- Historic Sites
Voices Of Lexington And Concord
What was it like to actually be there in April, 1775? This is how the participants, American and British, remembered it
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
“When the regulars had arrived within eighty or one hundred rods, they, hearing our drum beat, halted, charged their guns, and doubled their ranks, and marched up at quick step.”
Eyewitness accounts are the raw material of recorded history. Although frequently inexact, since they depend on the subjective impressions of biased observers, they are nevertheless indispensable. When important events have been recalled in words by a number of witnesses or participants, something like the true shape of the past emerges from the obscurity of time, lighted in many dimensions, with one partial light kept m proper balance by another. We begin to see what it must have been like to be there when these things happened.
The following account of the opening battle of the American Revolution was compiled by Richard Wheeler, who is at work on a book that will report the entire war m just this fashion. Entitled Voices of 1776, it will be published in 1972 by Thomas Y. Crowell Company. Throughout, it has been Mr. Wheeler’s effort to choose his quotations first for fidelity to the larger picture, and only second for interest and color, so that the resulting account is as authentic as possible. —The Editors
Spring’s arrival brought little of its usual inspiration to the province of Massachusetts in the year 1775. America’s long-standing quarrel with England had reached a point where an explosion seemed imminent, and Massachusetts was the powder keg.
The crisis had been coming on for several years with continuous acceleration. Repeated British efforts to force taxation on the American colonies had evoked violent reactions in incidents now famous—the Boston Massacre (1770), the burning of the customs schooner Gaspee (1772), the Boston Tea Party (1773). The First Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia late in 1774, consolidated American opinion against Britain’s coercive measures. Tough economic reprisals against the mother country were agreed to, as well as preparations for armed resistance should all else fail. So it was that the spring of 1775 resounded to drum and fife, especially in Massachusetts, as men of all ages, wearing homespun breeches and gripping worn muskets, trained under graying veterans of the French and Indian War.
General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, was under heavy pressure to put the upstart colonials in their place. In mid-April he decided to send a force of about 750 men to seize and destroy large quantitles of military supplies that his spies reported at Concord, about twenty miles from Boston. Along the route an advance patrol was to try to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams, two of the most prominent Patriot leaders, who were lodged in nearby Lexington.
But the Patriots of Boston had a spy system that was just as good as Gage’s.
Paul Revere relates:
In the fall of 1774 and winter of 1775, I was one of upwards of thirty … who formed ourselves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers, and gaining every intelligence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green Dragon Tavern [in Boston]. We were so careful that our meetings should be kept secret that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible that they would not discover any of our transactions but to Messrs. Hancock, Adams, Doctors Joseph] Warren, [Benjamin] Church and one or two more. … In the winter, towards the spring, we frequently took turns, two and two, to watch the soldiers by patrolling the streets all night.
The Saturday night preceding the 16th of April, about twelve o’clock at night, the boats belonging to the transports were all launched [from shore] and carried under the sterns of the men-of-war. (They had been previously hauled up and repaired.) We likewise found that the grenadiers and light infantry were all taken off duty. From these movements we expected something serious was to be transacted. On Tuesday evening, the 18th, it was observed that a number of soldiers were marching towards the bottom of the Common. About ten o’clock, Dr. Warren sent in great haste for me and begged that I would immediately set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the movement, and that it was thought they were the objects. When I got to Dr. Warren’s house, I found he had sent an express by land to Lexington—a Mr. William Dawes.
The Sunday before, by desire of Dr. Warren, I had been to Lexington, to Messrs. Hancock and Adams, who were at the Rev. Mr. Clark’s. I returned at night through Charlestown; there I agreed with a Colonel Conant and some other gentlemen that if the British went out by water, we [in Boston] would show two lanthorns in the North Church steeple; and if by land, one as a signal; for we were apprehensive it would be difficult [for a messenger] to cross the Charles River or get over Boston Neck.