This is the first in a series that I plan to post, capturing the thoughts and reflections that I have when I go to one of my favorite and most sacred places, the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. For most of this new millennium, the bridge and its environs has been my church and my retreat, the place I go to pray, to think, to find my balance. It has been such for a number of reasons. First, it was the site of pivotal events which shaped history for the centuries to come, and which resonate with the events that move us most profoundly today. Second, it is a place where men laid down their lives for their country. Finally, as a piece of nature, the arching bridge over the flowing river reminds me of the miracle of nature and creation.
Each of these articles should be short and focus on one theme, one line of thought of the several that I focus on when I go to the bridge. My time there, my meditations on nature, life, death and sacrifice, my ponderings of the history made there and its place in the larger fabric of American life and history have provided me with what I regard as important lessons and reminders, and so I'd like to share those with others.
The first spot, and the last that I always visit there will be the focus of this first reflection. I expect that it will be shorter and perhaps simpler than most of those that follow. But, as with my visits, I hope it will set the groundwork, the initial tone, of my postings, just as visiting the spot itself sets the context for my visits.
The spot is the graves of two British soldiers who were killed at the bridge on April 19, 1775. For those who have not vsited the site, let me set the scene. The bridge is not far from Monument Road, and you approach it down a broad path between rows of high arching pine trees, trees intentionally planted there to create something of a cathedral in the pines atmosphere. The path leads straight to the obelisk monument, and off to the left, by the inevitable New England stone wall, there is a small chained off area, with two Union Jacks and a large inscribed stone. Usually, there are flowers on the graves. If the pines create a cathedral effect, the graves are a small chapel to the side. They are small and unremarkable, at least physically.
But in another way they are most remarkable. All over the world you can find war memorials, grave sites, and markers to the fallen dead of past wars. But here, without much fanfare is one of the most unique. It is a memorial to the Enemy's Honored Dead. Think of that. Not to our nation's fallen heroes, not to the local boys who gave their lives, but to the fallen enemies, to those who were seen as invaders and a threat to the town, to two of the first casualties of the American Revolutionary War, even though they were on the other side.
This unique memorial says a lot to me about who we are as a people. Many of my ancestors are Celts, Irishmen and Scots, people who are renowned for their abilities to keep a feud alive for years, and generations. And so it is the world over, where wars are often fought over slights and insults generations or centuries old. But here, in America, "the Great Melting Pot", historical enemies have learned to live side by side, to hang together lest we hang separately. The first permanent colonists in the Commonwealth, the Pilgrims and the Puritans, came here seeking not religious tolerance, but the freedom to, in the case of the Pilgrims, create a separate community run by their own strict principles or in the case of the Puritans, to purify the Anglican church, according to very similar principles. Names like "Cotton Mather" are not associated with tolerance.
A century and a half later, as the United States emerged, Americans had learned that Quakers, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Deists all had to set apart their differences, to live and work side by side with those with whom they disagreed upon the most fundamental truths and principles, that if freedom, democracy and the rule of law were rule in place of the King as joint head of Church and State then differences and old grudges must be set aside. Not surprisingly, once the Revolution and its echo, the War of 1812 were past, we tended to see Great Britain and Canada as perhaps rivals, but not real enemies.
And so, 130 years ago, the British graves were protected by pillars and chains donated by an English ex-pat, and we honor their deaths, and their role in the founding of our nation. We lay flowers on their graves, and mark it with their flag, and write words that praise their bravery. And that, is something not often seen now or through history. It is a small thing, but one of many that make me proud to live in my Commonwealth and my country.
And as I look at our present day conflicts, I start with a prayer that we can understand those on the other side and those caught up in the middle as we have come to understand those whom we fought 232 years ago. In part, these two soldiers died in a conflict that had been growing inevitably for years, and in part they died due to misunderstandings and confusions that arose in the heat of the moment. They died as a result of the folly of their superiors, immediate and ultimate, and helped to start a struggle that led to the fall of their Empire. I pray, each visit, that we can learn from them; that we can avoid similar follies; that we do not plunge our great Republic into a similar decline from greatness.
I visit their graves with both pride and humility. Only a great people can afford to honor their fallen enemies, and great nations can fall through hubris and folly.
In future installments, I will deal with such topics as the parallels between the Battle of Concord and the War in Iraq, the Minutemen and the Geneva Convention, and Concord's relationship to the Second Amendment, any one if which is likely to be a bit more controversial than this piece.
Until then, be a Free Voice.