American Revolution: Early Campaigns

The Shot Heard Around the World

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The Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775. Engraving by Amos Doolittle. Photograph Source: Public Domain

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Opening Shots: Lexington & Concord

Following several years of rising tensions and the occupation of Boston by British troops, the military governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, began efforts to secure the colony's military supplies to keep them from the Patriot militias. These actions received official sanction on April 14, 1775, when orders arrived from London commanding him to disarm the militias and to arrest key colonial leaders.

Believing the militias to be hoarding supplies at Concord, Gage made plans for part of his force to march and occupy the town.

On April 16, Gage sent a scouting party out of the city towards Concord which gathered intelligence, but also alerted the colonials to British intentions. Aware of Gage's orders, many key colonial figures, such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams, left Boston to seek safety in the country. Two days later, Gage ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to prepare a 700-man force to sortie from the city.

Aware of British interest in Concord, many of the supplies were quickly moved to other towns. Around 9:00-10:00 that night, Patriot leader Dr. Joseph Warren informed Paul Revere and William Dawes that the British would be embarking that night for Cambridge and the road to Lexington and Concord. Departing the city by separate routes, Revere and Dawes made their famous ride west to warn that the British were approaching.

In Lexington, Captain John Parker gathered the town's militia and had them form into ranks on the town green with orders not to fire unless fired upon.

Around sunrise, the British vanguard, led by Major John Pitcairn, arrived in the village. Riding forward, Pitcairn demanded that Parker's men disperse and lay down their arms.

Parker partially complied and ordered his men to go home, but to retain their muskets. As his men began to move, a shot rang out from an unknown source. This led to an exchange of fire which saw Pitcairn's horse hit twice. Surging forward the British drove the militia from the green. When the smoke cleared, eight of the militia were dead and another ten wounded. One British soldier was injured in the exchange.

Departing Lexington, the British pushed on towards Concord. Outside of the town, the Concord militia, unsure of what had transpired at Lexington, fell back and took up a position on a hill across the North Bridge. The British occupied the town and broke into detachments to search for the colonial munitions. As they began their work, the Concord militia, led by Colonel James Barrett, was reinforced as other towns' militias arrived on the scene. A short time later fighting broke out near the North Bridge with the British being forced back into the town. Gathering his men, Smith began the return march to Boston.

As the British column moved, it was attacked by colonial militia which took up concealed positions along the road. Though reinforced at Lexington, Smith's men continued to take punishing fire until they reached the safety of Charlestown.

All told, Smith's men suffered 272 casualties. Rushing to Boston, the militia effectively placed the city under siege. As news of the fighting spread, they were joined by militia from neighboring colonies, ultimately forming an army of over 20,000.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

On the night of June 16/17, 1775, colonial forces moved onto the Charlestown Peninsula with the goal of securing high ground from which to bombard British forces in Boston. Led by Colonel William Prescott, they initially established a position atop Bunker Hill, before moving forward to Breed's Hill. Using plans drawn by Captain Richard Gridley, Prescott's men began constructing a redoubt and lines extending northeast towards the water. Around 4:00 AM, a sentry on HMS Lively spotted the colonials and the ship opened fire.

It was later joined by other British ships in the harbor, but their fire had little effect.

Alerted to the American presence, Gage began organizing men to take the hill and gave command of the assault force to Major General William Howe. Transporting his men across the Charles River, Howe ordered Brigadier General Robert Pigot to directly attack Prescott's position while a second force worked around the colonial left flank to attack from behind. Aware that the British were planning an attack, General Israel Putnam dispatched reinforcements to Prescott's aid. These took up a position along fence which extended to the water near Prescott's lines.

Moving forward, Howe's first attack was met my massed musket fire from the American troops. Falling back, the British reformed and attacked again with the same result. During this time, Howe's reserve, near Charlestown, was taking sniper fire from the town. To eliminate this, the navy opened fire with heated shot and effectively burned Charlestown to the ground. Ordering his reserve forward, Howe launched a third attack with all of his forces. With the Americans nearly out of ammunition, this assault succeeded in carrying the works and forced the militia to retreat off the Charlestown Peninsula. Though a victory, the Battle of Bunker Hill cost the British 226 killed (including Major Pitcairn) and 828 wounded. The high cost of the battle caused British Major General Henry Clinton to remark, "A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America."

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The Invasion of Canada

On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. A month later on June 14, they formed the Continental Army and chose George Washington of Virginia as its commander-in-chief. Traveling to Boston, Washington took command of the army in July. Among Congress' other goals was the capture of Canada.

Efforts had been made the previous year to encourage French-Canadians to join the thirteen colonies in opposing British rule. These advances were rebuffed, and Congress authorized the formation of the Northern Department, under Major General Philip Schuyler, with orders to take Canada by force.

Schuyler's efforts were made easier by the actions of Colonel Ethan Allen of Vermont, who along with Colonel Benedict Arnold, captured Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775. Located at the base of Lake Champlain, the fort provided an ideal springboard for attacking Canada. Organizing a small army, Schuyler fell ill and was forced to turn command over to Brigadier General Richard Montgomery. Moving up the lake, he captured Fort St. Jean on November 3, after a 45-day siege. Pressing on, Montgomery occupied Montreal ten days later when Canadian governor Major General Sir Guy Carleton withdrew to Quebec City without a fight.

With Montreal secured, Montgomery departed for Quebec City on November 28 with 300 men.

While Montgomery's army had been attacking through the Lake Champlain corridor, a second American force, under Arnold moved up the Kennebec River in Maine. Anticipating the march from Fort Western to Quebec City to take 20 days, Arnold's 1,100-man column encountered problems shortly after departing.

Leaving September 25, his men endured starvation and disease before finally reaching Quebec on November 6, with around 600 men. Though he outnumbered the city's defenders, Arnold lacked artillery and could not penetrate its fortifications.

On December 3, Montgomery arrived and the two American commanders joined forces. As the Americans planned their attack, Carleton reinforced the city raising the number of defenders to 1,800. Moving forward on the night of December 31, Montgomery and Arnold assaulted the city with the latter attacking from the west and the former from the north. In the resulting Battle of Quebec, American forces were repulsed with Montgomery killed in action. The surviving Americans retreated from the city and were placed under the command of Major General John Thomas.

Arriving on May 1, 1776, Thomas found American forces weakened by disease and numbering fewer than a thousand. Seeing no other choice, he began retreating up the St. Lawrence River. On June 2, Thomas died of smallpox and command devolved to Brigadier General John Sullivan who had recently arrived with reinforcements. Attacking the British at Trois-Rivières on June 8, Sullivan was defeated and forced to retreat to Montreal and then south towards Lake Champlain.

Seizing the initiative, Carleton pursued the Americans with the goal of reclaiming the lake and invading the colonies from the north. These efforts were blocked on October 11, when a scratch-built American fleet, led by Arnold, won a strategic naval victory at the Battle of Valcour Island. Arnold's efforts prevented a northern British invasion in 1776.

The Capture of Boston

While Continental forces were suffering in Canada, Washington maintained the siege of Boston. With his men lacking supplies and ammunition, Washington turned down several plans for assaulting the city. In Boston, conditions for the British worsened as winter weather approached and American privateers hampered their re-supply by sea. Seeking advice to break the stalemate, Washington consulted artilleryman Colonel Henry Knox in November 1775.

Knox proposed a plan for transporting the guns captured at Fort Ticonderoga to the siege lines at Boston.

Approving his plan, Washington immediately dispatched Knox north. Loading the fort's guns on boats and sledges, Knox moved 59 guns and mortars down Lake George and across Massachusetts. The 300-mile journey lasted 56 days from December 5, 1775 to January 24, 1776. Pressing through severe winter weather, Knox arrived at Boston with the tools to break the siege. On the night of March 4/5, Washington's men moved onto Dorchester Heights with their newly acquired guns. From this position, the Americans commanded both the city and the harbor.

The next day, Howe, who had taken command from Gage, decided to assault the heights. As his men prepared, a snow storm rolled in preventing the attack. During the delay, Howe's aids, remembering Bunker Hill, convinced him to cancel the assault. Seeing that he had no choice, Howe contacted Washington on March 8 with the message that the city would not be burned if the British were allowed to leave unmolested. On March 17, the British departed Boston and sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Later in the day, American troops triumphantly entered the city. Washington and the army remained in the area until April 4, when they moved south to defend against an attack on New York.

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