Lexington and Concord

Gage wanted his raid to be a secret. Unfortunately for the British, they were surrounded by watchful eyes, and the expedition became common knowledge in Boston. On the night of April 18–19, the Patriot leader Joseph Warren sent Paul Revere and William Dawes riding into the country to give warning of the British movement. Along the way, they were joined by Samuel Prescott. Dodging among British patrols, the three men roused the minutemen. That evening the British column of 700 men under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and Major John Pitcairn set out for Concord. As they marched along they detained anyone they met to maintain secrecy. But all around their route armed men were hurrying to muster points.

First Shots at Lexington

The road to Concord ran through Lexington. Seventy minutemen gathered there under the command of Captain John Parker. For warmth they huddled in a tavern and some nearby homes. When word came that the British were arriving, they lined up on the village green. Parker told his men, “Stand your guard. Don't fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Paul Revere is famous for his midnight ride. In addition to being an ardent Patriot, Revere was an engraver who created a famous image of the Boston Massacre. He was also a notable silversmith.

Major Pitcairn commanded the British vanguard. Seeing the militia, he deployed his men. Then he rode toward the Americans and shouted, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, and disperse.” The minutemen, hopelessly outnumbered, were ordered by Parker to retreat. They began to back away, but did not drop their weapons. “Lay down your arms! Damn you! Why don't you lay down your arms?” cried Pitcairn. At this point, someone, no one knows whom, fired a shot. The British volleyed into the Americans twice and charged. Able to get off only a few ragged shots, the Americans were driven off, leaving behind eight dead and ten wounded. One of the dead was Captain Parker, cut down as he attempted to reload his musket.

The Battle of Concord

The British pressed on to Concord. They found that Adams and Hancock had slipped away, and most of the supplies had been removed and hidden. They could do little damage. In the meantime, large numbers of angry militiamen were gathering. At the North Bridge a number of these men moved forward and drove in a British outpost, killing or wounding fourteen men. Lieutenant Colonel Smith ordered his men to retreat. As the British column began the sixteen-mile march back to Boston, bands of militia began to attack from every direction. Smith's men found themselves fired on by Americans using houses, trees, and fences as cover. As more and more of the exposed redcoats fell, unit cohesion began to fail, and the column degenerated into a panic-stricken mob. Only the timely arrival at Lexington of 1,000 reinforcements under Brigadier General Earl Percy saved Smith's force from destruction. Back in Boston, Gage had grown worried and sent more troops.

After an hour's rest, the British column moved on, with Smith's men sheltered by Percy's. Americans continued to set ambushes for the exhausted redcoats. Enraged British troops entered any house from which they believed they were sniped. Flanking parties of light troops hunted unwary minutemen. The sight of burning homes along the roadway in turn infuriated the growing militia. Obstructions were placed in the road and efforts made to isolate and destroy detached parties of British soldiers. Had the Americans enjoyed a unified command, the British column probably never would have limped into the shelter of Boston. As it was, the British had been mauled. British casualties totaled seventy-three killed, 174 wounded, and twenty-six missing. The Americans had also suffered, but not as heavily — ninety-three were dead, wounded, or missing.

The bloodshed at Lexington and Concord marked the failure of British policy in America. The King, his ministers, and Parliament had repeatedly misunderstood and underestimated the colonists. Frustrated, they had willfully — even recklessly — launched a war that would spin out of their control. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote many years later, “embattled farmers” had “fired the shot heard round the world.”

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