The Musket That Fired the Shot Heard ‘Round the World

Munroe musket

Meeting Hall at the Colonel Timothy Bigelow Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Worcester, Massachusetts,  home to Ebenezer Munroe’s musket.

When Ebenezer Munroe awoke on his 23rd birthday, he probably couldn’t have imagined that his musket would be the one to fire “the shot heard ‘round the world,” or that it would end up in the home of a Loyalist judge, under the care of the Daughters of the American Revolution, in a city whose claim to fame is that they effectively ended British rule without firing a single shot.

But it’s true.

On this particular day I was sitting alone in the meeting hall of the Colonel Timothy Bigelow Chapter house, looking up at Ebenezer’s musket.  I had just mounted it above the fireplace.  I stared at it in awed silence, as though I were viewing the painting of a master in some cathedral . . . but this was more than a work of art.

It had taken me a long time to realize the significance of this musket.   When I first saw it in our collection, I thought, “oh how nice.  We’ve got a musket from the Battle of Lexington.” At the time, I wasn’t yet familiar with the story of this unassumingly presented artifact, which had been stored out-of-sight in a wooden coffin, along with a 3-ring binder stuffed haphazardly with handwritten notes, pictures, and newspaper clippings.  Once I took the time to read through the jumbled binder, I realized that Ebenezer’s musket wasn’t just “a musket,”  it was “THE musket,” and the weight of that recognition both thrilled me and frightened me, and made my heart pound.

Ebenezer Munroe (19 Apr 1752 – 25 May 1825) of Lexington, later of Ashburnham, was a yeoman farmer and militia corporal who answered the call to arms on April 19, 1775.   The following is an excerpt from his Deposition, (given on April 2, 1825 less than two months before his death) regarding the events of that day:

“Some of our men went into the meeting-house, where the town’s powder was kept, for the purpose of replenishing their stock of ammunition. When the regulars had arrived within eighty or one hundred rods, they, hearing our drum beat, halted, charged their guns, and doubled their ranks, and marched up at quick step. Capt. Parker ordered his men to stand their ground, and not to molest the regulars, unless they meddled with us. The British troops came up directly in our front. The commanding officer advanced within a few rods of us, and exclaimed, ‘Disperse, you damned rebels! you dogs, run!—Rush on my boys!’ and fired his pistol. The fire from their front ranks soon followed. After the first fire, I received a wound in my arm, and then, as I turned to run, I discharged my gun into the main body of the enemy. As I fired, my face being toward them, one ball cut off a part of one of my ear-locks, which was then pinned up. Another ball passed between my arm and my body, and just marked my clothes. The first fire of the British was regular; after that, they fired promiscuously. . . . When I fired, I perfectly well recollect of taking aim at the regulars. The smoke, however, prevented my being able to see many of them . . . I did not hear Captain Parker’s orders to his company to disperse . . .the balls flew so thick, I thought that there was no chance for escape, and that I might as well fire my gun as stand still and do nothing . . .”

After Ebenezer’s death in 1825, his musket was passed down through the generations,  until eventually it was sold to antique gun collector Granville Rideout of Ashburnham in the summer of 1950 for four dollars.   According to Granville, the musket had been left untouched in the Munroe family attic for many, many years, and it was still loaded when he bought it.

Granville kept the musket safe for over 50 years, while still managing to give it “public appearances” at local historical societies and museums.   On April 19, 1975, he rode on horseback to the reenactment on the Battle Green in Lexington, where Ebenezer’s musket was fired once more.

Granville Rideout 1975.jpg

Granville Rideout with Ebenezer Munroe’s musket, riding to Lexington Battle Green on April 19, 1975.

As I read through the binder, I could tell that Granville agonized over finding a final resting place for Ebenezer’s musket. He was worried that it would fall into the hands of a private collector and never be seen again.  In 2003, two years before his death, he gifted the musket to the Colonel Timothy Bigelow Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, on the condition that it be displayed and publicized, and be used to educate the youth about the founding of the United States of America.

If you would like to view Ebenezer Munroe’s musket, you can visit the Col. Timothy Bigelow Chapter House at 140 Lincoln Street in Worcester, Massachusetts during our summer tour season.   The dates are June 11, July 9, August 13, September 10, and October 8 and the hours are 1-4pm.  For more information or to schedule a group tour, you can contact us at col.timothybigelowchapter@gmail.com.  We are also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/col.timothybigelowdar/.

Postscript:  The title of this blog is in reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Concord Hymn,” in which he writes: 

“Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.”

The reference is not a claim to the literal first shot of that battle, but rather a symbol of the American spirit,  their willingness to stake their lives for freedom.  Was Emerson talking about a specific shot, or was it a metaphor for that moment when the colonists crossed the threshold from yearning into action?  As a farmer who was present and whose deposition (and the deposition of others) confirms that he was one of the first ones to return fire on that historic day, Ebenezer Munroe did indeed fire a “shot heard round the world.”  

 

Paving Over History

Memorial stone erected by the Leominster Historical Society in 1912 to commemorate the location of Leominster's first burial ground.

Memorial stone commemorating the location of Leominster’s first and now extinct burial ground.

Last September my quest to find the graves of my 5th great grandfather Jonathan Willson, his wife Hepzebah Wilder and their son Caleb brought me to the corner of Route 13 and Day Street in Leominster.  I could barely look up at the cars racing past me as I aimed my camera at a tiny marker erected in 1912 by the Leominster Historical Society . . . it was the only peaceful space in this  traffic-laden neighborhood, and the only indication of Leominster’s first and now extinct burial ground. This was one of the more crushing genealogical discoveries I had ever made: my Revolutionary family was buried somewhere in the middle of route 13.

The brief entry from the book

The brief entry from the book “Inscriptions From Burial Grounds of Nashaway Towns” that describes the fate of Leominster’s first burial ground.

Since that day a thought has plagued me: at what point does the preservation of history become a burden?  How much do we hold on to, and how much should we release to be reshaped in the current of time?

View from the attic of the Oaks

View from the attic of the Oaks

That thought was with me last week on a beautiful May morning as I prowled through the attic of the Colonel Timothy Bigelow Chapter house of the Daughters of the American Revolution . . . more simply and affectionately known as “The Oaks.”  I pressed against the glass and looked out over Frederick Paine’s lost garden,  and through the trees I could just barely see the cars zipping by on I-290.  A lot of history has been seen from the windows of this 241 year old house, I mused.

As I stepped away from the window I tripped over an old bedsheet.  I knelt down to examine the dusty offender and unfurled a hand stitched quilt that had been rolled up underneath.  This doesn’t belong up here.  I carried the forgotten beauty down to the bedroom and carefully laid it out on the bed.  Who made it?  How old was it?  And why had it been relinquished to the attic?  The thought about “at what point does the preservation of history become a burden” continued to blare in my head.   Was this really an historic treasure, or was it just some dusty old quilt that had simply become too old for anyone to know the difference of when to hold on and when to let go?

Handstitched quilt . . . old treasure or just old?

Handstitched quilt . . . old treasure or just old?

I left the bedroom and wandered into the office. Focus.  You’re supposed to be tidying up the office today, not dredging through the attic. I sat on the floor and plunked a stack of old papers in my lap.  I never quite know what I am looking for when I enter the office, but the most appropriate things always seems to find me. Sure enough, not more than a few minutes had passed when I read the most startling letter:

A plea from 1957 to save the historic Oaks from the path of Interstate 290.

A plea from 1957 to save the historic Oaks from the path of Interstate 290.

The letter was  nearly sixty years old but still it made my heart pound.  I couldn’t believe it.  Were they talking about Interstate 290?  A six lane highway through the OAKS?!

A little further investigation revealed two newspaper clippings and a poem about the Oaks’ impending demise via eminent domain:

Letter to the Editor dated September 26, 1957 calling attention to the plight of the historic Oaks.

Letter to the Editor dated September 26, 1957 calling attention to the plight of the historic Oaks.

Newspaper article editorial from September 27, 1957 regarding the threat the Worcester Expressway project posed to the Oaks.

Newspaper article editorial from September 27, 1957 regarding the threat the Worcester Expressway project posed to the Oaks.

Poem written by Col. Timothy Bigelow chapter member Ethel St. John in 1957.

Poem written by Col. Timothy Bigelow chapter member Ethel St. John in 1957.

Obviously the Oaks did not get wiped out at the age of 183 since she just passed her 241st birthday, but there was no further indication in that pile of ephemera as to why the house had been spared, why the entire neighborhood had been spared at the expense of another.

I went back upstairs and looked out at 290 which was almost lost through the trees but so ominously close.  I was grateful for what had been saved, but somber for what had been lost.  How do we decide what to hold onto and what to let go?  My beloved Revolutionary Oaks could have ended up being reshaped in the current of time . . . but instead someone else’s history had been paved over.

The Romance of Colonel Timothy Bigelow

“One of the saddest entries made in any record in the city of Worcester is the note on March 31, 1790 in the old jail book, of the discharge of Colonel Timothy Bigelow: ‘By Deth.'” — Some Historic Houses of Worcester, c. 1919.

James Turner portrays Colonel Timothy Bigelow in James David Moran's play "The Chains of Liberty," which was performed on September 7, 2014 as part of the Worcester Revolution 1774 festivities.  Photo courtesy of Judy Jeon-Chapman.

Colonel Timothy Bigelow as portrayed by James Turner in James David Moran’s play “The Chains of Liberty,” which was performed on September 7, 2014 as part of the Worcester Revolution 1774 festivities. Photo courtesy of Judy Jeon-Chapman.

According to one of Colonel Timothy Bigelow’s men in Reminiscences of the Military Life and Sufferings of Col. Timothy Bigelow, “old Col. Tim was everywhere all the time, and you would thought if you had been there, that there was nobody else in the struggle but Col. Bigelow and his regiment.”  He was present at nearly every major battle during the Revolutionary War before succumbing to a premature death in debtor’s prison at the age of 50.   Yet before his military service in  Yorktown, Rhode Island and New Jersey . . . before suffering through the winter at Valley Forge in 1778 and witnessing Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in 1777, before taking command of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment in 1776 and  leading Worcester Minutemen on the alarm of April 19, 1775 . . . and before serving on the Committee of Correspondence and spending his days in eloquent support of his fellow Patriots,  Revolutionary War hero Colonel Timothy Bigelow was simply “Tim Bigelow,” a successful blacksmith, and he was in love with a girl:

"Timothy Bigelow Romance" newspaper article from March 1909.

“Timothy Bigelow Romance” newspaper article from March 1909.

TIMOTHY BIGELOW ROMANCE

by Jeanette A. W. Ramsay, D.A.R.

March 9, 1909

“Among the Scotch settlers in Worcester, there came over an Irish family by the name of Rankin.  They had several daughters, the youngest of whom was Anna — beautiful Anna Rankin!

At that time there was a family here, very respectable for the times, by the name of Andrews. One of the boys was named Samuel, who was at the time an undergraduate in Harvard College.

Samuel came home to spend a vacation and while at home he saw Anna Rankin and taking a liking to “her neck,” which, like Kathleen Bawn’s, was “so soft and smooth without a freckle or speck,” he “fell in love,” as the novel-writers say.  He forthwith threw Latin and Greek to the dogs, mad love to Anna and in due time married, and purchasing a farm on the west side of Quinsigamond Lake, he settled down and became an industrious and frugal yeoman.

In that occupation he prospered so well that in a few years he quitted his farm and moved to the village, and built him a house on the very spot where the stone jail was subsequently erected (on the corner of Lincoln square and northwest corner of Summer Street).

Afterward he built him a larger and better house on the ground now occupied by the block of brick houses, opposite the Courthouse. (Please note the locality.  Lincoln in his History gives it so, page 281, also using the word “dwellings.”)

Father and mother both died, leaving an only daughter named Anna, after her mother Anna Rankin, with an estate that made her the principal heiress of Worcester in those times.

In the rear of the Andrews house, “Tim” Bigleow had a blacksmith’s shop where he blew the bellows, heated and hammered the iron, shod the horses and oxen, and mended the ploughs and chains for the farmers of the country about him.

Now Tim “was as bright as a button,” more than six feet high, straight and handsome, and walked upon the earth with a natural air and grace that was quite captivating.

Tim saw Anna and Anna saw Tim and they were well satisfied with each other.

But as he was then, nothing but Tim Bigelow, “the blacksmith,” the lady’s friends, whose ward she was would would not give their consent to a marriage.  So, watching for an opportunity, the lovers mounted fleet horses and rode a hundred miles to Hampton, in New Hampshire, which lies on the coast between Newburyport and Portsmouth, and was at that time the “Gretna Green” for all young men and maidens for whom true love did not run a smooth course in Massachusetts.

They came back to Worcester as Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Bigelow. He was a man of decided talent, and well fitted by nature for a popular leader.

All the leading men of the town at that time were tories.

He espoused the cause of the people, and soon had a party strong enough to control the town and being known as a Patriot, he was recognized by Hancock, Samuel Adams, Gen. Warren, James Otis and others of the Patriot party, throughout the province.

He was sent as a delegate from Worcester to the “provincial congress” and as a captain of the Minute Men, he led his company from Worcester to Cambridge, on the 19th of April 1775, at the summons of a messenger who rode swiftly into town that day, on a large white horse, announcing that the war had begun.

For a long time afterward that express man was always spoken of as “death on a pale horse.”

Timothy Bigelow soon rose to the rank of major, and afterward to that of colonel of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment, which was composed almost exclusively of Worcester countrymen.

He was at the storming of Quebec, at the taking of Burgoyne, in the terrible scenes of Valley Forge and on almost every other field made memorable by the fierce conflicts of the Revolution.

When the war was over, he returned to his home,  his constitution shattered by hard service for his country.  His occupation gone, his money matters in sad derangement, in consequence of that formidable depreciation of the currency, under which $40 was scarcely sufficient to pay for a pair of shoes.

He died at what was long known as the “Bigelow mansion,” formerly the Andrews house, just after he had passed the 50th year of his life.

And thus ended the “love affair” which produced a prodigious excitement in its day.

His direct descendants: —

First: Nancy, born January 2, 1765, married the Hon. Abraham Lincoln, long selectman, etc.

Second: Timothy, born April 30, 1767, married Lucy Precot, died at Medford, May 18, 1821, aged 54 years.

Third: Andrew, born March 30, 1769, died November, 1787.

Fourth: Rufus, born July 7, 1772, died in Baltimore, December 21, 1813, unmarried.

Fifth: Lucy, born May 13, 1774, married the Hon. Luther Lawrence of Groton.

Sixth: Clara, born December 29, 1781, married Tyler Bigelow, Esq. of Watertown.

A son of Col. Bigelow bore the name of his father and was for a long time a prominent lawyer at Groton, and afterwards at Medford in Middlesex county.  John P. Bigelow, formerly secretary of state — and some time mayor of Boston, was a son of Timothy Bigelow, 2nd.

Mrs. Abbott Lawrence (Katherine), a sister of John P. Bigelow and daughter of Timothy 2nd (and I am thinking that they have no occasion to be ashamed of their descent from the poor Irish emigrant).

Anna Rankin, the beautiful daughter of the Irish emigrant James Rankin, who married the young collegian Sam Andrews, whose daughter, Anna Andrews, was the wife of Col. Timothy Bigelow, the patriot blacksmith of the Revolution.

Thus by irresistible destiny, runs the chain of life’s changes, linking on generation after generation, and binding together the last and first of the human race.

First: The humble emigrant, James Rankin, born in Londonderry, Ireland, where his ancestors had lived for 200 years.

Second: His daughter Anna, who married Samuel Andrews, the young collegian.

Third: Their daughter, Anna Andrews, the heiress, who eloped with Tim Bigelow.

Fourth: Timothy Bigelow, the younger, the lawyer and statesman, and John P. Bigelow, his son, who was secretary of state and former mayor of Boston and his sister Katherine, who married the millionaire Lawrence, who represented the United States at the “Court of St. James.”

Fifth: The sons and daughters who, if not already known to fame, may be hereafter.

Note in Lincoln’s History: — After Timothy Bigelow returned from the army, the war being over, he erected a trip hammer and other iron works, on the site of the Court Mills, afterward owned by Stephen Salisbury, Esq.

From Wheelock’s memoirs and other sources.”

Rooms With a 125 Year View

If the Oaks could talk, she would have a lot to say.  She was born in 1774 to loyalist Judge Timothy Paine (1730 – 1793) of Worcester, Massachusetts.  She housed soldiers during the Revolution.  She was home to Dr. William Paine (1750 – 1833) who is credited with opening Worcester’s first apothecary and was one of the founding fathers of the American Antiquarian Society.    The Oaks was subsequently home to William’s son, Frederick William Paine (1788 – 1869) who served his community as representative to the General Court, selectman, and community assessor.  He was a perpetual scholar and gave generously to the American Antiquarian Society’s library. When Frederick’s widow died in 1892, the Oaks almost died along with her.  She stood abandoned for over 20 years until the Colonel Timothy Bigelow Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution saw her historical value and breathed life back into her rooms.  The Oaks made her debut as a tea house in 1914.  She served as the workplace for the Betsy Ross Squad during World War I.  She was a local Red Cross headquarters during World War II.  She has been the chapter house for 100 years of Daughters with the desire to preserve and promote local history, and to honor and remember soldiers of all generations. Before the Oaks was sealed up for her two-decade slumber through the turn of the 20th century, someone had the foresight to photograph some of her rooms.  The black and white photos were taken around 1890, and the ones in color were taken from the same angle on an ordinary day in January of 2015.

Small dining room in 1890.  This room originally served as the kitchen when the house was constructed in the late 1700s.

The small dining room in 1890. This room originally served as the kitchen when the house was constructed in the late 1700s.

The small dining room in 2015, which was originally  the kitchen in the 1700s.

The small dining room in 2015, which was originally the kitchen in the 1700s. The table seen here knew John Adams as a dinner guest back in the day. The table can be seen in the next photo in the large dining room in 1890.

Dining room in 1890.

The large dining room in 1890.

The large dining room in 2015, which also serves as the boardroom for the Col. Timothy Bigelow chapter.

The large dining room in 2015, which also serves as the boardroom for the Col. Timothy Bigelow chapter.

Parlor in 1890.

The parlor in 1890.

The parlor in 2015.

The parlor in 2015.

Bedroom in 1890.

The bedroom in 1890.

Bedroom in 2015.

The bedroom in 2015.

Looking into the library in 1890.

Looking into the library in 1890.

Looking into the library in 2015.

Looking into the library in 2015.

Inside the library in 1890.

Inside the library in 1890.

Inside the library in 2015.

Inside the library in 2015.