Thaddeus Blood: The Last Living Witness to the Historic Battle of Concord

Thaddeus Blood had just turned twenty when he joined his fellow Minute Men at the Battle of Concord on April 19, 1775. He was, by many accounts, the last survivor of the battle, and, by all accounts, gave the testimony of the fight to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1833, as Emerson prepared his Concord Hymn, delivered first in 1837. This was the poem in which Emerson famously recounted “the shot heard round the world.” And every year since then, on April 19, men and women from all around the state have traveled to Concord to celebrate this historical moment when a group of “embattled farmers,” to use Emerson’s words, were swept along in the American “Spirit, that made those heroes dare To die, and leave their children free.” And the air is filled with the sound of fife and drum.

It is, however, in the pomp and circumstance, essential to distinguish between wishful mythology and the realities of politics and war. When Emerson interviewed Thaddeus, the old man’s memory of the fight was nearly gone, or at least it had shrunk to more human proportions, admitting, “It could scarcely be called a fight…there was no fife or drum that day.” In fact, Blood’s companions were reluctant freedom fighters, or more likely, just plain old scared. “Capt. Barrett,” Blood informed, “said all sorts of cheering things to his men.” But asked them an earnest, and honest question: “Do you think you can fight em’?” The question was supposed to be rhetorical and energizing, but perhaps it wasn’t. The trees and pastures behind the Minute Men led to the safety of Blood Farm. As Emerson noted, these Minute Men were not lionized yet, and they, “the kings subjects”…”did not want to fight.” This was not necessarily a function of cowardice—at least I don’t think so—but rather a sign of wisdom, an acknowledgement that war is no simple thing, and that once shots are fired, they are very hard to recover. Revolutions are always and only celebrated in hindsight, by the survivors and their descendants.

My family lives in the white clapboard saltbox at 335 River Road in Carlisle, Massachusetts, the one-time home of Thaddeus Blood, who was born—most likely in our family room—on May 28, 1755. He was an American Blood, a member of one of our nation’s first, most expansive, and most audacious pioneer families, part of a lineage that included Thomas Blood, the only man to ever steal the British Crown Jewels, and Robert Blood, who was among the first in the colonies to violently oppose taxation at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Bloods arrived on the shores of New England with the first settlers, and put down roots on Blood Farm, the 3,000-acre plot of land where Thaddeus was born.

What was the truth of the Concord Fight, who actually fired “the shot heard round the world?” It was probably triggered by accident, by the British. “When they had fired,” Blood told Emerson, “there were several (American) men riding on horseback. There was Uncle Blood with hi cap and he waved his cap and cried “fire damn em, and every man shouted along the line.” A misfire and a great deal of fearful shouting in the name of self-defense—this is what precipitated the fight that would become our war. Emerson encouraged the aged Thaddeus to tell him more, to explain in full what it had been like to be there on that historic day. Thaddeus told Emerson to leave him in repose, that “the truth will never be known.”

I think there is something important about Blood’s honesty regarding the truth of war. So did Emerson, writing, “in all the anecdotes of that day’s events we may discern the natural actions of the people. It was not an extravagant ebullition of feeling, but might have been calculated on by any one acquainted with the spirits and habits of our community.” Emerson was cutting the celebration down to rightful size. He wasn’t being cynical but rather realistic, human, and hopeful. He explained that “these poor farmers who came up, that day, to defend their native soil, acted from the simplest instincts. They did not babble about glory…”. They were justifiably frightened in the face of an uncertain future that was soon to become their own.

Some years ago, while teaching military ethics at UMass Lowell (thirteen miles from Concord), one of my students turned to another, a former Marine, and asked the question that all of us had been thinking for most of the semester: “What is it really like to be in battle?” The young man shrugged: “I don’t know. You have to be there. It is very real. And very confusing.” There is very little that is confusing about celebrations and memorials. History is usually presented in such a clean and uniform way—without confusion or contradiction. Which is to say that it is rarely true. Emerson bid Thaddeus Blood goodbye after an interview in July 1835 with a distinct impression that would color his philosophy on the whole: that courage and independence are shocking rare; that they often emerge in tandem with accident and ambivalence; that they often teeter on the brink of their opposite, namely apparent cowardice.

Thaddeus’ family spent the next two-hundred years fanning out across the United States, contributing to its sense of self and to the mythology that we often celebrate today. Among these American Bloods was a friend to Henry David Thoreau and to the American pragmatist William James, and a lover and husband to Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to ever run for the Presidency. They participated in every major military conflict to the present, drove the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, and spearheaded Western expansion in the new United States. But Thaddeus’ family, like any long-standing American family, give us portrait of a nation without the fife and drum—instead realistic, confusing, confused, heedless, halting, and quietly wild. The celebrations will go on, but it seems healthy, if not essential, to think about what might lie beneath our histories, and what might have been pointedly forgotten for the sake of commemoration.