Rebels And Redcoats

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The cold, wet, miserable march was not long under way when Colonel Smith, doubtless dissatisfied with his slow progress, dispatched Major Pitcairn ahead with six companies as an advance corps to secure the two bridges beyond Concord.

Pitcairn took every precaution to prevent any warning of his approach from reaching Lexington. By marching a small advance guard as flankers, he swallowed up all but one of Captain John Parker’s Lexington scouts. Finally, he was met by the patrol that had taken Revere, and was told that at least 500 men stood ready at Lexington to oppose his advance. The Major slowed his march to allow Colonel Smith to draw closer. Revere’s ruse had succeeded.

Colonel Smith, meanwhile, already had sent back to Boston for reinforcements. Major Pitcairn had scarcely left him when he had become aware, by the sound of an occasional, distant musket shot and the faraway ring of bells, that the countryside was astir.

The Colonel had cause for concern. Few men slept that night in the towns and on the farms along the British route. Among those aroused by the excitement was 23-year-old Sylvanus Wood of Woburn, three miles from Lexington. The sharp, shrill tolling of the Lexington bell had suggested to the sleepy youth that “there was difficulty” there.

I immediately arose, took my gun, and with Robert Douglass went in haste to Lexington. … When I arrived there, I inquired of Captain Parker … the news. Parker told me he did not know what to believe, for a man had come up about half an hour before and informed him that the British troops were not on the road. But while we were talking, a messenger came up and told the captain that the British troops were within half a mile.

Parker immediately turned to his drummer … and ordered him to beat to arms ….

Captain Parker asked Sylvanus Wood and his companion if they would parade with his company. As the men gathered, Parker called out, according to Wood’s account: “Every man of you who is equipped, follow me. And those of you who are not equipped, go into the meetinghouse and furnish yourselves from the magazine and immediately join the company.” Parker led those of us who were equipped to the north end of Lexington Common, near the Bedford Road, and formed us in single file. I was stationed about in the center of the company.

While we were standing, I left my place and went from one end of the company to the other and counted every man who was paraded, and the whole number was thirty-eight and no more. Just as I had finished and got back to my place, I perceived the British troops had arrived on the spot between the meetinghouse and Buckman’s, near where Captain Parker stood when he first led off his men.

Captain Parker did not intend to meet the British regulars with force. He planned only to stand and resist any overt act. But he chose to stand in a position and at a place that dared the redcoats to pursue the road they had determined to take.

On the far side of the common at this instant, Thomas Willard watched from a window in Daniel Harrington’s house as Major Pitcairn took the rebel dare. Willard testified later:

I … saw … about four hundred of Regulars in one body coming up the road and marched toward the north part of the Common back of the meetinghouse. … As soon as said Regulars were against the east end of the meetinghouse, the commanding officers said something, what I know not. But upon that, the Regulars ran till they came within about eight or nine rods of about a hundred of the militia … at which time the militia of Lexington dispersed. Then the officers made a huzza, and the private soldiers succeeded them. Directly after this, an officer rode before the Regulars to the other side of the body and hallooed after the militia … and said, “Lay down your arms, damn youl Why don’t you lay down your arms?”

These were practically the same words that rang in the ears of Sylvanus Wood, just as the little five-footer regained his place in the minuteman line:

The officer … swung his sword and said, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, or you will all be dead men! Firel”

Some guns were fired by the British at us from the first platoon, but no person was killed or hurt, [the guns] being probably charged only with powder. Just at this time, Captain Parker ordered every man to take care of himself. The company immediately dispersed, and while the company was dispersing and leaping over the wall, the second platoon of the British fired and killed some of our men. There was not a gun fired by any of Captain Parker’s company within my knowledge. I was so situated that I must have known it, had anything of the kind taken place before a total dispersion of our company. When the strong east wind swept away the cloud of acrid gunsmoke that for moments shrouded Lexington Common, it revealed mad disorder. In every direction minutemen dashed for the protection of trees and walls. The redcoats, contrary to Pitcairn’s orders, pursued them viciously with ball and bayonet.