Memorial Day Address 2005

The Prince Hall Cemetery

Monday, May 30, 2005

Howard B. Winkler, President
Arlington Historical Society

Last year, I spoke about patriots of color. This year I want to talk the leadership provided by a specific patriot of color, David Lamson. It was Lamson, I believe, who led “the old men of Menotomy” in a key engagement with the Regulars on April 19, 1775. At that time, Arlington was known as the Menotomy district of Cambridge.

I will now synopsize the events that led to Lamson’s role in the engagement with the British troops, aka, the Regulars. In the spring of 1775, the town of Boston was in rebellion against the king. The most egregious act by its citizens had been what is known as the Boston Tea Party. General Thomas Gage had ended civil government, and he was the military governor. The militias in the towns outside of Boston were also in a state of rebellion and had been storing shot, muskets, powder, and cannon. Gage’s informers told him that there were large amounts of these war materials stored in Concord some 20 miles away. At about 10:30 PM on April 18, he ordered Lt. Col. Francis Smith, in command of 800 Regulars, to steal a march on Concord before the patriots could realize what was underway.

In 20th century parlance, the Regulars were on a search and destroy mission. They left Boston at about 10:30 PM on April 18th. Dr. Joseph Warren was the head of the Committee of Safety, in Boston. His informers told him of the British expedition, and he dispatched William Dawes and Paul Revere to warn John Adams and John Hancock who were in Lexington that the Regulars were out and, also, to alert the Concord militia.

At about, 4 AM on the morning of the nineteenth, Smith realized that the countryside was aroused, and he sent for reinforcements. In response, Gage sent Brigadier General Earl Percy with 1,000 men, two cannon, and two wagons to support Smith. Remember “one if by land two if by sea?” Smith’s force had been rowed across the Charles River. They came by sea. Percy’s force came overland through Roxbury and crossed the Charles over the Great Bridge (near the present Larz Anderson Bridge). The Patriots knew that Percy’s force was on the way and had removed the planks from the bridge. The 1,000 Regulars and the two field pieces were able to cross on the bridge’s stringers without too much delay, but the two wagons, one loaded with ammunition and the other with provisions, were long delayed, and so separated, from the main force. A lieutenant was in charge of the wagons, and 12 Grenadiers guarded them. Word was sent ahead to Menotomy.

After word was received, the “old men of Menotomy” made plans for seizing the wagons. Because of their age, these ten men were exempt from the active militia. David Lamson, a man of color, was among them, and he was a veteran of the French and Indian War. It appears that he was of low military rank. Rank and experience in the colonial militia did not necessarily go together. Many officers had no military experience let alone combat experience.

Now we come to historical uncertainties, which are much like the reports of witnesses to automobile accidents. The traffic light was red; no, it was green. The car was black; no, it was white. The sun was shining; no, it was raining. My readings of a few histories gave credit for the leadership of “the old men” to Ephraim Frost of Cambridge, the Reverend Edward Brooks of Medford, the Reverend Dr. Phillips Payson of Chelsea, and David Lamson of Menotomy. I would guess that they were all present.

Lamson, as the veteran, probably organized the ambush of the wagons. If Lamson did not give the order for the wagons to stop, and, when they did not, then the order to fire, then the person, who did, probably looked to Lamson for a nod. After the order to stop was not obeyed, “the old men” fired. One of the drivers and four of the horses were killed, and a few of the Regulars were wounded. The wagons were captured, and 11 taken prisoner. As at Concord Bridge, four hours earlier, the ultimate act of treason was repeated in Menotomy, the king’s soldiers were attacked.

Arlington knew whom to honor as the leader of the “old men of Menotomy.” In 2000, Fred Sennott, a former captain of the Menotomy Minute Men, led the effort to petition the Board of Selectman to change the name of Railroad Avenue in the center of town to David Lamson Way.