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Battles of Lexington and Concord - American Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War Collage
First Open Armed Conflict
In the early morning of April 19, 1775, the first open armed conflict in the American Revolutionary War began at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The battle was between the Province of Massachusetts Bay and Great Britain.
Commanders and leaders of the Patriot militia were John Parker, James Barrett, John Buttrick, William Heath, Joseph Warren, and Isaac Davis.
Commanders and leaders of Great Britain were Francis Smith, John Pitcairn, and Hugh Percy.
General Thomas Gage of Great Britain was military governor of Massachusetts. He commanded the British troops which were garrisoned in Boston.
Paul Revere's Ride
Patriots Midnight Ride
Late in the evening of April 18, 1775, the ringleaders of the rebellion against British control and military had received word that British troops (regulars) were preparing for a mission. The regulars were to capture and imprison John Hancock and Samuel Adams. They were then to march on the road to Lexington and Concord to disarm all Patriots and destroy or confiscate any weapons and supplies.
The midnight riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes, were on the move and had alerted Lexington and other town colonists before the British troops had even begun their march. Samuel Prescott joined Revere and Dawes at Lexington and the three headed for Concord. General Gage had earlier sent out one regiment to patrol the road to Concord and intercept any riders. Prescott was the only one to escape British troops out on scouting expedition and arrived safely in Concord. Revere was captured and Dawes was thrown from his horse, so was unable to continue.
The warning messages of the three Patriot messengers was so effective that militia and minutemen over twenty miles from Boston were ready before British troops had unloaded boats in Cambridge.
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith
Crucial Timing for the British Delayed
Due to poor planning on the part of British commanders, the several regiments were delayed. The crucial timing factor was not met and the troops got off to a bad start.
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, who was appointed by Gage as commander, arrived late to the troops who were assembled by 10PM the night of the 18th at the boat loading stage on the west end of Boston Common. The naval barges used were so overloaded that no orderly assemblance of the troops was possible and they had to stand wherever they could find room.
When the barges landed at Phipps Farm in Cambridge, it was not possible to get close enough to the shore. The troops had to unload the gear in waist-deep water around midnight. This caused further delay. When the seventeen mile march to Concord began, the troops were wet, muddy and cold. From the shore, they had to maneuver through swamps before arriving on the road to Lexington about 2:00 AM.
Soon after they were on the road, the British became aware of the warning signs (alarm guns, bon fires, etc.) the colonists were sending out. Colonel Smith ordered the troops to load their guns and sent Major Pitcairn, his second in command, ahead with six regiments with orders to head to Concord as quickly as possible. Smith then sent a messenger back to Boston for reinforcements.
Confrontation at Lexington ~
Major Pitcairn and his troops arrived in Lexington, just as the sun was rising, the morning of April 19. At the same time, the Lexington militiamen, gathered in front of Buckman Tavern, where they often gathered after training on the Lexington Green.
Commander of the local militia force was Captain John Parker. He and his troops had waited throughout the night, not sure if the warning from Paul Revere was, in fact, true. At around 4AM, Parker received confirmaiton -- Thaddeus Bowman, a scout for Parker, was just minutes ahead of the British troops. Riding furiously, he arrived at the tavern in time to tell Parker that Revere was right -- the British regulars were coming in full force and they were close. About 80 militiamen formed ranks in seconds and waited for the British regulars to appear.
Parker was well aware that the regulars outnumbered his militia force -- yet he told his men to stand their ground and not fire unless the British fired upon them first.
Captain John Parker
Major John Pitcairn
Who Fired the First Shot?
Captain Parker was not expecting any battle to take place. He knew that the British regulars often rode out to small towns to investigate, found nothing and returned to Boston with no confrontations. He was of the mind that this would happen again. Even so, he and his men were battle ready.
When the regulars approached Parker and the militia, infantry troops rushed forward in an intimidating manner, yelling with threatening motions of their bayonets and an officer on horseback was waving his sword, demanding that the militia lay down their arms. From somewhere, a shot was fired -- no one knew then, or even today, who fired that first shot of the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.
Amidst the confusion and sudden threats, Parker ordered his men to disperse -- but, the British opened fire, killing eight of the militia men and wounding ten others. One British soldier was wounded. Parker and the rest of his troops had no choice but to run for safety.
The troops that Major Pitcairn was in charge of began firing all around the commons, and were on the verge of entering homes of the civilians. At that time, Colonel Smith arrived and called for cease fire. Smith assembled the British troops and marched them on to Concord.
British Entering Concord
Militiamen in Concord ~
Having received reports on what was going on in Lexington, Colonel James Barrett, commander of the militia in Concord, assembled his troops. There were many options Barrett could choose from. Apparently he was a fast thinker and an organized leader.
Barrett sent one column of militia on the road to Lexington towards the oncoming British force. When the troops returned to Concord and reported that the British far outnumbered their 250 men, Barrett surrendered the town and assembled his troops just a mile or so from town, on Punkatasset Hill, on the other side of the North Bridge. This move later proved to be the right decision and crucial to the outcome of what followed that day.
British Army Searching Farm in Concord
Preparation to Search
It was in Concord that Smith wanted to search for weapons and ammunition. Upon arrival there, he sent the 10th Regiment, under Captain Pole, to South Bridge in Concord and seven companies of infantry under Captain Parsons to North Bridge.
From North Bridge, Parsons moved on with four companies to Barrett's Farm, where reports had indicated storage of weapons and ammunition were hidden. He had two companies stationed in ready to guard their return with any militia supplies they could find, which left just one company at North Bridge. These three companies were under the command of Captain Walter Laurie, an inexperienced battle leader.
With information received from Loyalist spies, the town was searched. At Ephraim Jones's tavern, near South Bridge, Pitcairn and his troops found three cannons buried on the property. Because the cannons were far too heavy to transport, the trunnions were smashed, making the massive cannons useless.
Grenadiers of the British also burned a gun carriage they found -- confiscated flour and food were tossed into a pond along with hundreds of musket balls.
Out at Barrett's Farm, which had been an arsenal, weapons had been buried in the field, looking like crop furrows. As a result, little of anything was found by grenadiers.
Engagement at the North Bridge
Back at North Bridge
When rising smoke from the gun carriage in town was seen by Colonel Barrett, he gave orders to march to a hill where two British companies were stationed, just 300 yards from the bridge. Seeing Barrett and his troops advancing, the British troops retreated to North Bridge.
On the flat top hill where Barrett positioned his troops, ten full companies of Minutemen and militia joined him. They came from the surrounding towns of Acton, Concord, Bedford and Lincoln. As word continued to spread to surrounding areas, more groups of men began coming in to join Barrett's companies.
With about 400 troops against Laurie's troops of about 95, Barrett had ordered the local militia to form lines on the road that led to North Bridge.
From their vantage point that overlooked North Bridge, Barret conferred with Lt. Colonel John Robinson of Westford, Captain Isaac Davis of Acton and Captains of other troops.
Barrett gave orders to load weapons and fire only if fired upon. The order to advance was given. Seeing the advance of Barret's troops, Laurie ordered his infantry to retreat across the bridge and form a line along the bank, which clearly was a mistake. Seeing what was happening, Lt. Sutherland to the rear of the infantry shouted out orders for flankers to protect the column of confused troops trying to assemble.
Laurie sent a messenger to town for reinforcements. One soldier in Laurie's company, during the confusion, fired his gun, most likely due to panic, as Laurie later explained in a sworn deposition. Hearing the first shot, two other British troops fired, then a round of shots from other regulars were fired. Laurie had lost control of his infantrymen. Captain Isaac Davis and Private Abner Hosmer, who were in front of Barrett's advance, were killed and four other militiamen were wounded.
Seeing the militia come to a halt, Major Buttrick yelled out and gave the command to fire back. The two lines of opposing troops were just 50 yards away from each other, with the bridge and the Concord River separating them.
The militia in the front of Barrett's troops were in a tight spot and could not form a line of fire, yet instinct motivated them and they fired from the front row and the second row fired over the heads of their fellow troops in front of them. Four British officers were wounded, three privates were killed and nine were wounded.
Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the British regulars were trapped. Due to Laurie losing control of the troops, they fled in terror towards the grenadier companies Lt. Colonel Smith was leading out. This move isolated Captain Parsons and his companies who were still at Barrett's Farm.
Barrett Reorganizes Quickly
Colonel Barrett moved part of the militia back to the hilltop they had occupied and sent the rest with Major Buttrick to the hill across the bridge, where they had a defensive position behind a stone wall.
When Smith saw the defensive position the minutemen held, he halted his companies. The detachment under Pitcairn came marching back from Barrett's Farm at that time. They saw their dead and wounded comrades lying on the bridge, and returned to town.
Back in town, the British continued their search for weapons and supplies. They ate a meal, reassembled and left Concord around noon. This delay in searching and eating turned out to be an advantage for colonial militia from surrounding towns to march on the road back to Boston.
It also gave colonial militia time to gather in the fields near the road between Concord and Lexington, to wait for the British to come through. About 1,000 militiamen were ready to slow down the regulars.
Percy's Rescue in Lexington
Smith had sent out flankers to guard the regualars who were three abreast in the main column. When they reached Meriam's Corner, they had to cross a narrow bridge. Closing ranks they proceeded across. They were outnumbered by the colonial militia.
Waiting for the last of the regulars to gain the bridge, the militia opened fire. Two regulars were killed and six wounded. Although the regulars returned fire, there were no casualties with the militia.
After the bridge crossing, Smith sent out the flankers again.
By this time, about 500 militia had assembled about a mile from Meriam's Corner on Brooks Hill. When the regulars approached, Smith sent up a detachment to drive them off. The militia did not budge and inflicted heavy casualties on the regulars.
Further up the road, the regulars reached Brook's Tavern, where they encountered a single militia company. The regulars killed and wounded several of them.
Smith withdrew his troops and moved on into Lincoln.
Smith and his companies approached an area on the road that is now called "Bloody Angle". The road at that point rises and curves through woods. There are a lot of trees and walls in a rocky pasture. Among all those defensive positions, 200 men from Bedford and Lincoln were ready to ambush.
More colonials gathered on the other side of the road as the Concord militia closed in from behind the British. In the fire that opened up, thirty regulars and four militia men were killed.
The regulars escaped through the swampy terrain. Some time during the march back to Lexington, Smith was wounded in the thigh.
By this time, the number of militia forces had risen to 2000.
Bloody Angle Road Memorial Plaque
Having engaged in battles since Concord, the British regulars were exhausted, casualties were mounting, they were running low on ammunition, and their leader, Smith, was wounded.
In Lexington, Captain John Parker was waiting on a hill, his remaining group of training militia ready for an ambush.
When Parker saw Smith come into view, he ordered open fire. Major Pitcairn sent his infantry up to clear the hill, which they did. The infantry companies also cleared two other hills, but received more casualties from these ambushes.
Pitcairn's horse was injured during the firing. With one leader injured and the other without a horse, the regulars were ready to give up -- a few even surrendered, and many broke rank to form a mob without any organization. They knew there was one more hill to approach before Concord and most likely yet another ambush.
September 28, 2015 Update:
Archaeological evidence is being found that verifies the location and details of Captain Parker's battle with the British troops. Exciting news on this battle of "Parker's Revenge" can be read at Revolutionary War Battlefield Surveyed.
Be sure to read the press release by Meg Watters, which confirms the heroic stand Captain Parker took for the Patriots.
General Thomas Gage
Percy With Reinforcements
Back in Boston, General Gage, who had received a request from Lt. Colonel Smith for reinforcements early on, before any battles started, had once again caused a delay in orders due to his obsession with secrecy.
Letters with orders were not delivered properly or timely, and only one copy to each commander was yet another mistake. One letter for reinforcements was sent to Major Pitcairn, where it was left on his desk in Boston -- Pitcairn was in the midst of the battles by that time.
Percy arrived in Lexington about 2:00 PM, with his troops and long range artillery. When Smith's companies reached Percy, they collapsed in exhaustion behind the line.
Percy had his artillery troops open fire and dispersed the militiamen who were right behind Smith's companies.
However, Percy had made a grave error before he left Boston. Rather than listen to his Master of Ordnance to load extra ammunition on extra wagons, Percy refused, saying that would slow him down. So,when facing battle with the ever growing colonial militia, each regular had only 36 rounds. The artillery pieces each had only a few rounds -- and all troops in Smith's companies were already very low on ammunition.
When Gage found that Percy did not take the extra two wagons loaded with ammunition, he ordered them sent out with one officer and thirteen men. Before long, a group of former militiamen who were still on the alert, ambushed the regulars with the ammunition wagons and told them to surrender. The regulars ignored them and drove on. The militiamen opened fire,shooting the lead horses on the wagons, killed two regulars and wounded the officer. The rest of the regulars surrendered. These former colonial militiamen were all over 60 years old.
Major General William Heath
Lexington to Menotomy and Cambridge
During the entire march back to Boston, the British army was followed and fired upon by the Patriot militia, which continued to grow in numbers.
Major General William Heath had arrived in Lexington to take command over the militia. Heath gave new orders to the militia to keep spread out, thus to not be so suceptible to cannon fire. With Percy taking charge of the British troops, there was a new order to the line of march. When they had left Lexington about 3:30 in the morning, Percy organized his troops into a formation with interior lines. This strategy of having the inner lines shorter than the outside, gave the soldiers an advantage of being able to move and shift quickly for the best defense.
Heath was aware of this warfare strategy, so gave orders to organize skirmishes rather than full force group attacks. The skirmishers kept themselves at a further distance from Percy's troops which gave them the advantage of inflicting maximum casualties with minimum risk to themselves.
Another tactic Heath ordered was to have just a few militiamen on horses ahead of the regulars. When Percy's troops were close enough these men would dismount, fire at the regulars, mount and ride ahead to continue the same tactic, waiting for Percy. Meanwhile, the militia infantry were able to fire from a longer range, which caused pressure to the outside troops of the British line. After inflicting what damage they could, the men on foot would back off, move forward and repeat the same tactic when within range of the British column.
Heath had the foresight to send out messengers to any newly arriving militia units telling them where to engage the regulars along the road. When approaching some towns, the colonials had sent out supply wagons of food and weapons to keep their fellow Patriots going strong. Heath and Warren (second in command) actually led some skirmishes themselves, which helped greatly to allow the militiamen to have a break from their hard fighting. Yet, it was the superior leadership of these two men that had such a great impact on the warfare tactics of the militia.
As the British troops reached Menotomy, the fighting had intensified greatly. Ever more militia men were coming fresh into the battle, firing at the soldiers from a distance. In town, the colonists were firing from their own homes and many snipers were hidden from house to house. The regulars were beginning to act on their own and Percy had lost control of them.
Due to their previous losses and being under constant fire, the regulars became bloodthirsty -- they were exhausted and enraged. Young officers were finding it hard to stop their men from randomly killing every colonist they saw.
With the colonists and snipers firing at the regulars, and the regulars on a rampage to kill, there was more blood shed in Menotomy and Cambridge than elsewhere that day.
After the battle, Percy had written that anyone who thought the Patriot militia were just a mob of colonials attacking in a disorganized manner was very much mistaken. He commended the leadership, perseverance and resolution of the militia.— Lieutenant General Hugh Percy
In Charlestown, the Great Bridge had earlier been dismantled on orders from Heath, for this was the route over the river to Charlestown.
The fighting was at its most intensified at that time. More militia, fresh and ready for battle had arrived -- however, they were not in scattered positions as the militia when in Menotomy. Since they were in close formation, Percy was able to use his cannons on them, firing his last rounds, which inflicted heavy damage on those militiamen.
Seeing that the Great Bridge was destroyed and the militia were all along the banks of the river, Percy ordered his troops onto a narrow road that would take them to Charlestown, which was an unexpected move that the militia did not see coming.
Another unexpected incident for both Percy and Heath, occurred on the route to Charlestown after Percy and his army had crossed the river. From Salem and Marblehead, a large force of militia under Colonel Timothy Pickering had arrived. They could have inflicted heavy damage on Percy's troops, possibly even a total defeat of the army. Yet, for some reason, Pickering let the British force pass and escape. Accusations and denials from both Pickering and Heath were later recorded, and the incident was never resolved.
This incident allowed Percy and his troops to gain high ground, reinforced with units sent by Gage along with heavy artillery. The British began, but never finished, fortifications on the hills. In June, just two months later, these fortifications were used by the militia for the Battle of Bunker Hill.
When Heath saw that the British had taken up a formidable defense, he withdrew and ordered the militia back to Cambridge.
Colonel Timothy Pickering
Pickering's non-action allowed the British to gain higher ground.
Why do you think Pickering allowed the British to escape?
Note From Author
By the morning after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, over 15,000 militia men had gathered from around New England. Knowing this was not just another alarm, they were ready to continue the Revolutionary War they were now a part of.
© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns