CONCORD, Mass. - The "Shot heard round the world" hit and killed someone. The man who wrote that line decades later desired a simple burial and instead rests under a massively gaudy headstone.
Concord is best known as the site of the first battle of the
. Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, it was home to a knot of great American writers who wrote elegantly about life and death. Some cast that first fight into a kind of historical amber, from which it has never completely emerged.
Today, the most intriguing sights in the village just north of Boston are all about death and remembrance from the time when the revolution was fresh in people's minds.
Just a half-mile outside of town is the rebuilt North Bridge, now part of the Minute Man National Historical Park. It was on this spot, if not this actual bridge, that on April 19, 1775, colonists first fired with intent to kill on the troops of their king. A showdown in nearby Lexington had resulted in little or no musket fire (depending on your historical source), but as the troops marched on to Concord with the intent to seize a storehouse of weapons, about 400 men faced off against just fewer than 100 British redcoats. The colonials opened fire and at least two of the king's soldiers were killed in the first volleys. In the long retreat back to Boston, waves of rebels harassed the troops. Along the way, 79 British troops were killed while the colonials suffered 39 dead. After Concord, it would be hard, if not impossible, to stop an all-out war. But it would not be until nearly 15 months later that the Declaration of Independence would be issued in Philadelphia.
Next to the bridge is a marker, last revised in 1910, with words drawn from a poem by James Russell Lowe:
Grave of British Soldiers
They came three thousand miles and died,
To keep the past upon its throne:
Unheard, beyond the ocean tide,
Their English Mother made her moan.
April 19, 1775
There's usually a British flag or two placed next to the marker, which now shares the area around the bridge with two statues erected to mark the battle. On the road into town are other markers showing where wounded soldiers expired.
No one did more to create the image of the sturdy yeoman farmer with musket taking on the greatest empire in the world than Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1837, he wrote "Concord Hymn," which was learned by generations of schoolchildren (though not so many today).
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Emerson was the most respected of a group of American writers who lived in and around Concord in the years after the Revolutionary War. They included Henry David Thoreau ("Walden"),
("The House of Seven Gables) and
("Little Women"). All were laid to rest in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery, a bucolic graveyard on a ridge above town.
Sleepy Hollow is the third famous cemetery of the city. The Old Hill Burying Ground, in the center of town, has 500 graves dating to 1677. The South Burying Place is only about 20 years younger and was opened on the south side of the Concord River because of the widely held belief that the dead should not be carried across a river because their souls would be washed away. It has about 300 gravestones, many piled against a wall because of devastating 1938 flood that destroyed much of the grounds. The town's shopping district grew up around the cemetery, giving it the popular name of "Main Street Burying Place."
While both are interesting, the graveyard that draws the most attention is Sleepy Hollow. Burials began here in 1823, but it wasn't until 1855 when the city bought 25 acres of farmland that the spot was consecrated in a ceremony that featured a reading by a member of the cemetery committee: Emerson. The cemetery now holds more than 10,000 graves, including those killed in the Civil War,
. One of its most famous memorials is "Mourning Victory," to commemorate the deaths of three brothers from tiny Concord who died in the Civil War. It was designed by Daniel Chester French, who also created the Minuteman Statue at the North Bridge and the sitting statue of
's Lincoln Memorial. French is buried just behind the Concord memorial he created. No surprise it is on the National Register of Historic Places just for those features alone. But there's more.
Most visitors head to Author's Ridge, home to the surprisingly small headstones of Thoreau, Hawthorne and Alcott, who were all buried around larger family plots. Thoreau fans have a tradition of pushing pencils into the ground in front of his marker, while letters to Alcott can often be found beneath small stones.
Emerson had planned to have a simple headstone, but his status in the city led to the dismissal of his wishes. He's buried beneath a massive hunk of rose quartz more like the ostentatious markers of the long-forgotten bankers and landowners of the area. Like the soldiers whose story was told by Emerson, the great poet himself would have his legacy commemorated by others in ways in which he likely would not have approved.
IF YOU GO:
Minute Man National Historical Park, 978-369-6993 or nps.gov/mima.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Bedford Street, 978-318-3233 or go to concordma.gov and click on "Cemetery Division."
MORE INFO: friendsofsleepyhollowcemetery.org
Gary A. Warner: