- Historic Sites
Harold Murdock’s “The Nineteenth Of April 1775”
Forty years ago a Boston banker suggested that the Battle of Lexington had become a myth, and later evidence proves him right
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
It was an arduous task, involving a practically continuous march of thirty-five miles under service conditions. The Grenadiers and Light Infantry received the necessary orders; Smith, of the 10th Regiment, was assigned to command, and Bernard, of the 23rd, ordered to the Grenadiers. There were more than a score of lieutenant-colonels and majors of foot eligible for the Light Infantry; and when it was learned, on the morning of the 19th of April, that Pitcairn of the Marines had gone out as the General’s choice, I fancy there was approving comment in the Boston garrison. Why was Pitcairn thus honored? It is, of course, a mere matter of speculation; but, as the fateful hour approached, it is possible that the humane General became oppressed with a fear of possible bloodshed. The people were possessed with a dangerous fanatical enthusiasm, and he knew that even among his officers there was a sense of irritation, a keen desire to “have at the damned dogs.” So, while perhaps it was not customary for Light Infantry to look to the Marines for commanders in the field, Gage called for Pitcairn, an officer who was not only a rigid disciplinarian, with a long and honorable record of service, but also a man whose humanity and tact had won him the love of his command, and the respect of people of all shades of political opinion in the town.…
And now, as we shift the scene to Lexington, let me ask if it has ever occurred to you to question the wisdom of sixty or seventy men going out and forming on the level ground of the Common, in plain sight of an advancing force of seven hundred of their enemies? … Captain Parker stated, in his deposition in 1775, that he ordered the militia “to meet upon the Common to consult what to do, and concluded not to be discovered nor meddle or make with said regular troops unless they should insult or molest us.” How could he expect that sixty or seventy armed men, grouped between the meeting-house and the Buckman Tavern, should fail of discovery by troops passing along the road but a few steps away; and how could he imagine that these troops would ignore them, standing as they did with shotted arms and in a posture of war?
Captain Parker was a soldier of experience, and yet he chose a post for observation and consultation where his men would be almost brushed by the scarlet trappings of the passing enemy. Had the village been fired, had women and children stood in danger of outrage and death at the hands of a brutal soldiery, I imagine that every Lexington man would have died in defence of his home and fireside; but no outrage or insult had been reported as attending the British march; high land and thick woods, admirable spots for observation and consultation, were close at hand; and yet Parker and his men stood quietly by the wayside, inviting insult and molestation.
Has it ever occurred to you that Parker acted under orders; that the post he took was not of his choosing? Samuel Adams, the great agitator, had been a guest at Parson Clark’s for days, and he was the dynamo that kept the revolutionary machinery in motion. The blood shed by Preston’s men in [the Boston Massacre] had been ably used by Adams to solidify the popular cause; and now did he feel that the time had come to draw once more the British fire? It is perhaps a foolish query, but it is engendered by an historic doubt. I cannot satisfy my mind that Parker was the responsible agent in the affair. At all events, it was a group of brave men that gathered with the Lexington captain on the Green that morning, the first flush of dawn lighting their bronzed faces as they stood looking squarely into the face of death.
There was more to Mr. Murdock’s wild surmise, that the decision of some 40 minutemen to make a stand before some 700 British regulars was not a military one, than he supposed. Later study of the papers of the Reverend Jonas Clark, brilliant minister of the Lexington church, at those house Hancock and Samuel Adams had been studying for a month during the session of the Provicial Congress, reveals that Clark was the undisputed political leader of Lexington. Examination of the papers of General Thomas Gage, brought to the United States in 1930, gives further forceful circumstancial to support Mr. Murdock’s theory. In the Gage papers, now at the University of Michigan, are the traitorous letters of Dr. Benjamin Church, a member of the Provincial Congress, to General Gage, not only reporting details of the sessions but diagnosing with thoroughness and accuracy the moods of the members and the basic problems facing tJie patriots. The thrust of the Church documents is that the patriot cause wax slipping, that support for it was weak, and that Sam Adams needed a new crop of martyrs—an episode like the splendidly exploited Boston Massacre.
Now, add to this the further information that Captain Parker first put the problem to his minutemen at midnight and that they “concluded not to be discovered, nor meddle or make with said regular troops.” But the company did exactly the opposite three hours later—after Hancock, Adams, and probably Clark had consulted with Captain Parker. The reversal in Parker’s very sound military decision was obviously a political one. And the result was what the experienced strategist, Adams, would have anticipated: an immovable object, an irresistible force, somebody fired.
Since both parties stoutly maintained their innocence, it is a difficult matter to decide who fired the first shot on the 19th of April.…