American Revolution: Battles of Lexington and Concord

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

The Battles of Lexington & Concord were fought on April 19, 1775 and were the opening actions of the American Revolution (1775-1783). Following several years of rising tensions that included the occupation of Boston by British troops, Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, and the Intolerable Acts, the military governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, began moving to secure the colony's military supplies to keep them from the Patriot militias.

A veteran of the French and Indian War, Gage's actions received official sanction on April 14, 1775, when orders arrived from the Secretary of State, the Earl of Dartmouth, commanding him to disarm the rebellious militias and to arrest key colonial leaders.

This was fueled by Parliament's belief that a state of rebellion existed and the fact that large parts of the colony were under the effective control of the extralegal Massachusetts Provincial Congress. This body, with John Hancock as its president, had formed in late 1774 after Gage dissolved the provincial assembly. Believing the militias to be hoarding supplies at Concord, Gage made plans for part of his force to march and occupy the town.

British Preparations

On April 16, Gage sent a scouting party out of the city towards Concord. While this patrol gathered intelligence, it also alerted the colonials that the British were planning to move against them.

Aware of Gage's orders from Dartmouth, many key colonial figures, such as Hancock and Samuel Adams, left Boston to seek safety in the country. Two days after the initial patrol, another 20 men led by Major Edward Mitchell of the 5th Regiment of Foot departed Boston and scouted the countryside for Patriot messengers as well as asked about the location of Hancock and Adams.

The activities of Mitchell's party further raised colonial suspicions. 

In addition to sending out the patrol, Gage ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to prepare a 700-man force to sortie from the city. His mission directed him to proceed to Concord and "seize and destroy all Artillery, Ammunition, Provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all Military Stores whatever. But you will take care that the Soldiers do not plunder the Inhabitants, or hurt private property." Despite Gage's efforts to keep the mission a secret, including forbidding Smith to read his orders until departing the city, the colonists had long been aware of the British interest in Concord and word of the British raid quickly spread.

Armies & Commanders:

American Colonists

  • John Parker (Lexington)
  • James Barrett (Concord)
  • William Heath
  • John Buttrick
  • rising to 4,000 men by day's end

British

  • Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith
  • Major John Pitcairn
  • Hugh, Earl Percy
  • 700 men, reinforced by 1,000 men

The Colonial Response

As a result, many of the supplies at Concord had been removed 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.

Slipping out of the city by different routes, Revere and Dawes made their famous ride west to warn that the British were approaching. In Lexington, Captain John Parker mustered the town's militia and had them fall into ranks on the town green with orders not to fire unless fired upon.

In Boston, Smith's force assembled by the water at the western edge of the Common. As little provision had been made for planning the amphibious aspects of the operation, confusion soon ensued at the waterfront. Despite this delay, the British were able to cross to Cambridge in tightly packed naval barges where they landed at the Phipps Farm. Coming ashore through waist-deep water, the column paused to resupply before starting their march towards Concord around 2:00 AM. 

First Shots

Around sunrise, Smith's advance force, led by Major John Pitcairn, arrived in Lexington.

Riding forward, Pitcairn demanded the militia to disperse and lay down their arms. Parker partially complied and ordered his men to go home, but to retain their muskets. As the militia 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. Charging 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.

Concord

Departing Lexington, the British pushed on towards Concord. Outside of the town, the Concord militia, unsure of what had transpired at Lexington, fell back through the town and took up a position on a hill across the North Bridge. Smith's men occupied the town and broke into detachments to search for the colonial munitions. As the British began their work, the Concord militia, led by Colonel James Barrett, was reinforced as other towns' militias arrived on the scene. While Smith's men found little in the way of munitions, they did locate and disable three cannon and burned several gun carriages.

Seeing the smoke from the fire, Barrett and his men moved closer to the bridge and saw around 90-95 British troops fall back across the river. Advancing with 400 men, they were engaged by the British. Firing across the river, Barrett's men forced them to flee back towards Concord. Unwilling to initiate further action, Barrett held his men back as Smith consolidated his forces for the march back to Boston.

After a brief lunch, Smith ordered his troops to move out around noon. Throughout the morning, word of the fighting had spread, and colonial militias began racing to the area.

Bloody Road to Boston

Aware that his situation was deteriorating, Smith deployed flankers around his column to protect against colonial attacks as they marched. About a mile from Concord, the first in a series of militia attacks began at Meriam's Corner. This was followed by another at Brooks Hill. After passing through Lincoln, Smith's troops were attacked at the "Bloody Angle" by 200 men from Bedford and Lincoln. Firing from behind tree and fences, they were joined by other militiamen who took up positions across the road, catching the British in a crossfire.

As the column neared Lexington, they were ambushed by Captain Parker's men. Seeking revenge for the morning's fight, they waited until Smith was in view before firing. Tired and bloodied from their march, the British were pleased to find reinforcements, under Hugh, Earl Percy, waiting for them Lexington. After allowing Smith's men to rest, Percy resumed the withdrawal to Boston around 3:30. On the colonial side, overall command had been assumed by Brigadier General William Heath. Seeking to inflict maximum casualties, Heath endeavored to keep the British surrounded with a loose ring of militia for the remainder of the march. In this fashion, the militia poured fire in to the British ranks, while avoiding major confrontations, until the column reached the safety of Charlestown.

Aftermath

In the day's fighting, the Massachusetts militia lost 50 killed, 39 wounded, and 5 missing. For the British, the long march cost them 73 killed, 173 wounded, and 26 missing. The fighting at Lexington and Concord proved to be the opening battles of the American Revolution. Rushing to Boston, the Massachusetts militia was soon joined by troops from other colonies ultimately forming a force of around 20,000. Laying siege to Boston, they fought the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, and finally took the city after Henry Knox arrived with the guns of Fort Ticonderoga in March 1776.