This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
British General Gage knew something more was expected of him than simply sitting in Boston and maintaining the blockade. Decisive action was needed to regain control of the Massachusetts countryside. Sentiment amongst the colonists was swinging away from the rebels and toward the old, established ways — and peace. Gage could sense the impatience of the Boston loyalists; a resounding British victory could definitively turn the tide of public sentiment towards the British government, he thought.
Just such an opportunity for action came in the early spring of 1775. Gage’s spies informed him that the rebels had cached arms and ammunition at both Worcester and Concord. Worcester was some 50 miles west of Boston, while Concord was only a scant 20. Also, the Massachusetts provincial congress was meeting near Concord. If Gage could get an operation against Concord underway secretly, he not only could seize some valuable munitions but capture some important rebel leaders as well.
In those days, Boston was almost an island, connected to the mainland on the west by only a small causeway, or neck, of land. Gage’s plan was to divide his force, sending one group on the longer land route across the Boston neck, through Cambridge, and then west, by way of Lexington to Concord. The other would assemble on the Boston common and then by longboat cross the bay to East Charlestown. From Charlestown the British contingent would pursue the same route to Concord. General Gage planned to send 1,800 soldiers, over half of his effective force in Boston.
Though he tried, Gage could not keep his plans a secret. Boston was full of rebel spies, who noted the preparations. By April 16, 1775, rebels in Concord had been warned to hide their armaments. Dr. Joseph Warren, the rebel chief of staff in Boston, made plans to watch British moves and prepared couriers to warn the countryside once the royal troops began to move. Other rebels arranged signals to warn their friends in Cambridge, across the bay: they would hang two lanterns in Christ Church tower if the “redcoats” were coming by sea; one, if they were moving by land.
Meanwhile, the provincial congress had closed its proceedings in Concord — Gage had lost his chance of seizing that assembly. Two of its most important members, Sam Adams and John Hancock, were, on April 15, making their way to Lexington to visit Hancock’s fiancée.
On April 18, when Gage’s advance troops were set to embark, the general finally learned that his plan was well known in Boston. Unable to call off the advance, Gage sent couriers to intercept any messengers that might be sent to warn the rebels in Concord. Dr. Warren had already chosen two men to rouse the countryside: William Dawes was to go by way of Boston neck; the silversmith, Paul Revere, was to cross by water to Charlestown.
As two lanterns were being hung in the tower of Christ Church, Paul Revere began paddling his small boat across the Charles River. Though it approached midnight and was dark, Revere was in considerable danger. Around him lay several ships of the British fleet, each with a night lookout. Passing close by the ship Somerset, he was, inexplicably, not seen. Landing at Charlestown, Revere took to horse, only to be pursued by two British officers who lay in wait in the shadows of the common. Eluding his pursuers, Revere rode on to Lexington, 12 miles distant, alerting patriots along the way.
In Lexington he found Sam Adams and John Hancock at the house of the Rev. Jonas Clarke. He warned them to flee. There Revere was joined by Dawes and another courier named Prescott. These three took to the road again, only to be waylaid by a small contingent of British troops. Revere was captured, but Dawes and Prescott, eluding the soldiers, continued on to Concord.
Throughout the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 19, “minutemen” militia gathered in Lexington. Commanders warned their men, “Let the troops pass by and don’t molest them with out they begin first.” Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith’s contingent of British regulars had crossed the Charles River, marched through Charlestown, and turned west along the road to Lexington. The advance guard under Major John Pitcairn was the first to reach Lexington. Seeing in the unclear light of early morning armed men blocking the road to Concord, Pitcairn ordered his men to halt.
“Ye villains, ye rebels, disperse!” cried Pitcairn to the militia blocking the road. “Lay down your arms!
“Why don’t ye lay down your arms?”
At that, the militia began to retreat behind a stone wall that ran alongside the road. Pitcairn ordered a detachment of light infantry forward to intercept the militia before they reached the wall. Suddenly, a few shots rang out from the rebel side, wounding a redcoat and hitting Pitcairn’s horse. That was a signal to Pitcairn’s men. All the suppressed anger from months of insult and abuse from Boston rebels welled up within them. “The men were so wild they could hear no orders,” later wrote an officer, recalling the event. Without orders, Pitcairn’s men aimed their muskets and fired a murderous volley into the rebels. When the smoke cleared, of the 60 or so colonial minutemen gathered at Lexington, ten were dead; nine, wounded.
So was the first blood of the Revolution shed. If no rebels had fired, if the British regulars had restrained their rage . . .
The news of the “slaughter” at Lexington spread like wildfire over the Massachusetts countryside. The British had now to march through a countryside seething with anger and the desire for revenge.
Lt. Colonel Smith’s troops continued the march to Concord. There, two battalions of militia had already gathered. As the British advanced into town, the militia made a series of strategic retreats across North Bridge and ensconced themselves on a ridge northwest of town. Following the rebels across the North Bridge, the British halted at the foot of the ridge in a face-off with the rebels. Two hours later the rebels began to advance on the redcoats. The British commander, realizing the danger of his position (between a stream and the ridge), ordered his troops to recross the bridge. The militia opened fire, killing four British officers and three soldiers and wounding five others.
Colonel Smith now ordered a retreat to Boston. But as they marched toward Lexington, the redcoats were assailed by an unseen enemy. Fighting Indian-style, the rebels shot at the passing British from behind trees and stone walls, only to retreat further into the woods they knew so well when the redcoats moved to counterattack. Assailed by a continuous fire, the British were soon exhausted and near despair: “[We were] so fatigued,” wrote an officer, “that we could not keep flankering parties out, so that we must soon have laid down our arms or been picked off by the rebels at their pleasure.”
The road to Boston was marked by the same guerrilla sniping. British regulars, unable to come to grips with the enemy, retaliated with plundering and cruelty, destroying houses from which gunfire came, or was suspected to have come. Men, even women and children, suffered atrocities. When the British finally made it back to the safety of Boston, their losses were 73 killed and 200 wounded. Of the Americans, 49 were killed, 41 wounded.
News of the Battles of Lexington and Concord spread quickly to all the colonies. Soon contingents from other colonies joined the Massachusetts militia in laying siege to Boston. From Connecticut came Benedict Arnold as well as Israel Putnam, with the Connecticut militia. Philadelphia sent five regiments; other militia came from New York and New Hampshire.
Nor was the ominous importance of the fight lost on the colonial leaders. Months, years of waiting were ended; the vital moment had come. In a letter to his brother in law, one Joseph Andrews wrote: “When I reflect and consider that the fight was between those whose parents but a few generations ago were brothers, I shudder at the thought, and there’s no knowing where our calamities will end.”
An Old Song of Sorrow
"Barbara Allen," an old English folk song, was widely sung in English colonial America. A version of it was said to have been George Washington's favorite song. This version, "Barbry Ellen," is sung by Jean Ritchie.