Let It Begin Here:
The Battles of Lexington and Concord - April 18-19, 1775
By John O. Newell
This essay is a very brief summary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Obviously, this topic could fill a book-and has. Two of the best books on these events are David Hackett Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride (Oxford University Press, 1994) and Gen. John R. Galvin's The Minute Men: The First Fight-Myths and Realities of the American Revolution (Pergamon-Brassey's, 1989). Both books should be readily available in libraries or through local or internet book dealers. As living historians, we know better than most that no history project is ever perfect or 'finished.' Even so, I strongly recommend that you borrow or buy one or both of these books. Not only will they enhance your knowledge of the Battle Road events, but they are very compelling reading. Fisher's book is particularly hard to put down. Although you should not feel that you have to read either, I think you will be very happy if you do.
THE BEGINNING-LEXINGTON GREEN
On the night of April 18,1775, a detachment of grenadiers and light infantry from the Boston garrison mustered on secret orders of the military governor, General Gage. Approximately 800 men from 21 different regiments waited to cross the Charles River under a full moon on this clear, cool and windy night. The men of these companies were the elite of the British army, which was itself considered the best army in Europe. The grenadiers were the tallest, bravest men; they were the shock troops, identified by their tall bearskin caps. The light infantry, who wore leather helmets, were aggressive and agile men, trained for flanking and other special operations. A detachment of Royal Marines joined the grenadiers and light infantry. In theory, these soldiers were an ideal choice for a mission to find and destroy provincial military supplies. In practice, they were mostly young and inexperienced soldiers, and because they were from several different regiments their officers were unaccustomed to working with each other.
The regulars were not the only ones busy that night. Starting in the autumn of 1774, the colonists had begun large-scale preparations for a potential conflict with England. Under the direction of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, the colonists stockpiled military supplies, recruited companies of minute men from the militia, and built a communications network in the colony. Three days earlier, on Sunday, April 15, Revere had ridden to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of a possible expedition to capture them. This night, April 18, a group of provincials watched to see whether the regulars would march out of Boston by the land route or cross the Charles River to Cambridge. When the signal came, Revere and two fellow messengers spread the news that the regulars were out to a network of alarm riders throughout Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk and Worcester counties and beyond.
As Revere and the others spread word of this military expedition, the regulars began their 17 mile march to Concord under the command of Lt. Colonel Smith. A patrol riding on the Lexington road ahead of the column captured Revere, who warned them that 500 armed men would be waiting for them at Lexington. As the column progressed, in the distance they could hear alarm guns and church bells and see signal fires burning. These would have confirmed Revere's warning. Many of the regulars would have been tense and apprehensive as they approached Lexington at the first light of dawn.
In Lexington, Captain John Parker and 76 men of his militia company were waiting on the town green. They had mustered at about 1:00 that morning, then dispersed to the houses and taverns in the center of this small farming village. Parker probably had no clear idea why the regulars were marching. The regulars had marched into the countryside a number of times in late 1774 and early 1775. The colonial militia had met them several times without shots being fired. Parker would certainly not have believed that the regulars would fire on his men without provocation. Like Colonel Barrett and Major Buttrick in Concord later that morning, Parker ordered his men not fire unless the regulars fired upon them first.
When Major Pitcairn reached Lexington, riding at the head of the column of regulars, the sun was already up on a clear spring morning. The light infantry under Pitcairn's command moved rapidly up the road. The Lexington militia, who had dispersed after the first alarm, had now reassembled on the green. When Pitcairn found Parker's men on the Lexington Green, he attempted to surround them while ordering them to disperse. In the confusion, a shot was fired-no one will ever know by whom-and Pitcairn lost control of his inexperienced men. By the time Lt. Colonel Smith managed to restore order some ten minutes later with the beating of a drum, eight of the Lexington men were dead and nine more were wounded. The Lexington dead and wounded were a quarter of Parker's men. None of the regulars were killed or wounded.
After permitting his men to fire a salute volley and give three "huzza" cheers, Smith ordered his men to resume the march to Concord, six miles beyond Lexington. Although Smith now knew that the countryside was not quiet this morning, he did not know the extent of the mobilization or how many minute and militia companies were assembling and marching toward Concord in response to the alarm. Before the day was over, Smith would know a great deal more about both the number of men and the level of organization and training of the colonial militia.
THE FIGHT AT THE NORTH BRIDGE
Dr. Samuel Prescott had joined Revere on his mission to warn the countryside of the regulars' approach. The regulars had captured Revere and Prescott in Lincoln, but Prescott had escaped. The regulars released Revere and he eventually reached Lexington, in time to see the shots fired on the Lexington Green. Prescott reached Concord around 2 AM with the news that the regulars were on the road from Cambridge and headed toward Concord. This was not really a surprise, because it had been clear for several days that the regulars were preparing for a mission of some kind. Because Concord was one of the towns where the provincial authorities were storing military equipment and supplies, Concord was an obvious target for a military raid. As a precaution, the people of Concord had spent the past several days moving wagon loads of arms, ammunition and other military supplies from Concord to surrounding towns or hiding them around the town.
As the alarm spread, the militia and minutemen from Concord and surrounding towns began to muster at Wright's Tavern, which still stands across the Concord Green/Common from the Colonial Inn. Around 6 AM., provincial officers sent a messenger toward Lexington to verify the news that the regulars were marching toward Concord. He returned shortly and reported that the regulars had reached Lexington and that there had been shooting. Colonel Barrett, commanding the militia, asked whether the regulars were firing ball-live rounds, not just powder. The messenger, who had turned his horse back toward Concord when he heard the first shots, said "I don't know, but I think it probable."
It was now clear to Barrett and his officers and men that the regulars were on their way to Concord, and that this was not just another show of force. At this time, Barrett had about 250 men under his command; additional men were steadily flowing in from surrounding towns. After consulting with his officers and men, Barrett ordered a company of minutemen to march down the Lexington Road, while two companies of the Concord militia advanced to a hill overlooking Merriam's Corner to the east of the town.
As the militia and minute companies arrived at their positions on the east side of Concord, the regulars came into view-21 companies of men marching in a column three abreast, stretching a thousand yards down the road. As the provincials watched, the light infantry formed a skirmish line to meet the militia on the hill while the grenadiers continued toward the minutemen on the road. The morning light glinted off the regulars' polished muskets and bayonets. The minute company promptly faced about and headed back to Concord, just a few hundred yards in front of the regulars. They were close enough to hear the fifes and drums of the regulars as they marched back into Concord. As one of the minutemen later recalled, the provincials had "grand musick" as they marched.
Meanwhile, Colonel Barrett ordered the militia companies on the hill to fall back as the light infantry came up the hill toward them. The militia withdrew in stages as the regulars advanced, keeping the regulars in sight but out of musket range - which required only 200 yards. By doing this, Barrett maintained control of high ground but left the town to the regulars. Barrett's orders and cautious deployment indicate that he intended that the provincial forces would not begin the shooting.
Barrett and his men now realized that the regulars were going to search Concord and seize or destroy any military supplies that they could find. Many of the provincial supplies were still hidden in the town-large quantities of powder, musket balls, tents, flour and grain, as well as a number of cannon barrels and carriages-all of which was illegal for the provincials to possess.
When the regulars reached Concord, Colonel Smith ordered his men to search and secure the town. Smith sent seven companies of light infantry-about 270 men-to the North Bridge, to hold the bridge and search Barrett's nearby farm. Three companies were sent to the South Bridge on a similar mission. The remaining eleven companies, mostly grenadiers, remained in Concord to search the center of the town.
Seeing the light infantry companies moving out of Concord toward his position, Barrett withdrew his men once more, across the North Bridge to high ground about a half mile from the bridge. He then left Major Buttrick in command of the growing provincial force and galloped back to his farm, two miles away, to inspect the progress of hiding military supplies there. When the regulars searched the Barrett farm, they found none of these hastily-hidden supplies, including several cannon laid in freshly-plowed furrows in a field.
When the seven light infantry companies reached the North Bridge, four companies marched off to the Barrett farm. The remaining three companies deployed near the bridge to secure it for the return of the search party. Major Buttrick, whose forces now outnumbered the regulars, advanced his men to a position 400 yards from the bridge and 50 feet above. This forced the regulars to withdraw closer to the bridge, on low ground with their backs to the river, a tactically weak position. While both groups maintained a wary distance, additional men continued streaming in from surrounding communities to the north and west of Boston. By about 10:30, Colonel Barrett had perhaps 500 men under his command. The light infantry at the bridge, numbering about 100 men, eyed Barrett's men and noted that "[t]heir disposition appeared to be very regular and with Barrett and Buttrick, determined." The regulars sent an officer back to Colonel Smith to ask for additional men.
Back in the center of Concord, the regulars had discovered a large quantity of military supplies in the Town House and were burning as much of these supplies as they could. Soon the town house itself was burning, set afire by sparks blown from the fire. The town residents and grenadiers soon extinguished the fire, but the provincials on the hill overlooking the North Bridge saw the smoke and assumed the worst. Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer, standing on the hill, cried ~Will you let them burn the town down?"
There was, of course, only one answer to Hosmer's question. Still cautious, Barrett conferred again with his officers and men, as New Englanders were accustomed to doing. Barrett ordered Major Buttrick to lead the minutemen under his command down the hill and across the bridge. At the front of the column were Captain Isaac Davis and his Acton minutemen. Each of Davis' minutemen had a bayonet and cartridge box, and Davis had drilled and trained his men twice a week. As the Massachusetts men marched past him toward the bridge, Colonel Barrett cautioned them not to fire unless the regulars fired first, as Capt. Parker had done on the Lexington Green earlier that morning.
Seeing Buttrick's minutemen marching toward them, the regulars retreated to the North Bridge and started to cross back over it. As the provincials advanced, several of the regulars fired their muskets, then a whole company on the bridge fired. Captain Davis and one of his men were killed instantly, and several others wounded. After momentary hesitation, the minutemen realized that the regulars were not firing blanks. Buttrick shouted "Fire, fellow soldiers, for God's sake, fire!" The provincial volley and subsequent shooting killed two regulars and wounded nine more, including four of the eight Crown officers. The regulars broke ranks under the provincial fire and ran back toward Concord.
After the light infantry fled across the North Bridge, Major Buttrick led his some of his minutemen over the bridge. The minutemen took positions behind a stone wall on a small hill near the bridge. This put the minutemen in strong defensive position from which they could control the North Bridge. The minutemen watched as two companies of grenadiers under command of Colonel Smith came up the road from Concord and halted the retreat of the light infantry after their earlier request for assistance. Smith and his officers reformed the regulars, barely 250 yards from the minutemen but well out of musket range. This left the other four light infantry companies that had been searching Colonel Barrett's farm on the far side of the river, with more than 500 provincial soldiers between them and the main body of regulars in Concord.
When these four companies approached the North Bridge, they found that the three companies left there to guard the bridge for their return were nowhere to be seen. The provincial militia had moved much closer to the bridge, and the regulars could also see that some of the provincials had crossed the bridge and taken a strong position on the Concord side. The regulars probably did not know that there had been shooting at the bridge as they approached, but it was clear that their situation was perilous. The light infantry came down to the bridge and crossed at a quick march. Their path took them close to Colonel Barrett's militia on the west side of the river, and Major Buttrick's minutemen on the Concord side of the river. At this point in the day, however, the Massachusetts men still hesitated to fire on the King's troops, and the light infantry joined the other regulars in the center of Concord without further shooting. In their haste to pass the provincial soldiers, the light infantry did not stop to pick up their casualties from the fight at the bridge. These casualties included one wounded soldier who had been struck in the head by a colonial with a tomahawk. Word of this atrocity spread rapidly among the regulars, growing well beyond its original facts as the story was told and retold.
In Concord, Colonel Smith was anxiously waiting for the reinforcements he had requested from General Gage eight hours earlier. It was past noon, and Smith could see that the provincials now outnumbered his regulars, with more men steadily streaming in from the countryside. Barrett had moved the rest of his men across the North Bridge, nearly surrounding the regulars. None of these developments pleased Smith. His men had been on the march since before 10 PM the previous night. They carried only 36 cartridges each, and they were seventeen miles from Boston, deep in the hostile countryside with no reinforcements in sight. Smith finally gave the order to march toward Boston, with the grenadiers and marines on the road and the light infantry on each flank to keep the provincials out of musket range.
For the first mile, all was quiet. The regulars and the provincials had exchanged shots earlier on the Lexington Green and at Concord's North Bridge, and a number of men had been killed or wounded, but the provincial forces had acted defensively, not firing until fired upon. When the regulars reached Merriam's Corner, the light infantry protecting the column's flanks had to move in close to use a bridge that crossed a stream. There were perhaps 1,000 minute and militia men waiting for them there. As the regulars crossed this bridge, shooting began again-it is not clear who fired first-which resulted in large-scale firing by regulars and provincials. The provincials took advantage of the fact that the terrain forced the flankers in close to the column. This allowed the provincials to get close enough to use their muskets effectively, while taking advantage of stone fences, rocks and ditches.
Shortly after the regulars had passed through Merriam's Corner, they came to Hardy's Hill (then known as Brooks Hill), a mile further down the road to Lexington. Here another large group of provincials, many of them veterans of earlier colonial wars, gathered on a hill on the right side of the road to ambush the regulars. Although the light infantry fought up the hill to drive the provincial soldiers out of range, the provincials stood their ground, firing into the column as it passed by while others on the other side of the road did the same. Colonel Smith, believing that escape was his only option, urged his men forward as rapidly as he could. The regulars were speeding toward what we call the Bloody Angle.
THE BLOODY ANGLE
The regulars had pressed on through the attacks at Merriam's Corner and Hardy's Hill, but their difficulties were increasing as growing numbers of provincials leapfrogged ahead of the regulars. The road to Lexington next took a sharp left turn, then turned sharply right again 500 yards further down the road. On one side of the road, small trees and underbrush covered a hill that came down to the edge of the road. Some of the provincial soldiers, hearing the firing at Merriam's Corner, ran ahead to wait for the regulars. The sharp turns in the road and the surrounding landscape offered a natural ambush. The Massachusetts men, now approaching 1,500 strong all together, seized this opportunity. They caught the regulars in a vicious crossfire that killed or wounded roughly 30 men, including three more of the Crown officers. The regulars had no choice but to continue to press onward.
Just down the road, the road to Lexington led the regulars past the houses of William Smith, the captain of the Lincoln minuteman company, and Ephraim and Samuel Hartwell, both sergeants in Captain Smith's company. Here the militia and minute men again fired on the regulars with lethal effect, until light infantry companies swept the provincials from the side of the road.
Here, as it was during most of the regulars' retreat to Boston on April 19, geography was destiny. Where the road was surrounded by open fields, the regulars could send the light infantry into the fields to force the provincials far enough away from the road to make their musket fire ineffective against the main body of the regulars. Because the effective range of a musket is relatively limited, this tactic succeeded where the light infantry could drive the provincials as little as 100 yards from the road. On the other hand, where the road passed through a wooded area or any other terrain that hindered the ability of the light infantry to keep the provincials out of effective range, and offered some kind of cover or concealment for the provincials-like at the Bloody Angle-the regulars often suffered heavy losses.
The regulars were now under almost continual attack from both sides of the road and from their rear. They were tired and thirsty, and they were running out of ammunition. The only strategy available to Colonel Smith and his officers was to move as fast as possible and hope that the provincials would not cut off their retreat to Boston.
PARKER'S REVENGE, FISKE HILL AND CONCORD HILL
After the regulars had moved through the successive ambushes and attacks at Merriam's Corner, Hardy's Hill and the Bloody Angle on their march eastward toward Boston through Concord and Lincoln, they came to boulder-strewn pastures owned by Tabitha Nelson. To the east of these fields, there was a rocky hill covered with dense brush and trees near the Lexington-Lincoln line. Captain John Parker and his Lexington militia were there, waiting for the regulars to return. The Lexington men had lost a quarter of their number when the regulars fired on them on the Lexington Green earlier that morning. This time, Parker and his men knew what they had come to do, and waited for the regulars with determination.
Parker waited until the regulars were directly in front his men, then opened fire with a volley that wounded Colonel Smith in the thigh and knocked him from his saddle. The front of the column stopped briefly under the fire, which was the worst possible reaction. As the rear of the column packed into its front, Major Pitcairn galloped up to get the regulars moving again. With Smith wounded, Pitcairn assumed active command of the column and sent troops up the hill to drive the Lexington militia away. The regulars succeeded, but this took time and allowed other militia and minute companies to get ahead of the column again and continue the ring of fire. The provincials were able to ambush the regulars again just a few hundred yards down the road. Pitcairn again ordered his men up the hill to drive the provincials away. They succeeded again, although Pitcairn's marines paid a heavy price for holding off the converging provincials.
No sooner had the column of regulars once again begun to move forward than it ran into another group of provincials at Fiske's Hill. Pitcairn was thrown from his horse here and injured in the fall, and more regulars were killed or wounded. At this point, the column effectively disintegrated as a military force. According to Ensign DeBerniere, one of their officers, "when we arrived within a mile of Lexington, our ammunition began to fail, and the light companies were so fatigued with flanking they were scarce able to act, and a great number of wounded scarce able to get forward... we began to run rather than retreat in order-the whole behaved with amazing bravery but little order; we attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose..." Finally, the officers "got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die: upon this they began to form under a very heavy fire."
Clearly, the provincial militia was about to destroy the column as a fighting unit. At that moment, however, a cheer rose from the front of the column. When the officers holding back their men at bayonet-point turned around, they saw the reason for the cheering. Across Lexington they could see a brigade of regulars marching into Lexington under the command of Brigadier the Right Honorable Hugh Earl Percy. Percy later wrote to his father that "I had the happiness of saving them from inevitable destruction."
PERCY'S RETREAT-THE SECOND BATTLE OF LEXINGTON
Colonel Smith's request for additional troops had arrived in Boston at 5 AM that morning. Due to a series of mishaps and unfortunate coincidences, it was 8:45 AM before a brigade of regulars was ready to march under the command of Brigadier Earl Percy. To avoid the delays that would result from ferrying his men across the Charles River in longboats, Percy marched them down the Boston Common, across Boston Neck, then though Roxbury and Brookline and what is today Brighton, where they crossed the Charles River by bridge and finally joined the path of Smith's march of the previous night.
When Percy reached the village of Menotomy (today Arlington), he first learned of the day's fighting. Shortly after, Percy's brigade encountered a wounded Crown officer in a chaise. He reported that Smith's column was "retiring, overpowered by numbers, greatly exhausted and fatigued, and having expended almost all their ammunition."
As Percy's brigade reached Lexington, they could hear musket fire in the distance. Percy halted his men on a hill above the town and deployed them along the side of the road. From this hill, Percy's men and their cannon could command the open countryside below them. As the shooting grew louder, Smith's column appeared over a hill on the far side of Lexington. Smith's column of regulars, which had now virtually dissolved as a military unit, simply ran toward Percy's lines, pursued on each side and from the rear by great numbers of militia and minute men. To cover the flight of Smith's regulars, Percy ordered his two six-pounders to fire at the provincial ranks. The unexpected cannon fire temporarily scattered the militia and gave Smith's regulars a chance to join Percy's men.
Percy had saved Smith's column from destruction, but he was still 15 miles into the Yankee countryside with more than 2,000 armed and angry militia and minute men surrounding his force. Because none of the Crown officers had expected their mission to turn into an all-day running battle, Percy's men-like Smith's-had left Boston with only 36 cartridges each. Percy's artillery were similarly short of ammunition, carrying only a dozen rounds each in the boxes on the sides of the guns. Delay clearly worked to the advantage of the provincials, whose ranks continued to swell as additional companies streamed in from the more distant surrounding towns and counties. With this predicament in mind, Percy ordered his men, a total of approximately 1,800 with the men of Smith's column, to resume their march to Boston at around 3:30 p.m.
The course of Percy's retreat would take them through Menotomy, Cambridge and Charlestown, under constant fire of the militia and minute men. This final leg of the regulars' retreat was full of vicious fighting, burning and looting of houses, and many more men killed and wounded. In fact, the fighting in Menotomy was the most desperate and bloody of the day. The regulars finally reached Charlestown as the sun set. Here Major Pitcairn, under whose command the opening shots of the day had been fired on Lexington Green, ordered his men to fire an artillery volley that brought the long day's fighting to an end.
The day's final toll: 273 regular casualties, including 73 killed, 174 wounded and 26 missing; among the colonists, 95 casualties, including 49 killed, 41 wounded and five missing. That night the Crown forces ferried their wounded across the Charles River to Boston and evacuated Percy's and Smith's exhausted men while a cold April rain fell.
In the morning, the dawn brought a new day altogether. Although the colonists would fight the Crown forces for six more years, and peace had to wait two more years after Washington's victory at Yorktown in 1781, the events of that April morning in Middlesex county 225 years ago had launched a new nation on its course.
David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride (Oxford University Press, 1994)
John R. Galvin, The Minute Men: The First Fight-Myths and Realities of the American Revolution (Pergamon-Brassey's, 1989)
Additional Sources (listed alphabetically by title)
Ezra Ripley, A History of the Fight at Concord on the 19th of April, 1775 (Allen & Atwill, 1827; reprinted by The King's Arms Press & Bindery, 1996)
General Gage's Instructions of 22d February 1775 . . . Also, an Account of the Transactions of the British Troops . . . on the ever memorable Nineteenth of April 1775 (J. Gill, 1779; reprinted by The New England & Virginia Co., no date but recently)
Frank W.C. Hersey, Heroes of the Battle Road (Perry Walton, 1930; reprinted by The Lincoln Historical Society, 1983)
Charles H. Bradford, The Battle Road (The Rotary Club of Boston, 1975; reprinted by Eastern National Park & Monument Association, 1996)
The Nineteenth of April, 1775:A Collection of First Hand Accounts (Sawtells of Somerset, 1968; reprinted by Eastern National Park & Monument Association, 1991)
The Lexington-Concord Battle Road (Concord Chamber of Commerce, no date; available through Eastern National bookstores; also published by The First National Bank of Boston, 1975).