I think Thomas Gage (above) should have called the whole thing off, once the secret was out. And Lord knows it was out almost before General Gage ordered it be kept secret. Maybe the leak was his New Jersey born wife, and maybe it was the government's opponents back in London, and maybe it was just impossible to keep any secrets in a city of 6,700 civilians, occupied by 6,000 soldiers and sailors and their dependents. And maybe the truth is, Britain had already lost the war for American independence before the first shot was fired on 19 April, 1775.
Seven months earlier, on 1 September 1774, General Gage had sent 260 lobster backs 3 miles up the Mystic River to Winter Hill, where they seized the largest supply of gunpowder in the colonies (above). The audacity of Gage's preemptive strike had infuriated thousands of colonists who gathered in Cambridge with their weapons. It was weeks before things calmed down. Since then, Gage had canceled a number of similar expeditions, and pulled all his men back into Boston, abandoning the countryside except for occasional reconnaissance missions. He had warned his London bosses, “if you think ten thousand men sufficient, send twenty; if one million is thought enough, give two; you save both blood and treasure in the end.” What he got, in late February, were orders to get on with disarming the colonists.
Gage's plan was to send out a lightning strike to capture another large supply of powder he'd heard about, 30 miles to the northwest, in Concord. It was a full day's march to get there, giving colonists time to resist, but the expedition could succeed if security was tight and if the rebels were slow to react. So first, Gage wanted to arrest the colonial leaders. He would release them after the powder was safely in Boston, to give him someone to negotiate with. But on Saturday, 8 April, 1775, the two highest value leaders of the Committee of Safety still in Boston, smuggler John Hancock and his cousin, lawyer John Adams, slipped out of the city. Gage heard they had fled to Lexington, 25 miles out the Concord road. Hancock had been born in Lexington, and still owned his family's house there, which was currently occupied by his cousin Lucy and her husband, Jonas Clarke, who was the village pastor. So the first round went to the colonists
The following Monday, 10 April, Gage informed his senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel “Fat Francis” Smith (above), of his plan. Smith suggested a personal reconnaissance, and Gage agreed. So disguised as common travelers 42 year old Colonel Smith and 22 year old Sargent John Howe, who had made a previous reconnaissance, rowed across the Charles River to Cambridge, and started west on foot. After only six miles they stopped at a tavern for breakfast and information. But when Smith claimed to be looking for work, a black servant girl identified Smith by name, and told him he would find plenty of work up the road. Smith retreated back to Boston, but Sergeant Howe continued on. He returned on Wednesday, 12 April, telling Gage the country was so alert it would take 10,000 men to reach Concord and capture the powder and arms the Sargent now confirmed were in Concord.
Three days later, on Saturday 15 April, several companies of grenadiers and light infantry were relieved of their regular duties so they could resole their shoes, change out their canteens, mend their uniforms, and have their muskets serviced. About noon, Royal Navy row boats were seen being gathered in the harbor. At the Green Dragon Tavern on Union Street, one of the rebel leaders remaining in Boston, silversmith Paul Revere, kept the Committee of Safety fully informed of all these preparations..
At nine in the morning, Tuesday, 18 April, patriots in Concord moved their cannon and powder out of town. They already knew the British were coming, and that they were coming soon. About noon John Ballard, a stable boy on Milk Street, reported that a British officer had said there “would be hell to pay, tomorrow”. About two that afternoon, British sailors sent ashore to purchase stores, were heard talking of preparations to row infantry across the Charles River to Cambridge after dark. Doctor Joseph Warren was told by a British officer patient that Hancock and Adams were the intended targets of the movement.
Around seven that night twenty mounted British officers and sergeants, under the command of Major Edward Mitchell, rode out of Boston, across the Roxbury neck, and headed north. Their mission was to intercept any warning coming from Boston, and to confirm the location of Hancock and Adams. The timing was telling, since most mounted patrols left after dawn and returned by dark. Just an hour later, in Lexington, militia posted a guard at the the Reverend Clarke's house, to protect Adams and Hancock.
About ten that night, under an almost full moon, 700 infantry were formed up in their encampment on the Boston Common, and then marched to the edge of the Back Bay. Boats rowed them across to the Cambridge farm of David Phipps, sheriff for Middlesex County.. The soldiers had to wade ashore through knee high water. Then, Lieutenant John Baker noted “we were halted in a dirty road and stood...waiting for provisions to be brought from the boats...” As the British infantry were stalled on the Concord road, Paul Revere was rowed across Boston Harbor to Charlestown (above), where he had stabled a horse. At about the same time tanner William Dawes managed to slip out of Boston via the Roxbury neck.
About 30 minutes after midnight on Wednesday, 19 April 1775, Paul Revere arrived at Reverend Clarke's house in Lexington. When the guards told him he was making too much noise, the volatile Revere yelled “Noise?! You'll have enough noise before long. The Regulars are out!” At that moment window shutters flew open and a very awake John Hancock invited Revere inside. Within the hour, Revere, joined by William Dawes, and local doctor, 34 year old Samuel Prescott, rode out together to spread the alarm to Concord and beyond. Just north of Lexington the three rebel riders ran into a detachment of Major Mitchell's scouts. Dawes and Revere were captured, but Prescott managed to jump his horse over a roadside fence and escape, taking the alert to Concord. Questioned, Revere told the British there were 500 armed men waiting for them on Lexington Green.
Meanwhile, back on the Phipps farm in the dark, Col. Smith's frustration was growing. It had taken the better part of an hour to get the march restarted, so Smith ordered 53 year old Major John Pitcairn to take the lead with 300 light infantry and marines, and force march until he had seized the bridges north of Concord. Smith would follow with 400 Grenadiers. By the time Pitcairn started it was after after two in the morning. There were only about 2 hours of darkness left. Musket shots and bell alarms were ringing all along the Concord road. Col. Smith sent a messenger back to Boston, requesting reinforcements be dispatched.
In Lexington, about 80 militiamen answered the alarm bell, reporting to 45 year old militia Captain John Parker, a veteran of the famous Roger's Rangers. Parker sent scouts down the road to Cambridge, then, as militiaman Ebenerer Monoe, recalled, “The weather being rather chilly, after calling the roll, we were dismissed, but ordered to remain within call of the drum. The men generally went into (Buckman's) tavern adjoining the common.” (above) There, most fell asleep in chairs.
The sky had begun to lighten at about 4:15 that Wednesday morning when young Thaddeus Bowman galloped up to the tavern (above). He had been trapped behind Pitcairn's rapid advance, three miles down the road at “Foot of the Rocks.” opposite Pierce's Hill, but had managed to pass the British regulars by crossing fields. Bowman told Parker the regulars were just minutes out of Lexington, and Parker ordered his drummer, William Diman, to sound the “long roll” call to arms.
Some 70 militiamen formed a line across the northwest corner of Lexington Green, with Bowman the last man on the right. It is claimed later that Parker told his men, “Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” But because he suffered from tuberculosis, Parker's voice was raspy and thin, and few of the militia would have been able to hear Parker, if he said it.
In a soft half light, with a crisp chill in the air, it was approaching five in the morning. The sun has not yet risen over the horizon. But Pitcairn can see militia moving parallel to his march, and periodically even see muskets being fired to track his movements. In the past Major Pitcairn has said, “I have so despicable an opinion of the people of this country...I am satisfied they will never attack Regular troops.” But he now halted his men and ordered them to load their weapons and then fix bayonets. As Pitcairn dropped back to check the rear units of his command, forty year old Irishman Lieutenant Jesse Adair, ordered the 100 men in his command to “double step march” into Lexington.
Lexington Green is a triangle formed by the junction of the west trending Boston and Concord road, and the north trending Bedford road. At the apex of the triangle, where the Bedford Road meets the main road, and on the green, stands the village meeting house. The line of Captain Parker's 70 militiamen were anchored on the Bedford Road, about 75 feet from the northwest base of the triangle. This put them well off the Concord Road, so as not to threaten the British regulars marching to Concord. Parker means his little command as a statement of resolve, and nothing more. It makes the last part of Parker's supposed statement suspect at best.
But as Lt. Adair “quick marched” his command into Lexington the meeting house blocked his view of the militia. And he failed to follow the left curve of the Concord road, but angled to the right, up the Bedford road. After a few yards the militia, almost equal in size to his own command, was suddenly revealed on his left flank. Startled, Lt. Adair ordered his men onto the green and into a “firing line”. As they did so the regulars let off a self confidence inducing cry of “”Huzzah!”, as they had been trained to do. It took, probably from first sight to the regular battle line, less than a minute.
Major Pitcairn was leading the next three regular companies in line, and guided them in quick step, correctly, angling to the left - west on the Concord road. But as he cleared the meeting house, Pitcairn suddenly saw the militia, and also Adair's company, spreading quickly out onto the green in a line 30 feet in front of the militia. It looked as if a battle was about to begin. Pitcairn ordered his column to halt, and galloped across the green directly toward the American militia. As he came up behind their line, the Major drew his sword and began shouting desperately, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels! Disperse! Lay down your arms!”
Captain Parker, seeing his men outnumbered, and likewise not wanting to start a war, ordered his men to disperse. Few heard him, but those that did turned and begin walking away. But it was at this instant that somebody fired yet another musket, which set off first a hundred others, and then five thousand and then fifty thousand more, over 8 bloody years of war. It was the famous or infamous “Shot heard 'round the world”.
Of the approximately 200 muskets actually on the Green that morning, almost every loaded weapon was British. The regulars had far better discipline than the militia, but were exhausted, having not slept for 24 hours, and were strangers in a strange land. Everybody was on edge, frightened and caught in a rush of an unanticipated crises So, was the first shot intended to kill fired by a colonists or a British regular? In the end it does not really matter. Both sides had been playing with fire for a decade. It was inevitable a flint would spark a conflagration. And in the almost light before dawn on Wednesday, 19 April, 1775, Lexington Green was as good a place as any for that
It took, probably, from first sight to first shot less than 90 seconds. After that it was over, probably, in less than another minute. The regulars fired a ragged volley and then because they could not reload with bayonets on their muskets, charged the colonists.
They stabbed at least two to death before Pitcairn had the drum beat to quarters, bringing Adair's company back into formation, and ending the melee. There were eight American – from this instant we can call them that - eight American dead. One British regular wounded, but by which side it is not clear. Major Pitcairn's horse was also wounded twice, but he was behind the American line, and those wounds were probably made by British lead.
Pitcairn had never intended on stopping in Lexington, and even now did not pause here for long. He had the entire command give a cheer and fire a volley into the air, but that was more to empty their weapons than anything else. In his mind the Major must have been feeling the weight of the reports he would have to write, and the endless second guessing by his superiors, as after the “Boston Massacare” five years before.But his orders were to seize the bridges north of Concord, so as quickly as he could, and without more than a perfunctory search for Hancock and Adams, who had fled before the shooting started, Pitcairn put his men back on the road, marching for Concord, now in the full light of the morning sun.
What Lexington made as clear as daylight was that America was too big to be controlled by any outside force. And by 1775, that is just what Britain had become. What followed was 8 years of warfare, that killed 50,000 Americans and 25,000 Brits and their hired soldiers. But if he could have divorced himself from his obedience to orders, Thomas Gage knew Britain already lost her colonies, before the first Red Coat had crossed the Charles River in the early hours of 19 April, 1775. So the American Revolution was a foregone conclusion, all along. A lot of wars are like that.
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