The events of April 19, 1775 were not very surprising. For a good five years many Americans had been itching for just such a confrontation with England. The “Boston Massacre,” the “Tea Party” were just a couple of the predictors of what was almost inevitable. In some ways, it was surprising that the rebellion did not start at an earlier date. There certainly had been enough incidents for one to have started. The single biggest deterrent had been America’s leadership to show they were loyal to their king and their mother country, England. Not only did they consider themselves as Americans, but as loyal Englishmen who had the same rights as their fellow countrymen who lived in England. But that is exactly where the division happened.
By the mid-18th Century, England was an empire with the best navy in the world and arguably the best army in the world. It was at this time that the idea of the sun never setting on the British Empire was coming into vogue. British North America was by far its largest claim, although India was by far its most profitable. Wealthy English merchants, who populated the House of Lords, and who had the ear of the king, regardless of who he was, jealously coveted their claims in the lands outside the British Isles.
With the exceptions of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony, all of British North America were settled as mercantile interests. Competing with these interests were the French, who the English despised, who had strongholds in Canada, the Ohio River Valley and the Mississippi delta. The two countries seemed to be literally warring with each other for several hundred years. The French were claiming much of the extremely profitable sugar cane areas of the Caribbean. At the heart of this was not just sugar as a sweetener, but as the basis for molasses and rum, two things English merchants heavily desired.
In their desire to firmly control all they laid claim to, British merchants persuaded Parliament to pass a series of laws meant to protect their interests, the so-called Townsend Acts. Passed in 1767, these acts were used to bring in line the already rebellious Americans, in particular those who lived in Massachusetts. At the time, Massachusetts was a leading ship builder and, by default, heavily invested in the shipping industry. At the heart of the Townsend Act was the revenue act, also known as the stamp tax. Despite attempts by Britain to restrain trade of its colonies in North America to only England, and to require colonist to use English ships exclusively, Americans had ignored these dictates. Their claim, as loyal Englishmen, as well as Americans, was they had an equal right to trade as their desired and without constraints not placed upon the merchants in England.
The destruction of the tea in the Boston Harbor was meant to be even more provocative than it was. Its leader, Samuel Adams, cousin of John Adams, was the radical leader of the “Sons of Liberty.” He would have been happy had war broken out right after the Boston Massacre. Ironically, his cousin John gained prominence from this event as he served as defense counsel for the British Army lieutenant who was tried for murder. John was shrewd and knew if Massachusetts were to stay in control of their courts, the courts had to be shown as a place where any man could count on a vigorous defense and expect a reasonable finding by the court. Adams won his case. The lieutenant was exonerated. Unfortunately, a few years later the crown saw fit to seize control of the courts from the Americans along with control of the colony’s chief executive, the governor. Duly elected governors were replaced by English governors general and martial law.
The colonists concern, at the time of the destruction of the tea in Boston’s harbor, was not that they had to pay a tax but “[they] thought it reasonable that the Colonies Should bear a part of the national Burden, as that they should share a part of the national Benefit . . . The Colonies soon found that the duties imposed . . . not only exceeded our Proportion, but beyond our utmost Ability to pay . . . We had always considered ourselves, as part of the British Empire.” (New Hampshire Gazette; January 6, 1775) They were asserting themselves as citizens of England who did not receive the same consideration as those who lived in England.
In late 1774 England had denied the colonist the right to their own defense. It made it illegal for the colonist to store guns and ammunition, black powder, in any central location. General Thomas Gage, commander of the English Army, made forays to Taunton, Salem, Somerville, and Portsmouth to seize guns and powder being held at those locations. At each instance, save the Somerville foray, his attempts were stymied by vigilant Americans who sent word ahead of Gage’s troops of his designs.
General Thomas Gage
In January 1775, Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State for America in London, in a letter to General Gage, said: “The violence committed by those who have taken up arms in Massachusetts have appeared to me as the acts of a rude rabble, without plan, without concert, without conduct, and therefore I think that a small force now, if put to the test, would be able to encounter them, with greater probability of success, then might be expected of a larger army, if the people should be suffered to form themselves upon a more regular plan.”
Boston, however, had become an armed camp with over 1000 troops camped on its common. The tensions between the Bostonians and the soldiers was palpable. Taunts were frequent but most Bostonians feared for the lives at Gen. Gage was the leader of the local government, and their health and welfare was at his pleasure. But Gage was not entirely unsympathetic with the Americans given his marriage to Margaret Kemble, a native of New Jersey.
Massachusetts had retained a central government of its own even after the insertion of Gen. Gage as its governor. The provincial government, as it was known, met in Watertown and Cambridge on a regular basis. At its heart was the committee on defense. This committee, supported by similar committees in every Massachusetts city and town, was responsible for the militia each town organized. While technically illegal, Gen. Gage did nothing to stop their existence. Gage’s formally trained, well-equipped troop of army regulars were the obvious superior to anything the colonists could assemble. Each town in Massachusetts held elections to decide who its militia officers would be. And while every man from 16 to 60 was required to be a member of this militia, their training was spotty, their weapons crude, and their leadership questionable. The colony had absolutely no professional military men.
The citizens of Massachusetts had reason to believe that the British rule of provincial America was about to become more severe. In the April 17, 1775 issue of the Boston Evening Post it was reported:
“Friday last the Nautilus . . . arrived here from England with Dispatches for his Excellency General Gage . . . [with] passengers . . . of his Majesties 17th Regiment of Light Dragoons; which, with the 35th, 49th, and 63rd Regiments of Foot, are said to be expected here soon.
Yesterday, the Falcon Sloop of War also arrived here from England.”
Also, on April 17, 1775, the newspaper the Boston Gazette reported:
“General Gage’s letters being read in the House of Commons, it appears from one of them it has been recommended to him by Lord Dartmouth to disarm some of the Colonies, which in his opinion, was not practicable until he was Master of the Country.”
From such accounts, colonists could only believe that all hopes of self-rule, which they demanded, was not in their immediate future. The restraint with which John Adams and John Hancock had been able to effect was being overcome by events. The peaceful resistance Massachusetts residents had long observed was in obvious jeopardy.
For obvious reasons, the one town which did not have an assembled militia was Boston. But to make up for this, the citizens of Boston maintained a group of spies who watched every action made by the British regulars and reported back to the provincial government. Oddly, we have no idea who any of these spies were but their existence is unquestionable as witnessed by the events of April 18 and 19, 1775.
On the afternoon of April 18, 1775, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith received orders from Gen. Gage to lead an expedition although he was not advised of the mission’s object nor destination. Later that afternoon, British patrols were sent into the countryside to block messengers from alerting the countryside to the movements of British troops. It was just such a patrol that intercepted and captured Paul Revere. That evening, after a British patrol, led by Major Edward Mitchell, passed through Lexington, provincial militia gathered at Buckman’s Tavern to safeguard John Adams and John Hancock.
Col. Francis Smith
Word had gotten out that General Gage was planning to take the stores of guns and powder located in Concord. What was not known was how he would effect his actions. Boston, at the time, resembled the bulb of a flower with a long narrow strip of land, known as the neck, connecting it to the main land at Dorchester. The British army had in its possession boats it could use to ford the Charles River at Charlestown, if it desired, to make such a move. Or, an alternative, it could march down the neck and out through Watertown toward Concord.
The British troops, who had been assembling on Boston Common early that evening, were hungry, wet and cold that evening after a cool windy rain pushed through the area.
Notwithstanding Longfellow’s claim that one lantern meant they were coming by sea, that single lantern meant they were crossing the river. In truth, we do not know if Revere saw the lantern in the North Church. He left Boston around 11PM, rowed across the Charles River to Charlestown from where he started his famous ride. All he told us is that his friend, Dr. Joseph Warren, who had sources inside the British camp, requested he ride to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock of the British movements. At the same time Revere’s friend, William Dawes, left Boston on horseback riding down “the neck” to the countryside.
Joseph Warren Paul Revere
No one ever said “the British arm coming” because the colonists still considered themselves to be British and such a statement would have been nonsensical. Like Revere and Dawes said “the lobster backs” or “the red coats” are coming. Revere never made it to Concord as he was captured by the British army. But in Lexington, around 1:30AM, near the Lincoln town line, Revere was captured by British regulars, Dawes narrowly escaping. To their credit, they had enlisted Dr. Samuel Prescott to continue the ride with them and it was he who finally brought the alarm to Concord. From Concord, a fourth rider rode to Worcester.
Each town in Massachusetts had its own alert system in the case of an emergency as was expected. When Revere warned someone in Medford, for example, he took the alarm to Stoneham and that man to Reading and so forth.
In the very early hours of April 19 General Gage’s troops, 400 in all, boarded barges to cross the Charles River. At the same time, however, Gage dispatched another 500 troops, at Col. Smith’s request, members of his artillery, to march down the neck and out to Concord. Gage was attempting to maximize his chances of success. The map below shows the route used by the British troops.
For April, it was a warm and humid night. This certainly set the tone for a long series of unpredictable events. By 2 in the morning Revere and Dawes had made it to Lexington where Hancock and others were hold up. The distance from Charlestown to Lexington, roughly 12 miles, could be covered in a matter of hours by Gage’s troops. But it was 4:30 before the troops were in sight of Lexington center. The Hancock and others had been gathered expectantly at Buckman’s Tavern. During that time roughly 250 militia, Minute men, had also gathered on the green.
The British troops advanced at a slow rate and, Col. Smith aware and worried over that aspect, dispatched Major Pitcairn, of the Royal Marines, to secure the bridges that lay ahead. Doubtless Smith was remembering an encounter at a bridge in Salem some months before that had stymied his attempts to secure guns and powder there. Pitcairn ordered his men “on no account to fire, not even attempt it without orders.” This order too buttresses the argument that it was the colonists, and not the British regulars, who fired the first shot.
The militia were a rag-tag group of questionable leadership and an unquestionable lack of discipline. Conversely, the British regulars marched to the green in a tight formation headed by Colonel Smith, a career officer. It is important to note that the 400 British regulars matched the entire population in size of the town of Lexington. This sight, with the 77 militia assembled, was a scary force to behold for the residents and the militia. No one, on either side, knew what to expect. But this assemblage, for the first time, pitted a significant colonial force against the crown.
As the two forces faced each other, the British regulars at staunch attention versus the militia who, though of fair size, lacked any semblance of military aptitude. British Major Pitcairn orders the militia to disperse upon his arrival at the green. Captain Parker, commander of the militia and a combat veteran, realized he necessarily needed to follow this order and told his men to disperse. Prior to that, Parker had ordered his men to not fire upon the British troops except in self-defense. But as they were doing so the infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out. Given the high state of discipline displayed by the British regulars, it is likely that the shot came from one of the colonists. In the end, 8 colonists lay dead while only a single British troop was wounded. This did not bode well for the colonists. How these minute men, at close range, did not score a single hit of any sort makes you wonder why they would even consider continuing the fight. But their retreat from Lexington was just as much an advance to Concord where they reassembled and took on the British.
Col. Smith arrived in Lexington after the skirmish and was horrified by what he viewed as a breakdown of discipline. He absolutely did not desire to engage the colonists at any point during his trip to Concord.
What the colonists at Lexington did not know was that the 400 troops they faced there were about to grow to 700 as Brigadier Lord Percy’s brigade was about to meet up with Col. Smith’s soldiers.
The weather, early that day, had the temperature a coolish 45 degrees, a typical New England day. It was a clear breezy day that hid the heat which would envelope these British soldiers in their wool uniforms later in the day.
At about 7AM Col. Smith’s troops reached Concord. From Lexington his troops had marched in battle formation, and in plain sight of the provincial militia who marched parallel to them with fifes and drums playing. Smith had two objectives: destroy the weapons stored there and then eat breakfast.
Just a few miles from Concord center, in the town of Lincoln, 200 militia attacked Col. Smith’s advancing troops. These were men from the towns of Bedford and Lincoln. These men, sitting on either side of the road, caught the British in a cross-fire.
In Concord, the provincial militia waiting there, under the command of Col. James Barrett, withdrew to the heights overlooking the North Bridge and waited for reinforcements to arrive. From their vantage point, the provincial troops could not see the movements of the British troops. When they saw smoke rising from the town they assumed the British were burning homes and moved from the hill to attack the British. In fact, the British had simply lit a fire to burn to dispose of some military equipment.
The few troops the provincials first encountered quickly retreated back to the center of town where they all waited for the expected reinforcements. But at some time after 9AM, the British commander decided to leave Concord. At the time, the skirmishes between the two sides had gained nothing for either side. The British commander likely felt it prudent to return to Boston before anything more serious happened. In past skirmishes, British troops were allowed to return to the city unmolested.
The colonists had other ideas, however, and took to attacking the retreating British troops from the relatively secure positions astride the road. The British commanders were outraged by these tactics. They did not view the Americans as being real soldiers.
As the day progressed, however, the colonists’ lack of military training started to play in their favor. The British regulars had a very particular way of marching and of fighting. The idea of guerrilla warfare, a rather new concept, was not a part of the British military lexicon. It was their belief that two forces stood opposing each other and commenced the battle in their set positions. One would fire upon the other until victory or defeat was realized.
By the time the British reached Merriam’s Corner, about a mile from town and site of the earlier skirmish, about 1100 provincials have gathered and snipe the British troops. Smith knew the provincials were moving to block his retreat put his grenadiers and light soldiers on the road first to guard against ambushes. Even so, Smith’s column is under almost continuous attack. Still, Smith was able to maintain control over his troops. But at about 2:30PM his troops are ambushed at Fiske Hill. Smith is wounded and some of his regulars break ranks and run.
At about 3PM Smith’s troops meet up with 900 reinforcements some of whom are Percy’s artillery. Percy’s artillery is able to break up the closest provincial troops. Percy takes on a scorched earth policy and burns houses of suspected snipers. Percy’s men, however, left Boston with only 36 rounds of ammunition each, far less than needed to execute proper military maneuvers.
Around 4:30PM Percy’s troops reach Menotomy, today’s Arlington, where the day’s bloodiest fighting occurred. Discipline among the British troops had broken down as they looted, pillaged, and burned homes.
The provincial troops that gathered in Menotomy had largely seen no fighting earlier in the day. They were the minutemen who came from Medford, Cambridge, and Watertown. They convened at the crossroads in Menotomy center and awaited the British troops, looking down the Lexington Road. By this time the day’s temperature was in the mid-80s and it was humid. The retreating British troops had marched the 20 miles out to Concord and then back without food or much rest.
When the British finally reach Charlestown, it takes three hours to move the troops back across the Charles River to the safety of Boston. Most had neither eaten nor slept in two days.
At the end of the day, of the approximately 1400 British troops engaged in action, 73 were killed, 174 were wounded, and 26 were reported missing. Of the 4000 American militia who were engaged, 49 were killed, 39 were wounded, and 4 were missing.