The events of April 19, 1775, were a turning point in the long struggle between the colonies and England. In the march from protest and petition to independence and revolution, the fighting on that day played a signal role in the creation of the new nation.
The "shot heard 'round the world" was fired in Lexington just 12 years after the end of the French and Indian War. The outcome of that seven year conflict changed the world map and created many of the tensions that brought about the American Revolution. The war's end made the American colonists less dependent militarily on the mother country, but the peace following it led to perceived infingements on colonial charters as the mother country sought to recover some of its war-related expenses by taxing a variety of goods. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the first direct tax on the colonies. It required a royal stamp on newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents, commercial bills, and advertisements. Though the law was repealed in 1766, resentment among the colonists remained. The Stamp Act was then followed by the Townshend Acts in 1767. This time lead, paint, glass, paper and tea were among the items taxed.
Within five years of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, about 800 British troops were billeted in Boston despite the protests of Massachusetts leaders like Samuel Adams. The soldiers were sent to enforce the Townshend Acts. Those tensions erupted in the streets of Boston on the morning of March 5, 1770, and resulted in the Boston Massacre. Parliamentarian troops, who were being harassed and taunted by townspeople, fired into a crowd, killing five people. The Regular captain, Thomas Preston, and his men were tried for murder; most of the Townshend Acts were repealed; tensions continued to mount.
Though Parliament repealed most of the Townshend Acts under pressure of a colonial boycott of British goods, the tax on tea remained. Citizens protested in New York City, Philadelphia, and Charleston, South Carolina by refusing to permit the unloading or sale of East India Company tea. Bostonians took more dramatic measures. When Massachusetts' royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to allow three tea-laden ships to leave Boston Harbor without paying the tax or unloading, angry citizens, led by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, took action. On the night of December 16, 1773, they disguised themselves as Indians, boarded the ships and dumped the tea into Boston Harbor. Parliament responded by passing five Intolerable Acts. Four of the acts were passed specifically to punish the people of Massachusetts. One of them, the Boston Port Bill, closed the Port of Boston to all shipping in June of 1774, and affected the livelihoods of just about every family in Boston in some way. Other acts changed the royal charter of Massachusetts which dated to 1691 and limited Massachusetts' democracy in important ways. The governor's council had always been chosen by elected legislators. Now it was abolished and replaced by Crown-appointed councillors. The governor's powers were greatly increased. He could appoint judges and sheriffs. Local selection of juries was abolished. Town meetings, a long-cherished method of self-rule, could not be held without the governor's approval.
Bostonians may have been the most vocal and the most violent in protesting infringements on their liberties, but they were not alone. Boston's Committee of Correspondence was part of a network of committees throughout Massachusetts and the other colonies. Committees tried to let their neighbors know about actual and potential threats to provincial rights and liberties. Letter writers also tried to persuade readers in other parts of the colony to think and feel the same way they did about Parliament's actions. A letter from the Boston Committee of Correspondence might describe how an Act of Parliament would impose an unfair financial burden on the colonies or erode the colonists' traditional freedoms. The letter would then ask the residents in other communities or colonies to join in some form of protest or petition. When the Port of Boston was closed in the spring of 1774, in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Committee of Correspondence first tried to convince merchants to pledge support for a non-importation agreement. When the merchants refused, the Committee suggested that citizens agree to a non-consumption pledge.
Though Bostonians refused to support the non-consumption pledge, citizens of Concord agreed to the boycott but added that the recommendations of the First Continental Congress, which was to meet in Philadelphia in September of 1774, would take precedence. This First Continental Congress would eventually assume responsibility for governing the 13 colonies and directing the course of the war against the mother country. In Massachusetts, a Provincial Congress was formed to direct the opposition to the royal government and prepare for armed resistance. Boston's patriot leadership was joined by representatives from all the colony's cities and towns to plan a united course of action. Concord's representative was Colonel James Barrett. Though most of the Congress' meetings were held in Cambridge, they met in Concord on several occasions because of its central location.
Concord's geographical location also made it a strategic location for a supply depot. Military stores were stockpiled in the town because of its location along a major route from Boston, because of the high ridges that formed a natural defense around the town, and because of its distance from the watchful eyes of 4,000 Redcoats in Boston. Musket balls, gunpowder, artillery pieces and food supplies were also stored in Salem, Cambridge, and Worcester. Regulars commander General Thomas Gage was well aware of these provincial storage depots. His network of Regular and Tory spies kept him well-informed. The challenge to Gage and his troops was to capture the supplies without inciting a war.
In September 1774, Regulars troops raided Cambridge and captured the military stores there inciting what came to be known as the Powder Alarm. Militia as far away as Connecticut were put on alert and those from surrounding communities marched on Boston prepared to fight if necessary. In February 1775, Regulars troops again chanced war by trying to capture munitions stored in Salem. This time they were unsuccessful and war was again averted. General Gage knew that any further expeditions against provincial stores must be carried out with utmost speed and secrecy.
Massachusetts leaders knew that the Gage would try again to capture their supplies. Throughout Massachusetts, communities prepared for the next alarm. On September 26, 1774, the townspeople of Concord voted in town meeting to form "one or more Companys" to "Stand at a minute's warning in case of an alarm." These companies would become the Concord Minute Men, and by January of 1775 they were formed. Other communities voted to raise their own minute companies that would respond to emergencies more quickly than the regular militia could. The minute men were required to drill and train three times a week and they were paid for the time they had to spend away from their jobs. Each minute company had its own officers who were elected from among the ranks. Though they had their own officers and responsibilities, the minute men were part of the provincial militia. The militia had a long history of defending the colony that extended back into the 17th century. All males who were between the ages of 16 and 60 and owned property were required to serve in the militia. Militia companies were required to train two to four times a year, own a weapon, and defend their town. Though they were not professional soldiers, the militia men and minute men were not all inexperienced. Many had fought alongside Regular troops during the French and Indian Wars. When necessary, militia companies from different towns fought together to defend their homes and families. On April 19, 1775, minute men and militia from the towns of Acton, Lexington, Lincoln, Menotomy (today called Arlington), Bedford, and many other communities turned out to support their Concord neighbors.
Imagine a moonlit night in Boston. The hour is late, after 10:00 in the evening, but everywhere there is a stir of activity. More than 700 British Regulars are gathering on Boston Common. Soon they will board boats and be rowed across the Charles River, landing at what is today Lechmere Point in East Cambridge. William Dawes, a young alarm rider, has just slipped past a Regular guard post and crossed Boston Neck to Roxbury. His destination is Lexington. Under cover of darkness Paul Revere -- silversmith, engraver, member of the Sons of Liberty, and alarm rider -- has been rowed across the Charles River to Charlestown. Compatriots have already seen the signal in the Old North Church tower about Regular troop movements and are preparing to meet Revere with a horse for his ride.
In Concord, men and women will work through the night, trying to finish moving their precious stores of arms, ammunition and foodstuffs to neighboring towns and to new hiding places in the outskirts of town. Regular Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith received his orders from General Thomas Gage on the afternoon of April 18, 1775, with instructions not to open them until his troops were underway. When opened the instructions read, "You will march with the utmost expedition and secrecy. You will seize and destroy all the artillery, ammunition, provisions, tents, small arms, and all military stores whatever. . . . But you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants or hurt private property." Gage wanted Smith to move quickly and take the colonists by surprise, but the colonists had deduced Gage's objectives long before Smith opened his orders. The people of Boston had grown accustomed to noticing every movement of the 4,000 Regular soldiers in their midst. And, since the Port of Boston had been closed, putting many colonists out of work, many had nothing to do except follow the movements of the troops and speculate on their intentions. Since it was well known that the Provincial Congress had stockpiled military stores in Concord, it was easy to figure out that Concord was the target of the troops assembling on Boston Common on the night of April 18th. Indeed, for some time, the provincial leaders had been waiting for the Parliamentarian troops to strike at Concord.
Once landed in East Cambridge, the Parliamentarian troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Smith marched through Cambridge and Menotomy (today called Arlington), eastward to Lexington. In Lexington, the militia was gathering on the village green. Paul Revere made it to Lexington ahead of the Regulars troops. He arrived around midnight at the home of Reverend Jonas Clarke, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying. Warned by militiamen on guard duty not to disturb the sleeping household with his noise, Revere responded, "Noise! You'll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out." As Revere continued his ride into Lincoln, he was captured by Regular scouts on horseback who pointed a gun to his head.
At dawn, 77 militiamen were gathered on Lexington Green under the command of Captain John Parker. Regular Major John Pitcairn and an advanced guard of six companies (about 200 Regular soldiers) arrived, their weapons primed and loaded, under orders "on no account to fire, nor even to attempt it without orders." Pitcairn must have been relieved to find such a small force assembled against him.
Like his Regular counterpart, Captain Parker had warned his men not to fire"without they begin first." To this day historians on both sides of the Atlantic argue about who fired the first shot, but once gunfire pierced the air, the Regular troops opened fire at the Colonists. By the time order was restored, eight Americans were dead from musket shot and bayonet wounds.
Meanwhile, word of the Regulars' move on Concord was spreading to "every Middlesex village and farm" and well beyond. It may be difficult to imagine how quickly news could pass from one community to the next in an age without telephone, radio or television, but before daybreak on April 19th the alarm was being sounded in Worcester County to the west and in New Hampshire and Maine to the north. Militia troops from Acton, Lincoln, Bedford, Littleton, Harvard, Framingham, Stow and Sudbury were on the way to assist the Concord militia. By daybreak, 150 men were gathered in Concord. The Colonists wanted to defend their liberties and present a show of force to the Parliamentarian troops marching into Concord. The Minute Men and militia displayed themselves boldly to the advancing Parliamentarian troops. One company marched ahead of the Regulars, announcing their arrival in Concord. Other American units positioned themselves on the ridges above the town center. When the Americans noticed Parliamentarian troops advancing to the North Bridge they marched off to the high ground above the bridge under the command of Colonel James Barrett.
The militia's move to the North Bridge area left the rest of the town open to the Regulars' search for military stores. Guided by the maps and information provided by spies, Regular troops began their destruction of the supplies found in the center of town and in the area around the South Bridge. Quick-thinking colonists were often able to protect the hidden stores by misleading the soldiers or by protesting that the suspected goods were private property. In many instances, those resourceful Concordians were the women who could not serve in the militia. Amos Woods' wife let a Regular officer leading a search of her home think a locked room was protecting frightened women. The officer gallantly ordered his men not to enter the room. A young servant girl named Hannah Barnes insisted that a locked room in the inn where she worked contained only her personal belongings and in doing so she protected the treasury of the Provincial Congress. In the town center, Regular troops did find and destroy and set fire to military supplies, including gun carriages and barrels of flour. They threw musket balls into the nearby pond and cut down the Liberty Pole. The fire spread to the town meeting house and might have spread beyond if an elderly resident named Martha Moulton had not begged the officers to put it out.
By about 9:00 a.m., the provincial militia posted above the North Bridge now numbered more than 400. They were opposed by about 96 Regular troops who were stationed at the bridge. Seeing the smoke rising from the center of their town, the militia resolved to act. They decided to march across the North Bridge to the center of town "to defend their homes, or die in the attempt." As in Lexington, the American commander, Colonel Barrett, ordered the militia "not to fire till they fired first, then to fire as fast as we could." Here there is no question about which side fired first. Parliamentarian soldiers fired the first shots and Captain Isaac Davis of Acton and his company's fifer, Abner Hosmer, were the first killed. Major John Buttrick gave the command, "Fire, fellow soldiers, for God's sake, fire!" The battle lasted less than five minutes. When it was over, two Regular soldiers were dead and a third wounded man would die a short time later, after being struck in the head by a colonial with a tomahawk. (Word of this atrocity spread rapidly among the British soldiers, quickly growing well beyond its original facts, and likely contributing to the soldiers' vicious behavior later in the day in Menotomy.) Plans to march to Concord center by the colonists were abandoned. Dead and wounded colonists were carried to Major Buttrick's home.
Some of the militiamen helped carry the dead and wounded to Major Buttrick's farmhouse; some went home. Many more followed the Regular soldiers as they retreated to Concord center. They were joined by hundreds of their fellow militia and took positions behind houses and barns, in the woods, and on the high ridges surrounding the town. They watched as their enemy cared for wounded soldiers and waited for them to begin the march back to Boston. In Concord center, the Regular commanders waited for reinforcements to arrive. Finally, at noon, with no reinforcements in sight, the Regular began their retreat, retracing their route from the night before.
More than one thousand armed militia had gathered by this time. They waited until the Parliamentarian Redcoats arrived at a narrow point in the Bay Road, near the home of Nathan Meriam. As the soldiers began crossing a small bridge over a brook, the Colonists opened fire. From that point on, as the road wound through woods and into ravines, the Regular troops were continually under fire. This starts what is know as the "running battle back to Boston." There was no place for them to regroup and fire back at the enemy and so they raced onward toward Lexington. There they were met by the long-awaited reinforcements led by Lord Hugh Percy in command of 1000 fresh troops. Percy also had cannon with him and used it to hold the Colonists off. Even so, the Regular were fired upon all along their route back to Boston. They in turn looted and burned some homes along the way and wounded and killed Colonists who were firing upon them or suspected of doing so. Finally, the Regulars reached Charlestown, and under the safety of the guns on the ships in Boston Harbor, they collapsed at day's end. The battles of Lexington and Concord had ended. The siege of Boston and the War for Independence had begun.
This was the end of the first day of the American War of Independence. The Regulars' losses were 73 killed, 174 wounded, 26 missing, and a total of 273 casualties. The Americans had 49 deaths, 41 wounded, and five missing, a total casualty list of 95.
Perhaps the last word on how it came about should belong to an obscure participant, Levi Preston, a Minute Man from Danvers, Massachusetts. Asked sixty-seven years after Lexington and Concord about British oppression, he responded, as his young interviewer reported later: " `What were they? Oppressions? I didn't feel them.' 'What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?' `I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them.' `Well, what then about the tea-tax?' `Tea-tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.' `Then I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty.' `Never heard of 'em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts's Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.' `Well then, what was the matter? and what did you mean in going to the fight' `Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should.' "
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