The Battles of Lexington and Concord were actually 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.
About 700 British Army regulars, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were ordered to capture and destroy military supplies that were reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Dr. Joseph Warren alerted the colonists of this. The Patriot colonists had received intelligence weeks before the expedition which warned of an impending British search, and had moved much, but not all, of the supplies to safety. They had also received details about British plans on the night before the battle, and information was rapidly supplied to the militia.
The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. The militia were outnumbered and fell back. Other British colonists, hours later at the North Bridge in Concord, fought and defeated three companies of the king's troops. The outnumbered soldiers of the British Army fell back from the Minutemen after a pitched battle in open territory.
More Minutemen arrived soon thereafter and inflicted heavy damage on the British regulars as they marched back towards Boston. Upon returning to Lexington, Smith's expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Hugh, Earl Percy. A combined force of fewer than 1,700 men marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown.
The British failed to maintain the secrecy and speed required to conduct a successful strike into hostile territory, yet they did destroy some weapons and supplies. Most British regulars returned to Boston. The occupation of surrounding areas by the Massachusetts Militia that evening marked the beginning of the Siege of Boston.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Concord Hymn described the first shot fired by the Patriots at the North Bridge as the "shot heard 'round the world".
The British Army's infantry, nicknamed "redcoats" (but dubbed "lobsterbacks" and sometimes devils by the colonists), had occupied Boston since 1768 and had been augmented by naval forces and marines to enforce the Intolerable Acts. General Thomas Gage, the military governor and commander-in-chief, still had no control over Massachusetts outside of Boston, where the Massachusetts Government Act had increased tensions between the Patriot (Whig) majority, and the Loyalist (Tory) minority. Gage's plan was to avoid conflict by removing military supplies from the Whig militias using small, secret and rapid strikes. This struggle for supplies led to one British success and then to several Patriot successes in a series of nearly bloodless conflicts known as the Powder Alarms. Gage considered himself to be a friend of liberty and attempted to separate his duties as Governor of the colony and as General of an occupying force. Edmund Burke described Gage's conflicted relationship with Massachusetts by saying in Parliament, "An Englishman is the unfittest person on Earth to argue another Englishman into slavery."
The colonists had been forming militias of various sorts since the 17th century, at first primarily for defense against local native attacks. These forces were also called to action in the French and Indian War in the 1750s and 1760s. They were generally local militias, but there was communication and some coordination at the provincial level. When the political situation began to deteriorate, these existing connections were put to use by the colonists for the purpose of resistance to the military threat.
This battle is generally described as the opening battle(s) of the American Revolutionary War.
Dartmouth's instructions and Gage's orders
On April 14, 1775, Gage received instructions from Secretary of State William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth to disarm the rebels, who had supposedly hidden weapons in Concord, and to imprison the rebellion's leaders. Dartmouth gave Gage considerable discretion in his commands.
On the morning of April 18, Gage ordered a mounted patrol of about 20 men under the command of Major Mitchell of the 5th Regiment into the surrounding country to intercept messengers who might be out on horseback.This patrol behaved differently from patrols sent out from Boston in the past, staying out after dark and asking travelers about the location of Samuel Adams and John Hancock. This had the unintended effect of alarming many residents and increasing their preparedness. The Lexington Militia in particular began to muster early that evening, hours before receiving any word from Boston. A well known story alleges that after nightfall one farmer, Josiah Nelson, mistook the British patrol for the colonists and asked them, "Have you heard anything about when the regulars are coming out?", upon which he was slashed on his scalp with a sword. However, the story of this outrageous incident was not published until over a century later, which suggests that it may be little more than a family myth.
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith received orders from Gage on the afternoon of April 18 with instructions that he was not to read them until his troops were underway. They were to proceed from Boston "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."Gage used his discretion and did not issue written orders for the arrest of rebel leaders.
Successful Colonial intelligence
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 long before they had reached Gage himself. Samuel Adams and John Hancock had fled Boston to the Hancock-Clarke House, home of one of Hancock's relatives in Lexington where they thought they would be safe.
The Massachusetts Militia had indeed been gathering a stock of weapons, powder, and supplies at Concord, as well as an even greater amount much further west in Worcester, but word reached the Colonists that British officers had been observed examining the roads to Concord. On April 8, they instructed people of the town to remove the stores and distribute them among other towns nearby.
Margaret Kemble Gage, who may have given the leaders of the rebellion military intelligenceThe Colonists were also aware of the upcoming mission on April 19, despite it having been hidden from all the British rank and file and even from all the officers on the mission. There is reasonable speculation, although not proven, that the confidential source of this intelligence was Margaret Gage, General Gage's New Jersey-born wife, who had sympathies with the Colonial cause and a friendly relationship with Warren.
Between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m on the night of April 18, 1775, Joseph Warren told William Dawes and Paul Revere that the King's troops were about to embark in boats from Boston bound for Cambridge and the road to Lexington and Concord. Warren's intelligence suggested that the most likely objectives of the British Army's movements later that night would be the capture of Samuel Adams and John Hancock. They worried less about the possibility of regulars marching to Concord. The supplies at Concord were safe, after all, but they thought their leaders in Lexington were unaware of the potential danger that night. Revere and Dawes were sent out to warn them and alert Colonists in nearby towns.
Dawes covered the southern land route by horseback across Boston Neck and over the Great Bridge to Lexington. Revere first gave instructions to send a signal to Charlestown and then he traveled the northern water route. He crossed the Charles River by rowboat, slipping past the British warship HMS Somerset at anchor. Crossings were banned at that hour, but Revere safely landed in Charlestown and rode to Lexington, avoiding the British patrol and later warning almost every house along the route. The warned men and the Charlestown colonists dispatched additional riders to the north.
After they arrived in Lexington, Revere, Dawes, Hancock, and Adams discussed the situation with the militia assembling there. They believed that the forces leaving the city were too large for the sole task of arresting two men and that Concord was the main target. The Lexington men dispatched riders in all directions (except south to Waltham for unknown reasons), and Revere and Dawes continued along the road to Concord. They met Samuel Prescott at about 1:00 a.m. In Lincoln, these three ran into a British patrol led by Major Mitchell of the 5th Regiment and only Prescott managed to warn Concord. Additional riders were sent out from Concord.
Revere and Dawes, as well as many other alarm riders, triggered a flexible system of "alarm and muster" that had been carefully developed months before, in reaction to the British colonists' impotent response to the Powder Alarm. "Alarm and muster" was an improved version of an old network of widespread notification and fast deployment of local militia forces in times of emergency. The colonists had periodically used this system all the way back to the early years of Indian wars in the colony, before it fell into disuse in the French & Indian War. In addition to other express riders delivering their message, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a trumpet were used for rapid communication from town to town, notifying the rebels in dozens of eastern Massachusetts villages that they should muster their militias because the regulars in numbers greater than 500 were leaving Boston, with possible hostile intentions. These early warnings played a crucial role in assembling a sufficient number of British colonial militia to inflict heavy damage on the British regular army later in the day. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were eventually moved to safety, first to what is now Burlington and later to Billerica.
British Army and Marines Move Out
Around dusk, General Gage called a meeting of all of the senior officers of his army at the Province House. He informed them that orders from Lord Dartmouth had arrived, ordering him to take action against the colonials. He also told them that the senior colonel of his regiments, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, would command, with Major John Pitcairn as his executive officer. The meeting adjourned around 8:30 p.m. After the meeting, Percy mingled with town folk on Boston Common. According to one account, the discussion among persons there turned to the unusual movement of the British soldiers in the town. When Percy questioned one man further, the man replied, "Well, the regulars will miss their aim", "What aim?" asked Percy, "Why, the cannon at Concord" was the reply. Upon hearing this, Percy quickly returned to Province House and relayed this information to General Gage. Stunned, Gage issued orders to have the entire 1st Brigade under arms, and ready to march at 4 a.m.
The British regulars, around 700 strong, were led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. They were drawn from 11 of Gage's 13 occupying infantry regiments. For this expedition, Major John Pitcairn commanded 10 elite light infantry companies, and Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Bernard commanded 11 grenadier companies.
Of the companies, Smith had about 350 men from the grenadier companies (specialist assault troops) drawn from the 4th (King's Own), 5th, 10th, 18th (Royal Irish), 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 52nd, 59th Regiments of Foot (infantry regiments); and the 1st Battalion of His Majesty's Marine Forces (the Marines).
Protecting them were the light companies (fast moving flankers, skirmishers and reconnaissance troops), around 320 men, from the 4th (King's Own), 5th, 10th, 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 52nd, 59th Regiments of Foot, and the 1st Battalion, Marines. The companies each had their own lieutenant, but the majority of the captains commanding them were volunteers attached to them at the last minute, from all of the regiments stationed in Boston.
The British began to awaken their troops at 9 p.m. on the night of April 18 and assembled them on the water's edge on the western end of Boston Common by 10 p.m. The British march to and from Concord was a terribly disorganized experience from start to finish. The boats used were naval barges that were packed so tightly that there was no room to sit down. When they disembarked at Phipps Farm in present day Cambridge, it was into waist-deep water at midnight. After a lengthy halt to unload their gear, the approximately 700 regulars began their 17 mile (27 km) march to Concord at about 2 a.m. During the wait they were provided with extra ammunition, cold salt pork, and hard sea biscuits. They did not carry knapsacks, since they would not be encamped. They carried their haversacks (food bags), canteens, muskets, and accoutrements, and found themselves in wet, muddy shoes and soggy uniforms. As they marched through Menotomy (modern Arlington), sounds of the colonial alarms throughout the countryside caused the few officers who were aware of their mission to realize that they had lost the element of surprise. One of the regulars recorded in his journal,
“We got all over the bay and landed on the opposite shore betwixt twelve and one OClock and was on our March by one, which was at first through some swamps and slips of the Sea till we got into the Road leading to Lexington soon after which the Country people begun to fire their alarm guns light their Beacons, to raise the Country. . . . To the best of my recollection about 4 oClock in the morning being the 19th of April the 5 front Compys. was ordered to Load which we did.”
About 3 a.m., Colonel Smith sent Major Pitcairn ahead with the latter's ten companies of light infantry and ordered him to quick march to Concord. At about 4 a.m., he made the wise but belated decision to send word back to Boston asking for reinforcements.
As the British Army's advance guard under Pitcairn entered Lexington at sunrise on April 19, 1775, 77 Lexington militiamen, led by Captain John Parker, emerged from Buckman Tavern and stood in ranks on the village common watching them, and spectators (somewhere between 40 and 100) watched from along the side of the road. Of these militiamen, nine had the surname Harrington, seven Munroe, four Parker, three Tidd, three Locke, and three Reed. This group of militiamen was part of Lexington's "training band", a way of organizing local militias dating back to the Puritans, and not what was styled a minuteman company.
Parker was later supposed to have made a statement that is now engraved in stone at the site of the battle: "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." He instead told his men to stand fast, not to molest the King's troops, and to let them pass, according to his sworn deposition in 1775 after the fight:
“I, John Parker, of lawful Age, and Commander of the Militia in Lexington, do testify and declare, that on the 19th Instant in the Morning, about one of the Clock, being informed that there were a Number of Regular Officers, riding up and down the Road, stopping and insulting People as they passed the Road; and also was informed that a Number of Regular Troops were on their March from Boston in order to take the Province Stores at Concord, ordered our Militia to meet on the Common in said Lexington to consult what to do, and concluded not to be discovered, nor meddle or make with said Regular Troops (if they should approach) unless they should insult or molest us; and, upon their sudden Approach, I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse, and not to fire:—Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon, and killed eight of our Party without receiving any Provocation therefor from us.”
A veteran of Indian wars, now slowly dying of tuberculosis, he knew not to let his men be wasted in such a one-sided affair.
Rather than turn left towards Concord, Marine Lieutenant Jesse Adair, at the head of the advance guard of light infantry companies from the 4th, 5th and 10th Regiments of Foot, decided on his own to protect the flank of his troops by first turning right and then leading the companies down the common itself in a confused effort to surround and disarm the militia. These men ran towards the Lexington militia loudly crying "Huzzah!" to rouse themselves and to confuse the militia, as they formed a battle line on the common. Major Pitcairn arrived from the rear of the advance force and led his three companies to the left and halted them. The remaining companies lay behind the village meeting house on the road back towards Boston.
A British officer (probably Pitcairn, but accounts are uncertain) then apparently rode forward, waving his sword, and called out for the assembled throng to disperse, and may also have ordered them to "lay down your arms, you damned rebels!"Captain Parker told his men instead to disperse and go home, but, because of the confusion, the yelling all around, and due to the raspiness of Parker's tubercular voice, some did not hear him, some left very slowly, and none laid down arms. Both Parker and Pitcairn ordered their men to hold fire, but suddenly a shot was fired from a still unknown source.
”At 2 o’clock we began our march by wading through a very long ford up to the middles; after going a few miles we took three or four people who were going off to give intelligence; about five miles on this side of a town called Lexington, which lay in our road, we heard there were some hundreds of people collected together intending to oppose us and stop our going on; at 5 o’clock we arrived there, and saw a number of people, I believe between 200 and 300, formed in a common in the middle of town; we still continued advancing, keeping prepared against an attack through without intending to attack them; but on our coming near them they fired on us two shots, upon which our men without any orders, rushed upon them, fired and put them to flight; several of them were killed, we could not tell how many, because they were behind walls and into the woods. We had a man of the 10th light Infantry wounded, nobody else was hurt. We then formed on the Common, but with some difficulty, the men were so wild they could hear no orders; we waited a considerable time there, and at length proceeded our way to Concord.”
Some witnesses among the regulars reported the first shot was fired by a colonial onlooker from behind a hedge or around the corner of a tavern. Some observers reported a mounted British officer firing first. Both sides generally agreed that the initial shot did not come from the men on the ground immediately facing each other.Speculation arose later in Lexington that a man named Solomon Brown fired the first shot from inside the tavern or from behind a wall. Unsubstantiated allegations also arose that the British were ordered to fire a "warning volley" that startled the Lexington troops into firing. Recent speculation has focused on the possibility of a negligent discharge or of multiple, possibly unrelated "first shots" from both sides.
In truth, nobody knew then, nor knows today, who fired the first shot of the American Revolution.
Amos Doolittle visited the battle sites and interviewed soldiers and witnesses. Contains controversial elements, possibly inaccuracies. Fire from the militia may have occurred but is not depicted.Witnesses at the scene described several intermittent shots fired from both sides before the lines of regulars began to fire volleys without receiving orders to do so. A few of the militiamen believed at first that the regulars were only firing powder with no ball, but then they realized the truth, and few, if any, in the militia managed to load and return fire. The rest wisely ran for their lives.
“We Nathaniel Mulliken, Philip Russell, and 32 other men, All of lawful age, and inhabitants of Lexington, in the County of Middlesex…do testify and declare, that on the nineteenth in the morning, being informed that…a body of regulars were marching from Boston towards Concord…we were alarmed and having met at the place of our company’s parade, were dismissed by our Captain, John Parker, for the present, with orders to be ready to attend at the beat of the drum. We further testify and declare that about five o’clock in the morning, hearing our drum beat, we proceeded towards the parade, and soon found that a large body of troops were marching towards us, some of our company were coming to the parade, and others had reached it, at which time, the company began to disperse, whilst our backs were turned on the troops, we were fired on by them, and a number of our men were instantly killed and wounded, not a gun was fired by any person in our company on the regulars to our knowledge before they fired on us, and continued firing until we had all made our escape.”
The regulars charged forward with bayonets. Captain Parker witnessed his cousin Jonas run through. Eight Massachusetts men were killed and ten were wounded against only one British soldier of the 10th Foot wounded (his name was Johnson, according to Ensign Jeremy Lister of that regiment). The eight British colonists killed, the first to die in the Revolutionary War, were John Brown, Samuel Hadley, Caleb Harrington, Jonathon Harrington, Robert Munroe, Isaac Muzzey, Asahel Porter, and Jonas Parker. Jonathon Harrington, fatally wounded by a British musket ball, managed to crawl back to his home, and died upon his doorstep. One wounded man, Prince Estabrook, was a black slave who served in the town's militia.
The light infantry companies under Pitcairn at the common got beyond their officers' control, in part because they were unaware of the actual purpose of the day's mission. They were firing in different directions and preparing to enter private homes. Upon hearing the sounds of muskets, Colonel Smith rode forward from the grenadier column. He quickly found a drummer and ordered him to beat assembly. The grenadiers arrived shortly thereafter, and, once they were rounded up, the light infantry were then permitted to fire a victory volley, after which the column was reformed and marched towards Concord.