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Battle of Lexington and Concord
The British Army had occupied Boston for years and was now augmented by naval forces and additional troops. The contest between colonial governors, the army, and the rebel and Tory militias to control arms and ammunition had been escalating for some time. (See Fort William and Mary for a description of this contest.) With martial law declared in Massachusetts, the governor General Gage had ordered Samuel Adams and John Hancock arrested for treason.
On the night of April 18 Gage ordered a forced march to Lexington and Concord. Adams and Hancock had escaped Boston and were staying at Lexington. The majority of the colony's militia supported the rebel cause and had been gathering a stock of weapons, powder and supplies at Concord. The British regulars, 700 strong, were led by Colonel Francis Smith and were drawn from the elite flank and grenadier companies in Gage's occupying regiments. But most were marching without their own officers. While Colonel Smith had the good fortune to designate Major John Pitcairn from the Royal Marines to head his advance party, the rest of his officers were those too junior avoid the duty, or subalterns out for the adventure.
The Americans meanwhile were aware of the expedition. Express riders were ready to warn those along their route and at Lexington. Joseph Warren sent William Dawes, who covered the longer southern route by land across the Boston Neck through Roxbury, and Paul Revere, who travelled the northern route, by ship to Charlestown and then to Lexington by horse. Later in the night, Warren rode, too. The British began to awaken their troops at 10:00 P.M., and by 10:30 the signal was given to send the riders out, a half hour before the regiments marched sharply to their boats.
The British March to and from Concord was a terrible experience. The boats unloaded the troops at Charlestown in knee deep water. They had had to wade through a part of the Charles River in water to the waist. The pipe clay that was used to make their pants gleaming white for inspection became a soggy, muddy mess. They carried about sixty pounds (30 kg) of pack, musket, and equipment. After halting for a few hours, they began their 14 mile (23 km) march to Lexington. As they marched, the commotion and lights throughout the countryside showed that they had lost the element of surprise they had hoped for. Before they were halfway to Lexington, Colonel Smith made the wise but belated decision to send back to Boston for reinforcements.
As the British advance entered Lexington, 77 militiamen led by Captain John Parker waited on the village green, watching them. Rather then turn left toward Concord Major Pitcairn decided, on his own, to disperse the militia. He spread the advance party of about 200 across the green in three lines. Both officers ordered their men to hold fire. Parker made a statement that is now engraved in stone at the site of the battle, "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." Pitcairn rode forward, waving his sword around, and yelled "Disperse you rebels; damn you, throw down your arms and disperse!". Pitcairn then ordered his troops to fire a warning volley. Realizing the impossible situation, Parker told his men to withdraw, but they refused to disarm (notably, his cousin, Jonas Parker).
Startled, some of the rebels returned fire. Pitcairn's horse was hit and in regaining control he gave what his troops thought was a signal to fire. Although Pitcairn attempted to halt the attack, he was too late. A second larger volley came from the British ranks, followed by a general charge with bayonets. The remaining militia fled. Eight Americans lay dead, and ten had been wounded, against only one British wounded. The eight American dead, the first to die in the Revolutionary war, were John Brown, Samuel Hadley, Caleb Harrington, Jonathon Harrington, Robert Munroe, Isaac Muzzy, Jonas Parker, and Ashahel Porter. Jonathon Harrington, fatally wounded by a British musket ball, managed to crawl back to his home, and died upon his doorstep.
The main body marched into town. A quick check revealed that Adams and Hancock had already fled. Warned by Revere, they had gotten horses and rode for Philadelphia. The British reformed their units and continued to Concord.
By the time they arrived in Concord, about 300 - 400 minutemen and militia had assembled, with Colonel James Barret nominally in command. These stood on a ridge, west of the stream beyond the edge of town. They also watched silently as the British marched in, but they were outside the village proper. Grenadiers began searching the town and four companies of light infantry went west to search the Barrett house, suspected of holding supplies. Three companies under Captain Laurie spread out on both sides of the stream to guard the North Bridge leading out of Concord.
While most supplies had already been removed, the grenadiers did throw nearly a hundred barrels of flour and 550 pounds (250 kg) of shot into the mill pond. They discovered some gun carriages in the town hall, which they dragged to the square and burned. Seeing the fire, Barret led the march down the hill to defend the town they thought was being razed. He also ordered his men not to fire first. As they neared the bridge, marching to a drummer, the British opened fire. When their drummer boy and one other were shot, Colonel Barret ordered the first American volley. Two British died and eight were wounded, and they withdrew in disorder as the Americans rushed the bridge.
Not wanting to be caught between two companies searching his house and those in town, Barret withdrew back to the ridge he'd started from. His men watched as the search party marched back into town. Colonel Smith hired carriages for his wounded, and marched out of town.
The return march
Militia units friendly to the rebel cause continued to gather as an unorganized force along the 20 miles (30 km) back to Charlestown, ultimately totaling as many as 4,000 men. The rebels fired from walls and fences, ravines and farms along the road. The light infantry would send out flanking parties and disperse them, but casualties continued. By the time his column got back to Lexington, it more closely resembled a fleeing mob and the carriages were loaded with the wounded.
They paused at Lexington around noon. Pitcairn held the perimeter while Smith began to restore what order he could to his tired men, now low on ammunition. Here they met the reinforcement they had asked for. Lord Percy brought 1,000 men, fresh ammunition, and some cannon. Marching through Roxbury and Cambridge he met the returning troop at Lexington and took command. By 2:00 in the afternoon the expanded column continued, but so did the fighting.
The nearer they got to Boston, the more concentrated became their opposition. At Menotomy (modern Arlington) forty men fell on both sides. Expecting to retrace his overland route, the resistance made Percy change his mind at Cambridge and head for Charlestown. The last two miles (3 km) were a continuous battle. The British would unlimber their guns, temporarily driving back the rebels. But, as the British turned to move on, the fight would resume.
At last by the end of the day, the exhausted column reached Charlestown, and was under the cover of the British warships in the harbor. Many of the men had been up for two straight days, and had marched 40 miles (60 km). The vaunted British discipline had proved lacking. The rebels rushed into Cambridge and the Siege of Boston had begun.
In terms of accomplishments and casualties this was not a major battle. With 1,800 men engaged, the British losses were 73 dead, 26 missing, and 174 wounded, for 273 total casualties. Estimated rebel losses for 4,000 men were 49 killed, 5 missing, and 41 seriously wounded, for a total of 95 casualties. But the Revolutionary War had begun. The British assumption that they had enough forces at Boston to overwhelm the rebels was now questionable. The next battle, at Bunker Hill would shatter that assumption completely.
Later historic images
Since the reaction to this battle throughout the colonies, and in Britain, set the ground for six years of war, it certainly was recognized as significant at the time. During the next century however, Lexington and Concord took on an almost mythical quality in the American consciousness.
- By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
- Their flag to April's breeze unfurled;
- Here once the embattled farmers stood;
- And fired the shot heard round the world.
- Paul Revere's Ride by David Hackett Fischer ISBN 0195088476
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