The Battle of Lexington
Just outside Boston, in the heart of today+s suburbs, is Lexington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the United States+ independence. It is widely believed that a little over two hundred years ago, the |MinutemenX in this farming community stood their ground against the world+s greatest army and fought for their independence. While one could find some truth in this statement, it is not entirely accurate. The Battle of Lexington was a mistake. The battle was not expected or planned and was without strategy. It was, however, the beginning of the American Revolution.
One can argue that with the Coercive Acts in 1774, the American colonies had been provoked into rebellion. Royal authority in the colonies was,in the late eighteenth century, non-existent. Informal committees of government began to reign, as colonist leaders replaced the positions of imperial governors. An eighteenth-century Yankee considered his town his primary form of government. It was within his town that a colonist controlled that which affected him; the hiring of a minister to preach at the town meetinghouse to the location of private property, such as slaughterhouses and tanneries. Thus, when Great Britain began taxing their American colonies in 1764 with the Sugar Act, colonists faced their first Parlimentry tax since their existence. The English needed to raise taxes in order to offset the bills facing the British Treasury in the wake of the Seven Years War. While England saw taxing its provinces without consent as its political right. After all, colonists were simply Englishmen living abroad. The American colonists, after years of not facing British taxation policy, resisted the levies using the slogan |No taxation without representation.X as justification. The argument that developed was, however, more than a dispute between rival legislative bodies over jurisdiction in the colonies. It became an argument over the fundamental concepts of government.
Leadership sprouted up in the form of politicians and educated craftsmen. Calling themselves Real Whig traditional leaders and centered in Boston, a group of men, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, claimed that Great Britain+s government had |fallen away from virtue, austerity and liberty.X Uprisings, protests and rebellions began to occur at an alarming rate for the British Empire. From the boycotting of British imports in response to the Stamp Act on 1765 to the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773 as a reaction to the Tea Tax of 1773, colonists were determined to make the British take them seriously.
By early 1775 George III and the British Parliament had deemed it necessary to plan military action upon the colonies despite attempts to avoid military confrontation. Lord North, the king+s chief minister, pushed an act, in February of 1774, that exempted colonies from taxes if they contributed to the common defense of Great Britain. The colonists wanted a repeal of the Coercive Acts and North+s suggestion that they would settle for less was a slap in the face.
The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May of 1775 to discuss the situation. Congress did not attempt to break from Britain, rather it sought resolutions. It issued the Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms denying that America wanted to establish independent states and approved the Olive Branch Petition that pledged allegiance to George III and England.
Massachusetts was the center of rebellion in the colonies and Great Britain, therefore, concentrated most of its efforts in the colonies+ main port of Boston. In command was General Thomas Gage, the first military governor of Massachusetts. Gage came to Boston in 1774 with four regiments and the intent of scaring the disruptive Whig party into submission. Despite the formidable arsenal the radical group had been able to control, the Whigs did not have a realistic chance defending themselves against a British army. General Gage had, through connections in both England and the colonies, purchased a good deal of land throughout the northeast and, hence, stood to gain from keeping the peace in America. He was a faithful servant of the King and Parliament but was, surprisingly, regarded as |decent, able, and full of good intentionsX by colonists early in his time at Boston. However it was Gage+s ideas that inspired the Coercive Acts. Once he began to enforce the laws, relations with the colonists began to deteriorate.
Gage had determined that the situation in Massachusetts was severe even before it was obviously so. He, therefore, was able to take action earlier than ordered to. His goal was to disarm the colonists before violent resistance could occur. By removing their weapons, Gage assumed that a revolt by the colonists would grow increasingly unlikely. It was this assumption that led him to believe that his plan would result in peace talks and peace talks would, further, lead to a maintained union with England.
His first seizure of weapons, in September of 1774, was his conquest of Provincial Powder House located in what is now Sommerville. The seizure of the Powder House seemed a respectable victory on the surface because it housed many of the greater Boston area+s munitions and was executed with the utmost secrecy and surprise. But General Gage did not expect the reaction of New Englanders. Caught off guard, people throughout the northeastern colonies were outraged and, because of their increasing attention to liberty as the foundation of life and society, chose to take action. Mobs of people protested throughout Massachusetts and even more of the population took to arms. Gage was stunned by this upheaval in the countryside. He responded by ordering that Boston be closed and fortified. In November he begged Parliament in England to temporarily repeal the Coercive Acts so that troops could be shipped across the Atlantic.
Gage+s first attempt at peace was a failure and he realized, as did his superiors in England, the critical nature of the uprising in the colonies. It was their respective interpretations that differed. Gage urged England to send large numbers of troops to the colonies, arguing that |a large force [would] terrifyX the colonists. George III and the British Parliament wanted to see him use the forces he was already allotted to quell the disturbance for good. Impatience grew in London as there was no result in America. On the second of April, 1775, British ships arrived in Marblehead with unofficial reports of orders for Gage to |move decisively against the rebellion and to arrest its leaders.X It was easy for the English government to command Gage as if his duty were a simple task. Due to the distance between the colonies and Great Britain, Parliament could hardly take the unorganized colonists seriously nor possibly understand the danger presented by rioting colonists. It was their perception that victory would be easily attainable.
|These men…assured Gage that the rebel+ of Massachusetts were merely +a rude Rabble without plan, without concert, and without conduct.+ Gage was told that a smaller force now, if put to the test, would be able to encounter them with greater probability of success than might be expected from a greater army.+X
They therefore expected Gage to act quickly before the rioting escalated.
Consequently, General Gage had begun to plan action long before the rumor of his new orders had even arrived. In March of 1775 General Gage decided to send two of his young, faithful officers, Captain John Brown and Lieutenant Henry De Berniere to explore Concord, Massachusetts for evidence of the colonists preparing violent, military revolt. The officers reported to their general that Concord was heavily armed and very dangerous. In addition, the citizens were hostile to the two officers. De Berniere and Brown visited the home of a prominent Lawyer named Bliss, who was hospitable to the soldiers. Within the hour, the Bliss house had received death threats forcing the soldiers to escort Bliss back to Boston. The lawyer led them along an alternate route, through Lexington and Menotomy, that was longer but more open than the wooded and hilled Concord Road they had taken out of the city. Reporting their observations, De Berniere and Brown presented General Gage with a prospective target. A route through the safety of Weston, Menotomy, and Lexington to Concord would be taken. The British army would surprise the town and attain their munitions. Gage began making the necessary preparations until the official orders arrived on the fourteenth of April.
Preparations made for Concord were not entirely undetected, despite attempts at secrecy. The Whigs had already learned about Gage+s orders from the ship that rumored their arrival in Marblehead. Whig leaders, in fact, had fled Boston. Only silversmith Paul Revere and Joseph Warren stayed. On April 5, Gage ordered the navy to prepare its ships for transport to Cambridge from Boston. On April seventh the ships were prepared for action while Boston watched. With information from intelligence in Concord, and the observation of preparation in Boston, the Whigs expected a full out surprise attack on Concord on the ninth of April. Paul Revere was given the job of warning the town and although his ride proved to be premature, it was just a matter of time, to the paranoid Whigs, until the British to proceeded with their plan.
While the rebels learned of England’s plans, General Gage had his counterintelligence as well. Loyalists throughout the countryside provided him with valuable information. Hence, it is no surprise that he knew of the alarm-riders the colonist had sent out and planned to send out again. He understood the difficulty of the Concord mission if the riders were allowed to spread the alarm. He therefore sent out twenty men to intercept these men on April 18, the evening before the march. The irony of the situation is that instead of halting the spread of alarm, the sudden influx of British officers and sergeants in the countryside caused the very suspicion that Gage had tried to avoid.
On the afternoon of April 18 Paul Revere received news from a stable boy that the British army had prepared to march. The rebels believed that the Regulars, as the British army was called, were to seize John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington and proceed to Concord to burn their stores. Revere, therefore, was to ride out, with William Dawes, to warn Sam Adams and John Hancock in Lexington, primarily, and, if they could reach Concord, to warn the townspeople there as well. The riders would take different routes; Revere would go by boat to Charlestown then proceed on horseback to Lexington while William Dawes would travel by horse through Roxbury, Brookline and Cambridge.
Revere+s ride to Lexington did not go smoothly. As he rode out along Lexington Road, near Medford, he spotted |red coatsX ahead. Worse, they spotted him. He successfully was able to escape the pursuit of the British and arrive at Buckman Tavern in Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock, but, at the time of his arrival, it appeared Dawes had not been so lucky. However, Dawes arrived a half an hour later and the two stayed in Lexington for another hour before setting out to warn Concord of the regulars.
At two in the morning on April 19, the British troops left Boston. Simultaneously, Revere and Dawes crossed paths with Dr. Samuel Prescott, a fellow |son of libertyX, and recruited him to warn Concord with them. Once again the British patrol impeded the riders mission. Three soldiers stopped the riders at gunpoint, herded them together and began to march them towards Concord. Prescott, knowing the area as a resident of Concord, decided to attempt an escape. As he rode off, Revere coaxed his horse off the other way. The two escapees caused a confusion and as the three patrolmen chased the them, Dawes turned away and rode back to Lexington. While Revere was caught, Prescott eluded his pursuer and, after returning to the main road, continued through Lincoln to Concord to alert the countryside.
In Lexington, the message had been delivered and it was time to act. John Parker was the commander of the Lexington |Minutemen.X The word was sent out to his men, who began to gather on the green around 2 o+clock.
The organization of the rebels was so inferior to that of the British, it seems insane that they would attempt to obstruct the path of the British army by threatening force. The townspeople of Lexington and Concord were not willing to give up what had become their entitlement in life. They had always governed themselves, and now that England wanted to tighten the reigns, it was time for them to stand up for their way of life.
As the Regulars approached the town of Lexington, five hours after their departure from Boston, approximately forty militia men stood, awaiting the unexpected. Parker instructed his men specifically not to begin a battle. |Stand your ground! Don+t fire unless fired upon! but if they want to have a war let it begin here!X Parker commanded.
General Thomas Gage shared Parkers sentiments. He did not want a battle, nor did he expect one. His three subordinate officers were Major Pitcairn, Lieutenant Adair and, the expedition leader, Colonel Smith. Adair led the troops through the countryside on their march while Pitcairn rode alongside the troops, maintaining organization and Smith rode in the rear. It was the lieutenant,thus, who was to determine the path of the Regulars. The main road forked ahead before him; to the left was Old Concord Road, a route that |would leave an armed and possibly hostile force on the open flank of his columnX and to the right was the Lexington Green, where the militia men waited. Pitcairn was the superior officer but he was at the rear of the British forces. Adair decided to run headlong into the farmers on the green awaiting the troops. The decision was probably made for two reasons. First, to chose Concord Road would be to chose, as was reported to Gage earlier, a path through an ambush prone area. A second reason that Adair made the decision may have been based on his confidence in his troops. It was widely accepted that the British army was the world+s strongest. They were numerous, organized, well-dressed, and well equipped; in short, they were intimidating to a small, unorganized group of primitive militia men. It would therefore be easy to understand why they assumed they could cow a small militia out of their path. It is interesting to note that the soldiers and officers were not aware of their destination and, therefore, Adair+s was not considering the shorter route to Concord in his decision. It is hard to understand why Adair would lead the troops towards possible confrontation. One explanation could be his ignorance of the situation. Combined with the appearance of a waiting force, Adair may have been led to believe that their destination was Lexington.
Pitcairn saw what had happened and cantered his horse to the head of the army. His decision differed from Adair+s and, as he rode left, he led all but two companies to Concord Road where he halted them. He then turned back and joined Adair on the green.
As the rebels stood scattered about the green opposite the orderly, aligned British army, they were ordered by the British to throw down their arms and disperse. Apparently Captain Parker told his men to do as the redcoats ordered. While some began to disperse, many stood their ground and no one laid down their arms. There is also debate on why the men did not do as told.
|Lexington+s commander, Captain Parker, turned to his men and gave them new orders, different from before. He later testified, I immediately ordered our militia to disperse and not to fire.+ Some began to scatter…In the confusion, some of the militia did not hear the order…X
While it is possible that many men did not hear Parker, it is also possible that many of the men chose not to hear him. Although they respected Parker as a friend and a neighbor, they had liberty on their minds and in their hearts and may have gotten caught up in the moment.
The event that followed that fateful morning of April 19, 1776 is often referred to as |the shot heard round the worldX, the shot that began the Battle of Lexington and the Revolutionary War. It was never determined who fired the first shot. It is, however, accepted that the first discharge was an accident. The two armies were approximately seventy yards apart and the first shot set off a volley of British fire. Apparently, very few shots were fired from the side of the militia. Many fled at the sound of the fire and sight of smoke coming from the sea of red ahead of them. Only ten men were killed and ten more wounded. Four of the militia men were shot trying to flee and four more were wounded away from the firing line. Only two fell at the line. The British, known for their discipline and order, had scattered everywhere chasing rebels and firing in different directions. Colonel Francis Smith arrived at that moment and took control of the chaotic situation. Finding the drummer, he ordered a beat to call the soldiers together. At this point the British infantry were told of their mission to Concord. The men were shocked and scared. They could not possibly understand why they would head further into the hostile countryside with rebels around after the disaster on the Lexington Green. Colonel Smith successfully convinced the men that they must go on with their mission by explaining that he was simply doing what he was told.
As the disillusioned red coats marched towards Concord, they marched away from a battle that began the American Revolution. The war that followed would last seven years and claim hundreds more American lives than the skirmish on the Lexington Green. Yet the independence of the United States of America began in the small town between Concord and Boston as the brave militiamen of Lexington stood their ground before the mighty British Empire.