Lexington and Concord
Lexington and Concord
LEXINGTON AND CONCORD. 19 April 1775. Because opposition to increased imperial control was turning more violent in Boston, culminating in the Boston Tea Party (16 December 1773), the imperial government decided to reorganize the government of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. As part of a series of measures—the so-called Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts—it closed the port of Boston until restitution was made for the destruction of the East India Company's tea (the Boston Port Act of 31 March 1774); revoked several provisions of the Massachusetts Charter of 1692 to give the royal governor greater power (the Massachusetts Government Act of 20 May 1774); and appointed Major General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British army in North America, as royal governor to enforce the acts. Gage arrived at Boston in May 1774 and quickly moved to Salem, where he had been instructed to establish the new seat of royal government in an effort to diminish the importance of Boston and punish the commercial activity of its radical merchants. Although assistance from other colonies kept the people of Boston supplied with foodstuffs and other essentials, normal business was at a standstill after 1 June 1774, when the Port Act went into effect.
Opponents of increased imperial control responded in a variety of ways. They reminded supporters of the crown that shutting down the port of Boston hurt them too, and agitated for a return to the regular channels of imperial commerce. As Gage tried to put in place the restructured government, activists across Massachusetts (especially in Worcester and Berkshire Counties) took steps to keep government in the hands of local leaders who opposed the new measures, and out of the hands of those leaders willing to support Gage.
When the governor tried to terminate the meeting of the Assembly on 17 June, its delegates continued to meet illegally. They called for an intercolonial congress to concert resistance, to meet at Philadelphia in early September, and named five of their number as delegates. When Gage called a new Assembly for October, the delegates privately met and adjourned to Concord, where they resolved themselves into the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. This was an extra-legal body that effectively governed all of Massachusetts outside Boston. Gage moved back to Boston, in large part to keep closer tabs on his opponents, and abandoned his attempts to enforce the Intolerable Acts outside that city itself.
Over the winter of 1774–1775, the Provincial Congress and its executive arm, the Committee of Safety, assembled the requisite means to resist the imperial government by force of arms, if that became necessary. Because many militia units remained under the command of men who might be reluctant to fight British troops, it created a parallel military structure led by committed activists, and directed them to organize and drill units of volunteers (the minutemen) that would be ready to respond literally at a moment's notice to British incursions. Local activists, with or without the endorsement of the Provincial Congress, endeavored to take control of military stores at Boston and Charlestown, encouraged the seizure of stores in Rhode Island (at Fort Island and New Castle), and arranged to accumulate stores at Concord and Worcester. A network of Committees of Correspondence connected local activists with the Provincial Congress, which itself communicated regularly with activists in other colonies in an effort to ensure that Massachusetts would not be left alone to face British anger. All in all, however, the effort to terrorize those who wanted to remain loyal to the Crown was successful.
GOVERNOR GAGE REACTS
In response to the rising likelihood of armed rebellion, Gage increased the Boston garrison to about 3,500 soldiers and fortified Boston Neck. British troops managed to confiscate gunpowder and firearms from militia depots at Charlestown and Cambridge, but these efforts served mainly to confirm the worst fears of the activists, who responded to the march on Cambridge on 1 September 1774 with the so-called Powder Alarm, a veritable dress rehearsal of their minuteman-based military system. When a reluctant Gage tried again to confiscate military supplies (several old cannon said to be stored at Salem) on 26 February 1775, the expedition failed in ways that increased the confidence of activists that they could mount a successful armed resistance.
Imperial officials, determined to bring Boston and the rest of the province to heel, decided to increase the Boston garrison to 10,000 men, and proposed more coercive acts. Most significantly, they refused to believe they faced a serious rebellion in America. William Legge, who was the second earl of Dartmouth and secretary of state for the American colonies, told Gage on 27 January 1775 that "the outrages which have been committed were … merely the act of a tumultuous rabble, without the appearance of general concert … that could render them formidable to a regular force led forth in support of law and government." To Gage's claim that it would take 20,000 men to reconquer New England, Dartmouth replied "that such a force cannot be collected without augmenting our army in general to a war-establishment" and asserted that "I am unwilling to believe that matters are as yet come to that issue." With only 12,000 regular infantry available in all of Britain, an aggressive optimism was the imperial government's only real option. Some officials in London even suggested that Gage lacked the decisiveness and resolve to deal with the situation.
For several weeks, Gage had been planning an expedition to seize the military supplies at Concord, where his well-organized system of spies and informers told him the activists had gathered an important cache of munitions. He had already sent small groups of regulars marching through the countryside as far as Watertown on several occasions, in part to improve their physical condition and in part to accustom everyone to the idea that it was normal for them to do so. He chose Concord, twenty miles from Boston, as his target because, although it was more than twice as far away as Watertown, it was closer than the other cache at Worcester. He hoped that Concord's proximity would make render its stores more vulnerable to seizure.
Aware that such action would further enflame the activists, Gage was in a difficult position. He was being pressured to take strong action, but lacked the military means at hand to make that action decisive. London would hold him responsible if he failed to act, and blame him if his actions exacerbated the situation. On 14 April 1775, he received instructions from London which strongly suggested that he should arrest the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The adjournment of that body the next day removed the possibility of seizing the activist leaders in one swoop, but, knowing London's desires, Gage decided on a gamble: he hoped that a quick raid on Concord might stun the activists and deprive them of some of their means to fight. His choice was the best military option among an increasingly unpalatable set of alternatives.
THE STAGE IS SET
Gage set his plan in motion on 15 April, a Saturday, when he ordered the "flank companies" (grenadiers and light infantry) of nine of the ten complete regiments of foot in the Boston garrison (the Fourth, Fifth, Tenth, Twenty-third, Thirty-eighth, Forty-third, Forty-seventh, Fifty-second, and Fifty-ninth Regiments) to be relieved from their normal duties, allegedly to learn new drill formations. To these eighteen companies he added the grenadiers of the Eighteenth Regiment, and two companies of marines. Thus he fielded a total of nearly 900 men in twenty-one companies, about forty men in each company. He named Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith of the Tenth Regiment to command the expedition. Although an older, heavy-set man, overweight and unfit for arduous service, Smith was "known to be an officer of prudence, moderation, and maturity" (Fischer, p. 85). Marine Major John Pitcairn was named second-in-command. Pitcairn was "a seasoned veteran and general favorite, popular with Whigs as well as Tories" (French, Concord, p. 71), the type of man Gage wanted with Smith on a mission that would call for a cool head and good judgment. Smith put Pitcairn in change of the six light infantry companies that comprised his advance guard. It was a combination of commander and soldiers who had never worked together before, a circumstance whose implications would become clear on Lexington green. Gage also called upon the skills of Hugh, Earl Percy, who was perhaps the best officer in the garrison. Percy was ordered to lead any reserves that might be needed to assist Smith's forces. The troops themselves were not told where they were going, and elaborate measures were prescribed to assemble them after dark on 18 April.
Gage knew it was impossible to conceal preparations for an expedition from the various bands of townsmen organized by the activists to patrol the city and watch for suspicious troop activity. At about midnight on 15-16 April, for instance, the activists knew that boats which had earlier been gathered from naval vessels in the harbor for repair on shore had been returned to their ships. However, Gage did try to keep secret the exact target of the expedition by limiting knowledge of the plan to only a few officers. According to one tradition, Gage did not even tell Smith until the last minute that his objective was Concord. Ironically, these efforts contributed to delaying the assembly of the expedition, and ultimately proved futile. By the evening of 18 April, the Boston activists had further indications of the British move, and where it was headed. A soldier told the townsman with whom he was billeted that the troops were about to march. Another soldier was left word to fall out at 8 P .M. on Boston Common with a day's provisions and thirty-six rounds of ammunition. Several people saw another soldier in field dress in a store. After dark on the 18th, just after being told of the expedition by Gage, Percy overheard loiterers on the Common talking about a suspected British attempt to seize the stores at Concord. Gage was shocked when Percy reported this information back to him a few minutes later, since he claimed to have told only one person other than Percy that Smith's objective was Concord. Doctor Joseph Warren, a principal leader of the activists, may even have had the target confirmed by a highly placed spy, Gage's own American-born wife, Margaret Kemble Gage, although this allegation remains controversial among historians.
Although Gage knew his plan was compromised, he believed it was too late to revoke Smith's orders. He understood that the activists would quickly alert the countryside of British movements, and by noon on 18 April he had dispatched a group of twenty officers and sergeants to patrol the roads ahead of the expedition to catch rebel couriers and thus limit the speed with which the news was spread. He also understood that Smith might encounter armed resistance, and he did not underestimate the strength and power it might demonstrate. His assignment of Percy to provide support shows that he knew Smith might need help later in the day. According to Fischer, "his mistake in judgment was not about the probability of resistance, or the motives, tactics, and fighting skills of the New England militia, but about the quality of leadership among them" (p. 86). His written orders to Smith—the document that initiated the train of events that turned the occasionally violent resistance against increased imperial control into open armed rebellion—read as follows:
A Quantity of Ammunition and Provision together with a Number of Cannon and small Arms having been collected at Concord for the avowed Purpose of asserting a Rebellion against His Majesty's Government, You will march with the Corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry put under your Command with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy all the Artillery and Ammunition, provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all military stores whatever (Paul Revere's Ride, p. 85).
PAUL REVERE'S RIDE
On Sunday, 16 April, Dr. Joseph Warren sent Paul Revere to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington that Gage might be sending troops to arrest them. Returning from this mission, Revere arranged with Colonel William Conant and other activist leaders in Charlestown that he would flash the "one if by land, two if by sea" signal from Boston to alert them of British intentions, as a back-up in case no courier was able to escape the town. At about 10 p.m. on 18 April, Warren sent for William Dawes and Paul Revere, and instructed them to take the latest information—that the British were going to move the next day—to Hancock and Adams. Warren first dispatched Dawes, a Boston tanner who had proven to be a resourceful courier on previous occasions, by way of Boston Neck, where Dawes managed to talk his way through the British lines. When Revere got his orders, he arranged with two friends, Captain John Pulling and Robert Newman (the sexton), to show the lantern signal from the steeple of Christ Church, commonly called Old North Church, the tallest point in Boston's North End. Joshua Bentley and Thomas Richardson then rowed Revere across the Charles River to Charlestown just as the moon was rising. There, Revere checked in with Conant, secured a horse (according to tradition, Deacon John Larkin's mare, Brown Beauty, a fine New England saddlehorse), and pounded across Charlestown Neck at about 11 p.m. It was now bright moonlight. Revere had been warned in Charlestown that British mounted patrols were on the roads ahead.
Cantering west down the Lexington road, Revere saw two mounted men, whom he quickly determined were British officers. Galloping north to escape pursuit, he turned west again through Mystic (now Medford) and Menotomy, a round-about route that, unbeknown to Revere, allowed him to escape the roving British patrols. After alerting the captain of the minutemen in Medford, Revere spread the alarm along the Lexington road. He arrived about midnight at the house of the Reverend Jonas Clark in Lexington, where Hancock and Adams had been guests for almost a month while the Massachusetts Provincial Congress met in Concord. Revere was surprised to find the house guarded. Earlier in the evening, Solomon Brown had returned to Lexington from Boston and told William Munroe, orderly sergeant of the Lexington minutemen, of seeing nine armed British officers on the road. Munroe turned out eight of his men to stand guard on Clark's house, and Hancock sent Brown with two others to alert Concord.
Dawes reached Lexington about half an hour after Revere, having covered a route almost four miles longer. Revere and Dawes continued on to Concord, and between 1 and 2 a.m. were halfway there when they ran into a British patrol of eight officers and several men. Revere was captured after attempting to get away, and was held in custody with Solomon Brown, his two men, and a fourth individual who turned out to be an innocent peddler—all of whom had been arrested previously. Dawes escaped back to Lexington. Dr. Samuel Prescott, who had joined Revere and Dawes as they left Lexington, escaped to alert Concord. Revere told the British he had alerted the countryside and that 500 militiamen would soon be in Lexington. He also fabricated the story that Smith's column had been delayed. Major Edward Mitchel, who commanded the British patrol, was taken in by Revere's yarn. The prisoners were held until the patrol neared Lexington and heard the alarm guns.
Mitchel's patrol had questioned the Lexington prisoners about Hancock and Adams, and may have had discretionary orders to capture these two leaders as well. If so, they abandoned the plan when they realized the countryside was alerted and that Smith's column was delayed. The British released the prisoners, after taking their horses, and moved to make contact with Smith. When Hancock and Adams got Revere's first warning, Hancock had insisted he would fall out with the Lexington militia and fight, but when Revere returned to Clark's house with news of the British patrol, Hancock was finally persuaded to escape, instead. Revere accompanied Hancock and Adams a few miles on the road to Woburn, from whence they would leave later in the day for Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was to meet in May. Revere got back to Lexington at sunrise to witness the encounter between the Lexington militiamen and the British column.
The grenadier and light infantry companies formed on Boston Common at dusk on 18 April. In the pitch darkness before moonrise (9:30 p.m.), they marched with utmost caution to a point near the west side of modern Park Square. Here they were met by the ships' boats and rowed, with muffled oars, across the Charles River to Lechmere Point. The distance by water—the "sea" of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem about Paul Revere's ride—was at least a mile and a quarter. The British landed at what was then Phips's Farm, later Lechmere Farm and Point, now East Cambridge (the landscape of Revolutionary landmarks in Boston's Back Bay has been obliterated by filling and construction). Between 11 p.m. and midnight the troops waded ashore to wait, cold and miserable, for about two hours while extra provisions were landed and distributed. Since they were already carrying rations, most of the troops threw away those for which they had been delayed for two vital hours. It was between 1 and 2 a.m. when Smith finally got his column marching, starting them off through a waist deep ford to avoid the noise of crossing a plank bridge.
By the time he reached Menotomy, about 3 a.m., Smith had ample evidence that his advance was expected. According to Gage's report, Smith called his officers together during a halt and issued orders not to fire unless fired upon. Soon thereafter, apparently dissatisfied with the speed of his column, Smith ordered Pitcairn ahead with the six light companies of the advance guard to secure the bridges at Concord. Then, having additional evidence that the countryside was alarmed, he sent word of this development back to Gage and requested reinforcements. As it turned out, his call for help was the soundest tactical decision he made all day.
Leading Pitcairn's advance guard was a smaller body known in modern military parlance as a "point." These men moved as stealthily as possible, keeping to the sides of the road and taking cover when they spotted anything suspicious. In this manner they soon scooped up the scouts sent out from Lexington to bring word of their approach. They were waiting in the shadows to grab the fourth, Thaddeus Brown, when Brown's horse detected them and refused to be ridden into the trap. Brown finally read his horse's warning, turned, and clattered into Lexington at about 4:30 a.m. to tell Captain John Parker that the British were half a mile away. Pitcairn, meanwhile, had made contact with Mitchel's patrol and had been told Revere's story about the entire countryside being alerted (which was true) and the presence of 500 militiamen in Lexington (which was not). Pitcairn slowed his advance to let Smith's column close up on him a little more.
Captain John Parker, a veteran of the final French and Indian war, had turned out his militia company, some 130 men, on Lexington green at about midnight. There, everyone consulted together about what to do when the British arrived. According to Parker's affidavit on 25 April, they "concluded not to be discovered, nor meddle, or make with said regular troops, if they should approach, unless they should insult or molest us." They were not going to hide, but would stand as free men in passive (if armed) protest as the British passed by. Parker's choice of verbs indicate that the militiamen had decided not to try to stop the British, and to engage in armed resistance only if they were attacked. Their decision paralleled the response other militia companies had displayed on prior occasions when the British had marched through the countryside. After about an hour, with that decision made and the report of one scout that there was no evidence of the British on the road to Cambridge, Parker dismissed his men with orders to reassemble at the beating of a drum. Many militiamen repaired to Buckman's Tavern, on the east side of the green, to ward off the effects of a cold night in the company of their fellows and, probably, with the application of some alcohol.
At about 4:30 a.m., when Thaddeus Brown arrived with news that the British column was little over a mile away from Lexington, Parker directed his drummer, William Diamond, to beat the long roll of the call to arms. Some militiamen found that they needed more ammunition and went off to the meeting house, where the town's supply of gunpowder was kept, to get more of this essential commodity. In a disposition taken in 1826, Sylvanus Wood (who attended the assembly that night) reported that only thirty-eight men were present. He knew how many were assembled because, he said, he had walked from one end to the other of their single line and counted them all. Although more men continued to arrive, there were probably no more than sixty or seventy men assembled in two ranks on the north side of Lexington's triangular green that morning. Perhaps some militiamen had opposed the company's decision to stand in the open while the British marched by, or perhaps they had rethought their willingness to do so during the time they spent at Buckman's. As the company regathered, Parker ordered his men to load their muskets. Even though they had resolved not to fire unless fired upon, the fact that Parker had them load their muskets indicates that he, at least, was pessimistic about their chances of avoiding a fight.
Several horsemen encountered Pitcairn's advance guard (less than 250 men) at the outskirts of Lexington. Officers in the van reported to Pitcairn that one of the horsemen had fired on the column. Whether or not that was actually the case, Pitcairn took no chances and immediately ordered his men to load their muskets. Thus, when the British came in sight of Parker's militiamen at about 5 a.m., just as the sun was beginning to rise, both sides were primed and ready to react with deadly force. As the British came to the edge of the green, Jesse Adair, the marine lieutenant to whom Pitcairn had given command of the van, saw that to take the left fork and march along the southwest side of the green on the road to Concord would leave armed provincials whose intentions were unknown on the right flank as the light infantry companies marched passed. Adair decided that this situation was unacceptable, and directed the three leading light infantry companies to take the right fork, the road to Bedford, that took them toward the militia. When Pitcairn arrived at the fork a moment later he ordered the rest of the column to the left, and stopped the third of the three companies that had followed Adair. But the two forward companies (the light infantry of the Fourth and Tenth Regiments) marched on, increasing their pace to the quick march. About seventy yards from the militiamen, they deployed from march column into battle line, an evolution that called for men in the rear to run forward to form three parallel lines. Trained to shout and huzza as they ran into position, we may suppose that on this brisk morning, after a miserable night march, the regulars may have put a little more zest than usual into this shouting and huzza-ing. The vigor of their cries is much commented on in American accounts of the day.
As the British companies formed up, Parker ordered his men to stand fast, but some of them started drifting away, preferring to seek shelter and a better firing position, rather than continue to stand in the open. David H. Fischer quotes William Munro as swearing (in 1822) that Parker said: "Stand your ground! Don't fire unless fired upon! But if they want to have a war let it begin here!" Not quite by accident, but also without deliberate intent on either side to start a war, the two bodies of men faced each other in a suspended instant.
Pitcairn and several other mounted officers galloped from the Concord road toward the left (west) flank of the two platoons of the Tenth Regiment, which had formed a battle line. He had two tasks to accomplish. First, he had to re-establish control over the two companies Adair had placed opposite the militiamen. Undoubtedly confident that the light infantrymen would not fire without orders, he faced a much more difficult second task: to induce or compel the militiamen to lay down their arms, and thus defuse the confrontation. Parker saw that, in a matter of moments, the situation would spiral into a deadly standoff his men had no chance of winning, perhaps not even of surviving, if they stayed where they were. He ordered his men to disperse without firing, but some of the militiamen may not have heard Parker's order.
Most of the militiamen were moving away when a single shot was heard or the flash in the firing pan of a musket was seen. Several shots seemed to follow. A mounted British officer (almost certainly not Pitcairn) may have fired his pistol and shouted "Fire!" Hearing or seeing what they believed were shots fired at them, some light infantrymen fired at the militiamen. Then the rest of the two companies delivered a volley at Parker's dispersing men, at a range of between sixty and seventy yards. They must have fired high, however, for the volley inflicted no casualties. They reloaded by rote, as they had been trained to do, and fired again. The second volley killed one militiaman and wounded others, including Jonas Parker (John Parker's cousin). Jonas Parker stood his gun and tried to reload, but when the British closed in he was bayoneted. Probably not more than eight Americans shot back during this exchange. The firing was over in a matter of minutes, leaving eight Americans dead (only two where the militia company had formed, the rest as they dispersed) and ten wounded. Jonathan Harrington, mortally wounded, died at the doorstep of his own house, steps from the green, as his wife and family looked on. Only one redcoat was hurt, receiving a slight leg wound. Pitcairn's horse had two light wounds.
At roughly the moment the firing ceased, Lieutenant Colonel Smith arrived on the Lexington green with the main column. He was greeted by the sight of soldiers running about under no officer's command, amid clouds of gray gunpowder smoke and the bodies of wounded and dying militiamen. Smith ordered a drummer to beat the call to arms, and the soldiers slowly responded and fell into line. Perhaps within half an hour, they were marching away down the road toward Concord, six miles away. They now knew that all surprise had been lost and that untold numbers of militiamen from surrounding towns were converging on the column.
WHO FIRED FIRST?
Fully aware of the enormous implications of the Lexington fight, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress on 22 April appointed a committee to take depositions from all the participants and spectators they could find. Elbridge Gerry was chairman, and Colonel James Barrett of Concord was a member. The whole purpose of the Lexington depositions was to establish that Parker's men were dispersing when the British fired the first shot—proof, in American eyes, that the British started the war. The committee's report downplayed—indeed concealed—the fact that the Americans had returned fire, to the point where the men of Concord claimed the honor of firing "the shot heard 'round the world." The depositions taken in 1825 were designed to prove that the men of Lexington had fired back.
Ever since the event itself, controversy has swirled around the question of who fired first. The truth may never be known for certain, but it seems likely that neither the men in Parker's line nor the rank and file light infantry-men were guilty. Historian Allen French has found no real evidence that the British fired first. According to him, "If the first shot came from some young or reckless or irresponsible man, it seems right to believe that he was not among the Americans, who for months had been told, even by their ministers, that they were not to fire first" (Concord, p. 111).
Pitcairn's account of the affair at Lexington has come down through Ezra Stiles, then a minister in Newport, Rhode Island, and later president of Yale College. An American by the name of John Brown talked with Pitcairn about the matter while Brown was a prisoner in Boston awaiting exchange. Brown passed Pitcairn's account on to Deputy Governor Darius Sessions of Rhode Island, who relayed it to Stiles.
According to Stiles:
[Pitcairn] does not say that he saw the Colonists fire first…. He expressly says he did not see who fired first; and yet believed the Peasants began. His account is this—that riding up to them he ordered them to disperse; which they not doing instantly, he turned about to order his Troops so to draw out as to surround and disarm them. As he turned he saw a Gun in a Peasant's hand from behind a Wall, flash in the pan without going off; and instantly or very soon 2 or 3 Guns went off by which he found his horse wounded and also a man near him wounded. These Guns he did not see, but believing they could not come from his own people, doubted not and so asserted that they came from our people; and that thus they began the Attack. The Impetuosity of the King's Troops were [sic] such that a promiscuous, uncommanded but general Fire took place, which Pitcairn could not prevent; tho' he struck his staff or Sword downwards with all Earnestness as the signal to forbear or cease firing (quoted in Dexter, Literary Diary, I, pp. 604-605).
Stiles concluded that although Pitcairn was innocent of firing the first shot himself and innocent of ordering his men to fire, he was deceived as to the origin of the first shots. Pitcairn's official report, unknown to historians until the twentieth century, said specifically that the firing started when a militiaman's musket flashed in the pan, and shots followed from other militiamen who were not on the green.
In 1925, Harold Murdock offered a hypothesis, sometimes still repeated, that Samuel Adams persuaded John Parker to adopt a provocative position on Lexington green that almost guaranteed a fight. Another historian, Arthur Tourtellot, offered support for this Machiavellian interpretation in 1959. Tourtellot cited the Gage papers, brought to the William L. Clements Library in 1930, which contains letters from Dr. Benjamin Church, a member of the Provincial Congress, who was in a traitorous correspondence with the British general. Church's letters suggest that Samual Adams sought to make martyrs of the men who fell in the Lexington confrontation because support for the Patriot cause was fading. Hearing the British volleys from two miles away, Samuel Adams is reported to have said to Hancock as they continued their escape, "What a glorious morning this is!" Apparently thinking that Hancock mistook his comment for a weather report, Adams added, "I mean for America." A more plausible interpretation comes from David Fischer:
It is possible that one of these first shots was fired deliberately, either from an emotion of the moment, or a cold-blooded intention to create an incident. More likely, there was an accident…. Many weapons at Lexington, both British and American, were worn and defective. An accident might well have occurred on either side. If so, it was an accident that had been waiting to happen" (p. 194).
Samuel Prescott had brought the alarm to Concord between 1 and 2 a.m. The town's three companies of militiamen and the alarm company of old men and boys were soon reinforced by a company from Lincoln, bringing to about 150 men the strength of the colonists who turned out under arms. While a patrol went toward Lexington to verify Prescott's report that the British were coming, the others busied themselves concealing or evacuating the military supplies that had not already been removed the preceding day.
The British column approached Concord about 7 a.m. Militiamen who had taken position on a ridge outside the village were flushed by Pitcairn's flank patrols without a shot being fired on either side. Colonel James Barrett, the 64-year-old local militia commander, had been overseeing the removal or concealment of supplies that had been stored on his farm a few miles beyond Concord. When he returned to the center of town, he ordered his men to withdraw across North Bridge to a ridge overlooking the river and to await reinforcements.
Smith sent one light infantry company to secure South Bridge, and sent seven toward North Bridge. Three of those companies were left at or near the bridge while Captain Lawrence Parsons led the other four to search Barrett's Farm, where the British had been correctly informed most of the rebel supplies were kept. Meanwhile, the grenadiers searched in Concord. Since most of the supplies had been evacuated or hidden, the regulars found little at either location. Apart from stealing the Bible from the town meetinghouse and cutting down the liberty pole, the British troops conducted themselves properly at both places.
American forces on the high ground above North Bridge had grown to 300 or 400 men as reinforcements arrived. They could see smoke rising from the village and, although the British had themselves put out fires they had started in the courthouse and in a blacksmith shop, the militiamen suspected the regulars were burning the town. On orders from Barrett and with instructions not to fire first, they loaded their muskets and started moving toward the bridge.
Captain Walter Laurie's light infantry company of the Forty-third Regiment, numbering about thirty-five men, had been apprehensively watching the militia force on the hill increase in size. As the Americans advanced to the music of fifes and drums, the light infantry companies of the Fourth and Tenth Regiments dropped back from more advanced positions to join Laurie at the bridge. Laurie, with a total of about 115 men, sent back to Concord for reinforcements. The Americans halted momentarily on the last rise overlooking the "rude bridge that arched the flood," then Major John Buttrick led his minutemen forward against "the flower of the King's army," as the flank companies were known.
The light infantrymen guarding North Bridge had already shown a propensity to fire without orders at Lexington (about which fight the Concord militia knew little at this time), and now three soldiers again fired without orders, followed by a ragged volley from those, crowded together on the bridge, who could bring their muskets to bear. The minutemen advanced steadily and, fifty yards from the bridge, returned fire with such accuracy that it drove the regulars back in disorder. In this three-minute exchange, the British had three killed and eight wounded, and the Americans lost two killed (Isaac Davis, captain of the Acton minuteman company, and one of his men) and three wounded. As the light infantrymen fled back to the center of Concord town, they passed two companies of grenadiers, led forward personally by Lieutenant Colonel Smith, who was anxious about the safety of Parsons's four companies returning from Barrett's Farm. Smith made no attempt to retake the bridge to cover Parsons' retreat. Nor did the American militiamen, now divided on either side of the Concord River, make any move to stop the British companies from marching past their front. All the British companies were back in Concord from North Bridge by 11:30 a.m. By noon, Smith had his column in motion on the road back to Boston.
When Parsons's four companies recrossed North Bridge, unopposed, they passed a dying British soldier who appeared to have been mutilated. A young militiaman who crossed the bridge alone after the skirmish had, for some reason, struck a seriously wounded British soldier in the head with an ax or hatchet. Although some writers have tried to explain this senseless act by assuming the boy was half-witted, that does not appear to have been the case. This episode was the basis of reports that the Americans were guilty of atrocities. Gage reported that the soldier had been "scalped, his Head much mangled, and his ears cut off" while still alive. Parsons's men brought the story back to the rest of Smith's command, and they passed it on to Percy's relief column. The spread of this report helps to account for the ruthlessness many redcoats displayed during the retreat.
MERIAM'S CORNER TO LEXINGTON
The British covered the first mile from Concord without difficulty, but at Meriam's Corner they started running a sixteen-mile gauntlet of fire. The militiamen who had fought at North Bridge had moved north and east across fields to this point, where reinforcements from other villages were converging. As the regulars crowded across a narrow bridge over a small stream, they came under fire at a range of less than 150 yards.
Some Americans fought as individuals, sniping from the cover of walls, hedges, trees, and buildings, but many fought in groups under the direction of senior militia officers. Light infantry flank patrols worked hard to keep individuals out of point-blank range, killing a good many snipers who were careless about their rear, and trapping and annihilating small contingents of Americans. However, the regulars, tired and low on ammunition, could not prevent larger groups of militiamen from firing from within 100 yards. After plowing through at least three ambushes, the regulars knew they were in serious trouble. At Fiske Hill, where they tried unsuccessfully to rally, Pitcairn's horse threw its rider and charged into the American lines with the major's pistols still in their saddle holsters. Colonel Smith was wounded in this action.
PERCY TO THE RESCUE
On the evening of the 18th, Gage had alerted thirty-three-year-old Hugh, Earl Percy for a possible mission to reinforce Smith. Before Gage went to bed on the night of 18-19 April he sent orders for Percy's First Brigade to be ready to move at 4 a.m. But the brigade major was not in his quarters when this order was delivered, and his servant forgot to give it to him when he did get home. At 5 a.m., with Percy's men snug in their bunks, Smith's request for reinforcement arrived. An hour later, most of Percy's brigade had been paraded. At 7 a.m. there were inquiries as to why the marines had not shown up, and it was discovered that their orders had been delivered to Major Pitcairn's quarters! After having lost five hours, Percy finally moved out at 9 a.m.
Percy's force numbered about 1,400 men—the battalion companies of the Fourth, Twenty-third, and Forty-seventh Regiments, plus 460 marines organized into ten companies—accompanied by two six-pound cannon. Crossing Boston Neck, the relief column marched through Roxbury and toward Cambridge. The countryside was ominously deserted. At the Charles River bridge they were slowed briefly because the rebels had removed the planks, but since these were neatly stacked on the opposite shore the foot soldiers simply crossed on the stringers and replaced enough of the planking for all but the supply train to continue the march. (The two supply wagons and their twelve-man guard were ambushed and captured before they could catch up.) Moving through deserted Cambridge, the relief expedition was unable to get any news of Smith's detachment until it reached Menotomy. Soon the men could hear the firing. Reaching Lexington at about 2:30 p.m., Percy deployed his troops to cover the arrival of Smith's force.
A few minutes later the light infantrymen and grenadiers staggered exhausted into Percy's ranks. The two six-pounders opened fire and scattered the militiamen who had been following just out of musket range to capture stragglers and wounded redcoats. Rebels who took shelter in the meetinghouse were routed by a cannon shot through that edifice. Some regulars took off in pursuit, but were stopped by the swampy ground northwest of the common, behind which the militia had withdrawn. At about 3:15 p.m. Percy got Smith's tired troops back on their feet and resumed the retreat.
Although William Heath, the senior military officer appointed by the Provincial Congress ("Our General"), was now on the scene, a lack of leadership and an absence of tactical cohesion, combined with fatigue, lack of ammunition, and an unwillingness to push the fighting too far kept the American irregulars from putting enough pressure on the rear of the enemy column to slow it down while others circled ahead to cut off its route of retreat, a maneuver that might have prevented the British force from reaching the Charlestown peninsula and the safety of Boston. While a military opportunity may have been lost, such an action would have complicated the political situation, for the American rebels might have had to deal with perhaps as many as 1,800 captured British regulars.
The running fight from Lexington followed the same pattern as before: as the Americans sniped from behind cover and fired in larger bodies from longer range, the British light infantry patrolled the flanks, and the rest of the column struggled along the road. Close fighting in Menotomy resulted in forty casualties on each side. The regulars, enraged by the "cowardly" rebel tactics of firing from cover, broke into houses along the road, killed all males they could find, and looted and burned the buildings.
Approaching Cambridge, where the Americans had gathered to cut him off, Percy executed a skilful feint to indicate a return to Boston by the overland route via Boston Neck that his force had taken that morning. However, he moved instead toward Charlestown. He was twice more brought to bay, at what is now Somerville and again at Prospect Hill. Dusk was falling when his exhausted troops crossed the neck onto Charlestown peninsula and reached the protection of the guns of the Royal Navy ships that were anchored in the harbor. The Americans did not pursue, but fanned out to invest the British and start the siege of Boston.
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
Although more than 20,000 men were paid for turning out on the Lexington alarm, Frank Coburn has calculated that only 3,760 Americans engaged in the day's fighting at one time or another (Battle of April 19, 1775, p. 161); Christopher Ward has further reduced the figure by arguing that "perhaps not more than half that number [fought] at any one time" (p. 50). No one knows for certain how many Americans actively participated at any one point in the Lexington alarm, since fresh militia units were continually arriving, while others were dropping out after exhausting themselves and their ammunition.
American fatalities totalled 50 men, some killed out-right, while others died later of their wounds. Another 40 men were wounded, and 5 men were reported missing. According to Gage's official return, the British lost one officer and 64 men, whereas 15 officers and 165 men were wounded, and one officer and 26 men were missing, for a total of 272 casualties or 15 percent out of 1,800 men. Ward calculates that "only one [American] bullet out of 300 found its mark … [and] only one [militia] man out of 15 hit anybody" (p. 50). Fischer argues that the "heavy expenditure of shot and powder at long range was part of a highly effective solution to the difficult tactical problem of fighting Regular infantry with militia," and notes that the "ratio of rounds fired to men hit was even higher on the British side than the American" (p. 408).
The events at Lexington and Concord marked the transition from intellectual to armed rebellion. The British were unpleasantly surprised by the accurate and sustained musket fire offered by the militiamen, who were relentless in harrying the redcoat column. Both sides understood that the militiamen had displayed greater military skills at many levels than the British, at least, had thought possible.
Politically, the day furnished such abundant evidence of British perfidy that opponents of increased imperial control were able to mobilize enormous popular support against Britain. Fast couriers delivered to other colonies an account that was weighted in favor of the Patriot cause. Israel Bissel left Watertown, six miles west of Boston, at 10:00 on the morning of 19 April with a message from the Committee of Safety to "All Friends of American Liberty" telling of the Lexington affair and the march of Percy's column. He spread the word across Connecticut, and by 23 April was in New York. He continued across New Jersey to carry his message to Philadelphia. A more complete dispatch reached New York on 25 April, and was relayed by express riders who traveled night and day to reach Baltimore by the evening of 27 April, Annapolis by the morning of 28 April, Edentown, North Carolina, on 4 May, and Charlestown, South Carolina, on 10 May.
The American version of the day's events, complete with the depositions of eyewitnesses, reached Britain twelve days before Gage's official report, which arrived on 10 June. Gage had dispatched his report four days ahead of the American letter to "The Inhabitants of Great Britain," but the rebel leaders, aware of the value of having their story told first, sent their letter by the swiftest ship available, which make a faster passage.
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