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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Battles of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 2006

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Today in 1775, the first shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired in Massachusetts. The skirmish and the running battle that followed had been decades in the making; the war that followed lasted for eight years and marked the birth of the United States of America.

Tensions ran high in the spring of 1775. In the hopes of quelling any potential armed rebellion, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and 900 British Army regulars were sent to Concord to seize weapons and ammunition stored there by the Massachusetts militia. This was just one of many search and destroy missions that the British were carrying out in the colony that spring but, this time, the militia (known as minutemen) had information as to when and where the raid would take place. British mounted patrols had been out earlier in the week searching for the suspected leaders of the rebellion, notably Samuel Adams and John Hancock. This told the militia leaders all they needed to know: the redcoats were coming.

The evening before the battle, William Dawes and Paul Revere learned that the British were heading for Lexington and Concord and were looking to not only seize the stores in Concord (which had been moved weeks before), but to arrest Adams and Hancock, who were living in Lexington. Revere and Dawes set out to warn their friends and call out the militia.

Revere and Dawes, once they arrived in Lexington, set in motion a sort of “early warning system” designed to get the attention of patriots in the small communities of eastern Massachusetts and call them to arms. Riders, church bells and trumpets were used to pass messages from one town to another. Had this system not been put into place months before, the British would’ve met almost no resistance on their way to Lexington and Concord.

At sunrise on the 19th, the British Army and Royal Marine forces arrived at Lexington, 900 strong. They were met by militia leader Captain John Parker and 75 of his soldiers who had been waiting for the Brits in a nearby tavern. It was at this time that Parker issued his famous order: “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” British Major Pitcairn ordered the patriots to lay down their arms and disperse. Parker ordered his men to stand down and most began to leave slowly, rifles still in their possession. No one knows who committed the next act, but one thing is clear: a single shot was fired and then all hell broke loose.

Volleys were fired by both sides as the British soldiers charged with fixed bayonets. Eight Americans were left dead and ten were wounded. On the British side, only one man was wounded. Both sides showed very little discipline and it took time for the British officers to restore order. They eventually formed their units back up and moved on towards Concord.

The militia forces in Concord, after much disagreement, surrendered the town and retreated to some high ground a mile away where they could watch the British advance. They saw smoke rising from the town and assumed the British had set fire to the buildings there. In fact, they were burning several seized wagons. The minutemen moved from their hill and crossed the Old North Bridge, maintaining a fighting formation reminiscent of a European Army. The British found themselves in a tough position due to orders from several officers; basically, they were arrayed in a different direction than that of the approaching irregulars. A shot rang out from a British musket and the fight was on.

Two Minutemen were killed instantly, but the rest of the men held their formation and waited for orders. The “fire” order was given and a volley of shot screamed towards the British lines. Four of the eight redcoat officers were wounded and the formation began to break up in a panic. The regulars fled the scene, leaving their wounded behind and the stunned patriots in control the battlefield. As the British forces retreated back the way they came, they were forced into eight engagements with American militia forces. Contrary to popular belief, these were not hit-and-run engagements but rather set battles of the European tradition.

All told, the British lost 73 men that day and the Americans lost 50. Dozens were wounded and about 2 dozen British soldiers came up missing. In terms of raw numbers, Lexington and Concord were not major battles. But the ragtag colonial militia bested the best trained and equipped army in the world and kept them from achieving their goals. The battle also meant that war was now a reality and that every colonist would have to choose sides.

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