By all accounts, farmer Samuel Whittemore wasn’t looking for trouble. The 80-year-old veteran of three American wars had fought his battles and earned his peace, settling down in Menotomy, Massachusetts.
Still, on a day made famous for the battles in Lexington and Concord and Paul Revere’s Ride, the grizzled warrior ambushed the Grenadiers of the 47th Regiment from behind a stone wall.
The octogenarian killed one Grenadier with his musket, then drew his dueling pistols and fired, killing two more before the Redcoats overran his position with fixed bayonets. One Grenadier leveled his musket at close range and fired, blasting a .69 caliber musket ball through Whittemore’s cheek. The musket ball tore away part of the old man’s face and threw him violently to the ground. Bleeding profusely from the horrible wound, the old man drew his saber — taken from the body of a French officer more than 30 years before — and fought the Regulars hand-to-hand before falling under the buttstroke of a Grenadier’s Brown Bess. Whittemore was bayoneted 13 times and left for dead in a pool of blood.
Samuel Whittemore would have been the oldest Colonial fatality of the entire Revolutionary War — but he refused to die. Horribly scarred but immensely proud, he lived to 98, as an American citizen.
The home range of the Revolutionary War Veterans Association (RWVA) lies just off the intersection of a pair of narrow country roads, amid the rolling green hills, cattle farms, and forests of Ramseur, North Carolina. Down a gravel path lies a 500-yard centerfire rifle range that stretches from the crest of one hill down through a valley and up the other side. A smaller well-used rimfire rifle range lies just beyond it. At this shorter distance range, I and almost three dozen showed up on a wet and muddy morning last week to learn of our shared American heritage that began on that day in April 19, 1775, through the Appleseed Project.
We were also interested in learning the skills that made Timothy Murphy the most famous marksman of his day and helped create the legend of Morgan’s Riflemen. Sheltered on the firing line from a light rain and threatening thunderstorms, we learned the history of our founders, of the moral choices and civic duty that they knew would be the most important and most fragile elements of liberty. And we fired rifles. A lot.
We fired at “Redcoats” and “sighters” and “AQTs,” or Army Qualification Tests, the scoring of which ultimately determines if you are a “rifleman or a cook.” Most of us fielded some variation of a “liberty training rifle,” which were inexpensive .22LR rimfire semi-automatic rifles retrofitted with Tech-Sights and slings, but Appleseed’s instructor’s aren’t finicky. The RWVA’s instructors believe in teaching you the basic fundamentals of shooting, no matter the rifle, and in reaching the peak of your ability. We saw dozens of .22s in every possible configuration: bolt-action hunting rifles with scopes, high-end AR-15s, and even a 50-caliber muzzleloader on the line — though the latter wasn’t intended to qualify.
When we first fired at our simulated “Redcoat” targets on Saturday, only a little more than half of us managed to put three shots into a a target simulating a Regular 100 yards away — much less the 200, 300, and 400 yard targets. At the end of the day, that same test was repeated: the success rate at the simulated 100 yard target jumped to 96%.
Throughout both days, we alternated shooting with listening to stories of our heritage dating back to the pivotal day in 1775 where Samuel Whittemore and thousands of other colonial militiamen made their mark on history. We watched our instructors as they showed us the fundamentals of marksmanship, and ran us through what they called the “AQT grind,” as we strove to hit the black centers of ever-smaller targets simulating 100, 200, 300, and 400 yard targets from standing, sitting, and prone positions.
Those who managed to score 210 or more of a possible 250 points on the AQT earned the coveted Rifleman’s patch. Few earn the patch in their first event, but we managed to have six shooters from our group earn the title of Rifleman, and several that were just points away.
I can’t claim to have had the opportunity to meet everyone who attended, but there were Christian missionaries, a half-dozen bloggers as part of an organized outing, at least three husband-and-wife pairs, and two teens among the students.
Among the instructors were senior “red hats” and junior “orange hats” ranging in age from a 13-year-old instructor up to the silver-haired. Age wasn’t nearly as important as skill and teaching ability, proven to me by the 17-year-old instructor that took me under his wing, helped me zero a newly mounted scope, and showed this middle-aged man what real skills with a rifle looked like.
By the end of the second day, six of us had earned the title of Rifleman, and on the official closing “Redcoat” I was lucky enough to “clear” it, becoming the only shooter on the range that weekend who managed to place all 13 shots on target, hitting three shots each on targets that simulated 100, 200, 300, and 400 yard Redcoats, and on the 250-yard “plank” that Daniel Morgan used to select his riflemen.
After, earning my Rifleman’s badge, my instructor took me up to the 500 yard range. Gone were the scaled and simulated targets. He put me behind his rifle and became my spotter, calling out targets at 200 yards, then 300. He then had me shoot a head-and-shoulders at 400 yards, and the sound of lead ringing on steel across the valley sent a chill down my spine.
He then pointed out a tiny, eight-inch steel target at 500 yards. A target that I couldn’t even see with the naked eye. I concentrated on my breathing, adjusted to my natural point of aim, exhaled, and touched the trigger.
Bang. The scope settled after the shot in time for me to see the bullet splash against the steel plate. Ping came the echoing reply a moment later. Thanks to superb and patient coaching from a cadre of passionate volunteers, I’d made my shot at the “rifleman’s quarter-mile,” a shot I wouldn’t have even dreamed of 48 hours before.
When we straggled off the range Sunday afternoon, it was with a new-found sense of what our heritage was as Americans. We are a nation that chose to be, that can trace it’s history back to a specific moment in time when our forefathers demanded the civility, fidelity, and liberty that only a break from the crown could offer.
We the nation that dared to be.
Two iconic presidents, Lincoln and Reagan, reminded us more than a hundred years apart that this nation is the “last, best hope” for liberty on planet Earth. One emerges from Appleseed with newfound respect for our past and confidence that we can take control of this nation’s future, getting back on the path the Founders intended. I’ll be back again very soon, to absorb more of that history, and with luck, I’ll be bringing friends.