I guess the most convenient starting point to retelling the events of the morning of April 19, 1775, is to begin with Thomas Gage. He had been a soldier since he was 21. He fought at Culloden, and in the Low Countries, and in 1754 his regiment served in what in America is called “The French and Indian War”. It was there, in December of 1758, at the age of 40, that Thomas Gage married the lovely Margaret Kemble, who was then barely 24 years old. And it has been alleged that it was Margaret who helped give birth to American Independence.Did the American born wife of the British commander betray his secrets to Paul Revere? Gage thought so. After his twin disasters at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, Gage complained to a fellow officer that, “I communicated my design to one person only…” Within weeks Margaret was shipped back to England. It is said the couple never spoke again. But, as romantic and tragic as their story might be, I doubt the American Revolution depended on this lady’s betrayal of her husband. Her family did not see themselves as ‘Americans” but as British citizens. Her brother served with the British Army through out the war. And, more importantly, the British were betrayed long before any orders that set Lexington and Concord in motion ever reached General Gage.
Gage didn’t receive his instructions from London until April 14, 1775. But as early as April 8, the colonists at Concord had begun to disperse the supplies of cannon, powder and shot they had collected. This advance knowledge of British intentions was due to John Hancock’s business connections in London.
Hancock had made a fortune smuggling goods through Boston Harbor right under the noses of the English custom officials: and tar and feathering those noses when necessary. That business gave Hancock faster and more reliable connections with England than those of the English crown. So, on April 16, when Gage sent out a 50 man patrol to ask locals the whereabouts of Hancock and John Adams (They were hold up in a house in Lexington) the rebels already knew those two men were not General Gage's real targets.
In retrospect, the road between Boston and Concord was so crowded with spies, rebel and loyalist, in the week before April 19, 1775, as to give the impression of a colonial traffic jam. But it was the powder and shot in Concord that Gage was after. And long before any redcoats marched up what would be called the "Battle Road" and what would become Massachusetts Avenue, those were already out of his reach.
Lt Col. Francis Smith was ordered to take 700 men 17 miles to Concord. “…where you will seize and destroy… all Military stores…” Gage never mentioned going after Hancock or Adams, or even searching Lexington for weapons. But as Smith’s column approached Lexington he sent ahead 10 “light” infantry companies under the command of Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn to secure the road junction, not the village.
As he marched the head of of the column into the village just after dawn on April 19, 1775, Lt. Jesse Adair discovered a motley group of 77 militia, under the command of a tubercular Captain John Parker (below, in bronze), formed up in a rough line on the backside of the village green. Forty or so spectators had also gathered to watch.
These 77 militia-men were not minute men, as Lexington could not afford the expense of keeping even a handful ready to call to arms “at a minutes notice”. These men had gathered during the previous evening at the Buckman Tavern (background, above) because by that morning just about every patriot, hot head, rabble-rouser, drunk and trouble maker in Massachusetts Bay Colony knew General Gage’s intentions.
The men formed up on the green when the English column was spotted approaching, Parker walked down the line and in his horse voice told them to stand fast but make no aggressive moves, and just let the redcoats pass.
But the Redcoats were too good at soldiering to leave an armed force on their column’s rear and flank. So, rather than march past the green and take the left turn on Concord Road, Lt. Adair turned his skirmishers to the right, and charged onto the triangular green with a loud “Huzzah”. The idea was to frighten the colonists, and it would have scared the heck out of me.
Major Pitcairn (above) came ridding up and with sword drawn, called out, “Disperse, you damn rebels! Damn you, throw down your arms and disperse!”
Things were getting very dangerous, and Parker knew it. He croaked that the men should just “go home”. Hesitantly, slowly, some of the men who could hear him turned to leave the green. But nobody put down their muskets.
And then, as often happens when people with loaded guns start playing soldier, somebody fired a shot. Maybe it was accident, maybe it wasn’t even aimed at anybody. Afterwards the British said it was the Americans, the Americans blamed the British. The Americans were undisciplined but the British were exhausted. Everybody’s nerves were on the ragged edge.
Some folks in Lexington would later whisper that the first shot was fired by 18 year old Solomon Brown, who was not in the militia but whose home the British column had just passed. The young man had been up all night, playing spy and then soldier, and he seems as likely a source for the first shot as anybody. Brown did later boast to a friend that he had shot an English officer, and pointed to a blood pool as proof. But whether that was the first shot fired or not is sheer conjecture. Like so much of history, you have your choice of facts.
What we know as fact is this; the first shot produced a flurry of frightened shots, then a ragged volley from the redcoats. In breath there was so much wild shooting going on that Major Pitcairn’s horse was hit twice, while the Major was unharmed. (And maybe it was a pool of horse blood on the ground).
When it stopped one English soldier was wounded, and eight colonists were dead. Robert Munroe and Isacc Muzzy were shot and killed on the Green. Samuel Hadley and John Brown (Solomon’s oldest brother) were shot and killed while leaving the Green. Jonas Parker was wounded and then bayoneted to death on the Green. Jonathan Harrington was shot on the Green but managed to crawl to his own front door before dieing. Caleb Harrington was shot and killed close to the church, and Ashahel Porter was shot while attempting to escape. Nine other colonists were wounded, one of them being Prince Esterbrook, a black man who had no freedom anyone was willing to fight for just yet.
It was a messy start to what would prove to be a very messy day. By its end some 20,000 rebels would be besieging General Gage’s 5,000 men in Boston. Gage’s reputation would be in tatters (as would his marriage) because 100 printed copies of the colonists’ version of events on Lexington Green (and Concord Bridge which followed that afernoon) would arrive in London weeks before Gage’s perfunctory official report. And it was America’s propaganda version of the “Battle of Lexington Green” that became history. Was it true? Did it matter?
If the truth of Lexington Green seems important today that is only because the passage of time has made it safe for us to to be honest about passions that men were willing to kill and to die for when 700 British soldiers marched toward the dawn on the "Battle Road", on April 19, 1775.
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