April, 1775: Battles of Lexington and Concord Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the early-morning hours of April 19, 1775, Captain John Parker, forty-five-year-old veteran of the French and Indian War, stood with his single company of Minutemen on the village green at Lexington, Massachusetts. Several hours had passed since Paul Revere’s word of an approaching column of redcoats had brought them tumbling out of their beds. Revere had been unsure as to how General Thomas Gage would lead his men, quartered in Boston, toward Lexington. The land route across the isthmus to the mainland was long and more obvious; the Charles River was not frozen, and the river route was shorter. A signal from the steeple of Christ’s Church provided the answer; the British were coming by sea. Now a messenger reported that the royal troops were almost within sight. Earlier, the Minutemen and their neighbors had adopted a resolution that the presence of a British army in their province constituted an infringement upon their “natural, constitutional, chartered rights.” They had pledged their “estates and every thing dear in life, yea and life itself” if necessary in opposing the Coercive Acts. The British were correct in their suspicions that the Americans had hidden arms; gunpowder and shot had been stored all winter for such a moment as this.

In the early-morning hours of April 19, 1775, Captain John Parker, forty-five-year-old veteran of the French and Indian War, stood with his single company of Minutemen on the village green at Lexington, Massachusetts. Several hours had passed since Paul Revere’s word of an approaching column of redcoats had brought them tumbling out of their beds. Revere had been unsure as to how General Thomas Gage would lead his men, quartered in Boston, toward Lexington. The land route across the isthmus to the mainland was long and more obvious; the Charles River was not frozen, and the river route was shorter. A signal from the steeple of Christ’s Church provided the answer; the British were coming by sea. Now a messenger reported that the royal troops were almost within sight. Earlier, the Minutemen and their neighbors had adopted a resolution that the presence of a British army in their province constituted an infringement upon their “natural, constitutional, chartered rights.” They had pledged their “estates and every thing dear in life, yea and life itself” if necessary in opposing the Coercive Acts. The British were correct in their suspicions that the Americans had hidden arms; gunpowder and shot had been stored all winter for such a moment as this.

The Combatants

The seventy-seven men who answered Parker’s call, including sixteen-year-old drummer William Diamond, were hopelessly outnumbered by the approaching British. Many were old for such work; fifty-five were more than thirty years of age. Most of the town’s men hoped not to provoke the British. Parker kept his men on the green and away from the nearby road the British would follow to the next town of Concord. The captain of the Minutemen intended their presence to serve only a symbolic purpose, an expression of their displeasure at the redcoats’ intrusion. British major John Pitcairn nevertheless led his advance companies onto the green. As the British approached, Pitcairn ordered his men to hold their fire. He told the Minutemen to leave their arms and disperse. Seeing they had made their point, some of the Americans broke ranks and walked away, but a shot rang out, its origin unknown. The British immediately returned volleys of fire, beyond control of their officers. The Americans were quickly driven from the field, leaving eight dead and ten wounded. Lexington was hardly a battle, and yet a war had begun. The United States was born in an act of violence lasting but fifteen to twenty minutes.

British troops had returned to Boston following the Tea Party and the Coercive Acts. With them came a new governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, a longtime military commander in chief in North America. In retaliation, the Massachusetts Assembly, now calling itself the provincial congress and sitting as an extralegal body, took control of the militia, appointed general officers, and ordered the organizing of one-fourth of all the militia into Minute companies. Massachusetts’s firm resolution to fight if pressed was duplicated throughout New England, as well as in the Middle Colonies and in far-off Virginia, where on March 9, the Virginia convention sat transfixed by the eloquence of Patrick Henry: “The war is inevitable. … The war is actually begun. … Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand here idle?” The potentially explosive situation was heightened by the struggle over gunpowder in the colonies. In London, the ministry imposed an embargo on the shipment of munitions to America, except for quantities headed for Gage’s army. Armed clashes were narrowly averted in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Virginia, as patriots and British authorities sought to monopolize the critically short amounts of powder. The capture or destruction of the Massachusetts provincial congress’s military stores was the assignment of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith as he headed down the silent country road that ran through Lexington and on to Concord on the night of April 18, 1775.

Romantic depiction of Paul Revere’s ride through the streets of Boston on the eve of the Battle of Lexington, warning fellow patriots of the coming of the Redcoats. Revere’s ride was immortalized in a narrative poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863. (National Archives)

Long before reaching Lexington, Smith realized that his assignment was known to the patriots, whose church bells and signal guns were audible to the marchers. Consequently, Smith dispatched Major Pitcairn ahead with six companies to occupy the bridges over the Concord River, at the same time that he wisely sent a courier to ask General Gage for reinforcements. After routing the Lexington Minutemen, Pitcairn continued on the additional five miles to Concord, entering the village at eight o’clock in the morning. The patriots had managed to cart away part of their supplies. When the British had burned several gun carriages and destroyed flour, the patriots set out about noon on their return journey.

The sixteen miles back to Boston were a nightmare for Smith and Pitcairn. The scarlet column proved an inviting target for the swarms of militia and Minute companies that had converged on Concord and Lexington. From trees, rocks, and stone walls, they kept up a steady fire. Smith’s force may well have escaped annihilation only because at Lexington they received a reinforcement of nine hundred men under General Hugh, Earl Percy. Even so, the combined column might have been destroyed had the efforts of the various American detachments been coordinated. As it was, the wild, unorthodox battle continued until the British reached Charleston, across the harbor from Boston, where dusk and the protecting guns of the Royal Navy brought an end to the mauling.

The Battle of Lexington. From an eyewitness drawing by Amos Doolittle (1754–1832). (National Archives)

British retreat from Concord. (F. R. Niglutsch)

Results

British losses came to 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing, while American casualties in all categories totaled 93. The colonists remained to besiege the enemy in Boston. The Newport Mercury described the day’s events as the beginning of “the American Civil War, which will hereafter fill an important page in History.” At least some British papers also reflected the American viewpoint. For example, forty-one days after the fighting, the London Chronicle carried a detailed description of the events that had transpired at Lexington. The account included statements from witnesses who reported that the British had indeed fired first, clearly favoring the American version of events. This was followed some weeks later with General Gage’s account of the affair. Gage also alluded to the Americans having returned fire, the implication being that the British had fired the first shots.

The British had badly misjudged the extent of American resistance. While at no point in the war were the Americans united in their stand against England, events that transpired at Lexington and Concord had lit a fire in the “belly of the beast.” It would be a short time before the patriots would be unsatisfied with anything but independence.

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