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.”  

 

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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 Acquisition of the Oaks

photo-4

As told by a voice from the past:

“In 1913, the Col. Timothy Bigelow Chapter, D.A.R. was holding its meetings in the Woman’s Club building.  The room was entirely adequate as to size, for our membership was then about 170, with many living in other cities, as at the present time.

At that time, this Paine property was for sale and several members of the Chapter thought it would be wise to purchase it and have a permanent home for the organization and an object to work for.

The house was colonial commenced before the Revolution but was not finished until 1794.  There were great possibilities in acquiring such a large holding near the center of the city and the terms of purchase were more than favorable.

For five years, we were to pay no interest on the $13,500, the price of the estate. During that time we could be repairing the house and put the grounds, a perfect tangle of underbrush, in condition to house a strong, patriotic group of earnest women, bent upon providing a home, not only for themselves, but for generations to come.

At the first proposal to purchase the property, a strong opposition was aroused.  Members were aghast at the idea of assuming such a burden, and promptly voted the measure down, saying we were crazy to even think of it.

Nothing daunted, the matter was brought up at the next meeting for discussion, and at that time the vote to purchase the property was successful — some members resigning on that account.

Then the work began and it was work.

The grounds were covered with knee-high and waist-high grass, weeds, shrubs and small trees.  The house, not having been occupied for twenty-five years,  and the grounds having had no care, you can imagine the conditions then existing.  It had evidently served as a public dumping-ground, for loads upon loads were taken away.  And the interior of the house! The beds were made, but evidently  had served as nesting places for squirrels and cats.  The paper hung in strips from the walls and it seemed impossible to ever remove the damp moldy odor which permeated the whole house.

The stairs at the back led to a long narrow hall, with small bedrooms opening out to the north.  That is the section where the greatest change has been made, for the partitions were removed and the the result was the attractive hall where we hold our gatherings.

A heating plant, the gift of a brother of one of our members, was installed.

Donning old dresses and aprons, energetic members removed the old paper from the walls —  layer upon layer in some places — scrubbed the paint and the floors, and made rooms clean and in condition to be redecorated.

Care had to be taken in selecting papers and fittings to conform with the period, but from that maze has emerged this wonderful old house with only a $6500 mortgage on the property, and loyal members to carry on.

The rooms are filled with fine antiques, some loaned, some our own.  Cases of genuine antiques are ours, collections of cup plates, sandwich glass, tea pots, china, caps, old linen, pewter, and innumerable relics of older times.

To you, Children of the American Revolution, we will pass on all of this, to preserve and cherish.”