April 19, 1775 - The government goes
door to door confiscating firearms. Gun fire results - soldiers vs.
the militia (i.e., farmboys, drovers, carpenters,
laborers, and school teachers, etc...).
The American Revolution is ignited!
The 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. Amongst
the dead was Parker. 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
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 loses 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.
Source of Above:
How to cite this article:
Rickard, J. (29 February 2004), Concord & Lexington, 19 April 1775,