Harold Murdock’s “The Nineteenth Of April 1775”

Few episodes in American history lend themselves more easily to romanticizing than the stand of the embattled patriots on Lexington Common. It has all the necessary ingredients: good American farmers shot down, virtually on their doorsteps, by bloodthirsty British troops outnumbering them fourteen to one; farrnhouses burned; a civilian population involved. For six generations our desire to think well of ourselves worked on the episode, softening the hard outlines of fact with the haze of romance.

But forty years ago a voice was raised against the chorus of national self-exaltation. It belonged to a Boston banker named Harold Murdoch, a descendant of the original settlers, a man of wit, of insight, of scholarly persistence in tracking down details, and of a judicious temperament. Not an academic historian, Murdoch had collected his own library of books and original manuscripts, which over the years had become particularly rich in early American history and eighteenth-century English history and Johnsoniana. In 1910, then vice-president of the National Shawmut Bank, he was elected to resident membership in the Massachusetts Historical Society—an honor that is conferred upon only 100 living people. Six years later he read his first paper, called “Historic Doubts on Lexington,” before the society. Later it was published as the first essay in his book. The Nineteenth of April 1775.

Murdock was the first fully to explore and then explode the traditional version of what had happened on that memorable day, but in the three decades since he wrote, new evidence has come to light which reinforces his skeptical, though tentative, conclusions. The significance of Murdoch’s achievement as a triumph of American historiography has been confirmed. “Historic Doubts.” somewhat shortened but with all its major assertions intact, is here reprinted for the first time since 1025. The, text is interrupted from time to time lor editorial comment. —A. B. T.

On the 2nd of September, 1824, Lafayette was a visitor in Concord, and the Honorable Samuel Hoar took occasion to remind him, in a public address, that he stood upon the spot where “the first forcible resistance” was made to the British arms. This simple assertion proved in a measure epoch-making. A half-century had passed since the great events to which Mr. Hoar referred, but his claim for Concord roused a storm of protest in Lexington. A bitter controversy ensued, and local pride and local historians were stirred to an extent that imperilled historic truth. The Town of Lexington took official cognizance of the Concord claim, and Elias Phinney, Esq., was charged with the task of demonstrating to all impartial minds that it was at Lexington, and not at Concord, that the embattled farmer fired that far-echoing shot that heralded American independence.

To assist Phinney in his work, depositions were extracted from ten aged citizens of Lexington, some of whom, fifty years before, had attended that early morning roll-call on the Common. Those venerable men, whose comrades in 1775 had been anxious to prove the peaceful intent and behavior of the minutemen, were now summoned to lend color to quite a contradictory theory.... Phinney’s pamphlet on the battle appeared in 1825. Concord had old men of her own, and they were summoned into the lists to support contentions put forth by the Reverend Ezra Ripley, who published his anti-Lexington tract in 1827....

Two results of this controversy are worth noting: the first, a development of local interest and enthusiasm in the subject, which remains unimpaired as bitterness has waned; the second, the accumulation of a mass of questionable evidence, which in exaggerated forms has gradually become accepted as history.... “Tradition, legend, tune, and song” all played their part in the reconstruction of the Lexington story, until the schoolboy of my generation, however dull in history, knew for facts that Revere rode into Concord before dawn with news that the regulars were out, and that Major Pitcairn stirred his whiskey in the Concord Tavern, with blood-curdling threats that would have done credit to a pirate king.…

By way of clarifying what I have said concerning the evolution of the Lexington story, let us refer to the accompanying illustrations, four reproduced from old prints, and one from Sandham’s painting, which belongs to the Lexington Historical Society and hangs in the Town Hall. The earliest print to be examined is that of Doolittle, engraved in the fall of 1775; and it is to be noted that Pendleton, Billings, and Sandham all portray the scene from the same spot, giving the same landscape that Doolittle depicted.…

If you will examine our faithful reproduction of the Doolittle print, you will notice that the British are firing by platoons and that the Lexington company is dispersing in all directions. Even the magnifying glass fails to reveal any member of that company in an attitude of resistance; no suggestion of a return fire, or even of loading. One wonders why the title was not engraved, the “massacre,” instead of the “battle, of Lexington.” Evidently our Connecticut soldiers felt that the facts of the case, or political expediency, justified such a treatment of the subject. Then we should glance at the reduced replica of this print, which Doolittle executed in 1832 for Barber’s History of New Haven. There could have been no political considerations to influence him at that time. Lexington was then stoutly asserting the belligerency of her minute-men; and yet, as you will see, Doolittle varied in no detail from his conception of nearly sixty years before. It is still a massacre, perpetrated upon armed but unresisting men.

The next picture to be noted, in chronological order, is Pendleton’s lithograph, executed about 1830. Pendleton had evidently given heed to the current controversy and to the Lexington depositions of 1824. The British are firing, the minute-men are dispersing, as Doolittle portrayed them, but eight devoted souls are still facing their enemies, six of whom are returning the British fire while two are loading.…

When we come to the Billings sketch, executed a quarter of a century later, and which was used to adorn the first edition of Hudson’s Lexington in 1868, we find the dispersing confined to the extreme left of the line, while the firing has been extended to a round do/en or more. The Sandham painting of 1886 throws off all restraint and departs definitely from the Doolittle idea. Here at last is a battle, indeed. Where in Sandham’s spirited work is there any sign of wavering, any suggestion of dispersing? The line holds firm from end to end, while, unterrified by the running blaze of British musketry and the sight of stricken comrades, the minute-men stand grimly to their work, emptying their firelocks at close range into the broad and glittering target offered by the Light Infantry. Is this a true picture of what occurred on Lexington Common, or does it violate the truth beyond the limits of poetical license? I shall have occasion to refer to this picture-again, but for the moment I leave this query with you, as suggesting the basis for an historic doubt.…

The rivalry between Concord and Lexington for the glory of shedding the first British blood was carried to even greater extremes tlian Mr. Murdoch alleged. As the intertown feud went on, the heroics ascribed to the minutemen became so preposterous that if their bravery should not be questioned, their sanity could be doubted. The towns refused to celebrate the centennial jointly in 1875, and President Grant, the (Governor of Massachusetts, and other dignitaries were whisked back and forth between Concord and Lexington throughout the day like shuttlecocks. The result of all this was such a mishmash of fact and fancy that Mr. Murdoch needed no new sources to create a radically revisionist account of what really had happened on April 19, 1775. He needed only to take a calm, cold look at the existing material.

Let me say at the outset that I am in possession of no evidence regarding my subject that has not been accessible to historians for years. It is not my purpose to laud villains or to depreciate heroes; but as all the actors who played their part at Lexington were Englishmen, and professed loyalty to the British King, I shall discuss the episode as belonging as much to English as to American history. The Tory and the Redcoat will be given a fair hearing on the stand.…

Earl Percy, whose principles were all of the Whig persuasion, had come over well affected toward the Province; but, before he had been in Boston two months, he was writing home: “The people here are a set of sly, artful, hypocritical rascalls, cruel and cowards. I must own I cannot but despise them compleately.” Captain Evelyn, a less conspicuous officer, writing to his reverend father, in 1774, declares: “You who have seen mobs, generous ones compared to these, may have some idea of the wretched situation of those who were known or suspected to be friends to the King or government of Great Britain. Our arrival has in a great degree restored that liberty they have been so long deprived of, even liberty of speech and security to their persons and property, which has for years past been at the mercy of a most villainous mob.” So you will see how natural it was that the army came into sufficient agreement with Mr. Samuel Adams to declare that dangers did threaten the Goddess of Liberty in the Province of Massachusetts Bay.…

Under the stress of local circumstances, reenforced perhaps by instructions from London, [General] Gage felt himself obliged to take some steps to assert the outraged dignity of King and Parliament. So the expedition to Concord was decided upon, and every precaution taken to ensure secrecy.

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.…

Let us recall the witnesses for a hasty examination. Nearly fifty men of Parker’s company subscribed to two blanket depositions. They declared, in effect, that the company which was gathering dispersed on the approach of the troops. “Whilst our backs were turned on the troops, we were fired on by them … not a gun was fired by any person in our company on the regulars to our knowledge, before they fired on us.” This final clause, intimating that at some stage of the affair Lexington men did fire, should be especially noted, as the same hint is contained in nearly all the depositions. Captain Parker testified that, upon the sudden approach of the troops, he ordered his men “to disperse and not to fire. Immediately said troops made their appearance, and rushing furiously, fired upon and killed eight of our party without receiving any provocation therefor from us.” Smith , a spectator, “saw the regular troops fire on the Lexington company,” which was “then dispersing.” There is no hint from the foregoing group of witnesses of any verbal preliminaries to the firing of the troops, or any suggestion as to whether this firing was spontaneous or the result of orders. Tidd and Abbott were spectators. They saw the body of troops “marching up to the Lexington company which was then dispersing; soon after, the regulars fired, first a few guns, which we took to be pistols from some of the regulars who were mounted on horses; and then the said regulars fired a volley or two.” Mead and Harrington also state that pistol-shots from the officers prefaced the British volleys. Robbins says nothing of pistol-shots, but has a good ear for speech. They came “on a quick pace towards us with three officers in their front on horseback, and on full gallop towards us, the foremost of which cried, ‘Throw down your arms , ye villains, ye rebels,’ upon which said company dispersing, the foremost of the three officers ordered their men saying, ‘Fire, by God, fire,’ at which moment we received a very heavy and close fire from them.” Winship, … a prisoner in the midst of the troops, observed an officer at the head of the troops, “flourishing his sword and with a loud voice giving the word Fire!” He says nothing of the command to disperse. William Draper avers that Captain Parker’s company were turned from the troops, “making their escape by dispersing,” when the regular troops made an huzza and rushed on. “After the huzza was made the commanding officer of said troops … gave the command to the troops, ‘Fire, fire, damn you, fire.’ ” Fessenden testified that, being in a pasture near by, he viewed the whole proceeding from a distance of eighteen or twenty rods. He saw the three officers on horseback, and heard one of them cry out, “Disperse, you rebels, immediately,” at the same time brandishing his sword three times over his head. The company immediately dispersed, while a second officer more to the rear fired a pistol. The regulars kept huzzaing till the leading officer finished brandishing his sword. He then pointed his sword toward the the militia and immediately the troops fired. Elijah Sanderson heard an officer say, ” ‘Damn them, we will have them’ and immediately the regulars shouted aloud, ran and fired upon the Lexington company.” Finally, I quote Willard, who viewed the event from a window in the Harrington house, and who in some respects is the most satisfactory witness of the day: “The commanding officer said something, what I know not, but upon that the regulars ran till they came within about eight or nine rods of about an hundred of the militia of Lexington, … at which time the militia dispersed; then the officers made an huzza, and the private soldiers succeeded them; directly after this, an officer rode before the regulars to the other side of the body, and hollowed after the Militia, … and said, ‘Lay down your arms, damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms,’ and that there was not a gun fired till the militia of Lexington were dispersed.”

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.…

After the publication of Mr. Murdoch’s then very bold essay, some historians—including David S. Muzzey (who was born in Lexington) in the American Historical Association’s journal—accused him of erring on the side of too much sympathy for the position of the British. But later documentary evidences showed Mr. Murdoch to be right. The complete war diary of Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who was easily the most responsible of the junior officers of the day, came to light in the late 1920’s. An extremely valuable letter from Lieutenant Colonel Smith to Major R. Donkin was found in the Gage Papers. Another letter from Lieutenant Sutherland, this one to Gage’s secretary, was discovered by Allen French to have significant supplementary information. Most importantly, Major Pitcairn’s field report to Gage was found and established Mr. Murdoch to have been astonishingly accurate in his analysis of the character, the role, and the feelings of Major Pitcairn—except that Pitcairn was specific in reporting that the firing started when a minuteman’s musket flashed in the pan, and shots followed from other minutemen not on the Common. Another British account of the episode, also discovered after Mr. Murdoch’s essay, was that of Ensign Jeremy Lister of the Tenth Regiment. He agrees with Pitcairn that the Americans fired first. Who fired first still remains a mystery, but the view of the affair held by the British military men as reconstructed by Mr. Murdoch has been solidly confirmed by these later evidences.

That the Lexington company, as a company, did not fire upon the Light Infantry on the Common is, I believe, as clearly proved as any historical fact need be; that certain individuals belonging to the company, or numbered among the spectators, did, before or after the British attack, discharge their pieces, is also clear. The British were subject to the political temptation of magnifying their losses at this point, but all they claim is that a private soldier was wounded, and that Major Pitcairn’s horse was struck in two places. Now it is clear that this wounded soldier tramped on with his company to Concord, while Pitcairn’s horse not only carried him through the morning, but, somewhere about one o’clock, he was still so antic that he unseated his portly rider and ran snorting into the enemy’s lines, with that brace of pistols which are now among the most cherished possessions of the Lexington Historical Society. From these facts, I conclude that the injuries sustained by the British on the Common were of the order known as flesh wounds—either glancing scratches, or contusions inflicted by spent balls fired from distances almost out of range. No Lexington historian has ever contended that Parker’s men were deficient in the knowledge and handling of firearms, or that they were bad shots. Had they disobeyed the order to disperse, and conducted themselves as they are represented in Sandham’s painting, it is certain that Pitcairn’s advance companies would have been torn to shreds, and the hands that signed the depositions of 1775 would all have been clenched in death.

The present version of the Lexington story has been hallowed by long usage, and so it is a matter for some regret that Phinney in 1825 should have been induced to strive against such odds, to prove that this man or that let fly “the guts of his gun,” and that British blood shed by Parker’s marksmen did in the early April dawn anoint the sacred soil of Lexington. It is the more regrettable because unnecessary, the glory and fair fame of Lexington resting securely upon a sound and impressive basis of achievement.…

It is a singular fact that the imagination of no great artist has been stirred to portray the glory of Lexington’s great day in any fashion that does not involve those few moments of tragic confusion on the Common.… Why could not Sandham, in choosing his subject, have turned the hands of the clock back one short half-hour? I can see a picture in the gray of the early morning, the first tinge of dawn flushing the cloudless east, the flicker of guttering tapers, or the dull glow of the taproom fire shining dimly through windows in the Buckman Tavern. The thin line is forming, and dusky groups are moving across the Green, to take their accustomed places. All is silence. The rolling drum has ceased its warning, the last echo of the belfry’s brazen voice has died away; and then through the stillness we seem to hear the rhythmic footfall of marching feet. The King’s troops are at hand; and as we look into the depths of the gray picture, and mark that devoted band standing steadfast by the church, we feel that here is a faithful portrayal of a strangely impressive historic fact.…

“Historic Doubts on Lexington” marked the end of the romantic, insipid view of the origin of hostilities in the war of the American Revolution. To most historians and to other commentators, it was a welcome relief, coming as it did during the almost irresponsible nationalism of the 1920’s. In The Saturday Review of Literature, the Murdoch essay was “prayerfully recommended to over-zealous patriotic societies and the begetters of ‘pure history’ laws.” Charles A. Beard, then at the height of his own powers as a revisionist historian, writing in The New Republic, proclaimed that the essay marked, after a century and a half, the end of Anglo-American hostilities .

Harold Murdoch became the leading American authority on Hugh, Earl Percy, who commanded the brigade that Gage sent out to rescue the British companies resisted by the minutemen. He wrote two delightful antiquarian reconstructions of Lord Percy as a man. Continuing his searching probes into the local military origins of the Revolution in Massachusetts, he published, in 1927, some invaluable notes and queries on the Battle of Bunker Hill. In 1934, this banker son of a Boston clergyman died at the age of 73, having written probably the most forceful single revision of a major episode in American history.