Battle of Lexington
Battle of Lexington
François Godefroy - Source
License: Public Domain

Battles of Lexington and Concord

The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. They were fought on April 19, 1775, in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy (present-day Arlington), and Cambridge, near Boston. The battles marked the outbreak of open armed conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and its thirteen colonies in the mainland of British North America.

About 700 British Army regulars, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy military supplies that were reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot colonials had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk, and had moved most of them to other locations. They also received details about British plans on the night before the battle, and were able to rapidly notify the area militias of the military movement.

The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. The militia were outnumbered and fell back, and the regulars proceeded on to Concord, where they searched for the supplies. At the North Bridge in Concord, several hundred militiamen fought and defeated three companies of the King's troops. The outnumbered regulars fell back from the Minutemen after a pitched battle in open territory.

More Minutemen arrived soon thereafter and inflicted heavy damage on the regulars as they marched back towards Boston. Upon returning to Lexington, Smith's expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Hugh, Earl Percy. A combined force of about 1,700 men marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown. The accumulated militias blockaded the narrow land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, starting the Siege of Boston.

On April 19, 1775, British and American soldiers exchanged fire in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord. On the night of April 18, the royal governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, commanded by King George III to suppress the rebellious Americans, had ordered 700 British soldiers, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and Marine Major John Pitcairn, to seize the colonists' military stores in Concord, some 20 miles west of Boston.

A system of signals and word-of-mouth communication set up by the colonists was effective in forewarning American volunteer militia men of the approach of the British troops. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride" tells how a lantern was displayed in the steeple of Christ Church on the night of April 18, 1775, as a signal to Paul Revere and others.

One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex, village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.

At Lexington Green, the British were met by approximately seventy American Minute Men led by John Parker. At the North Bridge in Concord, the British were confronted again, this time by 300 to 400 armed colonists, and were forced to march back to Boston with the Americans firing on them all the way. By the end of the day, the colonists were singing "Yankee Doodle" and the American Revolution had begun.

In the village of Lexington west of Boston, the residents had been preparing for a fight they thought was imminent. They had accumulated powder and shot during the winter, but the high cost of those items had made target practice a rarity. On the evening of April 18, 1775, many of Captain John Parker’s militiamen gathered in a local tavern to await word about the movement of British soldiers, an event that had been rumored for several days. The presence of John Hancock and Samuel Adams, the two men most wanted by royal authorities, made Lexington a logical choice for the redcoats' attention. Further, the neighboring town of Concord had recently hosted the illegal Provincial Congress and was thought to harbor a rich cache of arms.

Confirmation of the British advance was delivered to Lexington by Paul Revere and William Dawes. In the early hours of April 19 the Minutemen, so-called because of their pledge to be ready to fight "at a minute’s notice," began to gather on the village green. During the night the size of the force changed constantly as some men quietly departed for their homes and others appeared to lend their support.

As the British advance party approached shortly after dawn, 77 Minutemen were instructed by Captain Parker: "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." The British commander, who was pleasantly surprised by the small size of the American force, ordered the colonists to throw down their arms and disperse. Some began to obey the order to leave, but held on to their arms. At that point a shot was fired — its source is unknown. Other shots quickly followed and when the smoke cleared, eight Americans lay dead and 10 were wounded; one British soldier was slightly wounded. The outmatched Minutemen retreated into the nearby woods and the redcoats proceeded westward to their main objective, Concord.

Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.

— Captain John Parker, Lexington Militia

Paul Revere's Ride
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!"
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,--
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer's dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,---
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
>From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,---
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.