The "Shot Heard 'Round the World" hit and killed someone. The man who wrote that line decades later desired a simple burial and instead rests under a massively gaudy headstone.
Concord, Mass., is best known as the site of the first battle of the American Revolution. Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, it was home to a knot of great American writers who wrote elegantly about life and death. Some cast that first fight into a kind of historical amber, from which it has never completely emerged.
Just a half-mile outside of downtown is the rebuilt North Bridge, now part of the Minute Man National Historical Park. It was on this spot, if not this actual bridge, that on April 19, 1775, Colonists first fired on the troops of their king with intent to kill. A showdown in nearby Lexington had resulted in little or no musket fire, but as the troops marched on to Concord with the intent to seize a storehouse of weapons, about 400 men faced off against just fewer than 100 British redcoats. The Colonials opened fire, and at least two of the king's soldiers were killed. In the long retreat back to Boston, waves of rebels harassed the troops. Along the way, 79 British troops were killed while the Colonials suffered 39 dead. After Concord, it would be hard, if not impossible, to stop an all-out war.
No one did more than Ralph Waldo Emerson to create the image of the sturdy yeoman farmer with musket taking on the greatest empire in the world. In 1837, he wrote "Concord Hymn," which was learned by generations of schoolchildren (though not so many today):
"By the rude bridge that arched the flood, / Their flag to April's breeze unfurled, / Here once the embattled farmers stood / And fired the shot heard 'round the world."
Emerson was the most respected of a group of American writers who lived in and around Concord after the Revolutionary War. They included Henry David Thoreau ("Walden"), Nathaniel Hawthorne ("The House of the Seven Gables") and Louisa May Alcott ("Little Women"). All were laid to rest in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery, a bucolic graveyard on a ridge above town.
Burials began here in 1823, but it wasn't until 1855, when the city bought 25 acres of farmland, that the spot was consecrated in a ceremony that featured a reading by a member of the cemetery committee: Emerson. The cemetery now holds more than 10,000 graves, including those killed in the Civil War, World War I and World War II. One of its most famous memorials is "Mourning Victory," to commemorate the deaths of three brothers from tiny Concord who died in the Civil War. It was designed by Daniel Chester French, who also created the Minute Man Statue at the North Bridge and the sitting statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial.
Most visitors head to Author's Ridge, home to the surprisingly small headstones of Thoreau, Hawthorne and Alcott, who were all buried around larger family plots. Thoreau fans have a tradition of pushing pencils into the ground in front of his marker, while letters to Alcott can often be found beneath small stones.
Emerson had planned to have a simple headstone, but his status in the city led to the dismissal of his wishes. He's buried beneath a massive hunk of rose quartz more like the ostentatious markers of the long-forgotten bankers and landowners of the area. Like the soldiers whose story was told by Emerson, the great poet himself would have his legacy commemorated by others in ways in which he likely would not have approved.
MINUTE MAN NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK 978-369-6993, nps.gov/mima
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