Harold Murdock’s “The Nineteenth Of April 1775”

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This, in effect, is the Lexington case so far as the evidence of participants and eye-witnesses is concerned. Upon it was based the report of the Provincial Congress.…

The evidence for the soldiers is of a different character, and far less voluminous than that offered for the Province. None of it is given under oath, but it all tends to contradict the provincial charge that the troops were the aggressors at Lexington, averring that the British fire was given in return for shots that inflicted wounds upon British soldiers.… The most important witness in this group is Major Pitcairn. Now, what did Pitcairn say? We are fortunate in having his statement through President Stiles of Yale, as stanch a patriot as one could wish, with no disposition to whitewash the British case. “Major Pitcairn,” says Stiles, “who was a good Man in a bad Cause, insisted upon it to the day of his Death, that the Colonists fired first: and that he commanded not to fire and endeavored to stay and stop the firing after it began: But then he told this with such Circumstances as convince me that he was deceived tho’ on the spot. He does not say that he saw the Colonists fire first . Had he said it, I would have believed him, being a man of Integrity and Honor. He expressly says he did not see who fired first; and yet believed the Peasants began. His account is this—that riding up to them he ordered them to disperse; which they not doing instantly, he turned about to order his Troops so to draw out as to surround and disarm them. As he turned he saw a Gun in a Peasant’s hand from behind a Wall, flash in the pan without going off: and instantly or very soon 2 or 3 Guns went off by which he found his Horse wounded and also a man near him wounded. These Guns he did not see, but believing they could not come from his own people, doubted not and so asserted that they came from our people; and that thus they began the Attack. The Impetuosity of the King’s Troops were such that a promiscuous, uncommanded, but general Fire took place, which Pitcairn could not prevent; tho’ he struck his staff or Sword downwards with all Earnestness as a signal to forbear or cease firing.”

Now this testimony of Pitcairn’s troubled Stiles, who declared that it was a very great justification of Gage’s claims; but I agree with him that it has an honest ring and meets the probabilities of the case. What would any conscientious officer have done on finding the Lexington company drawn up under arms by the roadside, at an hour when most good subjects of the King were supposed to be in bed? In the first place he might have ripped out an oath, and we have evidence to the effect that this was what Pitcairn did. Here was a pretty kettle of fish for an officer bound upon a secret mission, and who was due in Concord within the next two hours. That group of armed men created a situation that called for treatment. Bloodshed was not to be thought of, prisoners could not be handled on a rapid march, and I imagine that the Major was not long in deciding that these foolhardy fellows must be surrounded, disarmed, and then sent about their proper business. They had been ordered to disperse, with appropriate epithets; and, according to Captain Parker, they were dispersing when the command was given. You remember that Willard testified that “the commanding officer said something, what I know not, but upon that the regulars ran till they came within 8 or 9 rods of the militia.” I fancy that the “something” which Willard did not hear was Pitcairn’s order to surround and disarm the company. Then followed a second order, but from another officer as Willard heard it— “Lay down your arms, damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms.” That was the crux of the whole situation. Sixty desperate men were getting away with their arms, and the regulars were behind in the race. This may have been when Sanderson heard an officer say “Damn them we will have them,” referring, of course, to the arms.

The situation here becomes hopelessly involved in the confusion of pistol-shots and huzzas. Three Lexington men testify that they heard the command to fire.… The Provincial, with his hatred of the powers that would enslave him, and the soldier burning with long-suppressed resentment, were in close contact, and firing soon began. Perhaps a firelock in the hands of some stern fanatic first flashed in the pan; perhaps some hot-headed subaltern in scarlet did hiss out the words, “Fire, by God, fire.” At all events, the volleys were British volleys, and Pitcairn came riding in, striking right and left among the levelled muskets and cursing the day that had brought the Light Infantry within the scope of his activities.…

Had Pitcairn known that generations of unborn Americans were to condemn him as a bloody butcher, I do not think he could have been any more chagrined or miserable than he was that day. The disgrace of it all, his men out of hand and raging like a mob, the success of the march imperilled, perhaps war begun— this was a pretty situation for an honest Major of Marines.…