by Robert L. Berthelson
In the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania is a manuscript letter four pages long. Bearing the names of thirty-nine signers in seventeen towns and cities between Boston and Philadelphia, it describes in brief and urgent detail the tragic events near Boston on April 19,1775, the battles of Lexington and Concord.
The story of the letter’s five day journey as it was carried by post rider three hundred and fifty miles through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey to Philadelphia, and the excitement and reaction to its news, is unique in our nation’s history. Although the letter originated in Watertown, Massachusetts, at the eastern end of the Boston-Worcester road, its story begins in Boston about six miles to the southeast.
A meeting of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was scheduled for April 19th in Concord. Dr. Joseph Warren, in Boston, a zealous champion of American liberty, learned of a British march into the countryside in an effort to disrupt the meeting and to capture the leaders. Warren dispatched William Dawes and Paul Revere by separate routes to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington. While Dawes road toward Lexington, Revere implemented a prearranged plan to alert a series of alarm riders and had two signal lanterns placed in the North Church belfry before setting out for Lexington. Both men reached Lexington
Revere was later captured while attempting to reach Concord but was released a short while later without his horse. He walked back to Lexington in time to witness the subsequent events.
The march of 800 British troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith had almost reached Lexington by 4 A.M., April 19th, when it became obvious that the colonial militia was assembling throughout the countryside and an urgent request for reinforcements was sent back to General Gage in Boston. General Gage ordered a second brigade of 1,000 men under Brigadier Earl Percy to leave Boston to support the first column.
In Watertown an important member of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, General Joseph Palmer, was waiting for news of the British regulars. He had been warned about the impending march by one of the scores of alarm riders who had seen Revere’s signal and had left his horse saddled in the barn and gone to bed. The first news of the Lexington battle was brought to him by a drum-beating messenger early in the morning, and he rushed out to spread the alarm. When the news reached him from Boston that a second brigade was coming out to support the first, he realized that help would be needed by the colonial militia as well. He immediately dispatched the following letter which has become known to historians as the Lexington Alarm:
To all the friends of American liberty be it known that this morning before break of day, a brigade, consisting of about 1,000 to 1,200 men landed at Phip’s Farm at Cambridge and marched to Lexington, where they found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired without any provocation and killed six men and wounded four others. By an express from Boston, we find another brigade are now upon their march from Boston supposed to be about1,000. The Bearer, Israel Bissell, is charged to alarm the country quite to Connecticut and all persons are desired to furnish him with fresh horses as they may be needed. I have spoken with several persons who have seen the dead and wounded. Pray let the delegates from this colony to Connecticut see this.
J. Palmer, one of the Committee of Safety.
They know Col. Foster of Brookfield one of the Delegates.”
The “bearer” Israel Bissell, a twenty-three old express rider from East Windsor, Connecticut, set out along the Boston Post Road toward Worcester about thirty-six miles away. The traffic was unusually heavy with hundreds of militiamen from towns further west heading for Concord in answer to the earlier alarm. Those who had not yet heard the news were startled by the cries of “the war has begun, the war has begun!”
The home of General Artemas Ward, newly elected Commander-in-Chief of the Massachusetts militia, still overlooks the Boston Road in Shrewsbury about five miles east of Worcester. Ward was confined to bed with a painful bladder stone when the message arrived. At sunrise the next day he painfully mounted his horse and headed for Cambridge.
Before noon Bissell arrived in Worcester dusty and tired shouting: “To arms, to arms, the war has begun!” His fast white horses, spent with fatigue, fell dead near the meetinghouse and Palmer’s plea for additional horses became prophetic. An old signal cannon was fired from the hill behind the meetinghouse and the bell was rung to alert the outlying towns of important news. Palmer’s original letter was copied and the first endorsement added:
April 19, 1775.
Attest. Nathan Baldwin, Town Clerk.”
The whereabouts of the original copy is not known, but the practice of keeping the copy received and sending a new copy forward was followed several times along the route. Copies were also made by individuals for their personal files or to send as dispatches or marching orders. Several copies can be found in the archives of local newspapers and broadsides which were printed as the news spread southward.
Also not known with certainty is the identity of the post rider who carried the news southward. Israel Bissell’s name remained as part of the letter as it was written by Joseph Palmer and copied many times along the route. The spelling of Israel’s first name changes slightly as copies of the letter are made and sent forward, but strictly speaking, unless other evidence such as separate news accounts or manuscripts are found, we can only speculate, as have several historians, that Israel Bissell actually carried the letter the entire distance to Philadelphia.
We do know that early the next morning, Thursday, April 20th, Palmer’s dispatch left Worcester traveling south toward Connecticut. Until now the post rider had been following the route known as the Upper Post Road. This road extends westward from Worcester through Springfield, Massachusetts, and then south to Hartford before continuing on to New York City. The route south from Worchester was known as a principle road that would take the rider through Norwich to New London crossing the Middle Post Road at Pomfret.
Lexington Alarm reaches Israel Putnam
The farm of Connecticut’s famous General Israel Putnam would be the post rider’s next stop. Putnam had retired from military service after having served in the French and Indian War. The alarm from Lexington reached him as he was working in a field with his son Daniel, who later wrote of the incident:
Putnam’s arrival at the scene in record time, especially for the large fifty-seven year old veteran, is legendary.
In Brooklyn, near Pomfret, the alarm letter was endorsed for the second time:
Attest. Daniel Tyler, Jun”
Twenty-four hours had now passed since the British regulars had engaged the colonial militia at Concord’s North Bridge. The ensuing battle which drove the red coated troops back fifteen miles to Boston had been over almost eighteen hours, but no additional news had reached the first dispatch. Two letters describing these events reached Pomfret at 3 P.M., four hours later, and did not arrive in Norwich until the next morning. Knowledge of the battle’s successful outcome apparently did not catch up with Palmer’s letter for two more days. It should be noted that accurate, standardized time keeping did not exist in 1775 and all elapsed times are approximate, based upon written records.
The next endorsement was added to Palmer’s letter in Norwich possibly at the inn of Colonel Christopher Leffingwell, a prominent citizen and successful businessman.
Connecticut’s Governor Jonathan Trumbull was in Norwich when the news arrived, perhaps at Leffingwell’s inn, as the two men were close friends. Although Trumbull was the only Whig Governor in the colonies at the time, he still maintained cordial relations with General Gage, British governor of Massachusetts. Understandably shocked and disbelieving at the news from Watertown, Trumbull dispatched express riders to obtain additional intelligence before calling a meeting of the General Assembly. Returning immediately to his home in Lebanon, Trumbull converted his general store into a supply depot for the local militia who were leaving in the “defense of Boston”. (Jonathan Trumbull’s store became known as the “War Office” which remains today under the stewardship of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.)
The last two lines of Palmer’s letter read: “pray let the delegates from this colony to Connecticut see this … They know Col. Foster from Brookfield, one of the delegates.” If these words are interpreted to be an address, their meaning becomes clearer. Col. Jedidiah Foster’s home was in Brookfield Mass., about twenty miles west of Worcester. From an inference in the following letter, he apparently received Palmer’s dispatch sometime Wednesday, April 19th, and proceeded to Lebanon the next day with papers from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress urging Trumbull to call a meeting and form an army in Connecticut.
Brookfield, April 23, 1775.
Mr. Davidson immediately preceded from Concord to Governor Trumbull with the papers as directed by the Congress, but from the then appearance of affairs he did not think proper to call the assembly. Early on Thursday morning Mr. Davidson, with myself, set out for Lebanon to Governor Trumbull, who, about two hours before our arrival, had received the tragic narrative from Colonel Palmer, and cheerfully consented to call the assembly of the colony to be held at Hartford on Wednesday next …
In Voluntown, about twelve miles to the east of Norwich, Major James Gordon sent a dispatch to Captain John Gordon, Jr which begins:
“Wednesday morning near ten o’clock. To all friends of American Liberty…”
and Palmer’s dispatch is repeated in accurate detail. The letter ends with the words: “You will comply with the above order. I have sent to — Edmond to send out Sergeant Edmond”
Voluntown, CT had received its name, Volun(teers’)town, in May, 1708 as a grant to volunteers in the Narragansett war.
It was late afternoon when the express rider arrived in New London, passing a small schoolhouse where Nathan Hale was schoolmaster. (The Nathan Hale schoolhouse remains today under the stewardship of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.)
At a hastily called town meeting Captain William Coit’s Independent Company was instructed to march for the defense of Boston. Hale addressed the meeting but did not enter service until July 17, fulfilling his school teaching commitment. Palmer’s letter was again copied and endorsed:
Samuel H. Parsons
Nathan Shaw Jun.
William Coit Committee.”
On the opposite side of the Thames river from New London, in the town of Groton, Dean John Hurlbert kept a two part diary. In the weather section under the heading ‘April 20th’ he wrote briefly: “High south wind but warm, some cloudy looks like rain.” Several hours later he made another entry, this time in the “work section”:
The ferry mentioned by Dean Hurlbert was described by Hugh Finlay in his postal survey of 1773-74 and was frequently used by Benjamin Mumford the regular post rider between Newport, Rhode Island, and Saybrook, Connecticut. “The ferry is very well attended, it is not difficult”, says Finlay. “They grumble at being obliged to carry the Post over when it is dark, or when it rains of blows, they seem much inclined to refuse the service but they fear the consequences.”
A post rider would normally leave New London at 6 P.M. traveling five miles west to a rope ferry which crossed the narrow Niantic River. Sleeping overnight at this ferry he would next travel thirteen miles to the Connecticut River ferry and exchange mails with the western rider at 11 the next morning at Saybrook.
Palmer’s news could not afford to wait. After a brief rest the post rider began again, this time traveling at night crossing the rope ferry under a cloudy sky. To the residents of Lyme on the East bank of the Connecticut River we can imagine a quiet night with no sound except the wind and the din of spring peepers. Then in the distance might come the sound of barking dogs and a fast galloping horse. Finally shouts of inquiry would arouse four members of the local committee who read the letter and affix their signatures:
Samuel Mather Jr. Committee.”
The rider had now reached the mouth of the Connecticut River where the Ferry Tavern, built by the Bacon family, had stood since 1763. Finlay’s Journal refers to the ferry as follows: “Cross’d the ferry, it is well attended, about 3/4 of a mile in width, the boats are good tho’ not so lage as those at Rhode Island.” However, well attended it may have been at 1 o’clock in the morning, the post rider nevertheless reached Saybrook in time to have his document copied and endorsed again at 4 A.M.
Richard Dickenson Committee.”
Hugh Finlay’s comments on the next stage of the “Lower Post Road” are quite interesting as he continued his journey toward New York the year before:
Here Finlay is referring to the regular rider, seventy-two year old “Herd” of Stratford CT.
The endorsements to Palmer’s letter tell of a very different journey as the news spread westward.
Sam Gales Committee.”
“E. Guilford, Friday morning 8 o’clock forwarded as received by express,
Isaac Knight Committee.”
“Guilford, Friday morning 10 o’clock forwarded as received by express,
“Branford, Friday 12 o’clock at noon, received as forwarded by
One of the Committee.”
The Lexington Alarm was already beginning to fan out along Bissell’s route, and large numbers of able-bodied men from Connecticut began assembling to march “for the relief of Boston”. This gathering of militia was both orderly and spontaneous although no official colony action had been authorized. In many cases the militia marched off under their officers without orders or with only local instructions.
On April 21 the Committee of Correspondence sent a letter to John Hancock of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress:
The Lexington Alarm reached New Haven early in the afternoon and a town meeting was called at the “Middle Brick” church. New Haven conservatives voted against sending armed aid to Boston but when Benedict Arnold heard the news from Lexington, he recognized it as an opportunity to make use of his Second Company of Governor’s Foot Guards. Runners were sent to assemble them and fifty men at once agreed to leave for Cambridge the following morning. On Saturday morning Arnold paraded the scarlet uniformed Guards before a large crowd, inspected them, and listened to an exhortation by the Reverend Jonathan Edwards. Arnold next sent a request for powder and ball to the selectmen who were meeting in a nearby tavern, but the selectmen bluntly refused to comply with the request. Arnold briskly marched his company to the tavern and dispatched a messenger to inform the city fathers that if the keys to the powder house were not delivered to him at once, he would order his men to break open the door to the magazine and help themselves. Arnold won the keys and the Guards left immediately for Boston.
The New Haven committee endorsed Palmer’s letter as follows:
Timothy Jone Jr.
Daniel Lyman Committee.”
Between New Haven and New York Hugh Finlay comments briefly on the quality of the roads and the character of the regular post riders he met during November 1773:
“After settling with Mr. Kilby (the deputy in New Haven) and instructing him in his duty relative to checking the riders, I left New Haven and proceeded twenty-one miles to Fairfield. The road is stony in some places, but a good road on horseback. The High Sheriff for the county waited on me, and represented that an office is much wanted in this town to hinder the impositions of the post riders … If the Postmaster General shall see it proper to establish an office here Mr. Burr would recommend the care of it to Mr. Elijah Abel, for whose good conduct he will become bound. He says that Andre (old Herd’s son) is a careful man, but Ebenezer (another son) exacts and is careless. Rested here all Sunday, next day, the 15th, proceeded twelve miles in broken stony road to Norwalk, Mr. Belding, Postmaster. 17th, left Norwalk and proceeded forty-one miles to Kingsbridge in good road, and next morning rode fifteen miles in very fine road, and arrived at New York where the General Post Office is kept under the care of John Antill, setting for Alexander Colden esq. the Deputy Postmaster.”
Our post rider apparently left New Haven during the afternoon of April 21st. In the town of Milford a few miles further west, a fourteen old boy named Joseph Plumb Martin was helping his grandfather that day and years later wrote down his recollection of the event:
Crossing the Stratford River, now known as the Housatonic, at Peter Hepburn’s ferry the post road wound its way through Stratford and into Fairfield.
On the morning of April 22, the steps of the stately brick mansion of Thaddeus Burr were filled with members of the Fairfield Committee of Correspondence. Rumors of the Lexington battle may have already arrived when the galloping rider reigned up and thrust his sealed document to G. Sellick Silliman. As a crowd gathered, Silliman opened the letter and said: “Friends, news from your King, hear it.” He then read Palmer’s alarm. While the rider waited the committee endorsed the letter:
G. Sellick Silliman
Jonathan Sturges Committee.”
It is at this point that the letters which had missed the Lexington dispatch by a few hours at Pomfret on Thursday morning caught up it. A second rider arrived at the Burr mansion with the following news which was then added to Palmer’s letter:
Thursday, 3 o’clock afternoon
Sir: I am this moment informed by express from Woodstock taken from the mouth of the express that arrived there 2 of the clock afternoon, that the contest between the first brigade that marched to Concord was still continuing this morning at the town of Lexington to which said brigade had retreated. That another brigade said to be the second mentioned in the letter of this morning had landed with a quantity of artillery at the place where they first did. Provincials were determined to prevent the two brigades from joining their strength if possible and remain in great need of Succour.
N.B. The regulars when in Concord burnt the courthouse, took two pieces of cannon which they rendered useless, and began to take up Concord Bridge upon which Captain Davis who with many on both sides were soon killed then made an attack on the king’s troops on which they retreated to Lexington.
I am your humble servant
Col. Obadiah Johnson,
P.S. Mr. McFarling of Plainfield, merchant, has just now returned from Boston by way of Providence who conversed with an express from Lexington who further informed that about 4,000 of our troops had surrounded the first brigade above mentioned who were on a hill in Lexington, that the action continued and there were about 50 of our men killed and 150 of the regulars as near as they could determine when the express came away. It would be expedient for every man to go who is fit and willing.”
“The above is a true copy as received by express from New Haven and attested to by the Committee of Correspondence from town to town.
Attest. Jonathan Sturges
G. Sellick Silliman
A few days later the Burr mansion received new guests. John Hancock, Sam Adams, Aunt Lydia Hancock, and Dorothy Quincy arrived from Lexington where they had been warned by Paul Revere and William Dawes on the night of April 18. The two women remained at Fairfield while Adams and Hancock continued on to attend the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on May 10th. John Hancock and Dorothy Quincy were married on August 28 in the Burr mansion.
Fairfield is the last Connecticut endorsement, and it would be interesting here to view the effect of the news elsewhere in the colony. In all, 3,600 Connecticut men from 48 towns are listed on the rolls of those who participated in the military response to the Lexington Alarm.
A letter dated Wethersfield, April 23, describes the scene there as follows:
As the news of conflict spread beyond Fairfield its effect can be traced by brief reports in personal diaries and local town records. In Southport near Fairfield, Eleazer Bulkley remembered: ” … at the close of this month (April, 1775) the inhabitants were panic struck at the news, by a messenger on horseback of the battle of Lexington, and who wished our inhabitants to repair to Fairfield where they would consult on measures suitable to the present emergency.”
One may wonder why Joseph Palmer had chosen to add the bearer’s name to his urgent appeal for help. One possible explanation is the need for complete confidence in the report. In September 1774 there had been an alarm quite similar to this which later proved to be entirely false. Connecticut men had responded in great numbers then and the repetition of such a debacle would not be taken lightly. That the document did succeed in dispelling any doubts in its readers is evidenced by the following report which appeared in the New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury of April 24, 1775:
Watertown, Wednesday morning near 10 o’clock …”
and Palmer’s letter and its Connecticut endorsements are printed in detail.”
In many places along the route the news created disturbances and excitement, but in New York City it caused a riot which developed into armed revolt. Judge Thomas Jones, an ardent New York loyalist, described the scene there when the news of Lexington and Concord arrived:
The mails were stopped and opened and letters read; a mob broke open the city arsenal and forcibly removed 1,000 stand of arms. The entire city became one continuous scene of riot, tumult and confusion.”
Troops were enlisted, loyalists were threatened, and the government considered several repressive actions, but because the revolt was too wide spread decided to do nothing and wait for it to cool down. On May 1st a committee of 100 was chosen to act in the ‘present alarming emergency’ and assumed control of the city. Loyalists were forced to flee and British troops were embarked on the ship “Asia’ to prevent a clash with the excited people.
In a letter published in the Connecticut Courant of Monday, May 4, 1775, the New York committee wrote to the Hartford committee:
Back in Watertown the Massachusetts Committee of Safety was recommending the establishment of an independent postal system. A new list of patriotic post offices was published in May showing one in every large town from Portsmouth, N.H. to Williamsburg, Va. So quickly and completely was the conversion that on May 4th the last of the parliamentary post riders were discharged for lack of funds. The Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin to head a committee to set up a colonial postal system.
There is little in the New York endorsement to reveal the excitement in the city:
By order of the Committee
Isaac Law, Chairman.
“The committee at New Brunswick are requested to forward this to Philadelphia.”
The postal route from New York to Philadelphia had been improved by Benjamin Franklin in 1753 to include a sailboat trip from Manhattan to Elizabethport and from there to New Brunswick, Princeton and Trenton. At Elizabethtown the letter caused Elias Boudinot to begin a new journal on the evening of April 23, although no endorsement was added there to Palmer’s dispatch. The post rider continued to ride throughout the night. By now the moon, in its third quarter on the night of the 18th, had grown dim and the route across the New Jersey flatlands would have been tiring and hypnotic. Three more stops were made that night before finally arriving in Philadelphia.
Arariah Dunham Committee.”
“Princetown, Monday April 24, 4 o’clock and forwarded to Trenton by
“Trenton, Monday April 24, 9 o’clock in the morning received the above by express and forwarded the same to the Committee of Philadelphia by
Isaac Smith Committee.”
The news of the battle of Lexington reached Philadelphia at 5 P.M., April 24. The bell in the state house tolled to call 8,000 people to hear the news, and they agreed to associate for the purposes of ‘defending with arms, our lives, liberty and property against all attempts to deprive us of them.’
The letter’s final endorsement is an affidavit that reads:
This is the paper sent to Philadelphia and delivered to me by one of the committee.
(Signed) Eben Hazard.
Nine days later, on May 3rd, Ebenezer Hazard was appointed deputy postmaster in New York City.
The news which had left Watertown, Mass. at 10 am Wednesday, April 19th had arrived five days later in Philadelphia, 350 miles away, at 5 P.M. April 24th. Although it may have been common for the normal mail to travel this distance in less then two weeks, expresses of this type did beat that time. News of the Bunker Hill battle reached Philadelphia in 6 days and that of General Washington’s election in Philadelphia reached Cambridge in nine days.
Philadelphia was preparing for the arrival of the delegates to the second Continental Congress. They would open the meeting in the wake of the opening warfare.
Palmer’s letter was sent southward to Baltimore and on its arrival the inhabitants seized 1,500 stand of arms in the Provincial magazine. By Saturday April 29th the news had reached Williamsburg, Va. Captain Patrick Henry set out for the capitol with a body of armed men. When the news reached Charlestown, S.C , the colony began to organize itself for defence against possible British attack.
The news spread westward across the mountains to the frontier and caused a great deal of consternation, as the very existence of these settlements depended upon the eastern suppliers. A group of campers in Kentucky, upon receiving the news, called the place Lexington.
The Lexington alarm had aroused the spirit and enthusiasm of the American people to the highest level of any period in the war. In every colony there were patriotic resolves and orders for the establishment of military organizations.
The colonies now had something to unite them. Recognizing that a more official bond was needed, the Continental Congress soon adopted the army surrounding Boston and appointed George Washington from Virginia to lead them, thus converting it into a national force with the backing of the Continental Congress.
In the July 7, 1775 entries of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress the following item appears:
In the various copies and newspaper accounts of Palmer’s letter Bissell’s first name is usually spelled “Israel”, but in some including the Philadelphia copy it has been spelled “Trail”, perhaps a nickname or a copyists’ error. In a manuscript copy signed by Silas Dean and owned by the William H. Clemens library the name of the bearer is given “Mr. Isaac Bissell”. Perhaps the July 7th entry is delayed payment for a heroic task performed “in the line of duty”.
In an interesting sidelight, Silas Deane and Samuel H. Parsons (a signatory of the Lexington Alarm dispatch in New London on April 20th) were key figures in financing Ethan Allen’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10th 1775. Benedict Arnold, who had been inspired by the Alarm to demand the keys to the powder house in New Haven, accompanied Allen into the fort armed with orders from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety.
Israel Bissell returned to East Windsor where he entered service in Capt. W. Wolcott’s Co. with his brother Justis in July, 1776. Israel remained in the army for only one month, possibly due to the death of his father in 1776. When the war ended the family moved to Middlefield, Mass., where Israel purchased land and in 1784 married Lucy Hancock of Longmeadow. They had four children. Israel died in 1823 at the age of seventy-one in Hinsdale, Mass.