He joined the revolution as an old man, was shot in the face – and lived another 18 years
Around his 80th year, Captain Samuel Whittemore awoke to the sound of British troops marching toward Concord.
It was April 19, 1775, the day that would begin the Revolutionary War. Whittemore’s wife, Esther, packed up for the relative safety of his son’s home to wait out the fighting, according to Samuel Abbot Smith’s 1864 account of the battle. She assumed her octogenarian husband would join her.
She assumed wrong.
“She found him oiling his musket and pistols, and sharpening his sword,’’ Smith wrote.
Whittemore told his wife he was “going up in town.’’ He wanted to be there when the British returned.
There were many who joined the rebellion that day. Whittemore was one of the oldest. By the time the day ended, he would be shot in the face, bayoneted, and left for dead.
He lived another 18 years — albeit with less face.
Also read: Meet America’s oldest revolutionaries
No one knows which side fired the first shots on April 19, but it’s likely neither side expected to exchange gunfire at all. The British troops, about 700 in number, had planned to raid a store of rebel weapons and arrest rabble-rousers John Hancock and Samuel Adams. About 70 colonists, famously forewarned by Paul Revere, met them on Lexington Common.
“It was concluded, from the evidence of what happened afterward, that the minutemen would make a show of strength on the open Common, but that they would not fire,’’ wrote Arthur B. Tourtellot in Lexington and Concord.
The British, vastly outnumbering the colonists in Lexington, made quick work of them and continued on to Concord. There, they did not find what they expected — the colonists had hidden most of the weapons, and Adams and Hancock had long since skipped town. Hundreds of minutemen met them, as many more poured in from neighboring villages and towns. The British were forced to retreat.
“Many New England towns had militia companies, for men of military age, from 16 to 50,’’ said historian David Hackett Fischer. “Some also had minute companies who were on the younger end of that range.’’
While some older men did find their way into the militias that faced the British on the battlefield, most were part of “alarm companies,’’ meant to serve as watch but not expected to fight.
But some of the older men wanted to fight.
“Often… they acted simply as guerilla fighters, whenever they felt like it,’’ Tourtellot wrote, “and unquestionably took part in the very early fighting of the war.’’
Some of these men were veterans of previous wars, with military experience. Still more had a strong sense of patriotism and duty, or just wanted to protect their property from British soldiers, who had, upon their retreat, taken to raiding and burning down colonist homes.
“For most of those men, the battle was taking place close to their houses, so they viewed their actions as defending their property and liberty,’’ said J. L. Bell, proprietor of the Boston 1775 blog.
Whittemore knew how to fight. A former member of the British Royal dragoons, he was described as a “large, athletic man, of a strong constitution’’ in Benjamin and William Richard Cutter’s History of the Town of Arlington 1635-1879, published in 1880. It quoted Whittemore’s obituary in the Columbian Centinel. Accounts of the time say his age ranged between 78 and 81.
Whittemore was entering his fifties when he fought in King George’s War in 1745, helping the British capture the French fort of Louisbourg on the shores of Nova Scotia. After that, he settled down in Menotomy (now known as Arlington), where he was a farmer. He had various roles in the village government, as a committeeman, treasurer, assessor, and selectman, according to the Cutter history.
The Cutter record has Whittemore’s children begging him not to fight, but:
… he sat knocking his flint and said he should not go — “he was going to get a shot at them when they came back!’’ His daughter said, “Father, they will take you.’’ Still rapping his flint, and not raising his head, he said, “They’ll find it hard work to do it.’’
He walked up what is now Massachusetts Avenue and took position behind a wall across the street from a church. From here, he fired on the retreating British soldiers. Accounts vary as to how many of them he killed: at least one, but possibly as many as three.
A flank guard had been sent to take out snipers like Whittemore. This would be his undoing. By the time he saw their approach, he “knew it was of no use to attempt to escape,’’ Smith wrote, so he stood his ground. He was reaching for his sword, according to Fischer, when the British “shot away part of his face.’’ He was then bayoneted several times and left to die.
But he didn’t.
The villagers brought him to a nearby tavern. A doctor dressed Whittemore’s wounds — as many as 14 of them, between the bullets and the bayonets — but thought it was a futile effort.
“Most of the old men of the day,’’ Tourtellot wrote, “displayed admirable surviving powers even after being left for dead.’’
A genealogy of the Whittemore family, written by Bernard Bemis Whittemore, claims Whittemore recovered “in about four hours,’’ but another Whittemore family account, as relayed in the Cutter history, says it took a few weeks before he could “recognize his family.’’
At this point, he was asked if he regretted his actions.
“No,’’ he said. “I should do just so again.’’
Whittemore died on February 2, 1793 — long enough, according to his obituary, “to see the complete overthrow of his enemies, and his country enjoy all the blessings of peace and independence.’’
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