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or, an Inspirational Story, and How It Has Grown…

“Corporal Joe” was my 7th great-grandfather, Joseph Munroe. Yes, Browne spells it “Monroe.” Joseph’s mother’s tombstone has “Munroo.” Hardly anybody was hung up on spelling in those days; get used to it. Though aged 88 by then, Grandpa Joseph was indeed on hand for the 19th of April 1775. With, as Browne correctly suggests, another twelve years of life (and apparently of storytelling) still ahead of him.

The story on the previous page assigns him a marvelously inspirational role at the Battle of Concord Bridge. It’s also thoroughly implausible, in a startling variety of ways, just like a whole lot of surviving accounts of that epochal day. I include this item both for its inspirational value and also to illustrate the attitude of respectful caution with which we should always approach such faith-promoting tales. Many of them (not this one) could be literally true. But they tend to exist in many versions, for solid reasons of patriotic psychology. Nobody really knows the facts, although we can and must weigh comparative plausibilities. May we engage ourselves to penetrate to the truth beyond fact, as we are given the grace to do so?

It behooves us to exercise particular care in evaluating people’s accounts of their own exploits or those of their heroes. Especially old storytellers. I know at first hand the seduction of “Wouldn’t that make a better story if…?” This patriotic anecdote, however phony from a purely factual standpoint, still reflects powerful feelings that prevailed among those who sacrificed to build our nation in its first century. I’m not alone, I think, in regretting the attenuation of that power in its third.

Let us note in passing that Octogenarian Joe was surely not “one of the ‘Minute Men’” at the Bridge. He was way, way over-age to be enrolled in the militia at all, much less in Abijah Peirce’s youth-oriented Minute Regiment. What’s more, his name isn’t on the list; I checked. His nephew Robert, who had died that morning on the Green, had pushed the age envelope severely at 62, getting away with it, apparently, only by virtue of his considerable military and social status.

The whole bit about the drummer freezing and the commander (Col. Barrett, one presumes) calling upon the bystanders for assistance also rings false. Sensible bystanders weren’t standing very nearby, nor would the military types have welcomed their proximity nor solicited their help in what aspired to be, after all, a professional military operation. Wouldn’t the offending drummer face a firing squad for cowardice in the face of the enemy? Or how might they punish the commander for his bizarre behavior? Doesn’t sound like any other account of the occasion that I’ve seen, and accounts survive in bewildering abundance and variety.

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(Joseph Munroe)
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