Refusing to Disarm: Lexington and Concord
[This article, discussing the Battles of Lexington and Concord of April 19, 1775, which started the American War for Independence, is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, volume 3, part 69, "The Shot Heard Round the World: The Final Conflict Begins." An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]
Despite the mounting tension in the South, the main focus of potential revolutionary conflict was still Massachusetts. The British authorities, ever more attracted to a hard line, were becoming increasingly disenchanted with the timorousness and caution of General Gage, who had actually asked for heavy reinforcements when everyone knew that the scurvy Americans could be routed by a mere show of force from the superb British army. Four hundred Royal Marines and several new regiments were sent to Gage, but the king, one of the leaders of coercion sentiment, seriously considered removing Gage from command.
There were a few voices of reason in the British government, but they were not listened to. The Whiggish secretary of war, Lord Barrington, urged reliance on the cheap and efficient method of naval blockade rather than on a land war in the large expanse and forests of America. And General Edward Harvey warned of any attempt to conquer America by a land army. But the cabinet was convinced that ten thousand British regulars, assisted by American Tories, could crush any conceivable American resistance. Underlying this conviction—and consequent British eagerness to wield armed force—was a chauvinist and quasi-racist contempt for the Americans. Thus, General James Grant sneered at the “skulking peasants” who dared to resist the Crown. Major John Pitcairn, stationed at Boston, was sure that “if he drew his sword but half out of the scabbard, the whole banditti of Massachusetts Bay would flee before him.” Particularly important was the speech in Parliament of the powerful Bedfordite, the Earl of Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty, who sneeringly asked: “Suppose the colonies do abound in men, what does that signify? They are raw, undisciplined, cowardly men. I wish instead of... fifty thousand of these brave fellows, they would produce in the field at least two hundred thousand; the more the better; the easier would be the conquest... the very sound of a cannon would carry them off... as fast as their feet could carry them.”
There was another reason, it should be noted, for Sandwich’s reluctance to use the fleet rather than the army against the enemy. While the army was to dispatch the Americans, Sandwich wished to use the fleet against France, with which he hoped and expected to be soon at war.
Accordingly, the Crown sent secret orders to Gage, reaching him on April 14. The Earl of Dartmouth rebuked Gage for being too moderate. The decision had been made; since the people of New England were clearly committed to “open rebellion” and independence of Britain, maximum and decisive force must be slammed down hard upon the Americans—immediately. While reinforcements were under way, it was important for the British troops to launch a preventive strike, by moving hard before an American revolution could be organized. Therefore, Gage decided to arrest the leaders of the Massachusetts provincial congress, especially Hancock and Sam Adams. As in so many other “preventive” first strikes in history, Great Britain itself precipitated the one thing it wished most to avoid: a successful revolution. Interestingly enough, the Massachusetts radicals were at the same time rejecting hotheaded plans for a first strike by rebel forces, who would thus be throwing away the hard-forged unity of the American colonists.
Adams and Hancock were out of town and out of reach, near Concord; so Gage decided to kill two birds with one stone by sending a military expedition to Concord to seize the large stores of rebel military supplies and to arrest the radical leaders. Gage determined to send out the force secretly, to catch the Americans by surprise; that way if armed conflict broke out, the onus for initiating the fray could be laid on the Americans. Gage also used a traitor high up in radical ranks. Dr. Benjamin Church, of Boston, whom the British supplied with funds to maintain an expensive mistress, informed on the location of the supplies and the rebel leaders. (Church’s perfidy remained undetected for many more months.) Gage learned from Church, furthermore, that the provincial congress, under the prodding of the frightened Joseph Hawley, had resolved on March 30 not to fight any armed British expedition unless it should also bring artillery. By not sending out artillery, Gage figured that the Americans would not resist the expedition.1
Gage, however, immediately encountered what would prove a major difficulty in fighting a counterinsurgency war by a minority ruling army against insurgent forces backed by the vast majority of the people. He found that, surrounded by a sullen and hostile people, he could not keep any of his troop or fleet movements hidden. The rebels would quickly discover these movements and spread the news.
On April 15, the day after receiving his orders, Gage relieved his best troops of duty, gathered his boats, and on the night of April 18 shipped 700 under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to the mainland, from which they began to march northwest to Lexington and Concord. But the Americans quickly discovered what was happening. Someone, perhaps Dr. Joseph Warren, sent Paul Revere to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock. Hancock, emotional, wanted to join the minutemen, springing to arms; but the sober intelligence of Sam Adams reminded Hancock of his revolutionary duty as a top leader of the American forces, and they both fled to safety. Revere was soon captured, but Dr. Samuel Prescott was able to speed to Concord and bring the news that the British were coming.
As news of the British march reached the Americans, the Lexington minutemen gathered under the command of Captain John Parker. Rather absurdly, Parker drew up his handful of seventy men in open formation across the British path. When Major Pitcairn, in charge of six companies of the British advance guard, came up to confront the militia, Pitcairn brusquely ordered the Americans to lay down their arms and disperse. Parker, seeing his error, was more than willing to disperse but not to disarm. In the midst of this tense confrontation, shots rang out. No one knows who fired first; the important thing is that the British, despite Pitcairn’s orders to stop, fired far longer and more heavily than necessary, mercilessly shooting at the fleeing Americans so long as they remained within range. Eight Americans were killed in the massacre (including the brave but foolish Parker who refused to flee), and eight wounded, whereas only one British soldier was slightly wounded. The exuberant and trigger-happy British troops cheered their victory; but the victory at Lexington would prove Pyrrhic indeed. The blood shed at Lexington made the restraining resolution of Joseph Hawley obsolete. The Revolutionary War had begun! Sam Adams, upon hearing the shooting from some distance away, at once realized that the fact of the open clash was more significant than who would win the skirmish. Aware that the showdown had at last arrived, Adams exclaimed, “Oh! What a glorious morning is this!”
The British troops marched happily on to Concord. This time the Americans did not try any foolhardy open confrontation with the British forces. Instead, an infinitely wiser strategy was employed. In the first place, part of the military stores were carried off by the Americans. Second, no resistance was offered to the British entry into Concord, thus lulling the troops into a further sense of security. While the British were destroying the remaining stores, three to four hundred militiamen gathered at the bridge into Concord and advanced upon the British rear guard. The British shot first, but were forced to retreat across the bridge, having suffered three killed and nine wounded. The despised Americans were beginning to make up for the massacre at Lexington.
Heedless of the ominous signs of the gathering storm, Colonel Smith, commanding the expedition, kept his men around Concord for hours before beginning to march back to Boston. That march was to become one of the most famous in the annals of America. Along the way, beginning a mile out of Concord, at Meriam’s Corner, the embattled and neighboring farmers and militiamen employed the tactics of guerrilla warfare to devastating effect. Knowing their home terrain intimately, these undisciplined and individualistic Americans subjected the proud British troops to a continuous withering and overpowering fire from behind trees, walls, and houses. The march back soon became a nightmare of destruction for the buoyant British; their intended victory march, a headlong flight through a gauntlet. Colonel Smith was wounded and Pitcairn unhorsed. The British were saved from decimation only by a relief brigade of twelve hundred men under Earl Percy that reached them at Lexington. Still, Americans continued to join the fray and fire at the troops, despite heavy losses imposed by British flanking parties.
Despite the British reinforcements, the Americans might have slaughtered and conquered the British force if (a) they had not suffered from shortages of ammunition, (b) the British had not swerved into Charlestown and embarked for Boston under the protecting guns of the British fleet, and (c) excessive caution had not held the Americans back from a final blow at the troops on the road to Charlestown. Even so, the deadly march back to Boston was a glorious victory, physically and psychologically, for the Americans. Of some fifteen to eighteen hundred redcoats, ninety-nine were killed and missing, and 174 wounded. The exultant Americans, who numbered about four thousand irregular individuals that day, suffered ninety-three casualties. Insofar as these individuals were led that day, it was by Dr. Joseph Warren and William Heath, appointed a general by the Massachusetts provincial congress.
Events could not have gone better for the American cause: initial aggression and massacre by the arrogant redcoats, then turned to utter rout by the aroused and angry people of Massachusetts. It was truly a tale for song and story. As Willard Wallace writes, “Even now, the significance of Lexington and Concord awakens a response in Americans that goes far beyond the details of the day or the identity of the foe. An unmilitary people, at first overrun by trained might, had eventually risen in their wrath and won a hard but splendid triumph.”2
Above all, as Sam Adams was quick to realize, the stirring events of April 19, 1775, touched off a general armed conflict: the American Revolution. In the immortal lines of Emerson, penned for the fiftieth anniversary of that day:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.