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The First to Die - Cover Page: February 2000 American History Feature

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 19, 2000 
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The First to Die
The First to Die

Minuteman Isaac Davis, shot by the British at Concord Bridge in April 1775, was one of the first to die in the cause of American Independence.

By Jeanne Munn Bracken

"There can never be but one man who headed the first column of attack on the King's troops in the Revolutionary War. And Isaac Davis was that man." So spoke Reverend James Trask Woodbury of Acton, Massachusetts, in 1851. The occasion was a debate in the Massachusetts House of Representatives "upon the question of granting two thousand dollars to aid the Town of Acton in building a monument over the remains of Captain Isaac Davis, Abner Hosmer, and James Hayward, Acton Minute Men killed at Concord Fight, April 19, 1775."

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Strictly speaking, Davis was not the first to die in the struggle for American independence. He was not even the first to die that bright April morning when the king's troops, marching to Lexington and Concord to seize the rebel leaders and destroy the arms and ammunition stockpiled there, fired what poet Ralph Waldo Emerson immortalized as the "shot heard 'round the world."

 

The colonists had been keeping an eye on the British troops quartered in Boston. They had noticed unusual activity that suggested the king's men planned to strike out into the villages to capture those who would lead their neighbors into open revolt and to seize the guns, field pieces, powder, and flour they had hidden around the countryside.

Samuel Adams and John Hancock, staying with Reverend Jonas Clarke at Lexington, had to be warned. That difficult chore fell to Paul Revere and William Dawes, joined later by young Doctor Samuel Prescott, who was returning home from a visit with his lady friend in Lexington.

After the alarm carried by the three reached Lexington, then Concord, messengers fanned through the countryside warning the scattered farmers that the British were on the march. An unknown rider, perhaps Prescott himself, arrived at the home of Captain Joseph Robbins, leader of one of Acton's two troops of militia–soldiers supposedly under allegiance to the king, although that had ceased to be the case.

The messenger did not dismount, but banged on the corner of the house, shouting "Captain Robbins! Captain Robbins! Up! Up! The regulars have come to Concord! Rendezvous at old North Bridge quick as possible! Alarm Acton!"

Aroused from his bed, Robbins fired three shots with his musket to warn the town. Then he sent his 13-year-old son John to alert Isaac Davis and others. When he received the news, Davis sent word that he would leave for Concord as soon as thirty men had mustered in his yard.

The call echoed around Acton and the minutemen rushed to Davis's yard, where they made bullets and prepared for a battle that some, making jokes about finally "getting a hit at old [General Thomas] Gage," relished. Davis rebuked his men, reminding them that the day had brought "a most eventful crisis for the colonies. Blood would be spilt, that was certain; the crimson fountain would be opened; none could tell when it would close, nor with whose blood it would overflow. Let every man gird himself for battle and be not afraid, for God is on our side."

As certain as Davis was about the righteousness of their cause, he was equally pessimistic about his own chances for survival. Several days before that fateful dawn, he and his wife had returned home from an excursion to discover that a large owl, a symbol of death, had flown into the house and perched on Davis's favorite gun, which hung over the mantel. No one was allowed to disturb the brooding presence, which stayed for days and was interpreted by the captain as an omen that, if the struggle became a full-pitched battle, he would not survive.

 

What kind of man was this Isaac Davis, and how did he come to lead the group of men who would march down the Concord path and into the history books?

The thirty-year-old son of Ezekial and Mary Gibson Davis, Isaac was a gunsmith by trade and lived with his wife Hannah and children in the small farming village of Acton, a town that had broken away from Concord four decades earlier. A "thoughtful, sedate, serious man, a genuine Puritan like Samuel Adams," Davis was said to have been so moved by a Sunday sermon on the state of the colonies that he applauded at its conclusion and asked the minister to repeat it.

Some months before this April day, Davis had been elected captain of Acton's company of minutemen. Thomas Thorpe–one of his men–would later swear in a deposition that the captain was "esteemed, a man of courage and prudence and had the love and veneration of all his company."

Thanks to his trade as a gunsmith, Davis's troops were fully equipped with guns, cartridge boxes, and bayonets. They drilled regularly, assembling twice a week (their efforts were noted by their fellow townsmen, who voted to pay them for their training).

Now, in response to the messenger's call to arms, Davis rallied about thirty men in his yard. Some of them had floured their hair while they waited so that they might meet the king's troops as gentlemen. Finally, Davis ordered his company into line and stepped off down the path.

As they reached the road, he halted his men and turned back toward his wife, who was watching from the doorway of the house where their four young children lay sick. Taking one last look at Hannah, he admonished her to "Take good care of the children." Then he was gone.

The company marched up the lane and over Nashoba Brook by an old stone bridge to Strawberry Hill and then into neighboring Concord. Their thoughts must have been sobering, for they knew that if their cause failed, their defiance would brand them as traitors. Undeterred, Davis was heard to say as they walked: "I have a right to go to Concord on the king's highway, and I will go to Concord." Fifer Luther Blanchard and drummer Francis Barker struck up the company's signature tune, "The White Cockade," as they strode along.

Shortly after entering Concord, they paused near Colonel James Barrett's farm, where a contingent of redcoats was breaking up gun carriages and setting the pieces afire in the yard. But Davis's orders had been to rendezvous at the bridge, so the Acton men passed by, marching between newly-plowed fields planted with a strange crop indeed–hidden cannon and muskets!

When the Acton company arrived at the colonial forces' gathering place on Punkatasset Hill above the bridge, the men took their places at the extreme left of the line (the company's place dictated by the fact that Davis was the most junior officer present). While the men waited, their captain hurried farther up the hill to a meeting with fellow officers to decide on a course of action.

As Colonel Barrett and the others conferred, they were unaware that when General Gage's British troops arrived at Lexington Common earlier that day during the pre-dawn hours, they had found several dozen defiant rebels waiting for them. Although commanders on both sides later insisted that their men had been ordered not to fire first, blood had been shed. The finger that first pulled the trigger remains shrouded in mystery. But there is little doubt that the colonials, being outnumbered by three to one, obeyed the order to disperse. The British fired into the breaking ranks, killing eight and wounding ten more.

The several hundred colonials already mustered at Punkatasset Hill when the Acton men arrived were being augmented by troops from communities such as Bedford, Lincoln, and Westford. Surely, they thought, this force could take the bridge, guarded only by a small troop of redcoats, and drive the British forces back toward Boston. But if they did not act now, British reinforcements were certain to arrive, and the colonists might be dangerously outnumbered.

Meanwhile, a troop of British soldiers, which had stayed behind in Concord village searching for hidden munitions and other stores, found and set fire to more gun carriages. In the excitement, the blaze accidentally spread to the "town house." An elderly widow living nearby, realizing that several residences were sure to burn as well, begged the British to help put out the fire. At her urging, the troops joined the bucket brigade to douse the flames.

When the colonials massing on Punkatasset Hill saw the smoke, they mistakenly concluded that the British were on a rampage. "Will you let them burn the town?" cried adjutant Joseph Hosmer of Concord. Answering with a resounding "No," the officers decided upon a defiant show of strength. One account states that the lead was offered to a Concord officer, who declined it, but historians have questioned whether a local man would have refused to march to save his own town.

Whatever the preamble, Isaac Davis was then proffered the lead. This honor may have been offered because his men were fully equipped with bayonets, an advantage in hand-to-hand combat. In any event, Davis accepted, declaring that "I haven't a man that is afraid to go." The colonial forces formed up, with Davis's company in the lead, and advanced down the hill to the strains of "The White Cockade." Their orders were to hold their fire unless fired upon.

Seeing the colonials coming, the British retreated over the bridge. The last men across began to tear up planks in order to stop the advancing force in its tracks. Major John Buttrick, the British commander, called out, ordering the colonists to halt. His soldiers, meanwhile, assumed battle formation. When the colonists neared the bridge, the redcoats fired a random volley that wounded fifer Luther Blanchard and Jonas Brown of Concord.

The next British volley fell short, but served as proof that they meant to fight. As the colonists prepared to fire their muskets, the British fired again. Davis, just then raising his gun at the king's men, fell dead, shot through the heart. A private in his company, Abner Hosmer, received a mortal bullet wound in his head.

Buttrick, seeing blood flow, shouted to the troops. "Fire, fellow soldiers! For God's sake, fire!" As the British scattered, the colonials returned fire, striking two and putting the rest to rout. The fray lasted only three minutes. But the shots fired that day would echo for all time.

The king's troops straggled into Concord, then gathered with reinforcements for the march back to Cambridge. Along that route, they were harried every step of the way by the colonials. The British mission was a failure–the rebel leaders were safe and the colonists had salvaged most of the stores. And most important, the war was on; the American colonies' march to independence–one that would only find its end with the Treaty of Paris eight years later–had begun.

The 1783 treaty may have ended the war, but the controversy over what happened at Concord on April 19, 1775 raged on for more than a century. One disgruntled historian wrote that Davis had usurped the lead. Another retorted that he was the heart and soul of the Concord fight and that when he died, the fight was over. A latter-day wag, mindful of the wrangling, quipped that "it was a Lexington battle, fought in Concord by Acton men." History seems finally to have settled on the matter by concluding that there is enough glory to go around.

Isaac Davis and Abner Hosmer were carried home that afternoon, and Hannah remembered many years later that Isaac's "countenance was little altered." But his courage had helped to change the course of history; as Woodbury pointed out, the highway over which his body was carried was not the king's any longer.

Today, Davis himself is well revered in Acton. The local chapters of the Minutemen, of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and many other groups bear his name. His line of march from Acton to the bridge is now a National Historic Site, retraced each April 19 by swarms of ordinary citizens. Near the site where he fell, now within Minutemen National Historic Park, stands Daniel Chester French's statue of the Minuteman. Since no image of Davis is known to exist, the artist fashioned the figure after studying the likenesses of some of Davis's descendants who were said to favor him. President Ulysses S. Grant was guest of honor when the statue was dedicated at the centennial of the fight in 1875.

The monument in the town of Acton, for which the Reverend Woodbury pleaded so eloquently, was erected in 1851. The bodies of Isaac Davis and Abner Hosmer–as well as that of James Hayward, who was killed at Fiske Hill in Lexington later that April day–were moved from the old burying ground to the base of the monument on the town Common.

Isaac's widow Hannah married twice more, both husbands also preceding her in death. In 1818, when she was 71 years old and impoverished, she sought a pension from the federal government. Her first attempt failed, and it was not until more than twenty years later that Hannah, then in her nineties, finally was granted a pension. Some senators, notably John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, objected, fearing a torrent of similar claims.

But Hannah's cause found an eloquent champion in no less a statesman than Senator Daniel Webster, who declared that her husband Isaac had fallen "in his early manhood, one of the very first martyrs in the cause of liberty, and, if I mistake not, the first American officer who sealed his devotion to the cause with his own blood. . . . An early grave in the cause of liberty has secured to him the long and grateful remembrance of his country."


A freelance writer based in Littleton, Massachusetts, Jeanne Munn Bracken is a contributor to the 1996 issue of Women's History magazine.



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