Battle of Lexington and Concord

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Battle of Lexington and Concord
Occurred April 19, 1775

The Battle of Lexington and Concord, which took place on April 19, 1775, was the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.

Warned by Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott that a British garrison from Boston had been sent to capture arms and ammunition gathered by the colonists at Concord, John Parker and his company of 77 men[1] assembled on Lexington Common as the British approached. To that time, no blood had been spilt. No one knows who fired the first shot of the war, but it was answered by British volleys leaving 8 of the colonists dead and 10 wounded. The colonists fled. What had been a simmering dispute, had erupted in the first combat and deaths.

The British, 700 strong under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, continued on to Concord where they found that most of the supplies had been moved. They still destroyed what was left.

The British troops then began their return to Boston having accomplished little, but, news of what happened at Lexington having reached the countryside, they were harassed by militiamen most of the way in a series of small arms fire. British losses in the combined Lexington and Concord campaign were 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing. The colonists suffered 93 men killed, wounded, or missing.


The "shot heard round the world," as the first firing at Lexington became known, was the culmination of a string of events reaching back several years in the growing hostility between American Patriots and the British government during the 1760s and 1770s.

Military Occupation of Boston

Following the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, the British Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, known in America as the Intolerable Acts, which as of June 1774 closed the port of Boston as punishment and suspended its peacetime colonial government. Though the colonial assembly was temporarily left in place, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage was sent to Massachusetts as military governor, empowered to suspend most forms of local government and arrest "seditious" Patriot leaders such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere as he saw fit. To reinforce his authority, Gage was accompanied by three brigades of regular British infantry, plus artillery, marines, and engineers; this marked the first military garrison for Boston since the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, four years ago. Though Gage himself was a moderate who strove not to violate colonial liberties more than he considered necessary, this was still seen by many as an unlawful encroachment on American liberties, and led to the calling of the First Continental Congress in September 1774, which laid the groundwork for a joint response by all the colonies.

Aware of the overwhelmingly hostile response to his presence from most of the population in New England, and Massachusetts in particular, Gage sought to neutralize their means of resistance—not through a massive show of force but with smaller-scale operations, carried out as quickly and secretly as possible, to confiscate stores of arms and ammunition outside Boston, the only point continually occupied by British troops. In this way, he hoped to remove the colonists' means of forcibly resisting British authority and thus compel them to back down.

The Colonial Response

Gage's first effort was the successful seizure of a gunpowder magazine at Cambridge in September 1774. Known as the Powder Alarm, Massachusetts leaders quickly organized in response to prevent repeats of this episode. Though it had by now been suspended, the colonial legislature convened in Worcester regardless, calling itself the First Provincial Congress, and created a Committee of Safety with executive powers, to which Revere, Doctor Joseph Warren, and others belonged. At the same time, local associations were established within individual communities, even Boston itself, to circulate intelligence about British operations and coordinate a response.

These measures soon bore fruit. An attempt to seize munitions at Fort William and Mary in New Hampshire in December was frustrated, as Revere traveled north to warn Patriots there of the move, and the local militia seized the fort before British troops could arrive. A similar operation against the arsenals at Salem in February 1775, also failed; at Leslie's Retreat the locals hid the supplies, and a tense confrontation between them and the arriving soldiers followed before the British returned to Boston.

By early spring 1775, relations between the colonists on the one hand, and Gage and his troops on the other, had deteriorated significantly. Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines wrote in a letter, "I have so despicable an opinion of the people of this country that I would not hesitate to march with the Marines I have with me to any part of the country, and do whatever I was inclined." At the same time, Samuel Adams was describing Gage as a man lacking any "spark of humanity, who [was] depriving our country of its liberty." Meanwhile, Gage was also starting to lose the confidence of his superiors in London, who had expected more decisive action on his part. On April 14, a confidential message arrived via the HMS Nautilus, promising reinforcements for Gage but also giving him firm orders to suppress the insurrection in Massachusetts by arresting the leaders of the Provincial Congress, seizing the colonists' remaining stores of arms, and imposing martial law.

In Parliament, Edmund Burke spoke about Gage's activities in Massachusetts, noting that "An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery."[2]

The Lexington Alarm

Even before receiving his new orders, Gage had begun planning a new operation into the Massachusetts countryside. He had initially planned to strike at Worcester, a major center of Patriot activity, but in light of its distance and the extreme hostility of the population, he revised his ideas and settled on an expedition to Concord, less than a day's march from Boston, where the Provincial Congress had been meeting and where a large depot of arms and ammunition was known to exist. Additionally, Gage decided on a route of march that went through the village of Lexington; he had learned by now that Samuel Adams and John Hancock were staying in Lexington, at the home of Jonas Clarke, and intended for them to be arrested and brought back to Boston.

To command the expedition, Gage chose Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, who led the 10th Regiment of Foot. Overweight and not entirely fit for active campaigning, Smith was cautious rather than bold, which suggests Gage still hoped to avoid a violent confrontation if possible. Smith would have charge of the "grenadier" and "light infantry" companies, detached from their regular regiments. These were specialist troops, chosen for their strength and activity and thus lending an extra punch to the expedition; however, the fact that they were drawn from many separate units threatened to create a chaotic command structure in the field. Also chosen were the grenadier and light infantry companies of the Royal Marines under Major Pitcairn, a few volunteers, and some Loyalist guides. Altogether, Smith's expedition probably numbered between 800 and 900 officers and men.

At about 10 o'clock on the evening of April 18, Smith's force assembled on Boston Common and was conducted across Back Bay (an estuary of the Charles River) in boats provided by the Royal Navy, landing at Lechmere Point southeast of Cambridge. The crossing was slow and time-consuming; not until 2:00 a.m. had the column re-formed and begun its march.

The Midnight Ride

Despite Gage's efforts to maintain secrecy, the Patriot organization in Boston had, as with the expeditions to New Hampshire and to Salem, learned of the march before it began. By late afternoon or early evening of April 18, Revere, Warren, and others had received definite confirmation about the force, its composition, its target, and even its general route. In response, Warren sent Revere, William Dawes (and possibly one or two others) out of the city by separate routes, with the intent of reaching Lexington before the British and alerting Hancock and Adams.

Dawes and Revere departed Boston that night—the former over Boston Neck, the narrow strip of land connecting Boston to the mainland, the latter by being rowed across the Charles River to Charlestown, where he acquired a horse and rode to Lexington. Famously, two lanterns were hung in the steeple of Old North Church at the same time, signaling that the British were making a water crossing. Revere also alerted the communities he passed through between Charlestown and Lexington, spreading the word of Smith's expedition and urging them to mobilize their militia units to confront it. (Contrary to popular belief, Revere did not shout "The British are coming!"; most colonists at this time still considered themselves Britons and/or Englishmen. He and others more generally referred to Gage's soldiers as "Regulars" or "Redcoats.")

Revere arrived in Lexington about midnight, followed shortly thereafter by Dawes, and warned Hancock and Adams to take shelter in another location; they then headed west toward Concord, joined by Samuel Prescott, a young local physician who supported the Patriot cause and volunteered to help spread the word. Near the town of Lincoln, they were intercepted by one of several mounted British patrols Gage had sent out earlier to restrict the flow of information, and Revere was captured, while Dawes was unhorsed and forced to flee on foot. Prescott, however, escaped and made his way to Concord where he warned the community and in turn sent other riders to nearby towns and villages. (Revere was questioned and eventually released, though his horse was taken.)

Battle of Lexington

In response to the information brought by Revere and Dawes, the Lexington militia began to mobilize, as did those in the other communities, beginning to gather on Lexington Common (or Green) in the center of town sometime after 1:00 a.m. (Though many Massachusetts towns had "minutemen," special rapid-response units named for their supposed ability to be ready to fight "at a minute's notice," Lexington did not; the men who gathered that morning were all regular militia.) Commanded by Captain John Parker, a local farmer and veteran of the French and Indian War, the number of militiamen present fluctuated during the night; not everyone heard the alarm, and as it was not clear when the British would be arriving, some members drifted in and out over the next few hours. As Smith's column approached Lexington at about 4:30 a.m., there were no more than 70 or 80 militia in place on the Common, possibly fewer. Seeing the Redcoats' approach, Parker warned his militia to hold their position on the Common, supposedly shouting, "Stand your ground! Don't fire unless fired upon! But if they want to have a war let it begin here!"

Aware by now that the countryside had been warned, Smith sent a message back to Gage, requesting reinforcements; he also gave Major Pitcairn charge of the six leading companies, comprising about 250 troops, and ordered him to quickly advance into Lexington. In the rush as Pitcairn's column reached the east end of the triangular Green, two companies, the light infantry of the 4th and 10th Foot, diverged from the main body and marched northwest across the field to where Parker's militia were drawn up. Riding across to take charge of the detachment, Pitcairn simultaneously demanded that the militia lay down their arms and disperse. Parker ordered his men to disperse from the Green and not fire on the British, but not to abandon their arms.

In the midst of this action, at least one shot rang out, either from the militia or the Redcoats (or perhaps both). In response, the British infantry fired several volleys, then without orders launched a bayonet charge. A few of the militia fired back, but most scattered at once. Seven of the Lexington militiamen were killed in the fight, either shot or bayoneted, as well as one man from the neighboring town of Woburn who had earlier been apprehended and was shot while trying to flee in the confusion. On the British side, only one man was seriously wounded, though Pitcairn himself was nicked by a stray shot. At this point, Smith arrived and took control of the situation, ordering his soldiers to get back into formation, and after the firing of a victory salute, the whole column continued west towards Concord.

Mystery of the first shot

Almost immediately after the battle, a controversy arose over who exactly had been the first to fire his weapon at the Lexington confrontation. The question was complicated by efforts by both the Americans and the British to claim the moral high ground by depicting the other as the first to begin hostilities. Many of the British officers later said that some of the retreating militia had taken cover either behind nearby Buckman Tavern or an adjacent stone wall; Major Pitcairn stated that "some of the Rebels who had jumped over the wall, fired 4 or 5 shott [sic] at the soldiers...upon this, without any order or regularity, the Light Infantry began a scattered fire." By contrast, members of the Lexington militia argued the first shot came from a mounted officer with the British detachment, possibly Pitcairn himself. One militiaman said he "heard the British commander cry, 'Fire!' and fired his own pistol and the other officers soon fired."

The actual identity of the first man to fire will never be known; however, most sources on both sides agree that the first shot did not come from the British rank and file, or from those of Parker's militia still in place on Lexington Common, lending credence to the most common accusations on each side. In his book Paul Revere's Ride, historian David Hackett Fischer suggests both versions are correct: several guns went off almost simultaneously, and were attributed by each side to the other. It is even possible the first shot was accidental; 18th-century muskets had a high rate of accidental discharge.[3]

Battle of Concord

Due to the fighting and delay at Lexington, Smith's re-formed column did not reach Concord until about 9:00 a.m. The militia in that town had by now been gathered for several hours, and more were already arriving from neighboring communities. Led by Colonel James Barrett, the militiamen withdrew to a position on the other side of North Bridge, about a mile from the center of town. As the British marched into Concord, Smith deployed them in several directions, the largest force going to North Bridge to keep an eye on the militia; the remainder searched Concord and the surrounding properties for munitions and other war materials. Thanks to the advance warning, however, nearly all arms had been moved elsewhere for safekeeping; indeed, this process had been underway for several days as a precaution.

By 10:00 a.m., about 500 militia were gathered outside town, and Barrett decided to draw closer to North Bridge, in part to prevent its destruction by the British. As they approached, the three companies of light infantry holding the bridge opened fire, apparently without orders as at Lexington. Several militia were killed or wounded, including Captain Isaac Davis of Acton; nonetheless, the militia drew closer to the British position, then opened fire themselves. The Americans seemed to fire with more accuracy, inflicting a higher number of casualties on the Redcoats; owing to this and their close-packed position on the bridge, the light infantry soon fell back in some disorder. In response, Smith brought forward his grenadiers to block a further American advance from that direction, and another lull followed. Smith soon determined that nothing more could be done in Concord, and was aware that more militia were arriving throughout the morning, threatening to block his route back to Boston. After drawing in his scattered units, he ordered a return march at noon.

Retreat to Boston

As Smith's column began its march back to Boston, the units of American militia began skirmishing with them, taking cover behind trees, fences, or buildings along the road and opening fire in a continual series of small-scale ambushes. As the British had difficulty maneuvering in the unfamiliar terrain, and the militia's numbers were still growing (at least 2,000 by early afternoon) with the arrival of more and more companies from nearby towns, Redcoat casualties began to mount, one of the most significant being Smith himself, shot in the thigh in an altercation with some of the Lexington militiamen who had regrouped. By the time the British reached Lexington, sometime after 2:00 p.m., the column was disorganized, demoralized, and low on ammunition, and its leading officers believed they would have no choice but to surrender.

However, in response to Smith's previous call for reinforcements, Gage had dispatched an additional brigade, at least 1200 strong, commanded by Brigadier General Hugh Earl Percy. It had by now reached Lexington, and succeeded in driving off American attacks long enough for Smith's survivors to reform. Around 3:30 p.m., the whole British force, with Percy now in overall command, continued its retreat to Boston. More heavy fighting followed, with the American militia, led by Warren and Brigadier General William Heath, launching dispersed but coordinated attacks on the British from Lexington nearly to Charlestown, until Percy's soldiers finally reached the high ground at the latter place after sunset. At that point, serious combat ended for the day.


The first battle of the Revolutionary War was a costly one, though not so much as later battles would be. On the American side, about 93 casualties were reported from the various towns that had sent militia: 50 killed outright or dying of their wounds, 39 wounded, 4 missing. By a significant margin, Lexington suffered higher losses than any other community (about 20), testifying to the intensity of its involvement. The high ratio of killed to wounded among the militiamen was unusual for 18th-century warfare, and it was widely reported that some militia (wounded or unwounded) had been captured and then shot by the British soldiers.

In his official report to London, Gage reported 272 or 273 casualties among his forces: 65 killed, 180 wounded, and 27 missing. Given their longer engagement, the troops initially sent out under Smith suffered a much higher proportion of the casualties; the Royal Marines under Pitcairn lost 74 men, the highest number of any individual unit.

The taking of lives enraged the colonists. What had been a war of words and civil disobedience became one of blood. Thousands of men answered the call to arms and 15,000 men besieged the British troops in Boston. The Revolutionary War had begun.

See also