A Revolutionary Awakening: The Battles of Lexington and Concord
America’s great day of revolutionary awakening began at the small town of Lexington, Massachusetts at around 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 19, 1775. Earlier that night, British General Thomas Gage had dispatched a force of some 800 Redcoats from Boston with orders to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock, two prominent Patriots whom Crown authorities designated as the top men responsible for the Colonial resistance to British control in Massachusetts. Commanded by Colonel Francis Smith and Major John Pitcairn, the British force was also tasked with seizing arms and munitions being held in nearby Concord. After Gage’s plan was discovered by the American resistance, Paul Revere and other Patriot riders raced out of Boston and warned those throughout the hinterland that the British were coming. Revere reached Lexington in time to alert Adams and Hancock, giving the two men time to make their escape.
When the advance force of Redcoats approached Lexington Common, they were greeted by a force of 77 Minutemen, a term used to designate local colonists who were trained to be ready to respond to action at a moments notice, under the command of Captain John Parker. The infamous words that Parker told his men have gone down in history: “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they want to have a war, let it begin here.” As the Minutemen stared down the Redcoats, they were warned, “Lay down your arms, you dammed rebels, and disperse!” With nerves stretched to the breaking point, the tension quickly exploded.
The confrontation on Lexington Common between the Redcoats and Captain Parker's Minutemen. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Composed mostly of family men over 30 years old, 12 teenagers, eight fathers and sons, and a 63-year-old, the Lexington Minutemen held to their weapons, but seemed to be moving away when an unknown shot rang out. To this day, it remains unclear which side pulled the trigger first, but British troops reacted by firing a volley at the Minutemen, bringing down 18 of Parker’s men, “eight of them dead or dying,” according to historian Benson Bobrick. The remaining Americans quickly withdrew. Confident in themselves after driving the enemy from the field, the Redcoats now marched toward Concord. As they would soon learn, however, the men at Lexington were not the only colonists who would dare to stand in their way. The day was far from over.
As the mighty British professional soldiers moved toward their objective, the Patriot alarm continued to spread throughout the countryside, galvanizing local militia companies to action. When the Redcoats finally reached Concord, it was too late. The advance warning had allowed the colonists to hide the arms and munitions being stored there. Frustrated at their inability to find what they had been sent to seize, Bobrick notes that the British “set fire to the Concord Courthouse and cut down the Liberty Pole." For the militia gathered on the high ground above the village, it was feared that the Redcoats were going to reduce Concord to ashes. Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer of Concord spoke up and shouted, “Will you let them burn the town down?” The colonists knew it was time to act and sprang to action. (As a sign of commitment to the Patriot cause during the buildup to the Revolution, opponents of British policies toward the American colonies would raise a red flag at the top of a tree. This symbol of resistance was understood to be a Liberty Pole.)
After forming up, Minutemen advanced toward Concord’s North Bridge, which a British detachment had previously been sent to seize. At approximately 9:00 a.m., the Redcoats fired upon the approaching Americans, killing Captain Isaac Davis and Private Abner Hosmer. In a moment that signified the beginning of a new American destiny, the Minutemen fired back at the British, “killing three and wounding nine,” as recorded by Bobrick. In his 1837 poem “Concord Hymn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously described this action as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Shaken by the defiance of the colonists, the Redcoats fled and the Minutemen took up the chase.
The Shot Heard 'Round the World by Domenick D'Andrea, depicting the historic exchange of fire between the British and the Americans at Concord's North Bridge. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The British withdrawal from Concord began at about noon and the subsequent journey back to Boston became a nightmare. After learning what had happened at Lexington and Concord, Patriots from around the countryside grabbed their weapons and moved out to exact retribution against the Redcoats. As a British lieutenant remembered, “We were fired on from all sides, but mostly from the rear, where people hid themselves in houses till we had passed. . . . The country was an amazing strong one, full of hills, woods, stone walls, etc., which the rebels did not fail to take advantage of. . . . Their numbers [were] increasing from all parts, while ours [were] reducing by deaths, wounds, and fatigue; and we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it’s impossible to conceive; our ammunition was likely near expended.” Even Captain John Parker and his surviving men took part in the action, taking aim from behind cover and making the Redcoats pay when they reached Lexington during the retreat.
Had it not been for the arrival of British reinforcements at around 2:00 p.m., the Redcoats marching back to Boston might very well have been overwhelmed. Crown forces eventually reached the waterways surrounding Boston, where the guns of British ships could protect them. By evening, the Redcoats were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief as they returned to safety. The horrors of this day, however, would not be easily forgotten.
Parker's Revenge by Don Troiani, depicting the chaotic British retreat back to Boston on April 19, 1775. (Photo Credit: National Park Service)
Around 1,800 British regulars were involved in the action on April 19, suffering 273 dead and wounded, including 18 officers. On America’s great day of revolutionary awakening, Bobrick writes that approximately “3,700 patriots from twenty-three townships had taken part in the action,” and suffered some 95 casualties. The colonists had stood up to defend their communities and took on the most elite soldiers in the world. Following the events at Lexington and Concord, life in America would never be the same again. The Revolutionary War had begun.
Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.
American Battlefield Trust: Lexington and Concord: The Shot Heard 'Round the World.
Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.
Providence Forum: The Liberty Pole.