They walked 40 miles that night and the next day, to Lexington, and on to Concord, back to Lexington and finally back to Boston. At Lexington, they faced quickly assembled Colonial troops on the Village Green, and there the long and costly struggle for the personal freedoms and government by the governed that we all enjoy began. The Colonial militia, about 80 of them under the command of Capt. John Parker, had no intention of slowing the Redcoats' march to Concord. But as the 700 British regulars met them at dawn, in the confusion, a shot was fired -- by whom history is unable to determine -- and a skirmish ensued in which eight Colonials died.

Before that brief engagement, Capt. Parker gave his famous command, held high among the great patriotic utterances in our national history: "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here."  And it did begin. The Redcoats marched on to Concord, in search of gunpowder and arms that had been stored there by the Colonials. But through intelligence leaked from British army headquarters, the Concord militia knew about the impending attack and had hidden the armaments. And there, "by the rude bridge that arched the flood," as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote many years later, more militia -- minutemen -- engaged the British regulars.

The battle went on after 500 or so Colonials saw smoke rising from the vicinity of Concord center, and thought (erroneously) that the Redcoats had set the village afire. They were enraged. The regulars faced them at the bridge, and the long and bloody fight for independence had begun. The British withdrew, after finding no cache of arms, but the Colonials harassed and attacked them as they marched back to Boston.

As the day progressed, militiamen and their commanders from towns throughout the area poured into Lexington and joined the forces already there. Contrary to common belief, the minutemen did not just scurry ahead of the retreating British column and snipe at it from behind walls and undergrowth. Rather, the Colonials were led by experienced officers who deployed their troops at strategic points along the retreat route and were able to inflict substantial losses on the regulars, thereby slowing and hindering the long and exhausting withdrawal and making it much more difficult than it would have been otherwise.

Paul Revere, earlier that same evening, had made his historic ride from Charlestown through Menotomy (Arlington) to Lexington to warn the elders in the villages that the British regulars were coming, and word was spread through a carefully worked-out communications system to the surrounding towns, so there was no surprise in the regulars' assault.  But the regulars, the mighty British army, suffered a major defeat by a group of Colonial militias.

The nation, more specifically, eastern Massachusetts, remembers the 19th of April, known as Patriots Day. There are exercises on Lexington Green and by the North Bridge in Concord to celebrate the courage and resolve the colonists showed, and the sacrifice they showed in standing up to a government that oppressed them and tormented them and demeaned them. Revere's ride is ridden again each year, now along paved streets through teeming cities and towns.

For many years, the battles in the two towns were remembered on April 19, the anniversary of their occurrence. Now the observance is on the third Monday of April. The events at Lexington and Concord were the first in the Revolution. Next came the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17. There the British regulars defeated the Colonials, but at such a cost that it amounted to a victory for the revolutionaries.

The Declaration of Independence would not be written for more than a year, but the mistreatment of the colonists by the British crown had led them to desperation. Actions like this embody the patriotism and resolve of our early forebears. And they lead one to wonder how Americans of today would react to conditions similar to those of the colonists.

Would we grab our guns (if we were allowed to have them) and rush to confront an invading army? Would we be willing to risk death to defend a noble concept? Americans remain in the debt of these staunch and brave forebears. We owe all we have to them and to others who fill our national history with feats of courage and patriotism. America remains the beacon of freedom for the world. Today we cheer and thank those who took the first gallant steps to win it for us.

Bob Reed, 92, is a former editorial writer for The Sun.

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