The shade of the Old North Bridge

CONCORD, Massachusetts — We don’t know his name. We don’t know what he looked like, where he was born, or what amused him. We can only guess what he thought about the tiny, backwater port of Boston, where he was stationed in the service of a king three thousand miles away.

But we know a lot about the last day of his life.

He served in the British army’s light infantry, an elite fighting unit that typically got thrown into the hottest action. They had to be brave, tough, and fast. Our unknown soldier was probably pretty buff.

He also got to wear the coolest uniform, with a snazzy red jacket that stopped at his waist instead of the old-fashion coattails the regulars had to wear. On his head he had a black leather helmet, not one of those goofy, towering steeples. But no one, regular or light infantry, got good shoes. If you had to march, you slipped your feet into a pair of stiff, boxy things that could be worn on either foot. You were supposed to swap them every other day to keep them from wearing out unevenly.

So life wasn’t easy for our unknown soldier, and it didn’t get any easier the evening of Tuesday, April 18, 1775.

He’d just fallen asleep when his sergeant shook him awake. He was told in a whisper to gear up and hold his tongue.

Then he joined hundreds of his fellow soldiers on a deserted beach on the Charles River. They stood cold, dark, and silent while the Royal Navy slowly ferried them across in rowboats and dropped them off half a mile from dry land. After wading knee-deep through a marsh, they stood cold, dark, silent, and now wet while their commanders waited for word from the top. Finally, at 2 a.m., they formed into columns and started marching west.

In the four hours since leaving the barracks they’d only moved one mile. Our unknown soldier probably just wanted to turn around and go back to bed.

Plenty of miles to go, though. Their destination was a couple of bumpkin-filled towns where some troublemakers had stashed powder and weapons. Among the troublemakers were two particularly nettlesome scoundrels, a certain Adams and Hancock. It wouldn’t hurt to clap irons on them, too, while on the way.

So for three or four more tedious hours, our soldier marched through ruts and dust and manure. As a light infantryman he had to serve where he was needed, running forward, running back, sometimes in front, sometimes in flank formation to protect the columns’ exposed sides.

All was quiet at first, but before long everyone heard bells pealing in far-off steeples. Oh well. So much for their secret mission.

About sunrise they came in sight of a cluster of buildings around Lexington center. A small crowd had gathered, including the town’s motley militia. Our soldier was ordered to the front along with the rest of the light infantrymen. A hothead named Lieutenant Adair was put in charge. Our soldier probably knew Adair and his shortcomings. He might have gotten a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

True to form, Adair sent them running right at the crowd. They stopped 60 yards away and formed up smartly. The bumpkins were told to go home and some of them started to. For a minute, things seemed to be going OK. Then there was a little pop and all hell broke loose. Our unknown soldier probably got off at least one shot before senior officers restored order.

As the British resumed their westward march, they saw the countryside come alive with rebels. It was the light infantry’s job to make sure no one tried to ambush the British columns. That meant no rest for our weary soldier. He had to step fifty yards off the road and run ahead through the woods and fields, guarding the regular army’s flank.

Entering Concord center, our anonymous soldier probably had just two things on his mind, a good breakfast and a nap. The mission was almost over. All they needed to do now was to find the contraband, destroy it, and head back to Boston. People in town were surly but they seemed to cooperate. Some folks even made breakfast for the soldiers. It’s possible our man had a chance to put something in his belly while standing guard over the search.

He was next ordered to secure the North Bridge over the Concord River. When he arrived there he saw, across the river, a sloping field filled with armed and angry rebels. His detachment tried to form up at the end of the bridge but there wasn’t much room. Some soldiers started pulling up boards. None of the officers had arrived at the bridge yet, so no one was sure what to do.

Kent as minuteman, mid-1960s

The author as a young lad, many, many years ago

At that moment a plume of smoke rose above the trees in the direction of Concord center. Our soldier might have heard someone across the river yell, “They’re burning the town!” The mass of rebels moved toward the bridge. Just as at Lexington, someone fired a shot, then suddenly it seemed like every blade of grass opened up on the poorly protected detachment.

In the wild hail of lead balls that battered the British, at least one hit our unknown soldier. It wounded him so severely that he dropped to the side of the cart path, unable to move. His fellow soldiers left him behind as they ran back to the center of town. He writhed in pain on the cold spring ground. Maybe he thought of his home back in England. Maybe, too, he wondered why the hell he’d ever joined the army.

He’d been lying there moaning for a half hour or so when a Colonial came along and stared down into his face. Surely this man, rebel though he may be, would help him. But the man raised his arm. He had a hatchet in his hand, and he brought it down hard into our unnamed soldier’s skull.

They say our soldier lived in horrible agony for more than two hours after that senseless assault. Townspeople brought him to a nearby house and gave him water, but nothing else could be done until death brought relief.

It shook Concord’s soul. People talked about it for decades. Since the Emersons lived just upstream from the North Bridge, their hired help often got blamed for the hatcheting. Most folks, though, think it was a 20-year-old militiaman named Ammi White.

Now, on warm spring nights when the moon ripples on the Concord River, you might see a figure limping along the path between the Old North Bridge and the parking lot. He has a British accent, they say, and he looks pretty sharp in his short red jacket and black leather helmet. But he also looks exhausted, as though he really needs a nap.

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