OTD in History… April 19, 1775: The Patriots engage in the first battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord

The “shot heard round the world”

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

The Battle of Lexington by William Barnes Wollen, 1910 (Wikipedia)

In 1775, the eight-year-long American Revolutionary War started with short battles in New England’s Massachusetts colony. In April, as the first shots fired at the Battle of Lexington, the American rebels were not an army, just volunteer militia fighting for their rights against one of the greatest armies in the world, the British Redcoats. By June, the new Continental Army would have a commander, General George Washington of Virginia. After the Battle of Bunker Hill at Breeders Hill in Massachusetts, the Americans had yet to win a battle but set their sights high at the New England colonies and north at Britain’s Canadian colonies, especially Quebec and its two main cities Montreal and Quebec City. The British, however, wanted to move the war to the south, where they believed more southerners were loyalists sympathetic to Britain and wanted the colonies to remain a part of Britain. [1]

At different points in his life, John Adams had two different perspectives on what the American Revolution meant and consisted. In April 1790, as vice president, future president John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush, “The History of our Revolution will be one continued lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical Rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod — and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures, and War.” [2] Nearly thirty years later, in a February 13, 1818, letter to Hezekiah Niles, John Adams expressed that the American Revolution was more than a physical and political war. Adams mused, “But what do We mean by the American Revolution? Do We mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People. A Change in their Religious Sentiments of their Duties and Obligations.” [3]

It took from the end of the French-Indian War in 1763 until 1775 for American colonists to take that step to full outright military assault with the Battles at Lexington and Concord. Every time the British increased taxes on the colonies and further tightened their hold on them, the more colonists protested and wanted their rights, liberty, and independence from Britain until only war could suffice to make their point.

Historian Ray Raphael believes the American Revolution started in 1774. Raphael explains in his book The First American Revolution, Before Lexington and Concord:

“The American Revolution did not start with “the shot heard round the world” on the morning of April 19, 1775. When British Regulars fired upon a small group of hastily assembled patriots on the Lexington Green, they were attempting to regain control of a colony they had already lost. The real revolution, the transfer of political authority to the American patriots, occurred the previous summer when thousands upon thousands of farmers and artisans seized power from every Crown-appointed official in Massachusetts outside of Boston. Starting in August 1774, each time a court was slated to meet under British authority in some Massachusetts town, great numbers of angry citizens made sure it did not.” [4]

Raphael argues that the creation of Provincial Congresses and the First Continental Congress meeting in 1774 was “the first American Revolution.”

Raphael writes,

“In the late summer and early fall of 1774, the people of rural Massachusetts completely and forcibly overthrew the established government and began to set up their own. This was the first American Revolution. While a group of renowned lawyers, merchants, and slave-owning planters were meeting as a Continental Congress in Philadelphia to consider whether or not they should challenge British rule, the plain farmers and artisans of Massachusetts, guarding their liberties jealously and voting at every turn, wrested control from the most powerful empire on earth.” [5]

If 1776 had the spirit of independence for Americans, Americans had the spirit for war in 1775. In different eras, historians agree that Americans “ached” for a military confrontation with Britain. In 1958, historians Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, explain in their book The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants, “In one sense it is doubtless true that nobody, in 1775, wanted war; in another sense it is almost equally clear that both the Americans and the British were aching for a showdown.”[6] By 1971, Don Higginbotham writing in The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789 puts the blame on the American Patriots, “How do we account for the hostilities on Lexington Green?…Simple, in that control of munitions was crucial to both sides — to the Americans for making war, to the British for avoiding it.” [7]

Political commentator Kevin Phillips argues in his book, 1775, A Good Year for Revolution, Americans had a “rage militaire” to fight the British. Phillips recounts:

“Such was the arousal and spirit of 1775 that rage militaire — a patriotic furor, a passion for arms — swept the thirteen colonies that spring and summer, giving the American Revolution its martial assurance and its vital, if somewhat delusionary, early momentum…. Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill sowed confidence, and by summer, scarlet-coated military might had shrunk back to encircled Boston and a few fast-deserting companies in New York. Following these initial successes, Patriots soon developed ‘a national conceit of born courage in combat with a sudden acclaim for a superior form of military discipline, easily acquired’ — that of a valorous and virtuous citizen soldiery. It was all very heady.” [8]

April 19: The Battles of Lexington and Concord

On this day in history, April 19, 1775, the American rebels surprise the British regulars taking up arms and winning the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The situation started its journey towards war the year before in April 1774, when the king appointed General Thomas Gage as the “commander in chief of British forces in America and as royal governor of Massachusetts,” and “on May 17, Gage arrived in Boston” and promptly implemented the Intolerable Acts. On June 1, 1774, Gage took away Boston’s status as the capital of the Massachusetts capital and moved it to Salem and he implemented the Port Act, taking away from Boston its port city status.

After Gage dissolved the Massachusetts legislature and suspended the Massachusetts charter. The Suffolk County towns met, and Dr. Joseph Warren came up with resolves. At the meeting, they decided the Intolerable Acts “violated the British constitution.” They resolved to “suspend trade with Britain and to create a new government a Provincial Congress, nine other colonies would go on to do the same. They had the “Suffolk Resolves” sent to the Continental Congress for approval. They sent Sons of Liberty courier Paul Revere to bring them to Philadelphia. Revere left on September 11 and arrived on September 16. [9] On September 17, six days later, the Congress unanimously supported the resolves.

In Salem, the representatives met as a Provincial Congress in defiance of Gage and Britain; Gage tried unsuccessfully to close it down. Ten out of the thirteen colonies set up Provincial Congresses, extra-legal congresses. Gage did everything to isolate Massachusetts and Boston. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress started preparations for war and began stealing arms and gunpowder from British stockpiles. When Gage found out Massachusetts towns stole gunpowder from the “provincial powder house in Cambridge, he had the army transfer it to Boston to keep a watch on it. On September 1, Gage’s troops seized cannons and gunpowder from Cambridge and Charles Town.[10] The 6,000 locals confronted the British on Cambridge Common but did not take up arms instead;, they “stormed” the homes of Tories.

During the fall of 1774 and winter of 1775, Gage sent the British army to gather the munitions. [11] Gage’s plans kept Revere busy notifying the colonists of impending British raids. On December 14, 1774, Revere notified General John Sullivan Gage that planned to seize the arms stored at Fort William and Mary. The local militia of Portsmouth, New Hampshire stormed the British Fort William and Mary; the six soldiers were unable to stop the militia from taking munitions and cannons from the fort.

In February 1775, the Salem militia did the same stealing cannons from the British soldiers. They confronted the soldiers blocking roads but refused to fire the first shot.[12] On February 25, 1776, Gage sent Col. Alexander Leslie and “240 men of the 64th Foot Regiment from Castle William, Boston Harbor, to Salem, Massachusetts” to retrieve the stolen cannons and munitions. John Pedrick road to Salem to warn the town, and they quickly hide the cannon and put up the drawbridge to forge. Instead, Col. Timothy Pickering, 40 minutemen, and townspeople gathered to confront the British regiment.

The colonists might not have shot at the British army but they harassed them in every other way. Historian Alan Axelrod recounts, “Colonial saboteurs, who sunk supply barges, burned the straw intended for the soldiers’ beds, and wrecked provision wagons. Throughout New England, militiamen were drilling and stealing munitions.”[13] Parliament would not stand Massachusetts aggressions on February 9, 1775, they concurred with Prime Minister Lord North and declared Massachusetts was in rebellion. The declaration allowed Gage of the Governor to “arrest of provincial government leaders” and to use “force” to keep the colony adhering to British law. On April 14, 1775, Gage received the order and immediately went about enforcing Parliament’s and using the new powers Parliament granted him. On April 18, Gage sent 800 troops to destroy the munitions in Concord.

On March 14, the Provincial Congress set up a Committee of Safety and Supplies to watch for British attacks, purchase and steal munitions, and organize the militias in preparation for any conflict with the British army. Sons of Liberty member and master silversmith Paul Revere was a rider and messenger who worked with the Congress and Committee of safety, he brought the Suffolk Resolves to the Continental Congress. Revere was responsible for delivering warning messages in the colony. On April 16, Dr. Joseph Warren sent Revere “to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams that Gen. Gage was sending troops to arrest them because the petitions they sent the king as part of the First Continental Congress.” [14]

On the evening of April 18, British troops started their march from Boston to Concord to raid armaments. William Dawes and Revere rode from Charlestown, Massachusetts to Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, to warn the militia that the British Army was planning to seize the armory at Concord. In 1863, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Revere’s ride in the poem “the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” By dawn, on April 19, at Lexington Green, 77 colonial local militia soldiers met 700 British soldiers. The militia’s captain John Parker stood ground against all the British soldiers. Parker ordered his soldiers, “Stand your ground! Don’t fire unless fired upon! But if they want to have a war let it begin here!” A British officer told the militia to disperse, “Disperse, you rebels, damn you, throw down your arms and disperse.” Parker told them to disperse but somewhere a militiaman or British soldier fire the first shot and then the British kept on shooting. [15]

The clash resulted in the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War, the shot heard ‘round the world.” Eight American colonists were killed in the gunfire exchange. At Concord, the British were met by hundreds of colonial militia soldiers, Minutemen, the British Redcoats, were outnumbered and did not have enough ammunition, and they were forced to withdraw back to Boston. The British also suffered heavy casualties, with 273 dead but only 90 colonists. Historian Robert A. Gross in The Minutemen and Their World, describes the people of Concord as “reluctant revolutionaries.” [16]

June 17: Battle of Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17 was part of the Minutemen’s siege of Boston. Most of the fighting occurred on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown. British redcoats had 2,300 soldiers who pushed the Americans back with a heavy cost of 40 percent of the soldiers fighting. Because the Americans could cause such carnage to British troops, the Battle of Bunker Hill is considered a “moral victory.” Historian Robert Allison indicates in his book, The American Revolution: A Concise History, the battle was “A defeat for the Americans, Bunker Hill had nevertheless proven they could fight and left Howe and the British with a new respect for their enemy.”[17]

December 9, 1775: The Battle of Great Bridge

On December 9, 1775, the Battle of Great Bridge gave the Americans the first significant war victory. Historians consider the Battle of Great Bridge, Virginia, the Bunker Hill of the Southern theatre. The battle was a victory for Virginia colonial militia against Royal Governor Lord Dunmore, ending British power in the colony. In early 1775, there was a struggle between both sides for military might and supplies. Dunmore had taken refuge on a Royal Navy vessel near Norfolk. Both sides were focusing on controlling Norfolk. Dunmore ordered an attack on the bridge to Norfolk; Captain Charles Fordyce complied with a “frontal attack” on the Americans. The struggle between the British and Colonel William Woodford and Major Alexander Spotswood lasted half an hour.

Colonel Woodford pushed off the Redcoats, causing them severe casualties from 62–102 soldiers, including Captain Fordyce’s death. Only one American soldier suffered a minor injury. The British retreated to their fort, and two days later, Dunmore retreated to the British Navy ships in Virginia’s harbors.[18] According to Robert K. Wright, Jr., “This was the first real engagement between British soldiers and colonists in Virginia. Like Bunker Hill, it carried significance beyond its numbers or its tactical results, serving to boost American confidence not only in Virginia but also in North Carolina.” [19] On December 11, North Carolina patriots under Robert Howe arrive in Virginia to “reinforce Woodford.” [20]

The Canada Campaign

On November 2, after 55 days, The Siege of St-Jean ends, and the British garrison surrenders to the patriots. Starting in September, General Richard Montgomery led 2,000 patriots on a siege in Canada. 500 British troops and Canadian volunteers defended the St-Jean Garrison. [21] On November 13, General Montgomery and the patriots entered Montreal, and Continental Army forces occupy Montreal in Canada after the British and Governor-General of the Province of Quebec Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester was unable to hold the city. [22]

On December 30–31, American forces under Benedict Arnold fail to seize Quebec in the Battle of Quebec; it was the first actual loss for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. On November 19, Governor-General Carleton reaches Quebec building up its defenses. At the same time, Benedict Arnold was bringing 700 patriots to Quebec, reaching Levis. On December 3, Arnold and Carleton met; the British garrison had 1,700 men, a mix of British regulars and French and English militiamen, and volunteers. On December 31, Montgomery and Arnold staged a “disastrous assault during a snowstorm.” The British killed Montgomery wounded Arnold, and captured 400 patriots; they take Daniel Morgan taken prisoner during an attempt to take Quebec City.

The siege became a blockade that lasted until May 1776. [23] On June 15, 1776, the patriots set fire to Montreal. After a siege and blockade in Quebec, the British, a mix of natives, and Canadian militiamen beat the Patriots at Cedars, west of Montreal. In the last hope, the Patriots tried to burn down Montreal but failed, forcing the American troops back to New York and ending their military chances of conquering Canada and making it part of the new United States of America, which declared independence just two months later on July 4, 1776. [24]

The local militias started the year 1775 as rebels, but by 1776 they were fighting for the independence of their new nation. In his book 1776, historian David McCullough calls July 4, 1776, the date that changed the war for the Americans. McCullough writes, “From this point on the citizen-soldiers of Washington’s army were no longer to be fighting only for the defense of their country, or for their rightful liberties as freeborn Englishmen, as they had at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and through the long siege at Boston. It was now a proudly proclaimed, all-out war for an independent America, a new America, and thus a new day of freedom and equality.” [25]

Sources

Allison, Robert J. The American Revolution: A Concise History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Axelrod, Alan. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the American Revolution. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2000.

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Gross, Robert A, and Alan Taylor. The Minutemen and Their World. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

McCullough, David. 1776. New York; Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Phillips, Kevin P. 1775: A Good Year for Revolution. New York: Viking, 2012.

Raphael, Ray. The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord. New York: New Press, 2002.

Selesky, Harold E. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale, Cengage Learning, 2006.

[1] John E. Findling and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century, (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998),122.

[2] “From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 4 April 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-0903. [This is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-0903

[3] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6854

[4] Raphael, Ray. The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord. New York: New Press, 2002.

[5] Ibid., Raphael, The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord.

[6] Henry S. Commager and Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants, (Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 2002; Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), 59.

[7] Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789, (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 51.

[8] Kevin P. Phillips, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, (New York: Viking, 2012).

[9] Robert J. Allison, The American Revolution: A Concise History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 18.

[10] Axelrod, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the American Revolution, 96.

[11] Allison, The American Revolution: A Concise History, 18.

[12] Ibid., Allison, The American Revolution: A Concise History, 19.

[13] Axelrod, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the American Revolution, 101.

[14] Axelrod, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the American Revolution, 104.

[15] Robert A Gross and Alan Taylor, The Minutemen and Their World, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001); George C. Daughan, Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), 13.

[16] George C. Daughan, Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, 13.

[17] Allison, The American Revolution: A Concise History, 24.

[18] Selesky, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 480. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Great_Bridge

[19] Selesky, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 480. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Great_Bridge

[20] Ibid., Selesky, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 480. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Great_Bridge

[21] Selesky, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 196.

[22] Ibid., Selesky, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 196.

[23] Ibid., Selesky, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 196.

[24] Ibid., Selesky, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 196.

[25] David McCullough, 1776, (New York; Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 200), 136.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” and “On This Day in the History… Of American Independence Significant Events in the Revolutionary Era, 1754–1812.” She is also the author of the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies focused on Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.