As the first military engagement between the British army and the colonial American militia, the battles of Lexington and Concord were the shot heard ’round the world, igniting the political protest of the colonists into armed rebellion. This two-pronged engagement began with a plan for 700 British regulars, under the command of Colonel Francis Smith, to move quickly out of Boston and seize important colonial political leaders, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, at Lexington, as well as a large power magazine located at Concord. The British assembled the night of April 18 on Boston Common, then marched out about 10 p.m., intending to arrive at Lexington by dawn.
Colonial leaders within Boston, alarmed by troop movements and expecting a military move by General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British forces in America and military governor of Massachusetts, checked in with their intelligence sources. The colonists learned that two British soldiers had talked about a raid on Lexington and Concord; the information was then confirmed by a source close to Gage, possibly his American wife, Margaret Kemble Gage. On this information, riders, including Paul Revere, Dr. Martin Herrick, William Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott, among others, fanned out along the roads to alert the local militias and locate British roadblocks and patrols.
British forces under Colonel Francis Smith retreat from Concord, Massachusetts, after the first day of fighting with colonial militia on April 19, 1775. By the time they reached Boston, the British had suffered 273 casualties. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) Because of these warnings, the British advance force under Major John Pitcairn encountered armed militia when he arrived in Lexington at 5 a.m. Pitcairn ordered the militia to disarm, but they only dispersed across Lexington Green. During the confusion, a shot rang out, probably from behind a stone wall or from Buckman’s Tavern. (Historians strongly suspect Samuel Adams as the provocateur and source of the shot.) The British responded with a volley and bayonet charge into the militia, killing eight and wounding nine, while one British regular was wounded. Allowing the troops a triumphant volley, Pitcairn proceeded to Concord, where at 7 a.m. he again encountered militia, this time arrayed on the high ground near North Bridge.
Pitcairn’s troops searched Concord, finding only three cannons and some shot because the townspeople had ample warning to hide their supplies. Furious, he cut down Concord’s liberty pole and allowed the soldiers to search house to house, looting in the process. As a parting gesture, Pitcairn set afire the cannons’ gun carriage, in the process accidentally setting fire to the courthouse; the British soldiers and townspeople worked together to put out the blaze. The smoke alerted the militia, now 500 strong, who encountered a small British force on the bridge. While retreating to the main body of troops, one of the British regulars let off his musket, triggering a volley, and the militia responded in a firefight in which four British officers and five soldiers were killed. Pitcairn and Smith decided to return to Boston before their men ran out of ammunition and were trapped.
Fighting spread as the British retreated the 18 miles back to Boston, followed by increasing numbers of militiamen led by Brigadier General William Heath, who fired at them from behind stone walls and houses along the route. The British particularly resented that the militia targeted British wounded in carts; one militiaman, Ammi White, hatcheted a wounded regular to death. At Lexington, the British encountered a relief force under Brigadier General Hugh Percy, who escorted the retreating British troops back to Boston, sending out flanking parties and pouring artillery fire on the attacking militia as they traveled. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers covered the end of the British line, walking backward most of the way. Percy avoided being trapped by fresh militiamen when Colonel Timothy Pickering held back the Marblehead militia from surrounding the British retreat column, for reasons that are still unclear. Reaching safety in Boston under the guns of the HMS Somerset, which was moored in the Charles River, the British discovered that in contrast to the militia, which lost 49 men and had 39 wounded, they had taken losses of 73 dead, 174 wounded, and 26 missing. The battles, though small in scale, hardened opposition on both sides: The British were convinced that the colonists were savages and rebels, the militia that the British were thugs and looters. The colonists also became more confident in their ability to take on regular troops.
In essence, these battles signaled the start of the armed Revolution. They also concentrated both British strength and the colonial militia around Boston, where vicious partisan fighting would continue within and outside the city for nearly a year, until British troops withdrew from the region in March 1776. Margaret Sankey See also: Adams, Samuel; Army, British; Gage, Thomas; Hancock, John; Military and Diplomatic Affairs (Chronology); Military and Diplomatic Affairs (Essay); Militias; Revere, Paul; Revolutionary War. Bibliography Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Hallahan, William. The Day the American Revolution Began. New York: William Morrow, 2000. Tourtellot, Arthur Bernon. Lexington and Concord. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.