The Battles of Lexington and Concord marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. British intelligence had reported that the provincial militia was storing ammunition in Concord. General Thomas Gage then began to prepare a secret plan that would send a 700 men of light infantry into the countryside to seize the stores of ammunition. The plan was ignorant to the sophisticated alarm system that the provincials had in place. When the march was organized the rebels were ready. The patriot leader, Joseph Warren, had already placed Paul Revere and William Dawes in place to alarm the militia commanders and muster the minute men. The result of the battle was a patriot victory.
Myths of Lexington and Concord
Before I begin detailing the battle it is important to dispel a few myths that have found their place in the story.
- The first myth is that the provincial militia were inexperienced. Lord Percy – who organized the effective retreat from Lexington – wrote privately to London saying, “Whoever looks on them as an irregular mob will be much mistaken. They have amongst them those who know very well what they are about, having been employed as rangers among the Indians.”
- The second myth is that Paul Revere alarmed the country side by himself. This myth began after a poem was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled, Paul Revere’s Ride. The poem romanticized the ride and depicted Revere as the only man on the streets of Boston that night. The reality is there were many riders that night and Paul Revere never made it to Concord. (I wrote a detailed article about Paul Revere’s Ride. Give it a read if you want to learn more.)
- The final myth that I will cover is that the British were tactically beaten. That is not the case, but the British were strategically beaten. This is argued effectively in Michael Stephenson’s book Patriot Battles. Stephenson argued that Francis Smith effectively deployed his troops, but was overmatched by the terrain that greatly favored the provincials.
Events Leading Up To Lexington and Concord
The French and Indian War had ended in 1763 and at the time all colonists were proud to call themselves British subjects. Their economy was productive and they were beginning to push into the frontier. The colonies were flourishing, but the British homeland was suffering from a large amount of debt. They began to try to figure out a way to generate an income from their colonies. This led to a series of events that led up to the Battles of Lexington and Concord and eventually to the Declaration of Independence.
Stamp Act of 1765: It was not the first tax passed, but it was the most controversial. The Stamp Act imposed a tax on all printed paper such as: legal documents, magazines, newspapers, and almanacks. The result was a flurry of political protests, writings, and boycotts that would eventually force the mother country withdrawal the tax.
Townshend Acts: Charles Townshend sought to do something similar as the Stamp Act. He pushed for a series of taxes that would help bring in revenue. The colonies again rebelled and the Townshend Acts were lifted.
Boston Massacre: Due to political unrest in the region Thomas Gage was ordered to station troops in Boston. He sent four British regiments into the area which only fueled opposition. This came to a head at the Boston Massacre when colonists began heckling the troops stationed at their post. The crowd became hostile and eventually shots were fired by the British. The officers were tried in Boston and represented by John Adams.
Gaspee Affair: The HMS Gaspee was enforcing colonial trade regulations when it ran aground in shallow water. Boston men then seized, boarded, looted, and razed the ship.
Boston Tea Party: After Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to send tea back to England the Sons of Liberty organized the Boston Tea Party. During this event the colonists dressed up as Indians, boarded the ship at night, and dumped a large amount of British tea into the Boston harbor. This event caused a substantial amount of money to be lost and resulted in Britain enacted acts that specifically targeted Boston.
Coercive Acts: Known as the Intolerable Acts in the colonies, the Coercive acts sought to do something similar as the Townshend and Stamp Acts had tried to do. However, this time the acts would be strictly enforced. The colonies organized the First Continental Congress to debate the issues at hand.
Powder Alarm: Often overlooked is an event that took place seven months prior to Lexington and Concord. The Powder Alarm was a British raid on gunpowder stores. The reaction by the colonists alarmed Gage who then requested more troops before he proceeded with any more raids. This was a dress rehearsal for Lexington and Concord.
Tactics That Were Used
War in the 18th century was heavily influenced by European warfare. In European wars the two armies would meet in an open field and exchange volley after volley with each other until one took the field. While tactics were more complex than just mindless volleying back and forth that was the general idea. The winner of the battle was the one who took the field. Wars were typically won by capturing cities. Revolutionary War battles would be fought a bit differently.
The French and Indian war introduced the “circle of fire” technique that was used by the native indians. This technique was an effective guerrilla tactic that allowed men to fight behind cover and put pressure on the main column. They would fire from around the army and continually harass. To counter this tactic the British used flanking movements. These flankers would be located on the left and right side of the column and seek to harass the guerrilla fighters and keep them 80 – 100 yards away from the main column.
During the battles of Lexington and Concord the provincials employed this circle of fire close to perfection and almost destroyed an entire British army. They continually harassed the British and stalled them which allowed other militia and minuteman units to run ahead of them and prepare another ambush. The British used flankers to try and keep the provincials in check, but by the time the main column reached Parker’s Revenge the flanking units were exhausted and trailing behind the column.
At the North Bridge in Concord the British regulars tried to use a tactical maneuver known as “street firing.” I describe street firing below and I argue that it would have been an effective tactic if the British would have been veterans. The men were too green in battle to pull this off when under heavy fire.
The Minute Men
Contrary to popular opinion, the minute men of Massachusetts were not farmers who grabbed a gun off of their mantle and rushed out to face the British. They were highly organized and had been drilled for battle by each of their militia commanders. Many of them were veterans of the French and Indian war and had seen plenty of action against the Indians on the frontier. Most of the men that fought on the rebel side had more battle experience than the British regiment they were facing.
The man in command of the Lexington militia was Captain John Parker. Parker was a veteran of the French and Indian War who had been elected by his peers to be their commander. Each man respected him and listened to his orders. He and his minute men mustered at the meetinghouse to discuss the reports of the British. Here is where they would decide whether or not to stand their ground and confront the British or allow them to safely pass by. Each man was allowed to give his input, but it would be Parker who made the final call.
The final decision was that the seventy-six Lexington minute men would stand off to the side of the road and in a parade formation. This would give Parker a couple of options. He could either stand his ground or simply fade away and keep an eye on the British movements. Although the minute men were a musket shots distance from the road the formation was non-threatening. This was not the first time that the British had marched their troops into the countryside nor was it the largest.
The British troops marched into Lexington and saw the seventy-six minute men standing on the Lexington Green. Instead of continuing their march towards Concord they took a hard right and lined up face to face with the provincials. The provincials eased backwards towards a stone wall and began to disperse. The commander of the advance guard, Major John Pitcairn, rode to the left of the meetinghouse and separated himself from his men and lost control of them.
Parker saw that the British army was heading towards his men and ordered them further north off of Concord road. It did little to curb the confusion and the rebels continued to fall back. At that point it seemed as though Parker was going to try and avoid confrontation and allow the British to continue down the road, but in the midst of confusion Pitcairn began barking out conflicting orders that further confused his men.
A shot was fired and it will never be known who pulled the trigger first. It seems unlikely that Parker or his men would be the culprits, but it could have been a provincial sniper. After the shot the British soldiers fired a volley and then began to chase the scattered minute men. The action was unorganized and at times, chaotic. Professional British soldiers that would show great discipline throughout the war were amateurish. Pitcairn continued to try and reorganize his men, but was unable to do so. The chaos would continue until Major Francis Smith arrived and sounded a ceasefire. Pitcairn, who would gain recognition for his bravery at Bunker Hill, should have commanded his men better.
Pitcairn claimed that he wanted to surround the minute men and then disarm them, which may be true. However, he had written his true sentiments to a superior of his six weeks prior that read:
Orders are anxiously expected from England to chastise those very bad people. The General had some of the Great Wigs, as they are called here, with him two days ago, when he took that opportunity of telling them, and swore to it by the living God, that if there was a single man of the King’s troops killed in any of their towns he would burn it to the ground. What fools you are, said he, to pretend to resist the power of Great Britain; she maintained last war three hundred thousand men, and will do the same now rather than suffer the ungrateful people of this country to continue in their rebellion. This behaiviour of the General’s gives great satisfaction to the friends of the Government. I am satisfied that one active campaign, a smart action, and burning of two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights. Nothing now, I am afraid, but this will ever convince these foolish bad people that England is in earnest.
After the fog lifted and the British were reorganized there were eight minute men that lay dead and nine wounded. The British suffered one dead and one wounded.
March Towards Concord
The British began their march to Lexington at approximately 2:00 A.M. and Dr. Samuel Prescott alarmed the Concord minuteman and militia around 1:30 A.M. Their advance to Concord would be more difficult and frightening. With every step they took they could hear alarms sounding in the countryside. The rebels knew they were here and not only did they know they were prepared for their coming. Several of Smith’s officers suggested that they head back to Boston. They believed that the rebels were too prepared and their secret march was exposed. Smith disagreed and pushed forward.
Along the road to Concord the British marched exposed. Shots rank out as provincial snipers tried to find their range. The British regulars were afraid. It was dark and they could sense the rebels were on the move. This sentiment was correct.
A five-mile circle drawn around the marching columns of regulars would have encompassed seventy-five miles of minute men and militia, most of them mustering more than a British company. None of the British soldiers, officers, or Thomas Gage himself knew how well these militia and minuteman companies were organized. An army had been created under the nose of the British. Each of these units had their own chain of command and had been drilled for combat. They knew how to handle the topography and use it to their advantage and they fought in a style that favored it.
The Old North Bridge
The British column advanced to Concord and in spreading out encountered a group of armed militia under the command of Major Buttrick. The British halted their advance and Colonel Barrett was content to wait for the British to make the first hostile move. While waiting reinforcements continued to arrive and raised the provincial manpower to 4:1 favoring the rebels. This included an elite marksman unit commanded by Captain Isaac Davis.
Captain Isaac Davis was a gunsmith by trade and known for his passion for his unit. He made sure that his unit was equipped with the best weaponry and practiced at his shooting range twice a week. His unit was known for their marksmanship and their charismatic leader. Before leaving that morning Davis looked at his wife and said: “Take good care of the children.” He volunteered to lead the march and was placed in the front with his marksman and their bayonets.
Meanwhile the British under Captain Laurels were waiting for word on reinforcements. When word came Laurel organized his men and got them into position to attack the rebels. He ordered the 4th and 10th units to take up a “street firing” maneuver. This maneuver, if used effectively, would organize the 4th into three ranks while the 10th was behind and loaded. The 4th would fire a company volley (A company volley is executed by the front rank kneeling and the rear rank stepped up even with the standing second rank and in the gaps between men; each rank contained 12 men when at full strength) and immediately march in file around the flanks of the 10th. While the 10th took aim and fired the 4th would be loading. This would cause the British soldiers to slowly fall back while unleashing company volley after company volley. It was a good plan, but hard to execute with men who were inexperienced under fire.
Buttrick and his men began marching towards the British soldiers when three shots rang out. Captain Isaac Davis and one of his men were killed instantly. Buttrick steadied his men and returned volley, “Fire!” Buttrick commanded, “For God’s sake fire!” They did and their volley was effective. Eight officers were wounded and one British soldier lay dead and another mortally wounded. The first volley went to the provincials. The British soldiers fired high and missed their opportunity for a devastating blow it is the mark of troops that are not experienced under fire. The British fell back to Concord leaving the provincials in command of the bridge.
The March from Concord
With every passing hour the provincials were reinforced and began surrounding the town. Colonel Smith, feeling that his column was to be surrounded, had to wait for Captain Parsons to return. If he retreated, then Parsons and his unit would certainly be captured. It was an anxious moment for Smith who had sent for reinforcements to General Gage about eight hours ago and now was facing annihilation. He spotted Parsons coming from a distance and Parsons quickly went to a quick march and nearly a trot. He quickly marched pass the forces of Buttrick who was still taking a defensive position and only engaging the British when they engaged. On Parsons arrival Smith wasted no time in beginning his retreat to Boston.
During the retreat the British came under heavy fire in five locations: Meriam’s Corner, Hardy’s Hill, Bloody Angle, Parker’s Revenge, and Fiske Hill.
Smith and his column moved quickly from Concord and made it to a point known as Meriam’s Corner. Meriam’s Corner is located by the house of Josiah Meriam and gave the provincials thick brush to hide. This would be one of the first instances of the guerilla tactics that the provincials and colonial militia would use throughout the war to frustrate the British. British volleys were highly effective in open ground and would cause many of the militia to run in fear, but here the provincials did no such thing. They fired behind stone walls, thick brush, and used a house for cover. All the while dropping back and exhausting Colonel Smith’s flanking units.
At Meriam’s Corner there is conflicting reports as to who fired first, but it is agreed by both that the British volley missed high and the provincial fire was deadly. The Billerica and Reading militia and minuteman units were encouraged by the ineffective volleys of the British and edged closer delivering continual fire. This continual fire weakened the flanking units and edged the minutemen closer to the main British line. Smith pushed his men through the gauntlet while his left flank took heavy fire. These quick movements allowed him to rush past Meriam’s Corner, but also exhausted his flanking units which were beginning to lag behind. Once past Meriam’s Corner the British officers believed that they had managed to push through the militia that had surrounded them. This idea was proved false when they reached Hardy’s Hill.
Hardy’s Hill was located right next to the Concord Road and gave the provincials the advantage of elevation and cover. It would be here that the British could come under a heavy volley of 215 militia and minutemen from Framingham and Sudbury. To make matters worse for the British their left flank was still under heavy fire at Meriam’s corner. Smith sent out another flanking unit to try and dislodge the provincials but only made them easier targets for minutemen snipers.
The men of Framingham and Sudbury were led by veterans of the French and Indian war and were quite comfortable with these guerrilla tactics. These tactics began to frustrate the British and caused chaos in the British ranks. The provincials had effectively caught the British in a pincer attack and began to pour fire on them. Smith managed to regain control of his men and push them further down the road. However, he did so at the expense of his flanking units. The provincials had successfully repelled them and come closer to the main British line.
The Bloody Angle
Smith pushed forward and was able to sustain his men without taking heavy losses, but his flanking units were growing tired. He continued to move down the Lexington Road which now dipped and crossed the Elm Brook. The right flank of his army was moving through thick brush along the side of the road. This made it difficult for the provincials to engage them with any type of success, but the topography would again prove difficult for Smith to manage. Colonel Smith had little choice but to continue a curve in the road. Here the provincials were again waiting for the Redcoats.
Major Baldwin and the Woburn militia had arrived earlier and witnessed the carnage at Lexington and arrived too late to help in repelling the British at Concord. Baldwin and his newly formed regiment witnessed the skirmish at Meriam’s Corner and moved towards Lexington. The Woburn men set up in an advantageous spot at a sharp angle in the Lexington Road. He and his men took cover behind trees and waited for the oncoming British. The Redcoats came into view shortly after.
The men of Woburn opened up a blistering volley that ripped through the light infantry of the 5th regiment and what was left of the 4th. The British took heavy losses and the barrage of fire killed approximately eight soldiers and wounded twenty others. The initial volley pushed the British back, but the main column pushed them back through. More heavy fire came from the provincials as the British reorganized and began returning fire. Flanking units were sent out on both the left and right side. On the right the provincials held their own while on the left the British managed to get an advantage.
The British could not gain a significant advantage anywhere and seemed to be facing annihilation if this continued. The Woburn men were bringing down heavy fire at the head of the column while the men from Meriam’s corner continued to harass the British from the rear. They were under constant fire and could only push through. The men were now exhausted, but to their credit the British fought bravely. Smith rallied his men and sent out more flanking units that eventually drove the Woburn men from their position. The British continued to press forward and would come into contact with the Lexington militia.
Parker’s Revenge and Fiske Hill
Captain John Parker had arranged his men in a parade formation when the British arrived in Lexington earlier that morning. The British then poured a devastating volley into the Lexington regiment that left eight dead and nine wounded. Parker was probably itching at a chance to get back at the British and set up his men at another curve in the road and placed his men on the high ground.
The British flanking units had been somewhat effective in repelling the provincials and keeping them a safe distance away from the main British column, but the day was long and hot and they were exhausted. The flanking units began to fall behind the main column leaving it exposed. This presented the perfect opportunity for Parker and his Lexington men to deliver a blistering volley into the Redcoats.
Parker waited patiently for the the British to approach. His men remained concealed and in no danger of being engaged by flanking units that had fallen behind. He allowed Colonel Smith and Captain Parsons to come along side of his concealed location and then opened fire. Colonel Smith was struck in the thigh and thrown from his horse, Captain Parsons was also struck, and many British soldiers fell. The British again reorganized and sent grenadiers after the Lexington minutemen. This all took time and they were constantly under fire from the men they had ran from the field earlier that day. Major John Pitcairn led the charge to drive Parker from the hill, which he did, but not before Parker and his Lexington regiment inflicted much damage on the British.
Pitcairn successfully rallied his men and pushed the provincials back. He was able to relieve the main British column, but had taken a lot of time to do it. Now the provincials that had fought at Meriam’s Corner were in front of the main column again and supported by reinforcements waiting at Fiske Hill. Pitcairn took heavy casualties for his effort, but did manage to allow the British to regain their quick march. He had saved the British column from possible annihilation.
The British again faced another ambush at Fiske Hill where the provincials delivered heavy fire. It seemed as if the British column was fading until the hopeful sight of reinforcements. Gage had finally responded to Colonel Smith’s request for reinforcements and sent 1,000 men under Lord Percy.
Lord Percy’s Arrival
General Thomas Gage had organized a brigade is Colonel Smith needed reinforcements. When an aid came to Gage telling him that Smith was in fact calling for reinforcements he sent orders to Lord Earl Percy. Percy woke his men and began a slow march towards Lexington. He was expecting a fight and therefore did his best to conserve his men’s energy. Upon arriving in Lexington he believed that the provincials could be easily dispersed with a few cannon fire, but like Major John Pitcairn, his opinion would change.
Percy was taken back by the sight of regulars retreating from this band of rebels. They were in a full retreat and were not even turning to return fire. Percy fired cannon at the rebel flanks. The British regulars under Colonel Smith cheered at the sight of fresh reinforcements while the rebel guns silenced.
Menotomy and Charlestown
Up until this point the fight had been long, hard, and grueling to say the least, but Menotomy would be the stage of the bloodiest fighting of the day. Percy and Smith set up headquarters and rested the men while Smith and his officers told Percy of the situation. Lord Percy calmly listened and began preparing for their return march. Their retreat would take them through Menotomy and into Charlestown, but the town of Menotomy was no longer vacant as it had been when Percy marched through it.
All roads led to Menotomy and waiting for Percy were approximately 35 militia and minuteman regiments. When the British arrived in the town, Percy ordered that every house be checked before he marched his army into what could be an ambush. The fighting that ensued was brutal and caused many casualties on both sides. British flanking units executed ferocious assaults on houses that housed provincial snipers and left many dead. Provincials fired from behind buildings, inside buildings, and dove out of windows. It became an all out brawl. Percy knew that he was taking heavy losses and that the fighting favored the provincials, but it was the right move. If he had marched his army into the town he would have been outgunned and possibly cut off.
The British continued to endure heavy fire from the provincials, but under Percy’s calm demeanor stayed focused and continued their retreat to Boston. The General guessed that it would be best if he marched towards Charlestown rather than Cambridge, which was a correct assessment, and from Charlestown he would move his troops under the cover of the British Navy back to Boston. The plan was successful and the British were able to retreat across the bay into Boston.
British Casualties were as follows:
American Casualties were as follows:
The Battles of Lexington and Concord marked the first battle of the American Revolutionary War and the first of the Boston Campaign. The provincials had successfully repelled the British but failed to cut them off during their retreat. Percy had successfully retreated and avoided disaster, but General Gage was now placed under siege by approximately 15,000 militia from Massachusetts and other colonies. The minutemen and militia were successful, but there was one glaring problem, leadership.
While the leaders during the battles of Lexington and Concord displayed great courage and ability it was the lack of central leadership that allowed the British to escape. Each militia unit was well organized but tended to act on their own and although they were effective it would be clear that in order to unify the colonies and defeat the British there would need to be a Continental Army created and a Commander-in-Chief put in place. This came in the form of George Washington who would take over command on June 14, 1775, but would not arrive in Boston until after the Battle of Bunker Hill.
- Bobrick, Benson. Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York. Penguin Books, 1997.
- Edwards, Ben. “A Loyalist Account: Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill.” http://teachhistory.com/tag/battle-of-lexington-and-concord/ (accessed Novermber 30, 2012)
- Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Galvin, John R. The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 1989.
- Savas, Theodore P and Dameron, J. David. A Guide To The Battle Of The American Revolution. New York: Savas Beatie, 2006
- Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How The War of Independence Was Fought.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007