Rebels And Redcoats

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While the citizens of Charlestown puzzled where to seek refuge, and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety entreated the Massachusetts towns to enlist and send forward men to form an army at Cambridge and asked Connecticut and New Hampshire to come to their aid, the story of Lexington and Concord swept like a timber blaze through all New England and down the coast. Only a few hours after the firing between the British and the minutemen at Lexington, Israel Bissel, one of the regular post riders from Boston to New York, was thundering down the coast carrying an official report to each of the committees of safety of the other colonies. Bissel made it all the way to Philadelphia in only five days and a few hours, beating the stagecoach time some three days, a remarkable feat of endurance for a single rider. From Philadelphia the news flew southward; other riders were urged to stay in the saddle night and day until the news spread to Georgia and westward across the mountains. Everywhere the “momentous intelligence” went, a spirit of resistance sprang up: meetings were held, arms and powder were seized, and men prepared to fight.

While the American council was sitting, the British troops on Bunker Hill were withdrawn to Boston. Like General Gage himself, few British officers serving in the colonies had believed that Americans ever would resist royal armed force, but the one day of the nineteenth changed many minds. Lord Percy was first to express his revised opinion in a letter to Adjutant General Edward Harvey, in England, the morning after he returned from Charlestown to Boston:

Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them those who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers against the Indians and Canadians, and this country being much covered with wood and hilly is very advantageous for their method of fighting.

Nor are several of their men void of a spirit of enthusiasm, as we experienced yesterday, for many of them concealed themselves in houses and advanced within ten yards to fire at me and other officers, though they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant.

You may depend upon it, that as the rebels have now had time to prepare, they are determined to go through with it, nor will the insurrection here turn out so despicable as it is perhaps imagined at home. For my part, I never believed, I confess that they would have attacked the King’s troops or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday.

These rebels moved swiftly to gain the advantage in propaganda. The Second Continental Congress would not convene until May 10; the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, convening on April 22, decided that news of the hostilities of the nineteenth should be given to the English people as quickly as possible and from the viewpoint of the colonists. Without waiting to consult the general Congress, the Massachusetts body within three days took depositions from scores of participants who avowed that the British troops fired first. These depositions, accompanied by a letter addressed “To the Inhabitants of Great Britain,” were sent across the Atlantic by a fast Salem schooner, and on the twenty-ninth of May the news was all over London.

The king was not disturbed. From the day he had come to the throne at the age of 21, full of piety, a personal purity new to his Hanoverian line, and a consuming ambition, he had determinedly maintained a Tory government that supported his absolute personal rule. That the American colonists had found friends among the men who opposed him did not faze the strong-willed king. Long months since, his mind had been made up. He would employ “every means of distressing America” until his deluded subjects “felt the necessity of returning to their duty.”

The Whig press in London accepted the news from New England largely as it came, making reasonable allowances for hysteria and exaggeration. An American sympathizer reported:

Administration were alarmed at the unexpected success of the Provincials and were at a loss what lies to fabricate which would destroy the force of the qualifications which accompanied the intelligence. Runners were sent to every part of the city, who were authorized to deny the authenticity of the facts, and so distressed was Government that they officially requested a suspension of belief until dispatches were received from General Gage.

When General Gage’s official account reached London on June 10 and was published in a rewritten version, which evoked contempt from the Whigs, it stirred England profoundly. The King now reluctantly admitted that a state of rebellion did exist and that a vast army would be required for America. Conscious that Great Britain was not likely to provide sufficient manpower, he considered a scheme for hiring 20,000 Russian mercenaries, but Catherine of Russia refused to make a deal. The government began to strip “desks, counting-houses and public offices” of their “peaceful occupiers to supply a new race of commanders and generals” and soldiers for the field.

From England the news sped across the Channel and electrified the Continent. John Singleton Copley, Boston painter whose subjects included Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, was traveling in Italy when the news reached him. Writing home to his Tory half brother to persuade him to leave the country and the war to others, he made a prediction: