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This Day in History: The oldest Revolutionary War hero

On this day in 1696, a hero is born. Captain Samuel Whittemore would go on to become the oldest known combatant in the American Revolution.

He was 78 years old when he singlehandedly took on a British brigade.

Perhaps the move was unsurprising? Whittemore had long been helping the Patriot cause. As early as 1766, he was agitating against the much-hated Stamp Act. He became a respected member of the community and served on multiple colonial committees, including the Cambridge Committee of Correspondence.

A monument to Whittemore, albeit with a mistake in his age.

“If we cease to assert Our rights,” that committee asserted in 1773, “we shall dwindle into supineness and the chains of slavery shall be fast rivetted upon us . . . .”

Whittemore is best known for his actions on April 19, 1775.

Just one day earlier, hundreds of British soldiers had been dispatched to Concord. They were to seize the weapons and supplies that Americans had stored there. Paul Revere famously rode through the night, carrying a warning of the British plan.

Early on April 19, British troops ran into minutemen on Lexington Green. Shots rang out. Before long, eighteen Americans were killed or wounded. Meanwhile, only one British soldier was mildly wounded.

The British troops continued toward Concord. They searched for weapons, but couldn’t find anything. The conflict might have ended there, but for one thing: A fire broke out. American militia thought the British had set the fire. A brief skirmish ensued, leaving 3 British and 2 Americans dead. The British began retreating towards Boston.

That retreat did not go well for the British. They were hounded the whole way back to Boston by minutemen who fired at them from behind hedges and trees. Ultimately, the British would find themselves cornered and under siege in Boston.

Naturally, Whittemore was in the thick of the action, despite his advanced age.

He grabbed a pistol and a musket, and he hunkered down behind a stone wall. Before too long, a British brigade passed in front of him. The 78-year-old Whittemore leapt out, ready for action. First with his musket, then with his pistol, he took out at least two redcoats before reinforcements came.

The British were furious, and they took it out on Whittemore. The old Patriot soon had multiple bayonet wounds. He was shot in the face. “We have killed the old rebel,” the redcoats reportedly said as they left.

“About four hours after,” the Essex Journal reported in 1793, “he was found in a mangled situation; his head was covered with blood, from the wounds of the bayonet, which were six or eight; but providentially none penetrated so far as to destroy him; his hat and cloaths were shot through in many places . . . .”

But Whittemore simply refused to die. He recovered from his injuries, and he even lived for 18 more years! He not only watched America win its Revolution against the British, but he also lived through most of George Washington’s first term as United States President.

“[T]he United States never had a braver warrior,” the Massachusetts state legislature concluded in 2005. It had decided that Whittemore should be named the official hero of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

An American doing what Americans do. How appropriate.

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