cut off. She anticipates that, without the daily deliveries from local farms, famine will soon set in. She reports that nearly half the population of Boston has fled, and Lord Percy has announced that if any of the city’s inhabitants rise up against the troops, the entire population of the city will be held accountable. She expects to hear “the firing of cannon” at any moment. For Anne, as for so many colonists, the Battle of Lexington and Concord was a harbinger of darker days.
By including Anne’s letter in their lessons about the Battle of Lexington and Concord, history teachers can enrich these lessons in two exciting ways: first, by letting their students read the account of a woman who lived through the American Revolution; and, second, by breathing new life into events that have grown stale through the same old retellings. This is our hope for so much of WAMS: that women’s voices and stories will become seamlessly integrated into the narrative of American history, enriching curricular content and expanding students’ minds in the process.
Keep an eye out for this and other Revolutionary resources to become available on the WAMS site in November 2019. In the meantime, check out our first two completed units: Early Encounters, 1492-1734, and Modernizing America, 1889-1920. And, if you want to get the latest WAMS updates as they happen, sign up for our newsletter!
— Allyson Schettino, Associate Director of School Programs, New-York Historical Society
Top image credit: Battle of Lexington, frieze in the United States Capitol (via Architect of the Capitol on Flickr).