WAR: ‘The alarm had been sounded’
“We trust we have courage and Resolution” wrote Lincoln, Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence in the wake of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, “sufficient to encounter all the honors of war in the defense of those Rights and Privileges civil and religious, which we esteem more valuable than our lives, and we do hereby assure, not only the Town of Boston, but the world, that … we are ready to join with our brethren to face the formidable forces, rather than tamely to surrender up our rights and privileges into the hands of any of our own species, not distinguished from ourselves except to be in disposition to enslave us. At the same time, we have the highest esteem for all lawful authority; and rejoice in our connection with Great Britain, so long as we can enjoy our charter rights and privileges.”1 They were preparing for a break with England by force of arms if necessary.
The British Constitution was an amalgamation of several documents: The Mayflower Compact, Magna Carta (Common Law) and the Royal Charter of 1629 — a way of life that Bostonians and colonials alike lived under, respected and followed and would defend. Even as early as 1632, the Virginia Assembly told “every man fit to carry a gun to bring it to church, that he might exercise with it after the Service.”2
The British Cabinet ordered Governor General Gage to arrest the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, especially John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and, failing that, to take the stores that were being accumulated to be used against them. General Gage was hesitant but having a very good spy network, he knew the colonists were planning to fight. The “Cabinet had determined that if war were inevitable it would be better to begin the conflict immediately rather than allow the colonists to become better prepared for military conflict.”3
Consequently, General Gage issued the following order to Lt. Col. Smith:
Having received intelligence, that a quantity of Ammunition, Provision, Artillery, Tents and small arms, have been collected at Concord, for the Avowed Purpose of raising and supporting a Rebellion against His Majesty, you will march with the Corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry, put under your command, with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy all Artillery, Ammunition, Provision, Tents, Small Arms, and all military stores whatever. But you will take care that the Soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants, or hurt private property.4
When colonist Joseph Warren learned that the British intended to march, he arranged for Paul Revere and Williams Dawes to sound the alarm, and the two were later joined by Dr. Prescott.
Both Revere and Dawes were stopped on the famous ride by a British patrol and were taken captive. Prescott surprised the captors by acting quickly, jumping a fence and getting away from the British. But the alarm had been sounded and the entire countryside was alerted to the British march.
Seven hundred British soldiers under Lt. Col. Smith and Major Pitcairn were ordered out of Boston at 10:30 p.m. on April 18, 1775, to march first to Lexington then on to Concord to seize military arms and supplies.
The British arrived at Lexington Green at 5 a.m. on the 19th, where they were met by Captain Parker and 78 minutemen. Captain Parker had told his men, “If there is to be a war, let it begin here.”5 Seeing they were severely outnumbered, Captain Parker told them to disperse when three British officers rode up and commanded, “Lay down your arms damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms?” An officer fired his pistol toward the militia and another commanded his soldiers, “Fire! By God, Fire!” The British rushed in firing and control was lost, resulting in 10 dead and eight wounded colonials; the soldiers continued their march to Concord for the arms and ammunition.
Arriving at Concord they crossed The North Bridge and began looking for military supplies. Two cannon were located and spiked, the trunnions broken off and the carriages burned. Flour and musket balls were dumped in a pond. After a building accidentally caught fire, the militia seeing only the smoke, asked of their commander, “Will you let them burn the town?” The 400 militia were now advancing. The British, after going back into the town, were approached by the militia. The British began a retreat but then turned and rushed in. When militiamen Isaac Davis and Abner Hosner are killed, Major Buttrick shouted, “Fire, fellow soldiers, for God’s sake, fire!” An exchange of fire killed three British soldiers and wounded nine. This incident became known as “the shot heard round the world.”
The British began the 18 mile march back to Boston in hostile country. Surprisingly militia continued coming out — from Lincoln, Medford and surrounding towns — with almost 3,500 to 5,000 joining the fight. These farmers, hunters and storekeepers hid behind stone wall fences, trees and buildings and hid inside buildings and ravines, creating an ambush hit and run attack: Fire, reload on the run, fire again, retreat, leapfrog to a different position — place, wait and fire again. These men were angry — angry at being fired on by their own countrymen — for they still considered themselves to be British, angry about the Coercive Acts, angry at the removal of arms and accoutrements, and most importantly, infuriated that some of their townspeople and neighbors were lying dead or wounded in Lexington and Concord. Ordinary people included Moses Brown, a school teacher turned merchant who was well on his way to economic and social prominence and Peter Brooks, a slave trained as a cordwainer (one who makes new shoes from new leather).5
The marching British soldiers were tired, hot and angry and charged into houses killing those firing at them. In Boston, General Gage heard of the fighting and ordered Lord Percy to march a relief column with two small cannon to Lexington to support the troops returning to Boston. With those reinforcements, the Colonials stopped pursuing the British soldiers.
The die for conflict in the colonies had been cast. Now an army would be needed, battles would be fought and there would be death. Who would support them – those intrepid men of Boston, Lexington and Concord, Medford, Menotomy and Lincoln? Would other Colonies join in the fight? And who would lead them? Families would be uprooted, and neighbors would be fighting neighbors.
The British cabinet never thought the average American farmer or shop-keeper would fight, but this was to be a fight to the finish. “Lexington was not simply an infuriating provocation and proof of evil intentions; it made perfectly clear that ‘if we did not defend ourselves they would kill us.'” 6 Percy later reported to Gage: “This much I know, sir, and can swear to: the rebels are in earnest and they fight hard. They are not to be underestimated. It is a thing we should be foolish indeed to forget.”7
War was not a new thing to the Colonists. Many had fought in the late war known as the French and Indian War, and they had fought to defend their families from Indian attacks. The British Army lost this battle, strengthening the colonists resolve to fight. The British accomplished their mission, albeit not without heavy losses and realized that the Colonials were not to be beaten easily, deserved respect, and that it would not be a short war. British losses were 73 killed in action, 174 wounded and 26 missing. For the colonists, losses were 49 killed in action, 39 wounded and 5 missing.8
The British came for arms and accoutrements and searched homes for the same. Tyrannical government would ultimately help contribute to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and forming of the U. S. Constitution. This would contribute to the evolution of the Bill of Rights, specifically the Second and Fourth Amendments:
A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.9
With a war to fight, the colonists now needed leadership, a commander, an army, and a nation…
1. Wiggin, Richard C., Embattled Farmers; Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1775-1783. Lincoln, MA (2013), p. 3.
2. Shy, John W., A People Numerous and Armed, Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, Rev. Ed. Ann Arbor, (1990), p. 32.
3. Ammerman, David L., The Tea Crisis and its Consequences. A Companion to the American Revolution. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA (2004) Ch. 24, pg. 203.
4. Minuteman National Park Brochure, 2018
5. Ibid, Wiggin p. 15
6. Bailyn, Bernard, Faces of Revolution; Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence. New York, NY, (1999), p. 18
7. Nolan, Jeanette Covert, The Shot Heard Round the World, the Story of Lexington and Concord., New York, NY, (1963), p. 170.
10. USMA, West Point, Map Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775. USMA, West Point.