- James Houser
April 19, 1775 - "Shot Heard 'Round the World" at Lexington & Concord
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
April 19, 1775. A handful of Massachusetts minutemen confront British redcoats on the small park of Lexington Green. Under the sunrise of a spring morning, just after 5am, someone fires the first shot – and you know what? We’re doing something different today - a whodunit. Who really DID fire the first shot at Lexington and spark the American War of Independence?
There’s no need to recount here all the reasons that the American Revolution occurred; every kid in an American school has had them drilled in from birth. Broadly, two points are worth making before we delve into the sparks that started the War of Independence.
First, the Revolution began in 1765, not 1775. Only a tiny handful of Americans wanted independence in 1765, but these few organized themselves well and won support through British overreaction. While the level of popular support for independence is exaggerated – most colonists even at the outbreak of war didn’t favor independence – the British overreacted so badly to every colonial protest and act of defiance that they turned the situation against themselves.
Provocateurs like Samuel Adams purposely antagonized the British to produce said overreaction, which gained them further support among the American population who hadn’t cared one way or another until then. Samuel Adams’ Sons of Liberty and other organizations used acts of terrorism and mob violence to intimidate pro-British colonists, and legal organizations such as the Continental Congress kept the movement from descending into anarchy. The very early Patriots are a textbook case of a well-organized and disciplined insurgency. The shooting didn’t start until 1775, but the Revolution had been going on for a long time by then.
Second, most American history books portray the British as this terrible, unstoppable juggernaut, and the Patriots probably felt that was the case. It’s worth looking at it from the British perspective. The American population was 2.5 million, about a quarter of Britain’s 10 million at the time, and growing exponentially. It was a well-educated and organized society, used to self-rule and eager to fight for its rights. The British Army was small and overstretched, the government was still broke from the French and Indian War, and every British governor and general was terrified every night of being murdered in his bed. Most British generals who served in America shared the opinion that the country was impossible to hold and that the very fact that shooting had started made the Colonies beyond keeping. If you want an idea of how the British felt about the war in America, I’ve compared it in the past to how America felt about Vietnam or Afghanistan. Was it even worth the fight?
In 1775, General Thomas Gage commanded British forces in Boston. He had commanded British forces in North America since 1763, and after the Boston Tea Party forced a colony-wide crackdown he had also been Governor of Massachusetts. He was a good soldier, a veteran of several battles, and a good person all things considered, and he was terrified of his position. Gage had 13 regiments in Boston, but this was nowhere near enough. His soldiers faced a hostile population, and the countryside outside Boston swarmed with colonial militias. Gage’s force was the only major British army in the Thirteen Colonies, 3000 strong, and they were all alone and facing 2.5 million presumably hostile Americans.
Back in September 1774, Gage had sent a small force to seize colonial arms and ammunition in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The militia were caught by surprise, and after the raid had been completed over 6000 Massachusetts militia rampaged through the countryside, removing British officials and intimidating alleged spies. When Gage attempted another seizure later that month, the colonists were ready; the British tried to remove cannon from the Boston suburb of Charlestown but discovered that they had all been removed overnight. All over Massachusetts, the public arsenals that the British had filled and registered began to disappear. New Hampshire and Rhode Island began to follow suit, and soon all the forts and magazines experienced shortages of guns and ammo.
Gage faced a difficult winter in Boston. He bent over backwards to avoid alienating the population, but this only earned him the mockery of his troops (who called him “Granny Gage”) while gaining nothing in public opinion. His British soldiers were constantly jeered and insulted by the population of Boston, and Gage’s orders not to retaliate fostered resentment. Desertion, drunkenness and sickness stacked up, and to keep them fit and away from the citizens Gage liked to send them on marches through the countryside. This not only alarmed the people of Massachusetts, but gave the colonists multiple chances to perfect their early-warning system.
Patriots such as Paul Revere, John Hancock and especially Samuel Adams believed a showdown with the British was inevitable. It was their networks that had squirreled away guns and ammunition as well as setting up the Provincial Congress – the local government of Massachusetts – at Concord, away from British supervision. They created a set of “alarm riders” to rouse the countryside every time the British left Boston, and reorganized a series of quick-response units known as the “minutemen.” The whole affair was well-organized and gained popular support. Gage was Governor of Massachusetts, but controlled nothing outside of his troops in Boston.
Two times in February and March, British troops tried to seize more arms caches but each time they were confronted by organized militia, including artillery. Each time they ran into resistance, the British troops gave in and turned back to Boston. The militia, of course, took this as a sign that as long as they made a good show the British would give up and march away. Despite both sides ordering their troops not to fire unless fired upon, this farce was eventually going to lead to violence.
The British and Americans were playing chicken. Eventually, they were going to collide.
In April, Gage received word from London that he needed to take stronger action against the American colonists before they got too strong. He consulted his officers and learned that two younger officers – Captain Brown of the 52nd Foot and Ensign de Berniere of the 10th – had undertaken dangerous scouting missions and discovered military stores at Concord, Massachusetts. Gage decided to make an expedition to destroy these stores as a show of force and an attempt to reassert order in the colonies. He had been “Granny Gage” too long – if he backed down now, he could never regain authority in his province.
Gage organized a force of 21 infantry companies. They would cross Boston harbor on boats to avoid observation from the colonists, march to Concord, and remove the military equipment. Most of the American leaders had left Boston by now, having gotten wind of Gage’s instructions from London, but Paul Revere had remained in the city to keep an eye on the British. He knew they would have to move soon, and to indicate the route they took, would signal his fellow Revolutionaries out in the city by lanterns: “one if by land, two if by sea.” When the British troops departed on the night of April 18, Revere hung two lanterns from the steeple of the Old North Church. Across the night-cloaked terrain of Massachusetts, minutemen began to assemble. Would this be just another bloodless encounter, like all the others before?
Revere raced to Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams had taken shelter, to warn them that they may be in danger. Lexington was midway between Cambridge, the British start point, and the arsenal at Concord. Mounted British officers were already patrolling the road. Having spread the alarm at Lexington, where Hancock and Adams decided to stay for the fight, Revere and two other riders – William Dawes and Samuel Prescott – continued on to Concord. Revere was captured by a British patrol, but Dawes and Prescott made their way to Concord and raised the alarm there.
Revere told his captors that every militiaman within 50 miles was turning out for the showdown. Alarmed, the British scouts reported back to their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Foot. Smith ordered an advance of his light companies, under Major Thomas Pitcairn of the Royal Marines, to push forward quickly and try to capture the American leaders at Lexington.
Pitcairn’s four companies, about 400 strong, marched onto Lexington Green at about 5am on April the 19th. They were expecting trouble, and they found it. Captain John Parker had 75 militia lined up on the Green, apparently ready to fight. Pitcairn rode out from his line, ordering the militia to lay down their arms and leave. Parker was a veteran of the French and Indian War, and realized the odds were against him. He ordered his men to keep their arms, but to quietly disperse and reunite at a rendezvous point.
Then a shot rang out.
Who fired the first shot? Let’s look at the evidence, treat it like Law & Order. We have Captain Parker, who’s lined his troops up in a suicidal position with no hope of winning a stand-up fight and had just ordered them to run off. An American militia witness reported that none of their troops fired.
We have Major Pitcairn, who is well aware that he’s part of a tiny force in a sea of hostile insurgents and has orders not to provoke a major engagement. He gave no order to fire. The British soldiers were too disciplined to fire without orders. Both sides agreed, in fact, that the initial shot did not come intentionally from either of the opposing lines.
There are more eyewitnesses to this first shot than you might expect. Some observers reported a colonial onlooker firing from a hedge or…from around the corner of the local tavern (HINT). Some historians believe in simultaneous shots, some believe the British flinched and sparked a minuteman to pull the trigger by accident, and some claimed the British tried to kill a fleeing prisoner they had taken previously.
But we’re playing Law & Order today. So let’s look at motive. Let’s assume – a big assumption given all this tension, but an assumption – that the shot was not an accident. Who benefited from a round going off in the powder keg that was Lexington Green on April 19?
None of the American minutemen did – they were hopelessly outmatched, facing four times their number of British regulars. Indeed, eight minutemen died and ten were wounded on the Green, while the British lost only one wounded. The British didn’t benefit – they had been doing everything in their power to prevent a war from starting since the Boston Tea Party, and British sources estimated that the Colonists could produce almost 30,000 men in a week to swamp their defenses at Boston. It’s not in your best interest to kick a hornet’s nest.
So the alternative…is someone else. Someone NOT on the grassy knoll, perhaps.
We are forgetting, of course, that there were other parties on the field that day. One man, in particular, had been doing his best to provoke a reaction from the British for ten years. One man had been the loudest voice for open rebellion, had a history of engaging in false-flag operations, and had helped engineer the conditions for this entire situation by his constant game of chicken with the British regulars. One man had ensured he was at the site of first contact, even after Revere had informed him that “The British were coming.”
When Revere told him that, Samuel Adams might have said “Good.” And Samuel Adams might have ordered someone to fire a shot onto Lexington Green to start the fight that he knew would spark the great Revolution that could finally turn the Thirteen Colonies into a free nation. Samuel Adams knew that most Americans weren’t big on independence, and only a decisive action, a flame to the powder-hole, could force them to take a side. Lest we forget that it was Adams and his Sons of Liberty who had dressed up as Indians to carry out the Boston Tea Party – he was used to acting for others.
It doesn’t help that as soon as Adams heard of the battle at Lexington, he shouted “Oh, what a glorious morning!”
Of course, this is the part where we point out that we can’t take any of this to court. Eyewitness statements aren’t worth the air they’re spoken to, especially when fifty different statements say fifty different things. The DA will have my ass if I bring Adams in front of the judge! We have to let him walk, I tell you!
Either way, the Revolution has begun. The British won’t get those guns, and the shooting won’t stop until America is free. If Sam Adams did his best to turn the Revolution into a shooting war, he got away with it scot-free.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Lexington.