April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
Sixth in a series of paintings for AMERICAN HERITAGE
The first and most unusual battle of the American Revution began in earnest when the seven hundred British regulars under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith left Concord and started back for Boston on the afternoon of April 19, 1775. For sixteen bloody miles the king’s troops got their first taste of a kind of fighting in which all their famous discipline and the terrible rolling volleys that could break armies in the formal patterns of continental warfare would avail them not at all.
Smith tarried too long in Concord destroying colonial military supplies. All through the morning the alarm guns had sounded through the countryside, and grim minutemen were converging on the town by the hundreds. The British marched one relatively peaceful mile on the road back toward Lexington, and then, at Meriam’s Corner, a spatter of musketry from a concealed enemy ripped into them. The British pressed on, but by now the fields next to the road were teeming with men. The long scarlet blocks of marching grenadiers made wonderful targets in the bright day, and farmers, shopkeepers, and schoolteachers crouched behind walls and hedges and fired into their ranks. About a mile outside of Lexington British ammunition began to run low, colonial opposition increased, and the ranks began to disintegrate. Smith’s men formed to make a stand, but their colonel was wounded, and the retreat became a rout. The panicked soldiers tumbled pellmell back into Lexington and were delighted to see relief in the form of reinforcements under Lord Hugh Percy, '!"he ranks reformed and resumed their retreat.
It was a savage afternoon; every step of the way the king’s troops were galled by gunfire from their well-hidden enemies. It was not wholly one-sided, however; British flanking parties swept ahead of the march and cut down scores of rebels. Along the route the angry British looted taverns and put houses to the torch. The columns of smoke and the sight of loot-laden redcoats served only to enrage the colonists further, and at Menotomy the fighting became hand to hand, with clubbed muskets against bayonets. In a short, fierce action forty colonists fell under British steel. The Americans were to suffer nearly a hundred casualties that day, but all through the hot afternoon the minutemen kept knocking gaps in the British ranks.
Finally the exhausted soldiers arrived gasping in Charlestown, where they were ferried across the Charles into Boston under cover of darkness. Considering the length of the fight and the number of militia involved, their casualties had been remarkably light. Legend to the contrary, the Americans’ marksmanship had been atrocious; of upward of some 75,000 rounds fired by the rebels only 274 hit home.
Many of the minutemen returned to their homes that evening, but many more, feeling vaguely that their term of service was not yet finished, remained around Boston. These weary and disorganized men, camped out on the heights above the harbor, were the first American army. Moreover, they had initiated their battered enemy in the type of warfare that they had learned in their rugged new country, where the set-piece battles of the Old World were largely impossible. It was the kind of fighting they knew best. In the end it would bring them victory, for, in the main, the long road to Yorktown was marked not with the formal line encounters that usually breught the rebels to grief but with just such loosely ordered struggles as the one fought that momentous afternoon.