Concord & Lexington, 19 April 1775The first fighting during the American War of Independence. While the action itself was on a relatively small scale, it marked the moment when the last chances of a peaceful resolution of the differences between the American colonists and the British Government disappeared. Tension had been building since the end of the Seven Years War, but in the previous years the agitation had reached a new level. General Thomas Gage, the British commander-in-chief and Governor of Massachusetts, began to feel dangerously exposed in Boston as the strength of the local militias kept on increasing, while his own command did not. His requests for extra troops were refused on the grounds that all he faced was a “rude rabble”. Despite this refusal to send reinforcements, there was a general feeling in Britain that it would be better to provoke what was seen as an inevitable rebellion before the colonists could further increase their strength.
For some time Gage had been unable to send his men out into the Massachusetts countryside. Attempts to scout out the local area had been foiled, but he still had his sources of information. Amongst the things he did know was that there were sizable stores of militia weapons at Concord and Worcester. Gage began to make secret preparations to raid this arms dump. His plan was to use the elite grenadier companies and the highly mobile light infantry companies from each regiment to form a special force. However, the requirement for secrecy meant that the troops involved did not know of their mission until very close to the day itself. The same was true of the two commanders, Colonel Francis Smith, famous for his obesity, and his second in commander, Major John Pitcairn of the marines, not a logical choice to command a purely army operation.
Despite these attempts at secrecy, the British were being watched. On 16 April the small boats needed to carry the troops were prepared and rowed out into the Charles River, ready to use. This was impossible to hide from the watching Americans, who were made aware that something was being planned. In Boston, Joseph Warren acted to coordinate the observation. On 16 April he sent Paul Revere to Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were in hiding, to warn them about the British movements. On his way back, Revere stopped in Charlestown, opposite Boston, to organise signal lights to be lit when the British moved.
Within Boston, accurate rumours spread about the upcoming British expedition, probably as a result of loose tongues amongst the British forces. Despite this, late on 18 April Gage had his troops roused silently. They formed up on Boston common, before rowing across Boston harbour. News of their movement almost preceded them. Signal lights had been lit while the troops were on the common. Paul Revere then rowed across the harbour to Charlestown, where he gained a horse and rode towards Lexington. A second rider, William Dawes, was sent overland via Boston Neck. Revere reached Lexington at midnight, followed half an hour later by Dawes.
Meanwhile, the British were still waiting at the beach. It was only at two in the morning that they finally started their march to Concord. The British formed up with their four hundred light infantry in the lead, commanded by Pitcairn, with the four hundred Grenadiers following behind. At Lexington, 130 militia had formed up soon after midnight, and before the British had even started moving had already dispersed to await developments. When they did finally start moving, attempts were still being made to avoid detection, but they were increasingly futile. As they marched through the villages on the way to Lexington, the alarm guns were being fired ahead of them.
At Lexington, the militia, commanded by Captain John Parker, had dispersed to await the warning drum. At 4.30 the British were spotted, and after a few chaotic moments, the militia reformed, in two ranks of 70. They were formed across the green, but not blocking the road to Concord, which ran 100 yards away at the edge of the green. The first British troops to appear were Pitcairn’s light infantry. On sighting the militia, Pitcairn ordered them to form up into three ranks, as if ready for battle. At first, Parker ordered the militia to stay put, but when Pitcairn approached and ordered them to lay down their arms and disperse, Parker ordered his men to peacefully disperse, but not to lay down their arms.
What happened next is unclear. The eyewitnesses disagree on what happened. What is certain is that a shot was fired. British eyewitnesses deny that they fired, while American witnesses were certain that they did. The British fired a first volley, probably on the orders of one of their officers. Pitcairn then attempted to stop the firing, but was too late to prevent a second volley or a charge. When the smoke cleared, eight militiamen were dead and another ten wounded. One British infantryman had been lightly wounded. The first blood of the American war of Independence had been shed.
Despite the lack of surprise, so far the day had gone relatively well for the British. Their first confrontation with the militia had confirmed their low opinion of American fighting spirit. They now abandoned all attempts at stealth and began the march to Concord. Once again, they were expected. Dr Samuel Prescott, who had been alerted at Lexington, had managed to get through British patrols to reach Concord and raise the alarm. From all around, militiamen began to concentrate at Concord and Lexington.
At 7.00am the British reached Concord. Their target was the house of Colonel James Barrett, where the weaponry was thought to be stored. The road from Lexington led straight to the main part of Concord town, while Barrett’s house was north of the Concord River, crossed by the North Bridge, which was overlooked by Punkatasset Hill. At first the British met with no resistance. One militia company made an appearance as the British advanced into the centre of town but withdrew without firing. Still outnumbered, the militia pulled back onto Punkatasset Hill.
The British settled down to search the town. Three companies of light infantry guarded the bridge, three more crossed it to search Barrett’s house, while the Grenadiers searched the main town. For several hours, the British were left alone while they searched the town. Very little was found – 500 pounds of musket balls, but no muskets or artillery. However, during the search the blacksmith and courthouse were set on fire.
Up on the hill, this roused the militia, now increased to 400 men, but still outnumbered two-to-one by the British. The militiamen decided to fight, and advanced down towards the North Bridge. At the bridge they faced two hundred of the light infantry, giving them a numerical advantage. Even better, the British were arrayed in three companies, with only the first able to fire on the Americans. After a brief exchange of fire, the outnumbered British fell back in disarray towards the village. If the American militia had held their discipline, the British would have been in serious trouble, with 200 of their number trapped on the wrong side of the North Bridge. However the American formation also broke down as they advanced across the half-mile between the bridge and the town. Colonel Smith was able to extract his men across the bridge, and by noon was ready to start the return journey to Boston.
Up until this point, the day had not been disastrous. Concord had been reached and the militia had not yet proven itself dangerous. Things were soon to change. The countryside between Concord and Boston was now swarming with American militia, who now outnumbered the British, knew the terrain, and were fighting from cover. The onslaught started one mile into the march back to Boston. From that moment on, the retreat became a running battle. The Americans were able to fire into the British column from cover, and inflicted heavy casualties. The British return fire also took its toll, and on several occasions the light infantry were able to trap militiamen between themselves and the main column, but as the march continued, the British column became increasingly ragged. As they approached Lexington, the British formation had almost disintegrated. Luckily for the British, the American militias had also lost formation, so most of the opposition they faced was from individuals or small bands. Even so, by the time the British attempted to reform at Lexington things looked grim.
Luckily, at about the same time that Colonel Smith was pulling out of Concord, a relief force was leaving Boston. Commanded by Brigadier General Lord Percy, the future duke of Northumberland, this force of 1,000 men reached Concord at 2.30. For an hour Percy’s cannon bombarded the American militia while Smith’s men rested and recovered from their dreadful march. At 3.30 the combined force resumed its march. This time they got half way to their destination before the militias attacked again. The attacks resumed again at Menotomy, and this final part of the battle was perhaps the most brutal. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, while the British found that most of fire against them was coming from behind, with colonists hiding in buildings until the troops were past and then shooting from cover. The British troops began to loot and plunder, burning down houses as they passed. Finally, at Cambridge the pursuit ended. Finally, after dark, the British staggered into Charlestown.
The raid on Concord had cost the British 273 casualties, compared to American losses of only 95. The inevitable bitterness engendered by the fighting hardened attitudes in American, finally destroying any chance of compromise. As news of the battle spread, militiamen rushed to Boston. Within days, Gage was besieged in Boston. The fight for independence had begun.
Books on the American War of Independence
On This Day in History -April 19, 1775
On this day in history, April 19, 1775, the American Revolution begins when the first shots are fired at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. British troops had been occupying Boston for several years by this time, but their presence was increased after the Boston Tea Party in early 1773. This only angered the colonists, who began stockpiling weapons and ammunition for the anticipated fight to come.
In Boston, British General Thomas Gage received orders from London in April, 1775 to capture the rebels' arms and the leaders of the rebellion – specifically John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The patriots had already learned the British would be embarking on a major action soon. Patriot leaders fled Boston for safety. The city of Concord was warned that its weapons stash might be the target of the coming raid.
On the evening of April 18th, Dr. Joseph Warren received word from his inside spy, thought to be General Gage's wife, that the soldiers would march out that night. Their target was indeed the ammunition and weapons in Concord. Paul Revere and William Dawes were sent out late that night to warn Lexington and Concord of the impending attack.
Around 9pm that night, the soldiers were awakened and told to assemble. 700 made their way across the Charles River. As they marched to Lexington, they became aware of warning signals in the distance and realized their “surprise” had been discovered. Around 4 am on the 19th, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith sent word back to Boston that the militia was gathering and he needed reinforcements.
As the message from Paul Revere spread around the countryside, local militia groups gathered and marched toward Concord. The Lexington militia gathered early in the morning under Captain John Parker . Lexington was on the road to Concord and the army would have to pass through the town or march around it. When the British arrived around 5 am, about 80 men were arranged for battle, but Parker told them not to fire unless fired upon. The British marched right in to Lexington and formed a battle line. Both sides were under orders not to fire. To this day, no one knows who fired the first shot at the Battle of Lexington, but shooting soon rang out and eight Americans lie dead, while only one British soldier was injured.
The army marched on to Concord and split up to search the town. Unbeknownst to them, most of the ammunition had already been carried away. North of town, at the Olde North Bridge, a standoff developed between 95 British soldiers guarding the bridge and several hundred gathering militia. This time, a panicking British soldier fired the first shot. The overwhelmed soldiers began to run for their lives when the Americans began firing back. Several were killed or wounded on both sides at the Battle of Concord.
The fleeing soldiers joined their comrades in Concord, and began marching back to Lexington, followed by an ever growing number of Minutemen who continued firing on them. Just when these fleeing soldiers got to Lexington, they met the reinforcements of another 1,000 men under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Percy. Percy ordered the group back to Boston, but the march turned out to be a tortuous one.
By this time, a few thousand colonists had gathered and placed themselves at strategic points along the road back to Boston. The soldiers found themselves under constant fire for the next eight hours. Numerous soldiers were picked off during the march. Many thought their death was inevitable. By the time the British reached Menotomy (now Arlington) the officers had lost all control and soldiers began fleeing and committing acts of atrocity as the fighting spread from house to house. Several colonists were killed in their own homes or in taverns along the road. The fighting spread into Cambridge as the colonists continued the pursuit. Eventually the soldiers reached safety in Charlestown.
By morning, more than 15,000 colonists surrounded Boston. 73 British soldiers had been killed and 174 wounded the day before. 49 colonists were killed and 39 were wounded. The Continental Congress would soon appoint George Washington the Commander-in-Chief and the militia surrounding Boston would be transformed into the new Continental Army. The American Revolution had begun and would last another seven years.
Patriots Day, April 19th – Mr. Paul Revere Explains The Battle of Lexington and Concord in His Own Words
A friend asked me a few days ago: “How will you celebrate Patriots Day”? Which, perhaps, should spur me to share my own thoughts on this day of consequence.
Many are familiar with the poem Paul Revere’s ride however, far fewer know that Paul Revere actually memorialized the events of the April 18 and 19, 1775, in an eight page letter written several years later. Each Patriots Day I remind myself to read his letter from a copy handed down and I think about how Paul Revere was really just a common man of otherwise undue significance…. yet capable to the task at hand.
To me everything about the heart of Revere, which you can identify within his own writing, is what defines an American ‘patriot’. There is no grand prose, there is no outlook of being a person of historical significance there is just a simple recollection of his involvement, an ordinary man in extraordinary times.
Unsure if anyone else would enjoy I have tracked down an on-line source for sharing and provide a transcript below (all misspelling is with the original).
Paul Revere personally recounts his famous ride. – In this undated letter Paul Revere summarizes the activities surrounding his famous ride on 18 April 1775. He recounts how Dr. Joseph Warren urged him to ride to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of British troop movements. He arranged to signal the direction of the troops with lanterns from Old North Church and then had friends row him across the Charles River, borrowing a horse for his ride.
Revere wrote this letter at the request of Jeremy Belknap, corresponding secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Revere signed his name to the letter but then wrote above it “A Son of Liberty of the year 1775” and beside it “do not print my name.” Nonetheless, the MHS included Revere’s name when it printed the letter in 1798.
EXPLORE THE DOCUMENT – Or Read the incredible transcript below:
Having a little leisure, I wish to fullfill my promise, of giving you some facts, and Anecdotes, prior to the Battle of Lexington, which I do not remember to have seen in any history of the American Revolution.
In the year 1773 I was imployed by the Select men of the Town of Boston to carry the Account of the Destruction of the Tea to New-York and afterwards, 1774, to Carry their dispatches to New-York and Philadelphia for Calling a Congress and afterwards to Congress, several times.* [This asterisk points to a note in the left margin written by Jeremy Belknap: “Let the narrative begin here.” ]
In the Fall of 1774 & Winter of 1775 I was one of upwards of thirty, cheifly mechanics, who formed our selves in to a Committee for the purpose of watching the Movements of the British Soldiers, and gaining every intelegence of the movements of the Tories.
We held our meetings at the Green-Dragon Tavern. We were so carefull that our meetings should be kept Secret that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible, that they would not discover any of our transactions, But to Messrs. Hancock, Adams, Doctors Warren, Church, & one or two more.
About November, when things began to grow Serious, a Gentleman who had Conections with the Tory party, but was a Whig at heart, aquainted me, that our meetings were discovered, & mentioned the identical words that were spoken among us the Night
before. We did not then distrust Dr. Church, but supposed it must be some one among us.
We removed to another place, which we thought was more secure: but here we found that all our transactions were communicated to Governor Gage. (This came to me through the then Secretary Flucker He told it to the Gentleman mentioned above).
It was then a common opinion, that there was a Traytor in the provincial Congress, & that Gage was posessed of all their Secrets. (Church was a member of that Congress for Boston.) In the Winter, towards the Spring, we frequently took Turns, two and two, to Watch the Soldiers, By patroling the Streets all night.
The Saturday Night preceding the 19th of April, about 12 oClock at Night, the Boats belonging to the Transports were all launched, & carried under the Sterns of the Men of War. (They had been previously hauld up & repaired). We likewise found that the Grenadiers and light Infantry were all taken off duty.
From these movements, we expected something serious was [to] be transacted. On Tuesday evening, the 18th, it was observed, that a number of Soldiers were marching towards the bottom of the Common.
About 10 o’Clock, Dr. Warren Sent in great haste for me, and beged that I would imediately Set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock & Adams were, and acquaint them of the Movement, and that it was thought they were the objets. When I got to Dr. Warren’s house, I found he had sent an express by land to Lexington – a Mr. Wm. Daws.
The Sunday before, by desire of Dr. Warren, I had been to Lexington, to Mess. Hancock and Adams, who were at the Rev. Mr. Clark’s. I returned at Night thro Charlestown there I agreed with a Col. Conant, & some other Gentlemen, in Charleston, that if the British went out by Water, we would shew two Lanthorns in the North Church Steeple if by Land, one, as a Signal for we were aprehensive it would be dificult to Cross the Charles River, or git over Boston neck.
I left Dr. Warrens, called upon a friend, and desired him to make the Signals. I then went Home, took my Boots and Surtout, and went to the North part of the Town, where I had kept a Boat two friends rowed me across Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset Man of War lay.
It was then young flood, the Ship was winding, & the moon was Rising. They landed me on Charlestown side. When I got into Town, I met Col. Conant, several others they said they had seen our signals. I told them what was Acting, & went to git me a Horse I got a Horse of Deacon Larkin.
While the Horse was preparing, Richard Devens, Esq. who was one of the Committee of Safty, came to me, & told me, that he came down the Road from Lexington, after Sundown, that evening that He met ten British Officers, all well mounted, & armed, going up the Road. I set off upon a very good Horse it was then about 11 o’Clock, very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree.
When I got near them, I discovered they were British officer. One tryed to git a head of Me, & the other to take me. I turned my Horse very quick, & Galloped towards Charlestown neck, and then pushed for the Medford Road. The one who chased me, endeavoring to Cut me off, got into a Clay pond, near where the new Tavern is now built. I got clear of him,
and went thro Medford, over the Bridge, & up to Menotomy. In Medford, I awaked the Captain of the Minute men & after that, I alarmed almost every House, till I got to Lexington.
I found Mrs. Messrs. Hancock & Adams at the Rev. Mr. Clark’s I told them my errand, and inquired for Mr. Daws they said he had not been there I related the story of the two officers, & supposed that He must have been stopped, as he ought to have been there before me.
After I had been there about half an Hour, Mr. Daws came after we refreshid our selves, we and set off for Concord, to secure the Stores, & there. We were overtaken by a young Docter Prescot, whom we found to be a high Son of Liberty. I told them of the ten officers that Mr. Devens mett, and that it was probable we might be stoped before we got to Concord for I supposed that after Night, they divided them selves, and that two of them had fixed themselves in such passages as were most likely to stop any intelegence going to Concord.
I likewise mentioned, that we had better allarm all the Inhabitents till we got to Concord the young Doctor much approved of it, and said, he would stop with either of us, for the people between that & Concord knew him, & would give the more credit to what we said.
We had got nearly half way. Mr Daws & the Doctor stoped to allarm the people of a House: I was about one hundred Rod a head, when I saw two men, in nearly the same situation as those officer were, near Charlestown. I called for the Doctor & Daws to come up were two & we would have them in an Instant I was surrounded by four – they had placed themselves in a Straight Road, that inclined each way they had taken down a pair of Barrs on the North side of the Road, & two of them were under a tree in the pasture. The Docter being foremost, he came up and we tryed to git past them but they being armed with pistols & swords, they forced us in to the pasture -the Docter jumped his Horse over a low Stone wall, and got to Concord.
I observed a Wood at a Small distance, & made for that. When I got there, out Started Six officers, on Horse back, and orderd me to dismount-one of them, who appeared to have the command, examined me, where I came from, & what my Name Was? I told him. it was Revere, he asked if it was Paul? I told him yes He asked me if I was an express? I answered in the afirmative. He demanded what time I left Boston? I told him and added, that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up.
He imediately rode towards those who stoppd us, when all five of them came down upon a full gallop one of them, whom I afterwards found to be Major Mitchel, of the 5th Regiment, Clapped his pistol to my head, called me by name, & told me he was going to ask me some questions, & if I did not give him true answers, he would blow my brains out.
He then asked me similar questions to those above. He then orderd me to mount my Horse, after searching me for arms. He then orderd them to advance, & to lead me in front. When we got to the Road, they turned down towards Lexington. When we had got about one Mile, the Major Rode up to the officer that was leading me, & told him to give me to the Sergeant. As soon as he took me, the Major orderd him, if I attempted to run, or any body insulted them, to blow my brains out.
We rode till we got near Lexington Meeting-house, when the Militia fired a Voley of Guns, which appeared to alarm them very much. The Major inquired of me how far it was to Cambridge, and if there were any other Road? After some consultation, the Major
Major Rode up to the Sargent, & asked if his Horse was tired? He told answered him, he was – (He was a Sargent of Grenadiers, and had a small Horse) – then, said He, take that man’s Horse. I dismounted, & the Sargent mounted my Horse, when they all rode towards Lexington Meeting-House.
I went across the Burying-ground, & some pastures, & came to the Revd. Mr. Clark’s House, where I found Messrs. Hancok & Adams. I told them of my treatment, & they concluded to go from that House to wards Woburn. I went with them, & a Mr. Lowell, who was a Clerk to Mr. Hancock.
When we got to the House where they intended to stop, Mr. Lowell & I my self returned to Mr. Clark’s, to find what was going on. When we got there, an elderly man came in he said he had just come from the Tavern, that a Man had come from Boston, who said there were no British troops coming. Mr. Lowell & myself went towards the Tavern, when we met a Man on a full gallop, who told us the Troops were coming up the Rocks.
We afterwards met another, who said they were close by. Mr. Lowell asked me to go to the Tavern with him, to a git a Trunk of papers belonging to Mr. Hancock. We went up Chamber & while we were giting the Trunk, we saw the British very near, upon a full March.
We hurried to wards Mr. Clark’s House. In our way, we passed through the Militia. There were about 50. When we had got about 100 Yards from the meeting-House the British Troops appeard on both Sides of the Meeting-House. In their
In their Front was an Officer on Horse back. They made a Short Halt when I saw, & heard, a Gun fired, which appeared to be a Pistol. Then I could distinguish two Guns, & then a Continual roar of Musquetry When we made off with the Trunk.
As I have mentioned Dr. Church, perhaps it might not be disagreeable to mention some Matters of my own knowledge, respecting Him. He appeared to be a high son of Liberty. He frequented all the places where they met, Was incouraged by all the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, & it appeared he was respected by them, though I knew that Dr. Warren had not the greatest affection for him. He was esteemed a very capable writer, especially in verese and as the Whig party needed every Strenght, they feared, as well as courted Him.
Though it was known, that some of the Liberty Songs, which We composed, were parodized by him, in favor of the British, yet none dare charge him with it. I was a constant & critical observer of him, and I must say, that I never thought Him a man of Principle and I doubted much in my own mind, wether He was a real Whig. I knew that He kept company with a Capt. Price, a half-pay British officer, & that He frequently dined with him, & Robinson, one of the Commissioners. I know that one of his intimate aquaintances asked him why he was so often with Robinson and Price? His answer was, that He kept Company with them on purpose to find out their plans.
The day after the Battle of Lexington, I came across met him in Cambridge, when He shew me some blood on his stocking, which he said spirted on him from a Man who was killed near him, as he was urging the Militia on. I well remember, that I argued with my self, if a Man will risque his life in a Cause, he must be a Friend to that cause & I never suspected him after, till He was charged with being a Traytor.
The same day I met Dr. Warren. He was President of the Committee of Safety. He engaged me as a Messinger, to do the out of doors business for that committee which gave me an opportunity of being frequently with them.
The Friday evening after, about sun set, I was sitting with some, or near all that Committee, in their room, which was at Mr. Hastings’s House at Cambridge. Dr. Church, all at once, started up – Dr. Warren, said He, I am determined to go into Boston tomorrow – (it set them all a stairing) – Dr. Warren replyed, Are you serious, Dr. Church? they will Hang you if they catch you in Boston. He replyed, I am serious, and am determined to go at all adventures.
After a considerable conversation, Dr. Warren said, If you are determined, let us make some business for you. They agreed that he should go to git medicine for their & our Wounded officers. He went the next morning & I think he came back on Sunday
After He had told the Committee how things were, I took him a side, & inquired particularly how they treated him? he said, that as soon as he got to their lines on the Boston Neck, they made him a prisoner, & carried him to General Gage, where He
was examined, & then He was sent to Gould’s Barracks, & was not suffered to go home but once.
After He was taken up, for holding a Correspondence with the Brittish, I came a Cross Deacon Caleb Davis-we entred into Conversation about Him-He told me, that the morning Church went into Boston, He (Davis) received a Bilet for General Gage-(he then did not know that Church was in Town)-When he got to the General’s House, he was told, the General could not be spoke with, that He was in private with a Gentleman that He waited near half an Hour,-When General Gage & Dr. Church came out of a Room, discoursing together, like
like persons who had been long aquainted. He appeared to be quite surprized at seeing Deacon Davis there that he (Church) went where he pleased, while in Boston, only a Major Caine, one of Gage’s Aids, went with him.
I was told by another person whom I could depend upon, that he saw Church go in to General Gage’s House, at the above time that He got out of the Chaise and went up the steps more like a Man that was aquainted, than a prisoner.
Sometime after, perhaps a Year or two, I fell in company with a Gentleman who studied with Church -in discoursing about him, I related what I have mentioned above He said, He did not doubt that He was in the Interest of the Brittish & that it was He who informed Gen. Gage That he knew for Certain, that a Short time before the Battle of Lexington, (for He then lived with Him, & took Care of his Business & Books) He had no money by him, and was much drove for money that all at once, He had several Hundred New Brittish Guineas and that He thought at the time, where they came from.
Thus, Sir, I have endeavoured to give you a Short detail of some matters, of which perhaps no person but my self have have documents, or knowledge. I have mentioned some names which you are aquainted with: I wish you would Ask them, if they can remember the Circumstances I alude to.
I am, Sir, with every Sentment of esteem,
“The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775,” Oil on canvas by William Barns Wollen, 1910.
April 19, 1775 – The Shot Heard Around the World
These are all words that most likely bring to mind the date of April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which took place in Massachusetts. The “famous day and year,” when American Colonists took up arms in defense of liberty and touched off the American Revolution.
What would it have been like, to be living during this time? From your knowledge of American history, you can well imagine how tensions of the American Colonists continued to grow throughout the colony. Demonstrations and events such as the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770) the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) and the Intolerable Acts (March-June 1774), demonstrated the frustration, anger and unrest that many were feeling during this time.
Why did the British target Concord, Massachusetts, a town 18 miles northwest of Boston? General Gage had information that Patriot leaders were stockpiling arms, ammunition, and provisions. The British Army regulars were ordered to “capture and destroy” these military supplies that were stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord.
Please travel back in time with me to revisit some of the events of April 19, 1775:
12:30 AM: Paul Revere and William Dawes arrive in Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock (who were staying with Rev. Jonas Clarke), that the “Regulars are coming.”
5:00 AM: Someone, somewhere fires a shot off of Lexington Green…“the shot heard around the world,” resulting in the light infantry rushing onto the Green and firing at the retreating militiamen. Eight militia men died.
7:00 AM: 700 British soldiers arrive in Concord, outnumbering the militia 3 to 1. The British secured the South Bridge and the North Bridge.
9:00 AM: The Battle at the North Bridge takes place. This is the first time that colonial militiamen were ordered to fire on British soldiers.
12:30 PM Following the fight at Concord’s North Bridge, the British soldiers begin heading east, back to Boston they are attacked, and the fighting continues from Concord to Lincoln.
British commander Percy said that they were “fired at from all quarters, but particularly from the houses on the roadside, and the adjacent stone walls…”
By 7:30 PM on April 19, 1775, the British troops are crossing into Charleston Neck and take a defensive position on Bunker Hill, where they were protected by the guns of the fleet with the battle coming to an end.
73 British were killed, 174 wounded and 26 were missing
49 Patriots were killed, 41 wounded and 5 were missing
Percy’s reflections of that day: “Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about…You may depend upon it, that as the Rebels have now had time to prepare, they are determined to go thro’ with it, nor will the insurrection here turn out so despicable as it is perhaps imagined at home. For my part, I never imagined they would have attacked the King’s troops or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday.”
From the early beginnings of our National Society, April 19, 1775 has been a date of significance…for the acceptable service of Patriots, ”the National Society accepts, with some exceptions, the period between April 19, 1775, (Battle of Lexington) and November 26, 1783 (withdrawal of British troops from New York).”
The April 1904 issue of the American Monthly Magazine has an article about the first Continental Congress that was to be held in the month of April. To commemorate the men and women of the American Revolution, the corner-stone of Memorial Continental Hall will be laid April 19 th , 1904 – the anniversary of the battle of Lexington, – with appropriate ceremonies. This recently changed date for the congress also celebrates this anniversary. It promises to be the most impressive ceremony performed in the city of Washington since the laying of the corner-stone of the capitol.
Imagine what it would have been like being at this ceremony in 1904… “the stage and seating area were decorated with flags, buntings, and garlands. Ladies filed into their seats while a band played patriotic music. President General Fairbanks gave the opening address which greatly stirred the vast audience…a trowel filled with cement was spread by Mrs. Fairbanks, and workers lowered the cornerstone into place on the foundation.”
Louise Pearson Dolliver, Historian General, wrote of the ceremony and exercises, where “such words of courage and patriotic zeal were spoken as shall be felt ‘around the world.’”
Over the years leaders often reflected on the significance and importance of April 19, 1775.
In the April 20, 1925 opening address of President General, Mrs. Anthony Wayne Cook, at the 34 th Continental Congress, Mrs. Cook says this about the importance of the April 19 th date: “The holding of the Annual Congress of the Daughters of the American Revolution… O, what a glorious morning is this!’ might well be said concerning this April morning in the year 1925, one hundred and fifty years and one day after that historic morning in April 1775, when John Parker and his little handful of militia men ‘at the rustic bridge, which arched the flood,’ fired a shot heard ‘round the world. Today we, the descendants of the ‘minute men’ and of the ‘embattled farmers’ of Lexington and Concord, as well as of the other brave soldiers of that tine, are in possession and enjoyment of the America made possible by their sacrifices."
In addition, President Calvin Coolidge in his opening night address to the 35 th Continental Congress, on April 19, 1926 said, “As the time lengthens from the occurrence of 1775, its significance becomes more apparent and its importance more real. It stands out as one of the great days in history, not because it can be said the American Revolution actually began there, but because on that occasion it became apparent that the patriots were determined to defend their rights.”
Two-hundred forty-six years ago today, we remember and observe the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The events of April 19, 1775 broke ground and paved the way for what was to follow in the American fight for independence. The Minuteman Statue on Lexington Green stands as a tribute, with the inscription “Sacred to the Liberty and the Rights of Mankind.”
- Search on the terms Lexington, Concord, and Minute Man in Detroit Publishing Company to find more photographs of these historic towns.
- To find maps of the Boston area at the outset of the Revolution, browse the Subject Index of the Military Battles and Campaigns maps collection.
- Search through the George Washington Papers on Thomas Gage for correspondence between the two men which pre-dates the Revolution by nearly twenty years, when both were British officers. There is also an interesting exchange on the treatment of prisoners of war in their correspondence during the year 1775.
- The text of many of the depositions of eyewitnesses can be read in the May 11, 1775, entry in the Journals of the Continental Congress in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. The depositions themselves begin on page 28. and Primary Documents in American History: The American Revolution and the New Nation are rich in materials related to this era. Visit the Web guides for links to a wide variety of information on the Revolutionary War.
- Visit the Web site for Minute Man National Historical Park, which winds along the original battle grounds of April 19, 1775.
- Works of American art and literature were inspired by events at Lexington and Concord. Among those noted in Today in History are the poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the statue The Minute Man by sculptor Daniel Chester French.
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In Lexington, Paul Revere found that in his absence one of the two mounted scouts Captain Parker had dispatched had returned to announce that there was no army on the road. He had found nothing. The whole military maneuver was a feint of no consequence. Just another false alarm.
But as Revere was entering the tavern to get Hancock's trunk, the other mounted scout came pounding up the roadway yelling that the regulars were right behind him, little more than a mile away and doing a ground-eating quick-march.
Captain Parker ordered the drummer to beat a call to arms. Then he assembled his militia unit-now seventy-seven strong-and lined it up in two ranks along the green. He was an experienced officer with combat experience who understood that the regulars would immediately take this posture as a challenge. That he meant to do battle was indicated in his instructions to the troops: ‘Don't fire unless fired upon. But if they want a war let it begin here.’
The militiamen stood in silence in the gathering light of dawn. The stirring birds called in the trees, and the odor of fresh-turned earth and apple blossoms hung in the air. Small knots of onlookers stood about on the common. Women and children peered from the windows of the houses around the green. Dorothy Quincy continued her vigil in the second-floor bedroom of the Clarke house.
All listened for the sound of British boot soles. It was five A.M.
At the first faint light at the tavern windows, Revere and Lowell stepped out of Buckman's and into the midst of the crowd of militia and onlooker s, struggling with the immensely heavy trunk, its brass fittings and the nail studs on the leather covering glimmering.
In Woburn, meantime, Hancock had just tucked up his napkin to feast on the salmon when a messenger rushed in to say that the regulars were on their way. Hancock and Adams, in a panic, ordered that the highly visible Hancock coach be put in some trees while they concealed themselves in the woods. The salmon was left on the table, uneaten.
They waited, but no regulars appeared. Tentatively, they emerged from hiding and decided to move farther away to yet another ‘modest'' house-that of Amos Wyman.
In Lexington, with shocking suddenness, the advance army unit under command of Marine Major John Pitcairn abruptly hove into sight on the roadway, quick-marching directly toward the green and the militia assembled there.
With Pitcairn at the head of the column were three other officers, including Major Edward Mitchell, who must have been saddle-sore in the extreme, having been mounted, and without any sleep, for nearly twenty-four hours. On foot were Lieutenant Barker and Lieutenant Gould, who would have prominent roles in the action that followed that day.
From his horse, Major Pitcairn cried out to the militia: ''Throw down your arms! Ye villians, ye rebels.’
Colonel Parker ordered his men to disperse, and they started to obey. None had thrown down their arms, but many of those who had heard Parker's command turned away and showed their departing backs to the British.
Long months of pent-up resentment in the British troops exploded. Apparently without orders from any of their officers, the regulars fired a volley at the militiamen, then charged with their bayonets. Their officers were unable to control them.
At the height of this action, Colonel Francis Smith arrived with the main contingent of troops and saw British regulars running amok, firing their guns, preparing to assault private houses, and moving menacingly toward Buckman's Tavern. Smith turned to a drummer and ordered him to play ‘Down Arms’ over and over. Finally, reluctantly, the troops came to a heel. When the officers restored the angry troops to their ranks, the town green revealed a shocking scene.
Militia Captain Parker's kinsman, Jonas Parker had been wounded, and while lying on the ground attempting to load his gun, he had then been bayoneted fatally. Townsman Jonathan Harrington fell, blood flowing from his breast. With his wife watching from a window in their house, he stood up and stretched out his hands toward her, then fell again. On his hands and knees, he crawled across the road. She ran to the front door, opened it, and looked down. There, on their doorstep, he died. Two others running from the common were shot, presumably in the back.
In all, eight militiamen lay dead and nine others were wounded. If Colonel Smith's arrival had been delayed a few more minutes, the carnage might have been much greater.
Only a few of the militia had managed to return fire. Jonas Parker, John Monroe, Ebenezer Monroe, Jr., and others got off shots before leaving the line. Solomon Brown and Jonas Brown fired from behind a stone wall one other person fired from the back door of Buckman's house Nathan Monroe, Lieutenant Benjamin Tidd, and others retreated a short distance, turned, and fired.
Major Pitcairn's horse had received two minor injuries, and one regular, Private Johnson on the 10th Foot, was slightly wounded in the thigh. Johnson's luck didn't hold for long he was later wounded mortally at Bunker Hill.
There were many eyewitnesses to the action at Lexington: militia British regulars, officers and troops and bystanders as well as the women and children looking out from the windows of the houses around the common. Many kept diaries, and still more testified in affidavits collected later by the Committee of Safety.
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Francis Smith Thomas Gage John Parker Paul Revere Hugh Percy John Pitcairn James Barrett William Dawes Joseph Warren Samuel Prescott
Lexington and Concord: The Night a Nation Was Born
SHADOWS SCUTTLED BENEATH THE ELM and linden trees along Boston Common. Hoarse whispers carried on the night air, along with the creak of leather and the clatter of a stone kicked down a lane. It would later be reported that a barking dog was bayoneted to enforce the silence. Not until the moon rose at ten p.m. on Tuesday, April 18, 1775, three nights past full but still radiant, did shape and color emerge from the hurrying gray figures to reveal hundreds of men in blood-red coats congregating on the beach near the town magazine. Moonglow glinted off metal buttons and silvered grenadiers’ tall bearskin caps. The soldiers reeked of damp wool and sweat, mingled with the tang of the brick dust and pipe clay used to scour brass and leather. Their hair had been greased, powdered, and clubbed into queues held with leather straps. The moon also gave tint to the facings on their uniform coats—purple or green, buff or royal blue, depending on the regiment from which each man had been plucked for the march to Concord.
Excerpted from “The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777” by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt and Company, May 2019. Copyright 2019 by Rick Atkinson. All rights reserved.)
The navy had collected only 20 longboats and would need two lifts to shuttle all 800 men to marshy Lechmere Point, a mile across Back Bay. Sailors bent to their ash oars against the tide, and with every stroke the standing soldiers swayed. Each man’s kit included the 11-lb. Brown Bess musket, three dozen rounds of ammunition in a cartridge box, and a haversack to carry bread and salt pork. Beneath heavy coats and crossbelts the men wore wool waistcoats, white linen shirts, breeches buckled at the knee, and canvas or linen gaiters to keep pebbles from their low-topped brogans. Most wore black leather caps or felt hats with the brim stitched up to give a forepeak and two comers. By neck cords at officers’ throats hung gorgets—small silver or gilt crescents worn as an emblem of rank, a last remnant of medieval armor. Loading was haphazard, and as the soldiers clambered from the boats to wade through the reeds on the far shore, sergeants hissed and clucked to reassemble the ten discomposed companies of light infantry and 11 of grenadiers. “We were wet up to the knees,” a Lieutenant Barker later reported. Midnight had passed by the time the second lift arrived, and further delays followed as navy provisions in the boats were handed out—supplies that, Barker added, “most of the men threw away.” Fording a shallow inlet on the edge of Cambridge further wetted each shivering man to his waistcoat, but at last the troops reached the wide road leading west, unpaved except for napped stones and gravel shoveled into mud holes.
Few knew their destination. Two a.m. had come and gone as they put on speed. With their wet shoes squelching at more than 100 steps per minute, their pace approached four miles an hour. Past apple and plum orchards they tramped, past smokehouses and cider mills and oblique driftways that led into cow pastures. The heavy footfall rattled pewter dishes on dressers and in cupboards, and an eight-year-old boy later recalled a wondrous sight on the road outside his window: a long bobbing column of red, “like a flowing river,” sweeping northwest beneath the gibbous moon.
British General Thomas Gage was unsure whether the revolutionaries will fight his troops at Lexington and Concord. (Ivy Close Images/Alamy Stock Photo)
A brigade of armed men tiptoeing through Boston in the middle of the night had not gone unnoticed. “The town,” a British fusilier acknowledged, ‘‘was a good deal agitated.” Joseph Warren may have watched the mustering troops he lived in a rented house on Hanover Street, barely a mile from the foot of the Common, and several companies had made for the boats from his North End neighborhood. Regardless, Warren was soon well informed. Two weeks earlier, the provincial congress had agreed that an enemy force exceeding 500 men leaving town with baggage and artillery ought to be considered a threat to the province and met by an assembled “army of observation . . . to act solely on the defensive so long as it can be justified.” This British force, even without heavy guns, was threatening enough for Dr. Warren. Before the first boats pulled off the Boston beach, he had summoned two couriers to carry the alarm to Samuel Adams and John Hancock, holed up in a Lexington parsonage, and to alert the wider countryside.
The first herald was a beefy, slab-jawed tanner in a slouched hat. William Dawes Jr., barely 30, still lived in Ann Street, where he had been raised by Puritan stock so strict that children were forbidden to look out a window on Sundays and the instructive School of Good Manners advised, “Let thy recreations be lawful, brief, and seldom.” Dawes had overcome such constrictions to become an adept smuggler, a patriot messenger, a militia adjutant, and an intelligence agent while surveilling British officers, he supposedly sometimes posed as a vegetable peddler, sometimes as a miller, sometimes as a drunk. At Warren’s instruction, Dawes would ride through the Boston Neck gate on a “slow-jogging horse,” then loop northwest through Cambridge, rousing households on the way to Lexington.
The second herald had already proved his value as a trusted courier in nearly a dozen rides to New York, Philadelphia, New Hampshire, and, twice this month, Lexington and Concord. Various newspapers had often mentioned Paul Revere over the past year because of dispatches he carried hither and yon from Boston he had, as the historian David Hackett Fischer would write, “a genius for being at the center of great events.” Now 40, with the brown eyes of his French Huguenot forebears, a broad, ruddy face, and the sinewy arms of a metalworker, Revere had run his own business as a silver- and goldsmith for more than 20 years—making teapots, mending spoons, inventing alloys, and setting false teeth, including two for Dr. Warren. He had become a skilled copperplate engraver, a concocter of allegory and caricature, who also made plates for playing cards, broadside illustrations, and paper money. For all Revere’s legendary bravura, his life was stained with tragedy: he would father 16 children, his “little lambs,” and most would die before their time.
This was his time. After a brief consultation with Warren, he hurried to his nearby house in Clark’s Square, snatched his riding boots and a long surtout, then picked his way through twisting North End alleys to the waterfront. Two confederates waited with a dinghy. Softly they rowed from the wharf, against the young flood and under that old moon, with a temperate breeze stirring out of the southwest. Ahead loomed HMS Somerset, a 70-gun ship of the line anchored as a sentinel in the ferryway between Boston and Charlestown in water so shallow the vessel could barely swing at anchor. Some Somerset crewmen were manning the longboats at Lechmere Point or working her pumps an inspection this week had showed the man-of-war to be in desperately poor repair—seams rotten, butt ends open, long overdue for caulking and sheathing in Halifax. Whether distracted or sightless, the watch failed to spot the small boat that scooted past the big craft’s stem and on to the Charlestown shore.
In 1775, America had more than 3,000 churches, representing 18 denominations, but none was more important on this April night than Christ Church on Boston’s Salem Street. Known as Old North, the church featured eight great bells cast in England, a magnificent quartet of hand-carved wooden angels perched above the nave, and a towering steeple, long a landmark for navigators entering the harbor and featured in a Boston panorama engraved by Revere the previous year. As carefully planned earlier in the week, another confederate—Revere identified him only as “a friend”-climbed 154 stairs and a rickety ladder to a window in the steeple’s north face, lugging two lanterns of tinned steel with glass panels, pewter finials, and metal rings for hanging or carrying. For plainspun Boston, the lanterns—at least the one that has survived—were fancy artifacts: 14 inches high, six inches wide and deep, with 200 perforations in the top, arranged to throw exquisite shadows shaped as circles, diamonds, and Maltese crosses. Flint and steel soon lighted the candles, and twin gleams could be seen across the harbor. As Revere intended, rebel leaders beyond the Charles now knew that British troops were on the move via Back Bay—two if by sea—rather than taking the more circuitous, one-if-by-land route through Roxbury.
Dramatic as the signal was, and as enduring in American iconography, it proved superfluous, since both Dawes and Revere eluded British patrols to spread the word themselves. Handed the reins to a big brown New England mare, Revere swung into the saddle and took off at a canter across Charlestown Neck, rider and steed, hooves striking sparks, merging into a single elegant creature, bound for glory.
Two hours later, Revere trotted into Lexington, his mount lathered after outgalloping a pair of British commander General Thomas Gage’s equestrian sentinels near Charlestown. Veering north toward the Mystic River to avoid further trouble, Revere had alerted almost every farmstead and minute captain within shouting distance. Popular lore later credited him with a stirring battle cry—”The British are coming!”—but a witness quoted him as warning, more prosaically, “The regulars are coming out.” Now he carried the alarm to the Reverend Jonas Clarke’s parsonage, just up the road from Lexington Common. Here Clarke had written 3,000 sermons in 20 years here he called up the stairs each morning to rouse his ten children—“Polly, Betsey, Lucy, Liddy, Patty, Sally, Thomas, Jonas, William, Peter, get up!” And here Clarke had given sanctuary, in a bedroom to the left of the front door, to the renegades Hancock and Samuel Adams.
A squad of militiamen stood guard at the house as Revere dismounted, spurs clanking. Two warnings had already come from the east: as many as nine mounted British officers had been seen patrolling Middlesex roads, perhaps “upon some evil design.” At the door, a suspicious orderly sergeant challenged Revere, and Clarke blocked his path until Hancock reportedly called out, “Come in, Revere, we’re not afraid of you.” The herald delivered his message: British regulars by the hundreds were coming out, first by boat, then on foot. There was not a moment to lose.
Thirty minutes later, Dawes arrived with the same warning, and the two riders soon swung toward Concord. As Adams packed to move deeper into the countryside, Hancock lumbered about the parsonage with his sword and pistol, prattling on about making a desperate stand until he, too, was persuaded to bolt for safety in his fine carriage.
The Lexington bell began to clang in the wooden tower hard by the meetinghouse. More gallopers rode off to rouse half a hundred villages. Warning gunshots echoed from farm to farm. Bonfires flared. Drums beat. Across the colony, in an image that would endure for centuries, solemn men grabbed their firelocks and stalked off in search of danger, leaving the plow in the furrow, the hoe in the garden, the hammer on the anvil, the bucket at the well sweep. This day would be famous before it dawned.
Lexington spread across 10,000 acres occupied by 750 people and 400 cows. Hardwood copses separated fields and pastures, and many small creeks snaked toward the distant Charles and Mystic rivers. Two cleared acres had been given over to the town Common, where the 11-mile road from Charlestown approached straight and level for the final 500 yards, then forked at the three-story meetinghouse, big and homely as a barn, before continuing the six miles to Concord. On these two acres some 130 militiamen, summoned by that insistent pealing, milled, stamping their feet against the nighttime chill. They awaited orders from their captain, John Parker, described as “a great tall man . . . with a high, wide brow.” A farmer, father of seven, and sometime town assessor, Parker, 45, had fought as a sergeant in the French and Indian War at Louisbourg and Quebec. Shadows falling across the Common deepened the dark sockets around Parker’s eyes, symptomatic of the pulmonary tuberculosis that would kill him that September.
Major John Pitcairn, a British marine, was leading more than 200 men from six regiments. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Massachusetts Bay had been the first colony to form its militia into regiments, one per county in 1636, in an effort to fashion a military organization suitable for more than haphazard local defense. Each generation since had gone to war at least once an estimated one able-bodied Massachusetts man in four had served in the last French war. Some militia units were little more than armed rabble, saluting unsuspecting officers by firing blank charges at their feet or sneaking up on young women before shooting into the air in a weird courtship ritual. Lexington’s troops, ranging in age from 16 to 66, were more disciplined under militia rules, any man interrupting the clerk while he called the roll was fined two shillings. The town had no minute company but had voted money for drums, a carriage to bury the dead, and gunpowder, now stored in the meetinghouse.
A scout dispatched in search of redcoats returned around 3 a.m. to advise Parker that none could be found. Perhaps this was another false alarm, or a British feint. Rather than keep his men out in the cold to no purpose, the captain dismissed the company with orders to reassemble at the sound of a drum. Some men ambled home. Most headed to the red-doored Buckman Tavern, an ancient “public house of entertainment” with a double hip roof on the edge of the Common. Here they could find a crackling fire and a mug of warm flip, heated at the hearth with a hot iron.
Parker’s scout had not ventured far enough east. The British were coming on hard, spurred by the distant pop of warning shots and the gleam of alarm fires flaring on the horizon. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, the expedition commander, had heeded Gage’s order to lunge for the Concord River bridges with a “party of the best marchers” six light infantry companies now hurried ahead of the main column. Assured by a passing teamster that a thousand rebels were in arms, Smith also sent a courier to Boston to plead for reinforcements, a wise impulse.
The vanguard making for Concord was led by John Pitcairn. Not only was Major Pitcairn, a marine, on horseback and far from the sea to which he was accustomed—he was commanding more than 200 men from a half dozen army regiments to whom he was a stranger. The Scottish son of a Fifeshire minister, in his 50s portly and affable with heavy brows and full lips, Pitcairn could usually be found in Old North Church on Sundays, although his weekday profanity was described as “a Boston legend.” He did not extend his geniality to rebels, who deserved only “severe chastisement.” “If l draw my sword but half out of my scabbard,” he had asserted, “the whole banditti of Massachusetts will run away.” The major, an American clergyman later suggested, was “a good man in a bad cause.”
A hand-colored etching of the Battle of Lexington by Amos Doolittle was advertised for sale in the December 1775 Connecticut Journal. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
As an apricot glow began to brighten the eastern sky soon after 4 a.m., the sounds of a country folk alert and alarmed intensified—bells, shots, distant hoofbeats. Pitcairn ordered his troops to halt and load their weapons, a portentous command. With practiced motions, each soldier plucked a paper cartridge from his waist pouch, bit open an end, dribbled some powder grains into the musket flash pan, then poured the rest—close to half an ounce—down the muzzle, followed by the bullet and the cartridge wadding, which he tamped home with a steel ramrod. There was nothing precise about the Brown Bess—that “outspoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,” in Rudyard Kipling’s description. Imperfect barrels, imperfect balls, a lack of sights, variable powder, and windage between ball and barrel meant the musket was marginally accurate at 50 yards, hopeless beyond 100. But that hardly mattered when bullets were fired in swarms at close range. The enormous lead slug, nearly three-quarters of an inch in diameter and an ounce in heft, could stop a charging bull.
At Pitcairn’s command, the men seated their ramrods and surged forward, breathing hard, pulses pounding. The 14-inch bayonets on their muskets protruded above their heads like a picket fence. Scraps of cartridge paper, spat out, littered the road behind them.
The British were less than two miles from Lexington when another scout brought word to Parker of their approach. A drum beat to arms, and that infernal bell tolled again. Men in Buckman Tavern set their tankards next to the guttering candles and scrambled to the Common. Other men, filling their powder horns in an upper gallery of the meetinghouse that served as the village armory, clattered down the stairs and out the door. But only half the company answered this second call, fewer than 80 men in two ranks, anxiously peering east for redcoats. “Don’t molest them,” Parker said, “without they being first.” Precisely why he chose to confront a superior force from the exposed expanse of the village lawn rather than from a nearby thicket or stone wall would never be clear. Perhaps, dying himself, Parker had lost all impulse to seek shelter. Certainly he seemed fixed on something larger than this life. When an anxious militiaman said, “There are so few of us. It is folly to stand here,” the captain replied, “The first man who offers to run shall be shot down.”
Full dawn brought the loamy smell of plowed fields and another mild, pleasant morning. The British vanguard swung into view. The tramp of heavy brogans broke the quiet as three companies veered to the right of the meetinghouse at double-quick time. Pitcairn, on his horse, led the rest of the column to the left, following the curve of the Concord road before cantering onto the Common. A guttural roar began to build in the ranks, more growl than cheer. “Soldiers, don’t fire,” Pitcairn yelled, according to a British lieutenant. “Keep your ranks. Form and surround them.” Spectators gawking from the road heard other officers yell, “Throw down your arms, ye villains, ye rebels!” and “Disperse, you rebels, immediately!” When regulars closed to within 50 yards, Parker apparently took the command to heart. As he swore in a deposition a week later, “Upon their sudden approach, I immediately ordered our militia to disperse and not to fire.”
A single gunshot sounded above the clamor, possibly a warning shot or a sniper at Buckman Tavern. Whoever fired first on the Common would remain forever uncertain, but muskets quickly barked along the British line, promiscuous shooting from agitated soldiers in a makeshift command, led by a stranger. “Without any order or regularity,” as Pitcairn later acknowledged, ‘‘the light infantry began a scattered fire…contrary to the repeated orders both of me and the officers that were present.” With each trigger pulled, flint in the falling hammer struck a glancing blow against the steel frizzen, sprinkling sparks to ignite powder in the pan, which, in turn, set off the main charge through a touchhole in the side of the breech. Brilliant yellow flame erupted from each muzzle, along with a flat boom, a belch of smoke, and that heavy lead slug moving at 1,000 feet per second. Those who outlived the day would remember the acrid smell of burning powder, the rattle of ramrods shoving home another volley, the whiz of balls that missed and the terrible thud of balls hitting home, the shouts, the screams, the puffs of dust from bullets smacking a wall, as if the stone were breathing. Billowing smoke grew so dense that soon only the upper torsos of officers on horseback could be seen clearly. One lieutenant from the 38th Foot lost control of his spooked mount, which bolted 600 yards through the village until the rider finally reined in.
Howard Pyle’s “The Fight on Lexington Common, April 19, 1775″/Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington/Howard Pyle Collection/Bridgeman Images
Few of Parker’s men managed to fire more than once, if that. Nothing was right, except the courage. Militiaman John Munroe, grazed across the cheek and with a scorch mark on his jacket where another bullet had passed between his arm and his waist, fired, retreated a short distance, then loaded his musket with a double charge, which blew off a foot of the barrel. Jonas Parker, a cousin of the captain’s, neatly placed his bullets and spare flints in a hat at his feet. A British ball knocked him to his knees, and as he fumbled to reload, British bayonets tore him dead. Pitcairn slashed at the air with his sword in a futile signal to cease fire. “Our men without any orders rushed in upon them,” Lieutenant Barker of the King’s Own told his diary. “The men were so wild they could hear no orders.”
Only when Colonel Smith cantered into the village with his grenadier companies and ordered a drummer to beat to arms did the carnage end. “I was desirous,” Smith later wrote, “of putting a stop to all further slaughter of those deluded people.” After a final sputter of gunfire, gray smoke drifted off, revealing dying lumps on the greening grass, blood and so much more leaking away.
Lexington had been not a battle, or even a skirmish, but an execution. The only British casualties were two privates, lightly wounded by gunshots, and Pitcairn’s horse, nicked twice in the flank.
The American tally was far worse. Eight rebels were dead, nine wounded. Of those slain, only two bodies lay on the original American line. Several had taken bullets in the back while dispersing, including one man captured earlier in the morning and killed while ostensibly trying to escape a hundred yards to the east. Jonathan Harrington was shot close to his house on the western lip of the Common and reportedly died on his doorstep, within view of his wife and son.
Samuel Adams, upon hearing of the gunplay, exclaimed, “Oh, what a glorious morning is this!” But Adams had not been there to see the divine clay smeared on Lexington’s green, along with the litter of hundreds of tom paper cartridges. Reverend Clarke was there, watching from several hundred yards’ distance as Smith, who had prevented his men from pillaging the nearby houses, agreed to allow them a celebratory salute. The redcoats “drew up and formed in a body on the Common,” Clarke reported, “fired a volley and gave three huzzahs by way of triumph.” Then, forming again by companies, they turned and marched west, toward Concord.
Concord was ready for them. A British mounted patrol had captured Paul Revere at a bend in the road near Folly Pond, but William Dawes managed to escape at a gallop. Continuing his charmed morning, Revere—saucy and unrepentant, even with a pistol clapped to his head—was soon released, though without his brown mare, to make his way on foot back to the Clarke parsonage. But others had carried warnings into Concord, where a sentinel at the courthouse fired his musket and heaved on the bell rope. The clanging, said to have “the earnestness of speech” and pitched to wake the dead, soon drove all fifteen hundred living souls from their beds.
Reports of shooting in Lexington “spread like electric fire,” by one account, though some insisted that the British would load only powder charges without bullets. Many families fled west or north, or into a secluded copse called Oaky Bottom, clutching family Bibles and a few place settings of silver while peering back to see if their houses were burning. Others buried their treasures in garden plots or lowered them down wells. Boys herded oxen and milk cows into the swamps, flicking at haunches with switches.
Militiamen, alone or in clusters or in entire companies with fife and drum, rambled toward Concord, carrying pine torches and bullet pouches, their pockets stuffed with rye bread and cheese. They toted muskets, of course—some dating to the French war, or earlier—but also ancient fowling pieces, dirks, rapiers, sabers hammered from farm tools, and powder in cow horns delicately carved with designs or calligraphic inscriptions, an art form that had begun in Concord decades earlier and spread through the colonies. Some wore “long stockings with cowhide shoes,” a witness wrote. “The coats and waistcoats were loose and of huge dimensions, with colors as various as the barks of oak, sumac, and other trees of our hills and swamps could make them.” In Acton, six miles to the northwest, nearly 40 minutemen gathered at Captain Isaac Davis’s house, polishing bayonets, replacing gunlock flints, and powdering their hair with flour. Davis, a 30-year-old gunsmith with a beautiful musket, bade goodbye
to his wife and four youngsters with a simple “Hannah, take good care of the children.”
“It seemed as if men came down from the clouds,” another witness recalled. Some took posts on the two bridges spanning the Concord River, which looped west and north of town. Most made for the village green or Wright Tavern, swapping rumors and awaiting orders from Colonel James Barrett, the militia commander, a 64-year-old miller and veteran of the French war who lived west of town. Dressed in an old coat and a leather apron, Barrett carried a naval cutlass with a plain grip and a straight, heavy blade forged a generation earlier in Birmingham.
Barrett’s men were tailors, shoemakers, smiths, farmers, and keepers from Concord’s nine inns. But the appearance of tidy prosperity was deceiving: Concord was suffering a protracted decline from spent land, declining property values, and an exodus of young people, who had scattered to the frontier in Maine or New Hampshire rather than endure lower living standards than their elders had enjoyed. This economic decay, compounded by the Coercive Acts and British political repression, made these colonial Americans anxious for the future, nostalgic for the past, and, in the moment, angry.
Sometime before eight a.m., perhaps 200 impatient militiamen headed for Lexington to the rap of drums and the trill of fifes. Twenty minutes later and barely a quarter mile away, 800 British soldiers hove into view like a scarlet dragon on the road near the junction known as Meriam’s Corner. “The sun shined on their arms & they made a noble appearance in their red coats,” Thaddeus Blood, a 19-year-old minuteman, later testified. “We retreated.”
The British brigade wound past Abner Wheeler’s farm, and the farms of the widow Keturah Durant and the spinster seamstress Mary Burbeen and then the widow Olive Stow, who had sold much of her land, along with a horse, cows, swine, and salt pork, to pay her husband’s debts when he’d died three years earlier. They strode past the farms of Olive’s brother, Farwell Jones, and the widow Rebecca Fletcher, whose husband also had died three years before, and the widower George Minot, a teacher with three motherless daughters, who was not presently at home because he was the captain of a Concord minute company. Into largely deserted Concord the regulars marched, in search of feed for the officers’ horses and water for the parched men. From Burial Ground Hill, Smith and Pitcairn studied their hand-drawn map and scanned the terrain with a spyglass.
Gage’s late intelligence was accurate: in recent weeks, most military stores in Concord had been dispersed to nine other villages or into burrows of mud and manure. Regulars seized 60 barrels of flour found in a gristmill and a malt house, smashing open the casks and powdering the streets. They tossed 500 lbs. of musket balls into a millpond, knocked the trunnions from several iron cannons found in the jail yard, chopped down the liberty pole, and eventually made a bonfire of gun carriages, spare wheels, tent pegs, and a cache of wooden spoons. The blaze briefly spread to the town hall, until a bucket brigade of regulars and villagers extinguished the flames.
With the pickings slim in Concord, Colonel Smith ordered more than 200 men under Captain Lawrence Parsons to march west toward Colonel Barrett’s farm, two miles across the river. Perhaps they would have better hunting there.
An enemy round claims minuteman Isaac Davis at the north Concord bridge. (North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo)
Since 1654, a bridge had spanned the Concord River just north of the village. The current structure, 16 feet wide and 100 feet long, had been built for less than £65 in 1760 by 26 freemen and two slaves, using blasting powder and five teams of oxen. The timber frame featured eight bents to support the gracefully arcing deck, each with three stout piles wedged into the river bottom. Damage from seasonal floods required frequent repairs, and prudent wagon drivers carefully inspected the planks before crossing. A cobbled causeway traversed the marshy ground west of the river.
Seven British companies crossed the bridge around nine that Wednesday morning, stumping past stands of black ash, beech, and blossoming cherry. Dandelions brightened the roadside, and the soldiers’ faces glistened with sweat. Three companies remained to guard the span, while the other four continued with Captain Parsons to the Barrett farm, where they would again be disappointed: “We did not find so much as we expected,” an ensign acknowledged. A few old gun carriages were dragged from the barn, but searchers failed to spot stores hidden under pine boughs in Spruce Gutter or in garden furrows near the farm’s sawmill.
The five Concord militia companies had taken post on Punkatasset Hill, a gentle but insistent slope half a mile north of the bridge. Two Lincoln companies and two more from Bedford joined them, along with Captain Davis’s minute company from Acton, bringing their numbers to perhaps 450, a preponderance evident to the 100 or so redcoats peering up from the causeway one uneasy British officer estimated the rebel force at 1,500. On order, the Americans loaded their muskets and rambled downhill to within 300 yards of the enemy. A militia captain admitted feeling “as solemn as if I was going to church.”
Solemnity turned to fury at the sight of black smoke spiraling above the village: the small pyre of confiscated military supplies was mistaken for British arson. Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer, a hog reeve and furniture maker, was described as “the most dangerous man in Concord” because young men would follow wherever he led. Now Hosmer was ready to lead them back across the bridge. “Will you let them burn the town down?” he cried.
Colonel Barrett agreed. They had waited long enough. Captain Davis was ordered to move his Acton minutemen to the head of the column—“I haven’t a man who’s afraid to go,” Davis replied—followed by the two Concord minute companies their bayonets would help repel any British counterattack. The column surged forward in two files. Some later claimed that fifers tootled “The White Cockade,” a Scottish dance air celebrating the 1745 Jacobite uprising. Others recalled only silence but for footfall and Barrett’s command “not to fire first.” The militia, a British soldier reported, advanced “with the greatest regularity.”
Captain Walter Laurie, commanding the three light infantry companies, ordered his men to scramble back to the east side of the bridge and into “street-firing” positions, a complex formation designed for a constricted field of fire. Confusion followed, as a stranger again commanded strangers. Some redcoats braced themselves near abutments. Others spilled into an adjacent field or tried to pull up planks from the bridge deck.
Retreating from Concord, imperial forces came under fire from colonials lurking in ambush. (North Wind Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)
Without orders, a British soldier fired into the river. The white splash rose as if from a thrown stone. More shots followed, a spatter of musketry that built into a ragged volley. Much of the British fire flew high—common among nervous or ill-trained troops—but not all. Captain Davis of Acton pitched over dead, blood from a gaping chest wound spattering the men next to him. Private Abner Hosmer also fell dead, killed by a ball that hit below his left eye and blew through the back of his neck. Three others were wounded, including a young fifer and Private Joshua Brooks of Lincoln, grazed in the forehead so cleanly that another private concluded that the British, improbably, were “firing jackknives.“ Others knew better. Captain David Brown, who lived with his wife, Abigail, and ten children 200 yards uphill from the bridge, shouted, “God damn them, they are firing balls! Fire, men, fire!” The cry became an echo, sweeping the ranks: “Fire! For God’s sake, fire!” The crash of muskets rose to a roar.
“A general popping from them ensued,” Captain Laurie later told General Gage. One of Laurie’s lieutenants had reloaded when a bullet slammed into his chest, spinning him around. Three other lieutenants were wounded in quick succession, making casualties of half the British officers at the bridge and ending Laurie’s fragile control over his detachment. Redcoats began leaking to the rear, and soon all three companies broke toward Concord, abandoning some of their wounded. “We was obliged to give way,” an ensign acknowledged, ‘‘then run with the greatest precipitance.” Amos Barrett reported that the British were “running and hobbling about, looking back to see if we was after them.”
Battle smoke draped the river. Three minutes of gunplay had cost five American casualties, including two dead. Of the British, eight were wounded and two killed, but another badly hurt soldier, trying to regain his feet, was mortally insulted by minuteman Ammi White, who crushed his skull with a hatchet.
A peculiar quiet descended over what the poet James Russell Lowell would call “that era-parting bridge,” across which the old world passed into the new. Some militiamen began to pursue the fleeing British into Concord, but then veered from the road to shelter behind a stone wall. Most wandered back toward Punkatasset Hill, bearing the corpses of Davis and Abner Hosmer. “After the fire,” a private recalled, “everyone appeared to be his own commander.”
Colonel Smith had started toward the river with grenadier reinforcements, then thought better of it and trooped back into Concord. The four companies previously sent with Captain Parsons to Barrett’s farm now trotted unhindered across the bridge, only to find their dying comrade mutilated by White’s ax, his brains uncapped. The atrocity grew in the retelling: soon enraged British soldiers claimed that he and others had been scalped, their noses and ears sliced off, their eyes gouged out.
As Noah Parkhurst from Lincoln observed moments after the shooting stopped, “Now the war has begun and no one knows when it will end.”
1. Battles of Lexington and Concord
The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. They were fought on April 19, 1775, in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy (present-day Arlington), and Cambridge, near Boston. The battles marked the outbreak of open armed conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and its thirteen colonies in the mainland of British North America.
14 Apr 1775 – General Thomas Gage, received instructions from Secretary of State William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, to disarm the rebels, who were known to have hidden weapons in Concord, among other locations, and to imprison the rebellion’s leaders, especially Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
The rebellion’s ringleaders—with the exception of Paul Revere and Joseph Warren—had all left Boston by April 8. They had received word of Dartmouth’s secret instructions to General Gage from sources in London well before they reached Gage himself.
Samuel Adams and John Hancock spent the night of April 19, 1775 with the Wymans. 1666 Francis Wyman House 56 Francis Wyman Rd, Burlington, Mass
18 April 1775 – Adams and Hancock had fled Boston and were staying at the home of one of Hancock’s relatives in Lexington where they thought they would be safe from the immediate threat of arrest.
19 Apr 1775 – Francis WYMAN (1619 West Mill, Hertfordshire, England – 1699 Woburn, Mass.) built his country house about 1666 on the outskirts of Woburn, now part of Burlington. His brother John built his country house next door. Francis’ house is now managed by the Francis Wyman Association, but all that’s left of his brother’s is the cellar hole. In 1775 John’s house was owned by Amos Wyman.
John Hancock and Samuel Adams being entertained at the Sewall house on April 19, 1775 — Mural by Don Gorvette and Jeff Weaver in the foyer of the Burlington Historical Museum and was painted in 1973. The image shows left to right: Madam Abigail Jones, Rev. John Marrett, John Hancock, Cuff Trot, Samuel Adams, and Hancock’s fiance, Dorothy Quincy.
Samuel Adams and John Hancock, two of America’s forefathers, fled to the Wyman’s home from Lexington, ahead of the British troops. Elizabeth (Pierce) Wyman, wife of Amos, is said to have fed her visitors boiled potatoes, pork and bread instead of the salmon which her guests had planned to eat at the Lexington parsonage, and Hancock is reported to have sent a cow to his hostess at a later date in appreciation of her hospitality.
It’s about 5 miles between the two houses. Here are driving directions.
On the morning of April 19, 1775, John Hancock and his elderly aunt, Mrs. Thomas Hancock Hancock’s fiance, Dorothy Quincy and Samuel Adams were at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke in Lexington. They had been warned the night before by Paul Revere that the British were moving toward Lexington and Concord.
The orderly sergeant of the Lexington minutemen and proprietor of Lexington’s Munroe Tavern, William Munroe, led the group from Lexington along the road to Woburn’s second parish (Burlington). They stopped just over the Lexington-Burlington line at Capt. James Reed’s house on the old Lexington Rd. this house stood on the south side of the Burlington Mall parking lot. The group next stopped at the home of Madam Abigail Jones, the recent widow of Rev. Thomas Jones. The house stood on the corner of what is now Lexington St. and Independence Dr. and was known as the Sewall house the house was destroyed by fire April 23, 1897.
The group was sitting down to dinner when they were warned that the British were coming. Madam Jones’ servant, Cuff Trot, and the minister, Rev. John Marrett, led Hancock and Adams to the Amos Wyman house, just over the Burlingon-Billerica border.
Rev. Samuel Sewall gives an account in the History of Woburn:
Mr. Marrett next conducted Mrs. Jones’ illustrious visitors to the house of Mr. Amos Wyman, situate in an obscure corner of Bedford, Billerica and Woburn Precinct, where were collected the women and children of several of the neighboring families, who had fled thither for safety fearing that if they remained at home, “the regulars” might come, and murder them, or carry them off. And now, as soon as Messrs. Hancock and Adams had had time to become calm after their flight, they besought Mrs. Wyman to give them a little food saying they had had neither breakfast nor dinner that day. Their good natured hostess, in ready compliance with their request, took down from a shelf a wooden tray, containing some cold boiled salt pork, and also (it is believed) some cold boiled potatoes unpeeled, and brown bread and upon this plain, course fare, they made a hearty meal. Upon their return to Mrs. Jones’ the next day, they learned that the enemy had not come there in pursuit of them. Either they and never intended it, or else, being closely pursued from Concord by their exasperated and hourly increasing Yankee foes, they thought it best to take a prudent care for their own safety, rather than to digress in their march, into the neighboring towns, in pursuit of Hancock and Adams. Not many years since, it was a current report in Lexington, that Hancock, in gratitude to Mrs. Wyman for her kindness to him and Adams at her house, in their flight for fear of the British, made a present to her of a cow.
About 700 British Army regulars, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy military supplies that were reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot colonials had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations. They also received details about British plans on the night before the battle and were able to rapidly notify the area militias of the enemy movement.
Lexington and Concord Map
The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. The militia were outnumbered and fell back, and the regulars proceeded on to Concord, where they searched for the supplies.
At the North Bridge in Concord, approximately 500 militiamen fought and defeated three companies of the King’s troops. The outnumbered regulars fell back from the minutemen after a pitched battle in open territory.
Concord Bridge Reenactment
More militiamen arrived soon thereafter and inflicted heavy damage on the regulars as they marched back towards Boston. Upon returning to Lexington, Smith’s expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Brigadier General Hugh Percy. The combined force, now of about 1,700 men, marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown. The accumulated militias blockaded the narrow land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, starting the Siege of Boston.
Calling out the militia after Lexington and Concord, 1775
On the night of April 18, 1775, 700 British soldiers began to march toward Concord, Massachusetts, to seize and destroy arms the American patriots had stored there. Warned by Paul Revere and William Dawes, minutemen confronted and drove back the British at the towns of Lexington and Concord.
On April 19, Isaac Merrill, a colonel in the militia and a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, sent this pressing message to John Currier, captain of the Amesbury Militia, requesting assistance:
I have received intiligence that the ministeriel troops under the Command of General Gage did Last evening march out of Boston and marched to Lexington & there Killed a Number of our American Soldiers & thence proceed to
Concord Killing and Destroying our men and interest: These are therefore to order you forthwith to Notify and muster as many of your under officers and Soldiers as you can possible to meet immediatly to Some Suitable place: and then to march of forthwith to Concord or Else where as in your Descretion you Shall think best . . .
Written in the heat of the moment, just hours after the encounters between Massachusetts patriots and British regulars, the letter is filled with grammatical errors and is vague in some details. It conveys the sense of urgency that was felt by participants in the incipient revolution. Local militias responded to letters such as Merrill’s and laid siege to British-held Boston.
Isaac Merrill to John Currier, Essex County, Massachusetts, April 19, 1775.
Essex Co To John Currier Capt of a militerry foot Company in Amesbury this Day I have received intiligence that the ministeriel troops under the Command of General Gage did Last evening march out of Boston and marched to Lexington & there Killed a Number of our American Soldiers & thence proceed to Concord Killing and Destroying our men and interest: These are therefore to order you forthwith to Notify and muster as many of your under officers and Soldiers as you can possible to meet immediatly to Some Suitable place: and then to march of forthwith to Concord or Else where as in your Descretion you Shall think best to the reliefe of our Friend[s] and Country: and also to order those who are now absent & out of the way to Follow after and ioin you as Soon as they shall be apprized of the Alaram and when you have marched your men to Some part of our army you are to appoint some officer to head them in case you return home your Self: till Some Further order may be taken: in this Faile Not Given under my Hand and Seal at Amesbury this Ninteenth Day of April in the Fifteenth year of the Reign of George the third Anno Domini: 1775
Watch the video: The Patriot Stand on Lexington Green - April 19th, 1775