CONCORD — Call it the flint that sparked the Revolutionary War. April 19, 1775, the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The Concord Museum is home to more artifacts from that battle than any other institution.
The museum recently completed a $1.2 million revamp of its permanent “April 19, 1775” gallery, part of a larger ongoing renovation due to be completed this summer. This will be the first Patriots Day visitors can experience the new gallery. (Outdoor activities are also on the docket through school vacation week, including reenactments on the museum lawn on Patriots Day.)
“We took a warren of four or five tiny galleries, and blew out the walls and ceiling,” said Tom Putnam, the museum’s executive director. The new exhibition fills four times more space — and that isn’t all that has changed.
The dramatic story of the battle is the same one we learned in school. Two lanterns in Boston’s Old North Church alerted provincial Minutemen that British regulars were on the march. Paul Revere set off by boat to Charlestown and William Dawes circled around Boston on horseback. Fair warning and a savvy messaging system had militiamen from 25 Massachusetts communities quickly joining the fight. They trounced the British, who scurried back to Boston.
Records of the Battle of Lexington and Concord abound. Engraver Amos Doolittle interviewed locals before making prints of the skirmishes at Lexington Green, Concord Center, and North Bridge, and of the British retreat. The Provincial Congress took depositions. In audio recordings, actors perform from those scripts.
“We tell the story with real objects and with the words of participants,” said curator David Wood.
The objects resound with history. One of the two lanterns from Old North Church stands at the exhibition’s center; the other is lost to history. Militiamen awaited Revere in Buckman Tavern in Lexington, and a clock from that tavern is here. While the case has been replaced, the clockwork is the same those men heard ticking that night.
What has changed is the shape and focus of the exhibition.
A large, animated map filling the wall behind the lantern traces 24 hours of action in six minutes, tallying the troops and the casualties — a gripping visual tale rendered with up-to-the-minute technology. (An associated interactive timeline is available online at concordmuseum.org/april-19-1775-exhibit.) Wood has organized the exhibition around Doolittle’s prints; they, too, have been artfully animated.
The story’s frame widens to include the contributions of white women and people of color. The bulk of the exhibition is still devoted to military conflict and strategies; there are flints, muskets, powder horns, and a stair tread from the Old North Church.
But women were right on the edge of the battle.
“This was happening on people’s front lawns,” said Putnam. “Most of the women and children were behind closed doors and windows, watching people they knew die.”
Martha Moulton, a 71-year-old widow in Concord, saw that fires the British set had spread to the roof of the town meetinghouse. She petitioned and then cajoled them to quash the blaze and initiated a bucket brigade. Her testimony is read by an actress on audio.
Enslaved men had no choice but to fight alongside their enslavers. A copy of a payroll list includes Squire White’s Peter, Squire Gardner’s Adam, and Squire Boylston’s Prince — men who were not paid. A copy of a broadside listing the dead and wounded includes “Prince Easterbrooks, (a Negro Man)” among the wounded. He was one of the first casualties, shot in the shoulder on Lexington Green.
Records for people of color are relatively scarce. In a gallery devoted to the plummy lifestyle in colonial Concord, which waging war against the British threatened, there’s a chest of drawers made with no glue. It would have taken twice as long to make than a glued chest. But in records for the sale of this chest, said Erica Lome, curatorial associate in the decorative arts, that time was not figured into the final price.
Who would have made something that wasn’t properly valued?
“It was probably made by an enslaved person,” said Lome. “There’s an African tradition of glueless joinery. Maybe he was using whatever he found. Maybe he was someone not brought up within the cabinetmakers culture, who didn’t learn how to use glue or have access to it.”
There’s no record of his name.
Putnam said that some people, mostly loyalists, had a sense of the hypocrisy behind a battle for liberation whose prime movers still sanctioned slavery.
“Liberties were not granted to people, including women and people of color, for centuries to come,” he said. “The Revolution is unfinished.”
APRIL 19, 1775
IT’S A REVOLUTION! CONCORD MUSEUM’S APRIL OUTDOOR EVENTS (through April 23)
At Concord Museum, 53 Cambridge Turnpike, Concord. 978-369-9763, www.concordmuseum.org