Captain John Parker and 77 armed Americans stood on Lexington Common on what revolutionary Samuel Adams proclaimed “a glorious morning for America.”
It was April 19, 1775.
The “shot heard ‘round the world,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson later called it, was about to ignite the American Revolution and change world history forever.
Parker was 46 years old and riddled with tuberculosis. He roused his weakened body just after midnight, when the cry reached Lexington and echoed by a network of alarm riders through the Massachusetts countryside.
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“The regulars are out!” Paul Revere himself warned the people of Lexington.
Now, at dawn, Parker’s small volunteer militia faced a terrifying sight: A force of 700 British regulars, highly trained soldiers, professional killers, well-armed agents of the most powerful empire on Earth.
The Redcoats were determined to squash a colonial rebellion that had been percolating in nearby Boston for nearly a decade.
The British hoped to seize a cache of colonial weapons and rebel leaders John Hancock and Sam Adams, who were in Lexington that very morning.
“I think Parker and his men were obviously scared. I think they would have been angry and motivated, too.”
“I think [Parker and his men] were obviously scared,” Dan Davis, senior education manager for American Battlefield Trust, told Fox News Digital.
“I think they would have been angry and motivated, too, to protect their families and homes … They had a very large British force marching through their town.”
Parker had been elected captain of the local militia — the Lexington Training Band, as they called themselves — known as minutemen in popular lore.
They were farmers, blacksmiths, cordwainers and wagon makers. Many of the men were closely related — no more distant than cousins.
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Most were devout Christians and extraordinarily well-read for common people.
“We were probably the most literate country in the world at the time,” Parker biographer Bill Poole, former president of the Lexington Historical Society, told Fox News Digital.
His statement is supported by many colonial scholars.
“Principally,” he added, “because we were great Bible readers.”
American troops were mocked as “Yankee psalm-singers” by their British foes, David McCullough notes in his book “1776,” an epic look at the dramatic year that followed
The remarkable literacy of the colonists is considered a major reason why revolutionary ideals that toppled millennia of monarchial hierarchies took root so deeply among Americans in the 1700s.
Massachusetts was the center of the movement. The colony had a long simmering feud with Britain that reached its breaking point a year earlier with Parliament’s Intolerable Acts.
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Among other outrages, the acts closed the port of Boston, the source of the colony’s prosperity, and outlawed the cherished tradition of town meeting in communities like Lexington. Colonists were outraged.
The moment of truth came on Lexington Common.
“Throw down your arms! Ye villains, ye rebels,” a British officer, most likely Major John Pitcairn, reportedly ordered the vastly outnumbered American volunteers.
“If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” — Captain John Parker
Parker and his men defied the order.
“Stand your ground, do not fire unless fired upon,” Parker told his men. “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
‘We trust in God’
Captain John Parker was born in Lexington on July 13, 1729, to Lt. Josiah and Anna (Stone) Parker.
Some of his ancestors had arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony as early as 1635, giving the Parker family roots as deep as any other in the future United States.
“A stout, large-framed man of medium height,” Poole writes in his biography of Parker.
Captain Parker is often described as a mechanic. He was, in essence, a woodworker — making spinning wheels, press screws and compass boxes.
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He earned his military training in the French and Indian War (1756-63), though several experts note there is no documented evidence of his service, just oral history and circumstantial evidence.
He reportedly trained with Rogers’ Rangers. It was a group of New Hampshire soldiers instructed in irregular warfare — guerilla warfare. United States special forces trace their roots to Rogers’ Rangers and its “28 rules of ranging today.”
Those tactics proved critical to Parker’s leadership throughout the day.
The members of the Lexington Training Band were citizen-soldiers, bound not by military professionalism but by faith and a vow to each other.
It read: “We trust in God that, should the state of our affairs require it, we shall be ready to sacrifice our estates and everything dear in life, yea and life itself, in support of the common cause.”
“We trust in God.” — Lexington militia’s vow
It didn’t take a great military mind to understand that the volunteer militia, outnumbered nearly 10 to 1, was no match for the firepower of the British Empire arrayed before them.
Parker’s only hope was to avoid a fight, delay the Redcoats long enough to allow more minutemen to gather and confront the British force somewhere later and in a more advantageous position.
Fate had other plans. The shot that followed on Lexington Common, that ignited the American Revolution, remains a mystery to history.
The firefight quickly became a rout.
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“The British light infantry fired, ‘made a huzza,’ and ran furiously toward the retiring militia,” reports The Lexington Minute Men today, a group of historians and volunteers who keep alive the legacy of Parker and his men.
The Americans returned fire, but were overwhelmed and scattered.
When the smoke cleared, more than a dozen Americans lay dead or wounded. Nearly one-third of the 77 men who stood on Lexington Common that morning would be killed (11 of them) or were wounded by the end of the day.
Jonas Parker, the captain’s cousin, gave his life gruesomely on Lexington Common.
Parker was “standing … with his [musket] balls and flints in his hat on the ground between his feet,” according to an account by fellow Lexington militiamen Ebenezer Munroe.
Parker bravely declared “he would never run,” Munroe said.
Jonas Parker, he said, “was shot down at the second fire … I saw him struggling on the ground, attempting to load his gun … as he lay on the ground they (ran) him through with the bayonet.”
The slaughter of citizen-soldiers took place in front of the entire village.
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“As the regulars left the onslaught behind them, wives, children and the spectators emerged from hiding and made their way onto the common,” the Lexington Minute Men report.
“Many were overcome with emotion and grief at the sight of husbands, sons, brothers, cousins and neighbors lying dead or wounded on the field.”
The British, with only a few of their men wounded, marched past the carnage and made their way toward Concord, seven miles to the west.
But Parker’s delaying tactic worked.
As the residents of Lexington tended to the wounded on the common, “over 200 men from Woburn’s militia and minuteman companies arrived in Lexington,” report today’s Lexington Minute Men.
“Disturbed at what they saw, the men halted and assisted the Lexington residents in treating the wounded and carrying the dead into the meetinghouse. Afterward, the Woburn men reassembled and resumed their march toward Concord.”
The armed American citizens turned back the British soldiers in Concord.
The 200 Woburn men were just the tip of the spear. Thousands more minutemen began to arrive from communities from all across Massachusetts.
The armed American citizens turned back the British soldiers in Concord and began chasing the troops back to Boston, picking off Redcoats along the way.
“Almost 2,000 militiamen … had descended to the area, and more were constantly arriving,” notes History.com.
Parker miraculously gathered his troops after the shock the men witnessed in the morning. They lay in waiting to ambush the British as they fled back to Boston.
“Some wore bandages stiffened from the blood of wounds they had suffered in the morning, and they were anxious to revenge themselves and their dead neighbors,” reports American Battlefield Trust.
They shot and killed an unknown number of British. The day ended in an incredible victory for America’s citizen soldiers.
The British by the end of the day suffered about 300 killed and wounded, to fewer than 100 for the Americans. They retreated to Boston.
Thousands of American militiamen laid siege to the British in Boston for nearly a year before the Redcoats finally fled on March 17, 1776. Massachusetts had won its rebellion against the British Empire while the American Revolution moved to other colonies.
His heroics gave rise to the Declaration of Independence the following year.
“The site of Parker’s Revenge is the first of many fields where brave American soldiers turned defeat into victory,” writes American Battlefield Trust.
John Parker succumbed to the tuberculosis that plagued him on Lexington Common on Sept. 17, 1775.
His heroics gave rise to the Declaration of Independence the following year — and to a brave and daring new nation, the United States of America.
He never saw either.
No portrait of Parker exists. But his image lives on in American lore as the inspiration for the famous Minuteman Statue on Lexington Common; and in the nation’s faith of an armed citizenry as a bulwark against tyranny, encoded in the Second Amendment.
His legacy also survives in the United States Army Reserve — inspired by his selfless example of citizen-soldier rushing to the aid of their nation in need.
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The U.S. Army Reserve motto, “Twice the Citizen,” pays deference to the stand of Parker and the 77 that morning, while its official logo, a man in colonial headgear, is known as The John Parker.
Sprawling and serpentine Minute Man National Park traces the long route of the “glorious day” in American history. Recent research has uncovered details of the site of Parker’s Revenge.
The stand of Parker’s 77, and the larger Battles of Lexington and Concord, are celebrated each year as Patriots’ Day, statewide holidays in Massachusetts and Maine, on the Monday closest to April 19.
The festivities begin at dawn with the reenactment of the Battles of Lexington and Concord; and celebrations occur in other communities as well, especially those who sent minutemen to fight the British that morning.
Lexington has reenacted the stand of its 77 men every year since 1791.
The Boston Red Sox play a home game at Fenway Park every Patriots’ Day at 11 a.m. It is the only morning game on the Major League Baseball calendar each year.
“He stood as a sick and weakened but powerful man for the rights of all Americans.” — Bill Poole, historian
The streets of Boston and other Bay State communities erupt with parties and parades on Patriots’ Day as the Boston Marathon winds its way from western suburbs into downtown Boston.
It is one of the most eagerly anticipated days of the year in Massachusetts, among other things marking the arrival of spring.
Few Patriots’ Day celebrants today know the patriot who inspired the festivities.
“Captain Parker stood in defiance of a very powerful military power, the most powerful nation on Earth,” said Poole, the Lexington historian.
“He stood for the rights of the community and the rights of the individual. He stood as a sick and weakened but powerful man for the rights of all Americans and, as such, should be held as a hero.”
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