- 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.
”… the British were then at the bridge. … Captain Davis returned to his company and drew his sword, and said to the company, ‘I haven’t a man that is afraid to go,’ and gave t he word ‘March!’”
I left Dr. Warren, called upon a friend and desired him to make the signals. I then went home, took my boots and surtout, went to the north part of the town, where I kept a boat; two friends rowed me across Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset man of war lay. It was then young flood, the ship was winding, and the moon was rising. They landed me on the Charlestown side. When I got into town, I met Colonel Conant and several others; they said they had seen our signals. I told them what was acting. …
I set off upon a very good horse; it was then about eleven o’clock and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck … I saw two men on horseback under a tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officers. One tried to get ahead of me, and the other to take me. I turned my horse very quick and galloped toward Charlestown Neck, and then pushed for the Medford road. The one who chased me, endeavoring to cut me off, got into a clay pond. … I got clear of him, and went through Medford, over the bridge, and up to Menotomy [now Arlington]. In Medford, I awakened the captain of the minute men; and after that I alarmed almost every house, till I got to Lexington.
The people of Lexington already suspected that something momentous was stirring. Among the first to take the alarm had been Orderly Sergeant William Munroe, of the militia company commanded by Captain John Parker:
… Early in the evening of the 18th of … April, I was informed by Solomon Brown, who had just returned from Boston, that he had seen nine British officers on the road, travelling leisurely, sometimes before and sometimes behind him; that he had discovered, by the occasional blowing aside of their topcoats, that they were armed. On learning this, I supposed they had some design upon Hancock and Adams, who were then at the house of the Rev. Mr. Clarke, and immediately assembled a guard of eight men, with their arms, to guard the house.
About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house.
“Noise!” said he. “You’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.”
We then permitted him to pass. Soon after, [another messenger] came. These gentlemen came different routes … and both brought letters from Dr. Warren in Boston to Hancock and Adams, stating that a large body of British troops had left Boston, and were on their march to Lexington.
According to Lieutenant John Barker, of the King’s Own, the British expedition had trouble getting started:
… Between 10 and 11 o’clock all the Grenadiers and Light Infantry of the army … (under the command of Lt. Col. Smith of the ioth and Major Pitcairn of the Marines), embarked and were landed upon the opposite shore on Cambridge Marsh. Few but the commanding officers knew what expedition we were going upon. After getting over the marsh, where we were wet up to the knees, we were halted in a dirty road and stood there [for a long time] waiting for provisions to be brought from the boats and to be divided, and which most of the men threw away, having carried some with ’em.
Ensign Jeremy Lister, of the 10th Regiment of Foot, adds:
We … was on our march by one, which was at first through some swamps and slips of the sea till we got into the road leading to Lexington, soon after which the country people begun to fire their alarm guns [and] light their beacons, to raise the country. …
Soon after midnight, Paul Revere and William Dawes had ridden from Lexington toward Concord, spreading the alarm as they went. They were shortly overtaken by a young doctor named Samuel Prescott, a Concord man who had been in Lexington visiting his sweetheart. He decided to aid them in their mission. Ahead of the riders were the British officers who were patrolling in advance of the main body. The officers had in custody three Lexington men: Elijah Sanderson, Solomon Brown, and Jonathan Lonng. The trio had been captured while trying to keep the patrol under surveillance. Sanderson says:
It was a bright moon-light. … During our detention, they put many questions to us, which I evaded. They kept us separately, and treated us very civilly. They particularly inquired where Hancock and Adams were; also about the population. … While we were under detention, they took … Col. Paul Revere. …
We had got nearly half way; Mr. Dawes and the doctor stopped to alarm the people of a house; I was about one hundred rods ahead, when I saw two men, in nearly the same situation as those officers were near Charlestown. I called for the doctor and Mr. Dawes to come up; in an instant I was surrounded by four;—they had placed themselves in a straight road that inclined each way; they had taken down a pair of bars on the north side of the road, and two of them were under a tree in the pasture.
“We then saw the whole body a coming out of town. We were ordered to lay behind a wall that run over a hill, and when they got nigh enough, Major Buttrick said he would give the word fire.”
The doctor being foremost, he came up; and we tried to get past them; but they being armed with pistols and swords, they forced us into the pasture; the doctor jumped his horse over a low stone wall, and got to Concord. I observed a wood at a small distance, and made for that. When I got there, out started six officers on horseback, and ordered me to dismount.
William Dawes was by this time escaping back toward Lexmgton. Sander son resumes:
They brought [Revere] within half a rod of me, and I heard him speak up with energy to them, “Gentlemen, you’ve missed of your aim!”
One said, rather hardly, “What of our aim?”
Revere replied, “I came out of Boston an hour after your loops had come out of Boston and landed at Lechmere’s Point; and if I had not known people had been sent out to give information to the country, and time enough to get fifty miles, I would have ventured one shot from you before I would have suffered you to have stopped me.”
Upon this, they went a little aside and conversed together. They then ordered me to untie my horse (which was tied to a little birch) and mount. They kept us in the middle of the road, and rode on each side of us. We went toward Lexington. They took all of us (Revere, Loring, and Brown, and myself). My horse not being swift, and they riding at considerable speed, one of the officers pressed my horse forward by striking him with his hanger.
When we had arrived within fifty or one hundred rods of the meeting-house, Loring … told them, “The bell’s a ringing, the town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men!”
They then stopped—conferred together. One of them dismounted, and ordered me to dismount, and said to me, “I must do you an injury.” I asked what he was going to do to me now. He made no reply, but with his hanger cut my bridle and girth. …
The same was done to the horses belonging to Loring and Brown, and all three of the Lexington men were released. Revere was still m custody as the ride was resumed. A moment later, some gunfire was heard in the village—possibly an alarm volley by the assembling militia. The British stopped again, and Revere noted that they were now greatly concerned:
The major inquired of me how far it was to Gambridge, and if there were any other road. After some consultation, the major rode up to the sergeant and asked if his horse was tired. He answered him he was. … “Then,” said he, “take that man’s horse.” I dismounted, and the sergeant mounted my horse. …
The British rode off, leaving Revere standing on the moonlit road. He watched them go quickly past the meeting house and back toward Cambridge, seemingly intent on joining the main expedition. Then:
I went across the burying-ground and some pastures, and came to the Rev. Mr. Clark’s house, where I found Messrs. Hancock and Adams. I told them of my treatment, and they concluded to go from that house towards Woburn. I went with them. …
According to Orderly Sergeant Munroe, who provided the party’s military escort:
To [taking flight] Hancock consented with great reluctance. … I however conducted them to the north part of the town, and then returned. … I found Capt. Parker and his militia company paraded on the common, a little in the rear of the meeting-house. About that time, one of our messengers, who had been sent toward Cambridge to get information of the movement of the regulars, returned and reported that he could not learn that there were any troops on the road from Boston to Lexington, which raised some doubt as to their coming. …
Militiaman Ebenerer Munroe takes up the narrative:
The weather being rather chilly, after calling the roll, we were dismissed, but ordered to remain within call of the drum. The men generally went into the tavern adjoining the common. …
The last person sent [toward Cambridge] was Thaddeus Bowman, who returned between daylight and sunrise and informed Capt. Parker that the British troops were within a mile of the meeting-house. Capt. Parker immediately ordered the drum beat to arms. I was the first that followed the drum. I took my station on the right of our line, which was formed from six to ten rods back of the meeting-house, facing south.
About seventy of our company had assembled when the British troops appeared. Some of our men went into the meeting-house, where the town’s powder was kept. … 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.
Capt. Parker ordered his men to stand their ground, and not to molest the regulars unless they meddled with us.
There is reason to think that Parker’s simply worded order was somewhat romanticized for history by his grandson, who reported it as: “Standyour ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Ebenerer Munroe continues:
The British troops came up directly in our front. The commanding officer advanced within a few rods of us and exclaimed, “Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!—Rush on, my boys!” and fired his pistol.
The British version of the encounter’s opening is different. In the words of Colonel Francis Smith, the expedition’s top commander:
Our troops advanced toward them, without any intention of injuring them, further than to inquire the reason of their being thus assembled, and if not satisfactory, to have secured their arms; but they in confusion went off, principally to the left—only one of them fired before he went off, and three or four more jumped over a wall and fired from behind it among the soldiers; on which the troops returned it. …
It was never to be ascertained who fired the first shot. The Americans, who were hopelessly outnumbered, shortly began dispersing. But at least some of the men stood their ground long enough to take some Britishfire. One of these was Lieutenant William Tidd:
They … fired upon us. I then retreated up the north road, and was pursued about thirty rods by an officer on horseback (supposed to be Maj. Pitcairn), calling out to me, “Damn you, stop, or you are a dead man!” I found I could not escape him unless I left the road. Therefore I sprang over a pair of bars, made a stand, and discharged my gun at him; upon which he immediately returned to the main body. …
Corporal John Munroe’s departure from the field was less precipitate:
After the first fire of the regulars, I thought, and so stated to Ebenezer Munroe … who stood next to me on the left, that they had fired nothing but powder; but, on the second firing, Munroe said they had fired something more than powder, for he had received a wound in his arm; and now, said he, to use his own words, “I’ll give them the guts of my gun.” We then both took aim at the main body of the British troops—the smoke preventing our seeing anything but the heads of some of their horses—and discharged our pieces.
After the second fire from the British troops, I distinctly saw Jonas Parker struggling on the ground, with his gun in his hand, apparently attempting to load it. In this situation the British came up, run him through with the bayonet, and killed him on the spot.
After I had fired the first time, I retreated about ten rods, and then loaded my gun a second time, with two balls, and, on firing at the British, the strength of the charge took off about a foot of my gun barrel. Such was the general confusion, and so much firing on the part of the British, that it was impossible for me to know the number of our men who fired immediately on receiving the second fire from the British troops; but that some of them fired, besides Ebenezer Munroe and myself, I am very confident.
The regulars kept up a fire, in all directions, as long as they could see a man of our company in arms. Isaac Muzzy, Jonathan Harrington, and my father, Robert Munroe [died] near the place where our line was formed. Samuel Hadley and John Brown were killed after they had gotten off the common. Asahel Porter, of Woburn, who had been taken a prisoner by the British on their march to Lexington, attempted to make his escape, and was shot within a few rods of the common. Caleb Harrington was shot down on attempting to leave the meeting-house, where he and some others had gone, before the British soldiers came up, for the purpose of removing a quantity of powder that was stored there.
Elijah Sanderson was a witness to one of the fight’s closing incidents:
After our militia had dispersed, I saw [the British] firing at one man (Solomon Brown), who was stationed behind a wall. I saw the wall smoke with the bullets hitting it. … [Brown] fired into a solid column of them, and then retreated. He was in the cow yard. The wall saved him. He legged it just about the time I went away.
Eight Americans were killed and about ten were wounded in the brief encounter. When it was over, the British fired a victory volley into the air and gave three cheers. Soon afterward, to the tune of fife and drum, they headed for Concord. According to Ebenezer Munroe:
After they had marched off … we took two prisoners who were considerably in the rear of the main body. I carried their arms into Buckman’s tavern, and they were taken by some of our men who had none of their own. I believed, at the time, that some of our shots must have [taken effect]. I was afterwards confirmed in this opinion. …
A Lexington boy named Abijah Harrington, who had two brothers in the fight but was too young to take part, was to remember through the years:
I went up to the meeting-house soon after the regulars had marched off for Concord, and, at the distance of about ten or twelve rods below the meeting-house, where I was told the main body of their troops stood when they were fired upon by our militia, I distinctly saw blood on the ground, in the road, and, the ground being a little descending, the blood had run along the road about six or eight feet.
Actually, the British had suffered only two casualties. One man had been hit in the leg, and one in the hand. In addition, Major Pitcairn reported thai his horse had been wounded in two places by shots that came “from one quarter or another.” According to Lieutenant Barker, of the King’s Own, the British march to Concord was uneventful:
We met with no interruption till within a mile or two of the town, where the country people had occupied a hill which commanded the road.
One of the “country people” was Concord Minuteman Thaddeus Blood:
We … saw the British troops acoming. … The sun was rising and shined on their arms, and they made a noble appearance in their red coats and glistening arms.
Lieutenant Barker continues:
The Light Infantry were ordered away to the right and ascended the height in one line, upon which the Yankies quitted it without firing, which they did likewise for one or two more successively. … [We took] possession of a hill with a Liberty Pole on it and a flag flying, which was cut down. The Yankies had that hill, but left it to us. We expected they would have made a stand there, but they did not chuse it.
In the words of Minuteman Amos Barrett:
We … marched before them with our drums and fifes a-going, and also the British. We had grand musick. … We marched into town and over the north bridge a little more than half a mile, and then on a hill … where we could see and hear what was going on. …
One of the village residents who watched the scarlet columns approach was Martha Moulton. A poor “widow woman, ” she was later to petition the province Jor a financial reward (which she was granted) for her part in the day’s activities:
… [They], in a hostile manner, entered the town and drawed up in form before the door of the house where I live; and there they continued on the green, feeding their horses within five feet of the door; and about fifty or sixty of them was in and out the house, calling for water and what they wanted. … At the same time, all our near neighbors, in the greatest consternation, were drawn off to places far from the thickest part of the town, where I live, and had taken with them their families and what of their best effects they could carry—some to a neighboring wood, and others to remote houses. …
Your petitioner, being left to the mercy of six or seven hundred armed men, and no person near but an old man of eighty-five years, and myself seventy-one years old, and both very infirm. It may be easily imagined what a sad condition your petitioner must be in. Under these circumstances, your petitioner committed herself, more especially, to the Divine Protection, and was very remarkably helpt with so much fortitude of mind, as to wait on them, as they called for water, or what we had—chairs for Major Pitcairn and four or five more officers—who sat at the door viewing their men. At length your petitioner had, by degrees, cultivated so much favor as to talk a little with them.
At this point it must be noted that not all of the British troops remained near Martha Moulton’s house. The movements of one detachment are explained by a British ensign named Henry D’Bermcre, who was acquainted with Concord, having been there a few weeks earlier as a spy:
Capt. Parsons of the ioth was dispatched with six light companies to take possession of a bridge that lay threequarters of a mile [north of] Concord, and I was ordered to shew him the road there, and also to conduct him to a house where there was some cannon and other stores hid. When we arrived at the bridge, three companies under the command of Capt. [Lawrie] of the 43d were left to protect it. These three companies were not close together, but situated so as to be able to support each other. We then proceeded to Col. Barrett’s, where the stores were. We did not find so much as we expected, but what there was we destroyed.
There was an excellent reason why few important stores were found at Barrett’s—or elsewhere. The Patriots had been alerted early enough so that, working urgently, they were able to transfer some of the things to safer towns and to hide other items in cellars, attics, and nearby patches of woods. At the North Bridge the situation was now becoming taut. The Americans who had occupied the hill—men of Concord and neighboring Lincoln—were being joined by militia units from other villages scattered about Concord; and as the force increased in size it increased also in aggressive spirit. Among the British officers who anticipated trouble was Lieutenant Barker:
During this time the people were gathering together in great numbers, and, taking advantage of our scattered disposition, seemed as if they were going to cut off the communication with the bridge, upon which the two [farther] companies joined and went to the bridge to support that company. The three companies drew up in the road the far side the bridge, and the rebels on the hill above, covered by a wall. In that situation they remained a long time, very near an hour, the three companies expecting to be attacked by the rebels. …
Captn. Lawrie, who commanded these three companies, sent to Col. Smith begging he would send more troops to his assistance and informing him of his situation. The Col. ordered 2 or 3 companies, but put himself at their head, by which means stopt ’em from being time enough, for being a very fat heavy man he would not have reached the bridge in half an hour, though it was not half a mile to it.
In Concord, Martha Moulton was still having her troubles:
When all on a sudden they had set fire to the great gun carriages just by the house, and while they were in flames, your petitioner saw smoke arise out of the Town House higher than the ridge of the house. Then your petitioner did put her life, as it were, in her hand, and ventured to beg of the officers to send some of their men to put out the fire; but they took no notice, only sneered. Your petitioner, seeing the Town House on fire, and must in a few munutes be past recovery, did yet venture to expostulate with the officers just by her, as she stood with a pail of water in her hand, begging of them to send, etc. When they only said, “O, mother, we won’t do you any harm!” “Don’t be concerned, mother!” and such like talk.
The house still burning, and knowing that all the row of four or five houses, as well as the school house, was in certain danger, your petitioner (not knowing but she might provoke them by her insufficient pleading) yet ventured to put as much strength to her arguments as an unfortunate widow could think of; and so your petitioner can safely say that, under Divine Providence, she was an instrument of saving the Court House, and how many more is not certain, from being consumed, with a great deal of valuable furniture, and at the great risk of her life. At last, by one pail of water after another, they sent and did extinguish the fire.
Seeing the smoke rising from the village angered the Americans at the bridge. Those who lived m Concord decided that it was time they made a move to defend their homes. At this point a militia company from Acton, commanded by Captain Isaac Davis, joined the murmuring troops. Among the newcomers was Thomas Thorp:
We found a great collection of armed men, from Concord and other towns; there were several hundreds, cannot say how many. The officers seemed to be talking by themselves, and the British were then at the bridge. Our officers joined the others; and in a few minutes, not exceeding five, Captain Davis returned to his company and drew his sword, and said to the company, “I haven’t a man that is afraid to go,” and gave the word “March!”
With fifers and drummers playing an especially lively tune called “The White Cockade, ” the aggregation headed down the hill toward the bridge. There was a general determination “to march into the middle of the town for its defence, or die in the attempt. ” Major John Buttnck, of Concord, was in charge. The leading unit was the thirty-eight-man Acton company under Isaac Davis. Lieutenant Barker, of the King’s Own, describes the British reaction:
The rebels marched into the road and were coming down upon us, when Captain Lawrie made his men retire to this side the bridge (which bye the bye he ought to have done at first), and then he would have had time to make a good disposition, but at this time he had not, for the rebels were got so near him that his people were obliged to form the best way they could. As soon as they were got over the bridge the three companies got one behind the other so that only the front one could fire.
A Jew of the redcoats had been ordered to linger on the bridge and try to make it impassable by removing some of the planks. This caused Major Buttnck to protest loudly, and he and the other leading Americans quickened their step. The British effort, begun too late anyway, was abandoned. According to Lieutenant Barker:
The fire soon began from a dropping shot on our side. …
Minuteman Thaddeus Blood confirms this:
I saw where the ball threw up the water about the middle of the river, and then a second and third shot [did the same]. …
These were intended as warning shots. But the Americans didn’t stop. Now the British fired for effect; and Major Buttnck, hearing a young Acton jlfer cry out that he had been hit, shouted, “Fire. … For God’s sake, fire!” In a general exchange that lasted but a Jew minutes, two Americans and two redcoats were killed. The Americans had only two or three wounded, while the British had about ten. One of the Americans slam was the gallant Captain Davis. His widow was later to write:
He was then thirty years of age. We had four children; the youngest about fifteen months old. They were all unwell when he left me in the morning; some of them with the canker-rash. … My husband said little that morning. He seemed serious and thoughtful; but never seemed to hesitate as to the course of his duty. As he led the company from the house, he turned himself round, and seemed to have something to communicate. He only said, “Take good care of the children,” and was soon out of sight.
Observing the skirmish through a window of a nearby house (the Manse) was the Reverend William Emerson, grandfather of the more famous Emerson. He says of the British:
The three companies … soon quitted their post at the bridge and retreated in the greatest disorder and confusion to the main body, who were soon upon the march to meet them.
As the redcoats retreated, the Americans swept across the bridge. But, according to Amos Barretl, they went no farther:
We did not follow them. There was 8 or i o that was wounded and a running and a hobbling about, looking back to see if we was after them. We then saw the whole body a coming out of town. We were ordered to lay behind a wall that run over a hill, and when they got nigh enough, Major Buttrick said he would give the word fire. But they did not come quite so near as he expected, before they halted. The commanding officer ordered the whole battalion to halt, and officers to the front; the officers then marched to the front; then we lay behind the wall, about 200 of us, with our guns cocked, expecting every minute to have the word fire. Our orders was if we fired, to fire 2 or three times and then retreat. If we had fired, I believe we could have killed almost every officer there was in the front; but we had no orders to fire. … They staid about i o minutes and then marched back. …
The Reverend Mr. Emerson writes:
For half an hour, the enemy, by their marches and countermarches, discovered great fickleness and inconstancy of mind, sometimes advancing, sometimes returning to their former posts; till at length they quitted the town and retreated by the way they came.
In the meantime, a party of our men (150) took the back way through the Great Fields into the east quarter and had placed themselves to advantage, lying in ambush behind walls, fences and buildings, ready to fire upon the enemy on their retreat.
These men were joined by other troops newly arrived in the Concord area. Says Edmund Foster, of Reading:
A little before we came to Merriam’s Hill, we discovered the enemy’s flank guard, of about eighty or one hundred men, who, on their retreat from Concord, kept that height of land, the main body in the road. The British troops and the Americans, at that time, were equally distant from Merriam’s Corner. About twenty rods short of that place, the Americans made a halt.
The British marched down the hill, with very slow but steady step, without music, or a word being spoken that could be heard. Silence reigned on both sides.
As soon as the British had gained the main road, and passed a small bridge near that corner, they faced about suddenly, and fired a volley of musketry upon us. They overshot; and no one, to my knowledge, was injured by the fire. The fire was immediately returned by the Americans, and two British soldiers fell dead, at a little distance from each other, in the road, near the brook.
The British continued to retreat, and the Americans pursued. Foster goes on:
We saw a wood at a distance which appeared to lie on or near the road where the enemy must pass. Many leaped over the walls and made for that wood. We arrived just in time to meet the enemy. There was on the opposite side of the road a young growth of wood, filled with Americans. The enemy were now completely between two fires, renewed and briskly kept up. They ordered out a flank guard on the left to dislodge the Americans from their posts behind the trees; but they only became better marks to be shot at.
Ensign D’Bermcre describes the distress of the British:
All the hills on each side of us were covered with rebels … so that they kept the road always lined and a very hot fire on us without intermission. We at first kept our order, and returned their fire as hot as we received it; but when we arrived within a mile of Lexington, our ammunition began to fail, and the light companies were so fatigued with flanking they were scarce able to act; and a great number of wounded scarce able to get forward made a great confusion.
The unfortunate redcoats must have felt mortification as well as fear during these moments. Just a few hours before, they had been Lexington’s masters. In the best romantic tradition the anguished men received help from Boston at the instant of their greatest need. First they heard the distant sound of martial music. Then Brigadier General Earl Percy, astride a beautiful white horse, swung into sight leading about a thousand reinforcements. The troops had come in answer to a request Colonel Smith had sent back to Boston early m the morning. D’Bernicre exults:
[Percy] brought two field-pieces with him, which were immediately brought to bear upon the rebels, and soon silenced their fire. After a little firing [our whole body] halted for about half an hour to rest.
Lord Percy tells how the British march was resumed:
As it began now to grow pretty late, and we had 15 miles to retire, and only our 36 rounds [each], I ordered the Grenadiers and Light Infantry to move off first, and covered them with my Brigade, sending out very strong flanking parties, which were absolutely necessary. …
The rebels … kept firing on us, but very lightly until we came to Menotomy [Arlington], a village with a number of houses in little groups extending about half a mile. Out of these houses they kept a very heavy fire. … The soldiers shewed great bravery in this place, forcing houses … and killing great numbers of rebels.
D’Bernicre exaggerates the slaughter. He doesn’t mention the looting. In the words of the Reverend William Gordon, of Roxbury:
Many houses were plundered of everything valuable that could be taken away, and what could not be carried off was destroyed; looking glasses, pots, pans, etc., were broke all to pieces; doors when not fastened, sashes and windows wantonly damaged and destroyed.
Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, viewed these acts with concern:
I have no doubt this inflamed the Rebels, and made many of them follow us farther than they would otherwise have done. By all accounts some soldiers who staid too long in the houses were killed. …
Attempts were made to start more fires. One of the homes chosen was that of Deacon Joseph Adams. He had just fled, at his wife’s agonized insistence. She relates:
Divers of the King’s troops entered our house by bursting open the door, and three of the soldiers broke into the room in which I was confined to my bed, being scarcely able to walk from the bed to the fire, not having been to my chamber door from being delivered in child-bed to that time. One of the soldiers immediately opened my curtain with his bayonet fixed, pointing the same at my breast.
I immediately cried out, “For the Lord’s sake, do not kill me!”
He replied, “Damn you!”
One that stood near said, “We will not hurt the woman, if she will go out of the house, but we will surely burn it.”
I immediately arose, threw a blanket over me, and crawled into a corn-house near the door, with my infant in my arms. … They immediately set the house on fire, in which I had left five children [in hiding places] ; but the fire was happily extinguished. …
The highest-ranking American officer on the field at this time was General William Heath. Because of the informal nature of the action, his control was limited. But he encouraged the men by riding often where the musket fire was hottest:
… I was several times greatly exposed, in particular at the high grounds at the upper end of Menotomy, and also on the plain below the meeting-house. On the latter, Dr. Joseph Warren—afterwards Major-general Warren—who kept constantly near me, and then but a few feet distant, a musket-ball from the enemy came so near his head as to strike the pin out of the hair of his earlock.
On this plain, Dr. Eliphalet Downer, in single combat with a British soldier, killed him on the spot, by thrusting him nearly through the body with his bayonet.
As the British pressed on through Cambridge, the Americans kept pursuing. Fusilier Lieutenant Mackenzie says:
… Altho they did not shew themselves openly in a body … except on the road in our rear, our men threw away their fire very inconsiderately and without being certain of its effect : this emboldened them and induced them to draw nearer, but whenever a cannon shot was fired at any considerable number, they instantly dispersed.
Daylight was beginning to fade as the weary redcoats headed for the narrow neck of the Charlestown peninsula. Some of the people of Charlestown, feeling trapped on their small triangle of land, took great alarm as the column approached and temporarily abandoned their homes, Jacob Rogers relates:
… it being then dark, Mr. Carey, myself, and one or two more, went into town to see if we might, with safety, proceed to our own houses. On our way, met a Mr. Hutchinson, who informed us all was then pretty quiet; that when the [British] soldiers came through the street, the officers desired the women and children to keep indoors for their safety; that they begged for drink, which the people were glad to bring them, for fear of their being ill-treated.
Mr. Carey and I proceeded to the tavern by the Town House, where the [British] officers were. All was tumult and confusion; nothing but drink called for everywhere. I stayed a few minutes, and proceeded to my own house; and finding things pretty quiet, went in search of my wife and sisters, and found them coming up the street with Capt. Adams.
On our arrival at home, we found that her brother, a youth of fourteen, was shot dead … by the soldiers, as he was looking out of a window. I stayed a little while to console them, and went into the main street to see if all was quiet. …
It was. The day’s strife was over. In the opinion of Lieutenant Barker, of the King’s Own:
The Rebels did not chuse to follow us to [Bunker] Hill, as they must have fought us on open ground, and that they did not like.
The trip to Concord and back had cost the British 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing. American losses were 49 killed, 59 wounded, and5 missing. In all, perhaps 1,800 redcoats had taken part in the action. The American total is unknown, but was doubtless higher than that of the British. The fact that the Americans fought from cover was, of course, a tremendous advantage.
Military annals list few feats of endurance more remarkable than that of the redcoats of the original party. Heavily encumbered with military gear, they had, in about twenty hours, marched thirty-five or forty miles—half of the distance under savagely nerve-racking conditions.
The British did not spend the night on Bunker Hill. D’Bernicre explains:
At Charlestown … the Selectmen … sent to Lord Percy to let him know that if he would not attack the town, they would take care that the troops should not be molested, and also they would do all in their power for to get us across the ferry [to Boston]. The Somerset man-ofwar lay there … and all her boats were employed first in getting over the wounded, and after them the rest of the troops.
Lieutenant Barker says:
Thus ended this expedition, which from beginning to end was as ill planned and ill executed as it was possible to be.
General Heath kept most of the American forces on the scene. They were deployed in a semicircle stretching for several miles, and their watch fires were visible to British sentries both in Charlestown and in Boston. The next day the lines were extended to shut up the neck that joined the Boston peninsula to the mamland. Thus the king’s troops, who had long held American soldiers in contempt, found themselves not only vanquished by these ill-trained rustics but also (as D’Bermcre expressed it) “fairly blocked up in Boston. ” Even while the encirclement was being completed, Lord Percy was writing of the previous day in a private letter:
During the whole affair the rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance and resolution. Nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed, they knew too well what was proper, to do so. Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find themselves much mistaken. They have men amongst them 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 hills, it 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 10 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 turn out so despicable as it is perhaps imagined at home.
Percy saw the situation clearly. Three weeks after Lexington and Concord, the Americans captured Fort Ticonderoga in upper Mew Tork, and m another five and a half weeks they stood up well to the British at Bunker Hill. As the war began in earnest, America developed an awareness that April 19, 1775, had been one of history’s momentous days. And the same awareness would at length sweep the world.