The 13 colonies, especially those hot-heads from Massachusetts were spoiling for a showdown with British in early 1775. Tensions had been simmering for some time, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had been a thorn in the Crown’s side for several years.
Things came to a head on April 19, 1775, in the small towns of Lexington and Concord. The British, fearing that the colonists were stockpiling arms and ammunition for rebellion, sent a column of about 400 regulars to Concord on the night of 18 April to destroy the cache.
The colonists, however, had effective intelligence and knew about it in advance. They mustered their militia and on Lexington green soon after sunrise, the two sides fired on one another… The militia was swept aside easily by the British troops. The same thing happened in Concord, but by then Colonial militias, have got the word were mustering from all over. The British began a tactical retreat back to Boston (Charlestown) but were fired on all the way back. “The shots heard ‘round the world.” The War for American Independence had begun.
Prelude to War: The British had long grown weary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Massachusetts had been the scene of many acts of defiance with the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre and a general disdain for the British Army (redcoats) who were occupying Boston.
General Thomas Gage the military governor, commander of 3000 regulars was given orders to destroy the arms and powder to avoid open rebellion. Gage was considered a tyrant by the colonists but in fact, he considered himself a lover of liberty. He was trying to avoid bloodshed and open warfare with English colonists, for the term Americans was not yet used.
But Gage knew each town had a militia company as per orders from the Crown to defend against Indian attacks. But he knew they’d be defending their town against the British regulars. Why he was trying to conduct the raid as stealthily as possible and do so without bloodshed.
Gage’s orders to LTC Francis Smith was to move “with utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy … all Military stores … But you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants or hurt private property.” Another 20 riders were out in the countryside looking for Colonial leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
The colonists learned of it and sent riders out to warn the militias. Among them were Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott. They did not, however, say, “The British are coming”, since the colonists considered themselves English.
The British mustered at 2100 hrs on the 18th of April and after taking barges, disembarked in Cambridge, the troops waded ashore in waist deep water and began their 17-mile march to Concord. It was now 0200 hrs on the 19th. About 0300 Colonel Smith decided to send six companies of Infantry ahead at the quick march to Concord and then sent back a message to Boston asking for reinforcements.
Forces Meet in Lexington: The six British companies under the command of Major Pitcairn were nearing the small town of Lexington where the militia, after having been warned by Paul Revere had been on the village green all night. The militia, under the command of French and Indian War officer Captain John Parker, was wondering if the reports were true.
Around 0415 hrs, Parker had a rider race to the green to report that the British were close by and advancing quickly. But he also knew that, at that time, no declaration of war had been declared, that the British had gone on these forays before and finding nothing, would travel back to Boston. He too wanted no part of any bloodshed with the regulars. He ordered his heavily outnumbered men in parade ground formation, but not blocking the road to Concord.
Parkers orders were clear, concise and now etched on the monument that now stands on the village green. “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Confusion over the first shot: The regulars arrived and rather than continue to Concord, they tried to surround the militia. One British Lieutenant ordered the militia to lay down their arms. Both Parker and Pitcairn who arrived moments later ordered the men to hold their fire. Parker then told the militia to disperse and go home. But someone fire but no one knows who fired that first shot.
The British believed that a militia member fired on them and they returned fire with several volleys. Eight of the militia were dead, nine wounded. The British suffered one minor casualty. Both sides agreed that the shot was fired from neither side facing each other on the green. But was either a colonial citizen behind a hedge or a mounted British officer.
The regulars fired several volleys because their officers had failed to give them proper orders and they didn’t know what the parameters of the mission were. Many of them thought they were there to disarm the militia. Smith arriving after, restored order and resumed the march to Concord.
Unknown to Smith, the colonials had already dispersed the arms and weapons in Concord to other towns and massed on a ridge overlooking the town. They numbered 250 against the 700 British.
Smith sent one company to secure the North Bridge on the edge of town.
The British troops arrived and began to search the town. They tried to burn some supplies but the fire got out of control and was quickly spreading to the town meetinghouse. The British soldiers along with the townspeople conducted a bucket brigade to put the fire out with minimal damage. The British soldiers acted very professionally in Concord and paid for whatever food or drink they took.
The militia outside of town commanded by Colonel James Barrett was then augmented by several companies of militia from surrounding communities. The 400-450 militia now vastly outnumbered the regulars guarding the bridge of 95 men under the command of Captain Laurie.
Barrett ordered the men to load their weapons but not to fire unless fired upon. The advanced on the bridge. Laurie, still waiting on reinforcements, ordered his men to back across it and they took up firing positions on the sides of the road. Once again a shot rang out. From who no one knows but soon others, from the British side ring out. Then, the other soldiers, believing the order had been given fired a volley into the militia crossing the bridge. Two men are killed instantly, four were wounded.
Major Buttrick, coming across with the militia on the bridge exhorted the men to fire, three British men were killed or mortally wounded. Eight more were wounded. The British were heavily outnumbered and they broke, leaving their wounded behind before linking up with other British forces that met them on the road.
The militia, stunned by their success and still finding it hard to believe that both sides were firing at one another, retreated back across the bridge and took up defensive positions behind a stone wall and back on the high ground.
The British stayed put in Concord until noon searching for more supplies. And after eating, they began their trek back to Boston. But by now the Colonial militia forces had swelled to 2000. They didn’t fight as European armies did, online and in tight formations. They fought as they had against the French and Indians, as irregulars, behind trees and stone walls. But still under centralized command.
Much to the chagrin of the British soldiers, they sniped and nipped at their heels all the way back thru Lexington. They were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition. But then a brigade under the command of Earl Percy, with 1000 fresh troops met them at 1430 hrs.
The fighting at Menotony (now Arlington) and Cambridge were probably the bloodiest of the entire day. At times the fighting was house-to-house and the British soldiers, frustrated at the tactics of the militia, killed several innocent civilians. Percy understood the militia’s use of frontier tactics:
During the whole affair the Rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance & resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed, they knew too well what was proper, to do so. 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, having been employed as Rangers against the Indians & Canadians, & this country being much covered with wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting
The British finally reached Boston about dark and were reinforced by General Gage with fresh troops. By morning on April 20, Boston was surrounded by over 15,000 militia who had gotten the alarm and responded. Those numbers would grow further when militia units from Rhode Island and Connecticut arrived. General Gage was surrounded on three sides and his worst nightmare had come true. The rebellion had turned to open warfare.
For the colonies, although the Declaration of Independence was still 15 months away, there was no turning back. Massachusetts would again be the site of a bigger battle in just a few months during the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Colonials were ill-prepared to go to war with the greatest army on the face of the earth. But they did and several years later after a costly war, they would win their freedom.
Photos: Author, National Archives