237 Years ago, the American Colonist began armed resistance to the British crown, in two small towns west of Boston, Massachusetts, well over a year before the Declaration of Independence was even debated.
By April 1775, tensions between the British and Colonist in New England, Massachusetts in particular had reached the boiling point. On April 14, 1775 British General Thomas Gage received orders to disarm the rebels, and arrest the main Colonial Leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock. General Gage proceeded with plans to march on Concord, Massachusetts west of Boston where a cache of arms was believed to be stored.
On April 18, 1775 Gage sent about 20 troops into the countryside west of Boston to intercept anybody on Horseback who may be able to pass word of the impending British Forces movement to Concord. Having received word of General Gage’s order, by April 8, 1775 most of the Colonial Leaders had already left Boston, with two prominent exceptions being Paul Revere and Joseph Warren. British troops had been noticed scoping out the roads and country side by Concord, but not a larger cache site in Worcester further South West, and the townspeople of Concord decided to distribute the weapons to other near by towns.
The Colonist where aware that April 19, 1775 Gage would move on Concord, and the patrols of April 18, 1775 only helped confirm this, since it was not common for patrols to stay out past dark as they did this night. After sunset on April 18, 1775 Joseph Warren informed both William Dawes and Paul Revere that the British were embarking on boats to cross Boston Harbor for Cambridge which had a road to Lexington and Concord to start their march. The Colonial Leaders still in Boston where not worried about Concord since that cache had been secured elsewhere, but where concerned that Leaders in Lexington may not know what was occurring. William Dawes and Paul Revere set out by horse to alert the Colonial Militias in the towns along the path, and to get word to leaders in Lexington of what was happening.
Both William Dawes took the Boston Neck and Paul revere traveled by boat out of Boston, evading detection by British forces. After arriving in Lexington, Revere and Dawes, discussed with Samuel Adams and John Hancock what was going on, and agreed, the size of the forces was too large for simply arresting two people (Adams and Hancock), and that Concord was in fact the main target of the operation. Rider were dispatched to alarm the surrounding towns of the British forces movement, with William Dawes and Paul revere continuing onto to Concord joined by Samuel Prescott to alert Concord. In Lincoln, Massachusetts the three ran into a British patrol, Paul revere was captured, William Dawes was thrown from his horse and returns to Lexington, but Samuel Prescott continued on, and was able to reach and alert Concord, who subsequently dispatched more riders to alert the surrounding towns. The alarm of the riders not night, allowed the Colonist to muster its minutemen.
Shortly after dawn on April 19, 1775 the British reached the town of Lexington, Massachusetts and were awaited by a core of about 80 Militia and Minutemen. Captain John Parker, the Officer in charge of the Colonial forces instructed,
"Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here."
After British Officer rode in front of the Colonial forces saying to them, "lay down your arms, you damned rebels!", a shot rang out, from which side and location is known only to the shooter even today. Both sides claimed after the engagement the other side fired first, but the actual fact of whom fired the first shot is lost to history. Eight American’s died on Lexington green, including Captain Parker’s cousin Jonas Parker, only one British troop was injured in the skirmish. Chaos ensued in the British ranks after the short engagement when British troops prepared to begin to enter homes unsure of their orders, but order among the British was subsequently reestablished, by drum beat.
British Forces continued on to Concord, a force of at least 700, while Militia and Minutemen forces still only numbered about 250. The British commenced a house to house search for arms, and Samuel Adams and John Hancock some building were fired, all the while American Forces size continued to increase. Colonial Colonel Barrett’s troops on Punkatasset Hill, were able to see the smoke from Concord’s town square, and saw only a handful companies below them. Colonel Barrett decided to march back towards Concord from their current vantage point on Punkatasset Hill to a lower but closer position to the town only about 300 yards from the North Bridge over the Concord River. As Colonel Barrett’s militia advanced, the two British companies that held the position near the road retreated to the bridge and yielded the hill to Barrett's men. Eventually Five full companies of Militia from neighboring towns joined Barrett’s forces to a number of about 400, this was compared to the 90 or so British Forces near North Bridge. Barrett order his forces toward the bridge, and the British responded by forming a “street fighting” defensive position on the road on the opposite side of the bridge, even though in open country.
As the American Forces advanced, a shot rang out perhaps a warning shot, though no order was given to fire. The led to the remaining British forces believing the order to fire had been given, and volley rang out, the British Commander was unable to stop it. Two Militia were killed by the first volley. The American Forces continued to advance and stopped only when Major Buttrick yelled,
"Fire, for God's sake, fellow soldiers, fire!"
By this time only the Concord River and North Bridge separated the two forces, about 50 yards. The American formed firing lines, and let loose a volley of fire, killing three, and wounding half the British Sergeants and Officer (four of eight), and nine others were wounded. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the British forces abandoned North Bridge. This engagement marked the first armed resistance to the British Crown, and commenced the war portion of the American Revolution.
After the engagement, stunned by their success, the Americans, some militia returned home, but the remainder returned to the Hill overlooking the Bridge 300 yards away. The British eventually consolidated their forces, and began the march back to Boston, but this march was anything than a return to base, and the fighting for the day was hardly over.
The entire way back to Boston, Minutemen and militia engaged the British in a running skirmish. From Concord to Charleston (on the north-western outskirts of Boston), the American forces grew to over 4,000. By the time the British were reinforced and relived in Charleston at least 40 British troops were killed, and 80 more wounded. The Americans lost 25 dead, and 9 wounded. Following the Battle, the American surrounded Boston with about 15,000 militia from around New England, and set up the eventual Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775.
The events of April 19, 1775 changed the minds of many Colonists from attempting to come to a peaceful resolution with the crown, to a dedicated fight for Independence, including John Adams who said the “Die was Cast”, and George Washington, stating
"the once-happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched in blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?"
Thomas Paine, who also sought a peaceful resolution, soured to the notion, and would later in the year start writing “Common Sense”, an argument for declaring Independence.
Though the response was negatively received in London on what the British Troops had done (through some American ingenuity ensuring the American’s account in more detail, arrived before General Gage’s official report), the course of History was set, and the war would grow worse. Eventually the 2nd Continental Congress would establish these militia as the Continental Army under the Command of General George Washington.
During the 52nd anniversary of the Battle at North Bridge Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the following poem (1st verse only selected)
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The first armed resistance of a colony toward its home country, in pursuit of controlling its own destiny, based on principles of freedom and liberty happened 237 years ago, today.