Rebels And Redcoats

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Thus ended an unbelievable April day. About 1,800 British regulars had marched to destroy some secreted rebel stores; 73 of them had been killed, 200 were wounded or missing. Probably an equal number of Americans had been engaged during the day, but no one could count accurately the men who came, shot at the red column, and then either came to Cambridge or hiked home. Forty-nine Americans had died and 46 were wounded or missing.

A man named John Jones arrived at Concord too late for the fighting, but soon his company was in Cambridge, billeted in Harvard College, and he was writing his “Loving Wife” the only universal truth of the day: ” ‘Tis uncertain when we shall return…. Let us be patient & remember that it is ye hand of God.”

“When the Sword
Rebellion Is Drawn”
Cambridge Camp and Ticonderoga,
April-May 1775

The night of the nineteenth was long and agonizing for the bone-tired redcoats. In Boston, General Gage had waited tensely all day for the return of his expedition, and as it entered Charlestown in flight, he had sent relief troops across the Charles to throw up and hold a “sort of Redoubt” on Bunker Hill. “My Lord,” he had sent word to Percy, “Gen. Pigot will pass over with a Reinforcement and fresh ammunition. The Boats which carry him may return with the Grenadiers and Light Infantry who must be most fatigued and the wounded….”

For the rebels the night did not end. Their campfires shone all night in a great circle from the Mystic to Cambridge until they paled at last against the thinning dawn. When light came, the redcoats discovered that yesterday’s nightmare had not been just a bad dream. The incredible Yankees had not vanished in the night. There they crouched around their breakfast fires, muttering about yesterday’s bloody work, remembering what their women had said when they left home, remarking how it looked like it was going to be a dry spring, and shaking their heads over what they reckoned would happen next. They were not going home. They did not intend to go home until something was decided. It was as preposterous as General Gage must have thought it was, but these men seemed to understand that they had started a war, and they intended to sit right where they were until their adversary made terms.

General Heath accepted the fact that a state of war already existed and realistically went about putting first things first. “How to feed the assembled and assembling militia was now the great object,” he thought. Even those men who had been foresighted enough to snatch a slab of bread or some cured meat when they dashed from their homes the day before were long out of food. Heath’s sergeants collected all the edibles around Cambridge, including the carcasses of beef and pork prepared for the Boston market and some ship bread at Roxbury belonging to the Royal Navy. The kitchen of Harvard College provided pots, kettles, and utensils, and soon the informal “army” was fed.

In the afternoon, General Artemas Ward, Massachusetts militia commander in chief, arrived. A bluff, fat, “middle-aged man afflicted with bladder-stone,” he had been lying ill in bed when an express rider had galloped through his town of Shrewsbury with the news of the fighting at Lexington; at daybreak on the twentieth, he had pulled himself into the saddle and ridden to Cambridge.

Ward was a slow, deliberate man with little or no imagination, but he was dependable and well liked and acted now with decision. He promptly called a council of war to fix upon guard posts, distribution of troops, fortifications, recruiting, and other matters.

He sent out parties to bury yesterday’s dead and ordered earthworks thrown up to bar the roads from Boston and to protect the central rebel position at Cambridge. He discussed extending his lines to Chelsea on the north, and ordered General Heath to march reinforcements to General John Thomas’ position on the right at Roxbury.

A number of families who had fled from Charlestown early on the nineteenth returned to their houses, but others like Hannah Winthrop and her ailing husband recognized that the peninsula, now lying between two armed forces, was a dangerous place. Mrs. Winthrop wrote her friend Mercy Warren, political satirist and wife of Plymouth merchant James Warren, that she and her husband and some eighty fellow refugees spent an uncomfortable night, the nineteenth, at a house a mile from town, “some nodding in their chairs, others resting their weary limbs on the floor.”

To stay in this place [on the twentieth] was impracticable…. Thus with precipitancy were we driven to the town of Andover, following some of our acquaintance, five of us to be conveyed with one poor tired horse and chaise. Thus we began our pilgrimage, alternately walking and riding, the roads filled with frightened women and children, some in carts with their tattered furniture, others on foot fleeing into the woods. But what added greatly to the horror … was our passing through the bloody field at Menotomy, which was strewed with the mangled bodies. We met one affectionate father with a cart looking for his murdered son and picking up his neighbors who had fallen in battle in order for their burial.