By 1775, the situation in the American colonies had become critical for Great Britain. The colonies were on the verge of open rebellion. And in Massachusetts, things were the worst. Massachusetts Bay Colony, and especially the city of Boston, was full of hotheads. They had already caused many acts that were leading to what would become the American Revolution.
The British had long grown weary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Massachusetts had been the scene of many acts of defiance among them the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre. A general disdain for the British Army (redcoats), who were occupying Boston, prevailed. Additionally, many townspeople had been forced to house British soldiers.
The Colonists Prepare for a Revolution
In mid-to-late April 1775, the British learned that the colonial militias were stockpiling arms and ammunition for rebellion. Thus, they sent a column of about 400 regulars to Concord on the night of 18 April to destroy the cache.
During this period, the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety were employing several express riders as couriers for secret messages and correspondence delivered as far away as New York and Philadelphia. Paul Revere and William Dawes were among those employed.
On the evening of April 18, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston, the leading member of the Sons of Liberty, summoned Revere and tasked him to ride to Lexington, Massachusetts. He was to deliver the news that British regulars were about to march into the countryside northwest of Boston. Warren would later die during the Battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill.
According to Warren, the British troops planned to move through Lexington, and continue on to the town of Concord, to capture or destroy military stores, gunpowder, ammunition, and several cannon that had been stockpiled there.
John Hancock and Samuel Adams, two of the most strident members of the Sons of Liberty, were hiding from the British in Lexington. Upon hearing the news they fled to the nearby town of Woburn.
“One if by Land, Two if by Sea”
Revere contacted Robert Newman, the sexton of Christ Church in Boston’s North End. He instructed him to show lanterns in the tower of the Old North Church as a signal in case Revere was unable to leave town. Two lanterns meant that the British troops planned to row “by sea” across the Charles River to Cambridge. One lantern if they planned to march “by land” out Boston Neck.
At about 11:00 p.m. that evening, Paul Revere, on a borrowed horse from John Larkin, took off. He dodged a British patrol in Charlestown and then headed to Medford where he warned the captain of the local militia, Isaac Hall. Then, he alarmed almost all the houses from Medford, through Arlington, then called Menotomy. He carefully avoided the Royall Mansion as Isaac Royall was a staunch Loyalist. Paul Revere arrived in Lexington sometime after midnight.
Revere warned Hancock and Adams and was joined about 30 minutes later by William Dawes who had taken a different route out of Boston. Revere then warned Captain John Parker, head of the town’s Minutemen (militia). He told Parker about the British troops who were headed that way and Parker passed that information to his men.
The British Intercept Paul Revere
After getting some food and ale at the local tavern, Revere and Dawes met up with Dr. Samuel Prescott, who was a fellow “high Son of Liberty.” Yet, shortly afterward, a British patrol intercepted all three men. Prescott and Dawes escaped. Revere was held for some time, questioned, and let go. Before he was released, however, his horse was confiscated to replace the tired mount of a British sergeant.
Paul Revere, alone on the road, had no choice but to return to Lexington on foot where he would witness the events that took place on Lexington Green early the next morning.
The British troops reached Lexington Green and were met by militia intent on slowing their progress to Concord. Although 77 minutemen were on hand at Lexington Green, only 38 of these men had loaded weapons. Therefore, Captain John Parker formed those 38 in a line.
Parker’s men had been up for since 4:15 a.m. and the early morning air had been cold. So they were told to rest at Buckman’s Tavern across the green and be ready to return at quick notice. Parker had sent scouts that spotted the British troops coming and alerted Parker.
General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, ordered LTC Francis Smith to move “with utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy… all Military stores… But you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants or hurt private property.”
Confusion at Lexington and the “Shot Heard Around the World”
Parker wanted no combat with British regulars. Furthermore, as no declaration of war had been declared, he was confused as to what he was legally or morally required to do. Parker ordered his militia Minutemen to form on Lexington Green but not to block the road to Concord.
Parkers orders were clear, concise, and etched on the monument that now stands on the village green. “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
As the British arrived, they attempted to surround the militia. However, both Parker and Major Pitcairn, the British commander, didn’t want any bloodshed and ordered the troops to hold their fire. But someone, to this day no one knows who, fired the first shot. The British then followed with eight volleys. Eight Minutemen died and nine were wounded. The British suffered only one injury.
They continued on their way to Concord, where unbeknownst to them, the Colonists had already moved the arms and ammunition. While attempting to alight the military stores, the fire got out of control and British soldiers, as well as civilians, formed a bucket brigade to save homes in the town. Nevertheless, the British paid for the damages to homes and for the food and drink they had while in town.
An Unorthodox and Effective Way of Fighting
While this was happening, Colonial militias were flooding toward the Concord area. With nearly 2,000 militiamen on the road, the British regulars on their way to Boston were heavily outnumbered.
Most galling to the British was the fact that the militias didn’t fight like European armies. Rather, they fought as a guerrilla force would, from behind trees and walls, the way they had done during the French and Indian War.
By the time the British reached Arlington/Menotony things were looking grim. Earl Percy commented on the peculiar fighting style of the Colonials.
“During the whole affair the Rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance and resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body.”
“Indeed, they knew too well what was proper to do so. Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers against the Indians and Canadians, and this country being much covered with wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting.”
Although the Declaration of Independence was still more than a year away, the American Revolution had begun.