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Thursday, August 30, 2012


On April 19, 1775, the first armed conflict of the American Revolutionary War occurred at the small towns of Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts. The basics of the story of that day have been passed down to us in a fairly accurate manner. But there are stories about these engagements that have been lost over time. We have gathered some here, but first we need to set the stage for what happened that day.

About 3,000 British troops were stationed in Boston. It was the seventh year of military occupation. They were there to enforce the laws that Parliament and the King had issued, many of which punished the Massachusetts Colony. While the British had a strong hold on Boston, they had little control of the territory outside of the city. The military governor, General Thomas Gage, received secret orders from London for his troops to march to the town of Concord, where intelligence believed that colonial militia had hidden an extensive cache of weapons. If his men could capture or destroy the arms, further unrest may be quelled.  

What the British didn’t know was that, thanks to a very active intelligence network, the colonials had received word weeks earlier that a campaign would be targeting their stock of arms. Before a strike could be organized, the weapons and ammunition had been long since relocated to hiding places in other towns. Gage gave each commander secret orders that they were not to open until under way. But the colonials had already received the details of the plan even before the British officers opened their orders. There is a story that says that the source of the information leak was none other than Margaret Gage, the wife of General Gage, who was known to be a colonial sympathizer (pictured here).

The plan also included the capture of Samuel Adams and John Hancock. They left Boston 10 days earlier having received word of the secret London instructions, even before Gage had been notified. The two remained in Lexington until April 18th before moving again.

On the night of the 18th, William Dawes, Paul Revere (pictured here), and Samuel Prescott set out on horseback to active the colonials “alarm and muster” warning system that had been in place for months. As they alerted farms along their way, others rang bells, beat drums, fired guns, and built bonfires to spread the word of the troop’s advance. The Legend of Paul Revere has been heightened by Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” which says, “It was two by the village clock when he came to the bridge in Concord town.” Well, Paul Revere never made it to Concord. He ran into a British patrol and was captured.

We have the image of a large, professional British army marching steadfastly toward a ragged group of militia men. Actually, the British force was made up of only about 700 men. The British march to Concord was disorganized from the beginning. Colonel Francis Smith, the mission commander, was late arriving. The troops were to be ferried across the river to Cambridge but the boat-loading operation had been not been organized. When the troops disembarked, they had to wade through waist deep water to get ashore. There was a long delay getting their gear unloaded. It wasn’t until 2:00 am when they finally got moving; with muddy shoes, wet uniforms, and with no extra ammunition (it had been neglected to be issued).

The Battle at Lexington was in reality not much of a battle at all; it was mostly a staring contest. The British arrived at dawn. The 80 militiamen, who had been waiting most of the night, spilled out of the Buckman Tavern and stood on the village green, watching the soldiers. Spectators lined up along the road to watch from a safer distance. John Parker, the militia commander, saw that he was outmanned and decided not to engage the British; he also knew that the colonist’s weapons had already been moved out of Concord. Parker thought that the enemy would find that out and simply march back to Boston before midday. His men were lined up in plain sight, and not blocking the road. But the regulars prepared to advance and fired a volley that killed eight militiamen. Later the British said that the colonials fired first. Some witnesses said that the first shot fired (the “shot heard ‘round the world”) was from a colonial onlooker who may have been inside the tavern. The soldiers charged with bayonets, and Parker ordered his men to withdraw.

Most of the area’s militiamen, the “minute men,” were organized and waiting near Concord, nearly 2,000 strong. When the British column arrived at Concord, they began to search for military supplies. All they found were three cannons buried behind a tavern and 550 pounds of musket balls, which were thrown into a pond. All of the musket balls were recovered by the colonists after the British left.   

The militiamen and the British soldiers were about 50 yards apart, separated by the Concord River. The colonists were told to load their muskets but not to fire unless fired at. Suddenly, a shot rang out. There was no controversy this time that the shot came from the British. Unlike Lexington, the soldiers found themselves outnumbered. Many of them were young and not accustomed to combat. The tense fight only lasted 10 minutes. The British troops began to flee. The Americans were shocked by their victory. Some began to advance on the retreating soldiers, but many simply went home to protect their families.

British Commander Smith considered surrender. A rescue effort was launched by the British that included 1,000 men. They arrived on the scene about 2:00 pm. But in their haste to depart from Boston, they left the ammunition wagons behind. Discovering this, Governor Gage dispatched the wagons, guarded by only 14 men. The ammunition train was intercepted by a group of older former militiamen, all well into their sixties, who demanded that they surrender. The British ignored them. The old men opened fire and the soldiers threw their muskets into a stream and surrendered.

General William Heath, a colonist, ordered the men to surround the retreating British and fire at them from a distance behind trees and stone walls to minimize casualties. Militiamen on horseback would appear on the road ahead of the British, dismount and fire; then remount and ride farther on to repeat the tactic. Fresh militia arrived raising the colonial strength to 3,800. As the British entered Cambridge, the militiamen emerged from their covered positions and formed into regular battle lines. By the time the soldiers reached Boston and safety, the city was surrounded by 15,000 armed colonists.

To win support for their cause in England, the colonists collected testimonies from the militiamen and captured soldiers that painted the British as the aggressors and the Americans as innocent victims. They sent these documents to London on the fastest ship available, and they were published in London newspapers two weeks before Gage’s official military report arrived. This gave the colonists a political victory to go along with their battlefield victory.

For the next 200 years, popular perceptions of this first conflict of the Revolutionary War have changed and many of the details have been lost. Today, Lexington and Concord are seen as a symbol of a people standing up for their independence.

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