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Anniversary

"Those of high estate hereabout are bitterly opposed to our actions," wrote Ephriam Bank. How the partisans of '75 became a revolutionary army.

By Howard Fast

That revolution, which is so generally spelled now with an upper-case R, was a very real and bitter thing to those people who participated in it. They cocked their eyes up from down below, in contrast to the many generations of well-fed historians who, playing the part of lackeys so willingly, looked back grandly on an epic of heroes and turned it into a Chamber of Commerce period-piece.

It was quite different for the common people who shook the earth in the last three decades of the eighteenth century. Ephriam Bank, a farmer who lived near the little New England village of Concord, had a different impression of events. He was a fairly literate man, though he had no formal schooling; he kept random notes in that year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, and parts make interesting reading. The early parts, for example, when he joined a revolutionary people's circle, and came once a week for musket practice and once a week for discussion. He records at that time, in March of '75:

"There is much hot feeling against the red Indian, the Most of it from Jesse Clew who journed westward and suffred greviously from their annoyances, losing a small child and his home. Brother Freyberg lectured on the Responsibility of the British for these Cruelties, a way of sowing division and discord, the better to rule. Know thine enemies, was the Text of the sermon he preached."

A week later, Bank, who had worked all his life to maintain his farm of fourteen acres, notes:

"Those of high estate hereabout are bitterly opposed to Our actions. It would seem that possession of a set of silver and a servant or two makes one a handmaiden of the wretched British more that Birth in the old country. Isaiah Abbot read a communication from kin in the old Land, and they too are in wretched state even more so than we. Brother Freyberg preached that if brother be set against brother, the rich against the poor, then surely the poor shall triumph, for are they not the Children of God? Have they not taken up their arms in God's cause? How shall God favor those who make of their alters a Mockery, a place of graven images?"

That seems to have been shortly before the battle at Concord Bridge, in which Bank participated. If you remember, that was not an engagement by any unit of a regular army, but an action in which a group of partisan farmers drove back the British troops and saved the store of illicit arms they had accumulated. Bank described it:

"A most confused affray, in which many new to the bitter taste of battle shot off their guns in each direction. Fear was not apparent in our ranks, and my heart swelled with pride and the more so when I spied youthful Connister, a bullet in his arm and yet manfully holding away the tears. We did better on the retreat of the Lobsters, cursed be they who hold a free people in Contempt, and behind walls our few riflemen made Slaughter with Them. But we are prone to favor the quick, bury the Dead, and make merry over our Triumph. I much fear, however, that this is a Long and Painful War upon which we embark... and who will pursu it but the Folk. ... There is no Power and no Government on our Side, but the right arm of a Just God. ..."

In a vague way--for his notes were neither complete nor particularly conscious of an interested posterity--we can follow the movements of Farmer Bank in that year before there was a Declaration of Independence, before there was a regular army, a union of colonies, a department of supply or finance or anything of the sort, but only an aroused population of common folk who had heard that the blood of free men had been shed on American soil, and had decided to take a hand.

It was a mobilization of partisan bands under local Committees of Action. Note the word partisan; it seems to have come into being, in its modern sense, in our first war for liberation. I know of no use of it previous to that time, at least in the same sense--and if the word was favored in the Carolinas and in Georgia, it was most certainly also used in the northern colonies.

But even though this was a movement of the people, spontaneous and immediate, it was not without prelude and preparation. The Committee of Action had been knit in some cases for months, in some for years, by a regular system of secret correspondence. The question of unity--among the partisan bands, not among the provincial assemblies--had already been decided, and it was agreed by the people's committees that an explosion anywhere would be the signal for a popular uprising, regardless of what the legislators decided. In New Hampshire and in Vermont, where the wonderfully effective and deadly long rifle was widely used, companies of riflemen had been formed, and a few such companies had come down to the Boston area to aid the people in this hotbed of trouble. Those were probably the rifles of which Farmer Bank wrote.

The postscript to Concord Bridge and the temporary victory won there was precisely what had been planned by these committees of Action--general uprising. Not only in Concord but in a hundred other villages, scattered through New England and down through Jersey and New York into Pennsylvania, the partisan bands formed, took packages of bread and meat, flasks of water, their guns and shot, and trudged toward Boston. The people were in action, on the move, by twos, threes, tens and hundreds marching along the rutted dirt roads that led toward Boston. Command was local; they elected officers; they were their own commissaries. At this point, Ephriam Bank wrote:

"I kissed goodby and blessed be to my Good Wife and four little ones, God help them, and then went with the company in the Direction of Boston Town... The roads are crowded with men bearing arms and no good will or Token for the Oppressor... Our company is calm and marches brisk, muskets and the blunderbuss and plenty of shot."

An army was forming outside of Boston, and Farmer Bank became part of it. He lay behind the parapet on Breed's Hill when the British were repulsed in their first great defeat, and he records:

"Brother Freyberg is slain, God have Mercy on his Soul, and I begin to see what a price liberty asks--for I have neither word nor line from my wife and Dear Ones. There is a sickness in the camp and outside the city five hundred fresh graves... There is no use begging the future, for we are marked as traitors, and a hempen rope is all the glory we will get for going home."

His writing, which was full and verbose at first, becomes closer and tighter as the partisan army becomes a permanent revolutionary force. Only a line or two records his march to New York City, which the new commander-in-chief, George Washington, had decided to defend. The July ninth entry in his little diary is almost the last; soon he disappears from life and history, only a half-known figure in the heartbreaking yet triumphant march of men of good will. On the ninth of July, he wrote:

"I like not these New York people, for they are creven and servil to the king and filled with a lust for their property. Too much owning is a curse in a man's blood... Yet it may be that there will come hope and new United strengt from this Declarasion signed in Philadelfia. The folk must learn to hold together, for they have only God and themselfs."