Lexington and Concord
April 19, 1775
Conflict: American Revolution
Type of Action: Land Battle
Location: Lexington and Concord and the road to Charlestown, Massachusetts
Forces: American: approx. Commanders Colonel James Barrett, Captain James Parker, 4,000 men, all militia or armed civilians
British: approx. Commanders Maj. Gen. Hugh Percy, Lt. Col. Francis Smith, Major John Pitcairn, 1,700 men
The closing of the port of Boston by the English in punishment for the various transgressions of American colonists had caused a great furor amongst the population of the American Colonies. Other colonies began to send assistance to Boston whose population was naturally suffering due to the English interference with their livelihood. Sentiment against the Crown was high, and colonial militia groups began organizing and gathering arms and stores in various secret arsenals throughout Massachusetts. Patriotic fervor was at a high and growing, and New England was fast becoming a powder keg awaiting but a spark to explode into violence against the Crown.
The movement that struck this spark was begun on April 14th, 1775 when General Thomas Gage, commander of the English forces in Boston, received orders from the Colonial Secretary, Lord Dartmouth, with an endorsement by the Crown to take aggressive action to squelch the rebellious sentiment amongst the colonies and the growing resistance to England's rightful rule over her colonies. He was urged to seize the colonial leadership at once and to answer Force with Force. Gage, however, did not feel he had sufficient force at his disposal to suppress an open and armed rebellion. Thus he was hesitant to strike at the core of the colonial leadership, such as the Provincial Congress or the Committees of Safety or the various rabble rousers behind the rebel movement such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock, since doing so would no doubt bring about the rebellion he was attempting to prevent. In any event many of this leadership were beyond his reach. Gage, therefore, selected a more indirect approach to putting an end to the rebellion, hopeful that in doing so he could prevent rebellion before it could begin.
Gage had long been gathering intelligence on the rebel activities and knew the whereabouts of the various places where the colonials were gathering and producing arms and provisions. These arsenals, Gage knew, would contain weapons and stores central to any armed revolt against the Crown. Their early seizure might go far to preventing an armed revolt. With the rebel weapons safely secured, the rebel leaders could then be arrested and dealt with in turn without an armed revolt of any substance resulting. With this in mind, Gage had in February of 1775 begun sending spies to scout these arsenals and the routes of march to them from Boston. Thus, when his orders were received, Gage already had in hand a plan of action to carry them out.
Gage's spies had found many arsenals and arms production facilities throughout New England. However, there were three primary stockpiles which drew his attention, those at Concord and Worcester, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut. Of these only the two in Massachusetts were within easy striking distance of his forces in Boston. And of the two, the one at Concord was by far the closest, being only some 20 miles to the Northwest. Worcester, 45 miles away along roads thick with Rebel sentiment, would have to wait. The arsenal at Concord would be Gage's first objective.
Gage chose Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, of the 10th Regiment of Foot, to command the raid upon the colonial arsenal at Concord. Smith would have under his command the light and grenadier companies of the regiments then in Boston, some 700 men in all. The light infantry, about half of the force, would be under the command of a Royal Marine officer, Major John Pitcairn, and would lead the way.
These troops were the finest men in Gage's command, hand picked for their physical, strength or endurance. They would not, however, be supported by artillery. Gage's espionage had led him to believe that a show of force would be enough alone to prevent any armed resistance at the arsenal, precluding any need for the cumbersome field pieces with which each regiment was equipped. Moreover, the mission was one of speed, with Smith's fast moving infantry column to rush to the arsenal and destroy it before the colonials could be aware of their coming.
Any chance of surprise was lost, however, before Smith's men left Boston. Gage's was not the only spy network in Boston, and rebel sources very quickly learned of his intentions. As early as April 16th the spies knew something was afoot when it was observed that the English were preparing small boats and holding them at the ready near their ships in the harbor. This could only mean an impending movement of troops. When apprised of this, patriot Dr. Joseph Warren sent Paul Revere to warn the rebel leaders Hancock and Adams in Lexington. Upon his return to Boston, Revere made preparations for the famous "one if by land, two if by sea" lanterns signals to announce British troop movements whenever they were detected.
On the evening of April 18th the English troops formed on Boston Commons near the docks, and Warren knew that the moment was at hand. He sent Revere and William Dawes to warn the Rebel contingent at Concord.
Revere, after hanging the two lantern signal that the English would move by sea, began his journey after dark on the evening of the 18th of April by crossing the bay to Charlestown. Dawes took the longer land route along Boston neck. Both road towards Concord, spreading the word of the upcoming raid as they went, the source of the fabled cry "The British are Coming". Revere narrowly avoided capture by British patrols sent out to intercept such riders as himself. He made it to Lexington where he aroused Hancock and Adams and shortly met up with Dawes. The two couriers road on together, being joined by a third patriot, Dr. Samuel Prescott. Though both Revere and Dawes would thwarted by the British patrols, Revere even captured for a time, Prescott broke through and carried the warning to Concord.
The column which Prescott warned of left Boston at about ten on the night of 18th April, crossing the Back Bay by small boats and landing at Lechmere Point in East Cambridge. Once landed and formed they awaited provisions. At about two in the morning the march through Cambridge began and continued on through the night towards their objective at Concord.
Throughout the march sounds of alarm could be heard in the countryside as the colonials reacted to the warnings of Revere and Dawes. Worried at this loss of surprise Smith sent word back to Boston that support might be prudent. Gage, apparently already nervous, had in fact already put into motion a supporting movement by the 1st Brigade and a Battalion of Royal Marines, his orders to them issuing at Four in the morning. This column, under the command of Brigadier General Earl Hugh Percy, was a thousand men in strength and was supported by two field pieces. This more cumbersome force, however, would take some time to assemble and had not yet left Boston by dawn of the 19th.
The light infantry advanced guard of Smith's Force, under Pitcairn's direct command, was approaching Lexington at daybreak of the 19th when the first evidence of resistance developed. Two ranks of armed Colonial militiamen stood on Lexington common alongside the road to Concord. These men would have to be dealt with before the march to Concord could continue.
The Battle of Lexington Common
The men on Lexington Common that morning were Militiamen under the command of Militia Captain John Parker. They had formed shortly after midnight when Revere had brought the warning that the Redcoats were coming. At that time they had numbered some 130 strong. However, after more than an hours formation they had been dismissed with orders to be ready to form quickly. Those whose homes were close had gone to bed, others had gathered in Buckman's Tavern, some sleeping there. When, at half past four in the morning, Thaddeus Bowman brought word that the British were close by, the militia quickly began to form. However some missed the call while others were off trying to gather powder for their guns from a nearby storehouse. When Pitcairn's men approached, there were only seventy Militia men in two thin ranks on Lexington Common.
Pitcairn's force consisted of Six companies of light infantry in column. Upon sighting the colonial formation, he brought his companies from this column into line. This large formation unnerved some of the militia who were facing more than five times their number. Parker, however, held his men firm.
As his troops formed in the Common across from the Colonial Militia, Major Pitcairn called upon the Americans to disperse and lay down their arms. Parker, now sensible to the immense force displayed before him, ordered his men to fall out and disperse. Though some men did begin to leave the field, they carried their arms with them. Pitcairn shouted for them to lay down their arms. Tension was high when suddenly a shot rang out. Who fired the shot is uncertain, and in any case it is likely that the shot was an accidental discharge since no order to fire was given by either commander. Yet the shot was telling, as it caused an immediate reaction from the tired and nervous British troops. An answering volley was fired by a platoon of the British soldiers even as Pitcairn tried to restrain them. The Battle of Lexington Common was begun.
The initial musketry by some of the British troops led to the remainder firing a volley as well. Colonials fell to the ground dead and wounded as some began to flee while others returned fire upon the British ranks. Captain Parker himself returned fire, but was struck by a ball from the second British Volley. The British troops then leveled their bayonets and charged. The American Militia fled, leaving eight of their number dead on the field. Ten more were carried from the field wounded. Among the casualties was Captain Parker, who would not survive his wound.
Pitcairn's men, suffering only a single wounded man in the skirmish, were victorious in this the first shots in what would become the American Revolution. Having cleared the road of rebel resistance, Pitcairn and Smith, who had arrived at the end of the Battle, continued their advance. Shedding all pretense of stealth, the British marched to the fife and drum towards Concord, which lay some seven miles ahead.
The Battle of Concord Bridge
Dr. Prescott arrived at Concord three hours ahead of the British ( some accounts place his arrival at one to two in the morning which would be earlier still). Upon Prescott's warning the militia formed. Three companies of minutemen and a fourth of older men and boys, George Minot's Alarm Company, made up the initial rebel force. More would gather in the hours before the Battle as Militia and Armed Citizens flocked to Concord in answer to the Alarms sounded throughout the countryside. By the time of the Battle the force numbered some 400 men in total and included not only the militia companies from Concord but also Acton, Bedford, Lincoln and Westford. They were under the command of militia Colonel James Barrett. It was Barrett's farm house that was one of the British primary objectives, it having been the hiding place of many rebel stores.
As Smith's column approached at about seven in the morning, the militia were widely dispersed. Concord was situated on the East bank of the Concord River. Along the River's East Bank runs a ridge. A ridge also lies to the South of the town. A road runs along the crest of both ridges and then turns West across the Concord River, the bridge being the North Bridge. There, inland from the western bank, lay Colonel Barrett's farm house. To the North of the farmhouse is Punkatasset Hill, which is North of the town and west of the River. Initially some of the Militia were formed in the center of town, this being the Alarm Company, and along both ridges with the main body being deployed on the Hill.
This dispersed formation was quickly changed as Smith's column advanced into Concord and along the Road on the Ridges. Greatly out numbered, the militia in town and on the ridges withdrew. It was decided to await additional militia before acting, the British force being so great. The militia men withdrew in their entirety to Punkatasset Hill. Thus Smith's force was unchallenged as it entered Concord and set about searching for the rebel stores.
As the main body searched the center of town, one company was sent to Guard the South Bridge and the Six light companies to the North Bridge. Presumably Smith wanted these men to hold off any rebel movement while he destroyed the rebel stores. Also, three of the light companies at the North Bridge were ordered to move to Barrett's farmhouse and destroy the stores there.
The rebel stores, however, had largely been removed to the woods and other by ways shortly before the British arrived. In town Smith's men found only 60 barrels of floor, 500 pounds of musket balls, several gun carriages and other miscellaneous stores. The flour was rolled into the Mill Pond and the other stores burned.
The stores, however, were not the only items burned. Despite explicit orders from Gage to avoid damage to private property, either by accident or intent the blacksmith shop and the Courthouse were also set afire by the British Troops. The sight of this seemingly wanton destruction was enraging to the men on Punkatasset Hill. At eleven in the morning Barrett ordered his men to advance to stop the British from burning the rest of the town.
The three light companies positioned at the North Bridge were in the path of this Rebel movement. The three companies were one behind the other along the road, such that only the westernmost one was able to fire upon the advancing Rebels. Although the rebels were careful not to fire first, not having heard of the events at Lexington, they were fired upon by the light infantry company. An exchange of volleys took place and several men on both sides fell, three British dying and nine being wounded while two Americans were killed and two wounded. The British were outnumbered at the bridge and this, together with their poor positioning, led the British light infantry to withdraw into Concord. The militia were in great disorder as the excitement of battle broke down much of whatever discipline they may have had. This disorder allowed the other three light infantry companies now cut off at Barrett's farmhouse to withdraw across the bridge and reach the main body without harm.
There followed a lull during which time the British formed and eventually withdrew from Concord at about noon. However a number of the militia had slipped around the town and soon engaged the British column from the flank near Meriam's Corner, an intersection of roads one mile along the road from Concord. The British took the militia approaching their flank under fire and were in turn fired upon from the flank and rear. This began a running battle along the roadway to Boston. The British formation doggedly marched towards Boston while trying to fight off the Rebel Militia which persistently followed and sniped at them. Though the English placed a rear and flank guards to protect the column, these could not effectively stop the Rebel attack.
The rebels, who by and large fought as individuals, harried the English column all the way to Lexington. By this time Smith had been wounded, Pitcairn thrown from his wounded horse and the English Soldiers were beginning to run low on ammunition. Smith's battered and exhausted formation reached Lexington at about two thirty in the afternoon. There they met the support column of General Percy which had set out from Boston at nine O'clock that morning. These fresh troops, and more importantly their two cannon, gave the rebels pause and allowed the English time to regroup. After an hours rest the column turned back towards Boston.
The Rebel forces, growing ever stronger as more and more local militia companies made their way to the battle, continued to pursue and harass the English column. As Lord Percy would report, it appeared as though every location, no matter how seemingly vacated moments before would be the source of rebel fire. At times the English could bring themselves to grips with the Militia and the battle was fought hand to hand. Some of the British troops, frustrated and enraged pillaged and burned as they went. The fighting continued for some sixteen miles in total, along a battle field usually no more than a few hundred yards across and often much narrower.
General Percy ordered his men to make for Charlestown neck, Northwest of Boston. Percy fearing that the shorter route to East Cambridge, by which they had come, may be hampered by the Rebel's destruction of the Charles River bridge. Damage to the bridge and the need to repair it to allow his guns to cross had already delayed his relief of Smith.
The English column reached Charlestown neck and deployed into defensive positions supported by their field pieces on Bunker Hill shortly after sunset. Wisely, the rebels gave up the pursuit.
Thus ended the opening battle of the American Revolution. By the end of the battle some four thousand militia were involved in the pursuit of the English troops. In all they faced some 1,700 English regulars. The Americans had suffered 95 casualties, 49 killed and 46 wounded or missing. The English losses were much worse, 264 casualties of which 65 were killed, 173 wounded and 26 missing ( some histories indicate 273 total English casualties ).
However, historically speaking, the greatest single casualty of the day was Peace. However tense, however passionate, however intractable the struggle between the American Colonists and their English King had been up until April 19, 1775, the struggle had been a political one. The weapons had been placards and letters, protests and boycotts. Now it was open war. It would be so for many more years to come.
The Battles of Lexington and Concord were devastating English losses both tactically and strategically. Tactically, the English suffered higher casualties and much loss of morale amongst their men. Furthermore they by and large failed to obtain their objectives of finding and destroying the Rebel Arsenal. Strategically the battle caused precisely what it was supposed to prevent, an open armed rebellion. Moreover, the brazen nature of the English use of force, its obvious purpose, the ease of its defeat, and the pillaging and looting by the English troops all made the rebellion much more popular than it had been before. Finally, the particular nature of the battle, wherein English troops in the countryside were beset upon by unseen ambushers on all sides, seems to have created within the English General Gage an even greater degree of caution than he had previously exhibited. He would not again venture aggressively into the Rebel interior, allowing the rebel forces to gather and prepare for the war to come.
At the end of the day thousands of armed militia surrounded the English Army in Boston. That number would grow and the situation would quickly develop into the Siege of Boston.
Sources: The Military History of Revolutionary War Land Battles, Col. Trevor Nevitt, Dupuy and Grace P. Hayes, Franklin Watts, Inc., 1970 NY, NY; The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution, 1763-1789, Robert Middlekauf, Oxford University Press, 1982 NY, NY
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