Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean
to have a war let it begin here.
–Captain John Parker
The Regulars were out, true enough, though still a long way from their objective. Colonel Smith was not making the passage to the far shore with anything like the utmost expedition. About the time Revere was pounding on the Clarke house door, the last of the Regulars was wading ashore knee-deep through the chilling muck at Lechmere Point, a crossing of two mortal hours. Nor once ashore did they make expeditious progress. Hiking up out of the marsh grass to a nearby road, they were halted while provisions could be rowed over and distributed, Smith apparently forgetting that the men already carried rations in their haversacks. Then, the men having begun to dry out, Smith soaked them again, this time waist-deep, on a long ford over Willis Creek for fear that the pounding of British boots on the bridge would alert the Americans. It was two o’clock before the column, light infantry in the lead and grenadiers following, got a fair start for Metonomy and Lexington beyond. At the head of the column rode Major John Pitcairn, Smith’s second-in-command. Pitcairn was a Royal Marine in a column that had no marines, but he was a proven soldier and a driver. At last the Regulars began to step out and cover some ground. Over the wet tramp of marching feet, the British could hear bells ringing and alarm guns firing in the moonlit distance. In Lexington the militia, 130 men under Captain John Parker, had been drilling on the Green for an hour.
Though Smith had handled his command slackly thus far, he at least knew his mission. Parker had called his men out smartly enough in response to Revere’s alarm, but what he was to do with them was less clear. In a sermon delivered a year to the day later, the Reverend Mr. Clarke professed his belief that the militia was assembled “not with any design of commencing hostilities upon the king’s troops, but to consult what might be done for our own and the people’s safety.” Parker, a veteran who had served with Rogers Rangers in the French wars, drilled his men in the chilly dark and sent several scouts on horseback down the road toward Menotomy to see where the British might be. At least one of these returned to report that he had ridden eastward seven miles without sight of the king’s men. With no apparent danger immediately at hand, Parker dismissed the company about two o’clock with orders to turn out again when and if they heard the drum beat assembly. Some crossed the road to the Buckman Tavern to warm; others hiked off to homes and hearths nearby. But the scouts who did not return were unintentionally carrying alarm the other way, eastward to the British. One by one, three of Parker’s unskillful scouts were scooped up by the British mounted vanguard. Nor were these the only Patriot horsemen to fall into British hands this night. Dawes had ridden in to Lexington a half-hour or so behind Revere, and the two had then pushed on to carry word to Concord. Not far from Lexington they were overtaken by young Dr. Samuel Prescott, who they recognized as a “high son of liberty.” (Prescott, it turns out, had been in the village for the highly unwarlike purpose of courting a local lady.) The three had then ridden together toward Concord. Before they had gone quite halfway, though, they were confronted by one of Major Mitchell’s patrols. Prescott leaped a stone wall and was off through the woods to Concord; Dawes, thrown from his horse, scrambled off into the darkness and escaped; but Paul Revere’s midnight ride was at an end for the moment. He was taken at pistol point, and after being threatened and questioned, he was eventually released to hike back to Lexington. Revere had not been reluctant to tell the truth as he understood it. The whole country was armed and on the move, he told Mitchell. Five hundred Patriots, he judged, were in Lexington even now.
It was Mitchell’s turn to ride hard, back to the marching column to report the same to Smith. Now Smith did not hesitate. He ordered Pitcairn to press on immediately with six companies of the light infantry through Lexington to Concord and there hold the two bridges (which Ensign de Berniere had sketched that winter). Then he sent an officer post-haste back to Gage asking him to send Percy and the First Brigade up in support. If there were, as Revere claimed, five hundred militiamen in Lexington, he might need reinforcement. As Pitcairn’s light infantry steadily closed on Lexington in the dark, though, there were no five hundred militiamen in the village, nor even the 130 who had first turned out with Revere’s midnight alarm. Two men most prominent in the American cause were in Lexington, however: Hancock and Adams, the very gentlemen Revere had first alerted to the approach of the Regulars. In fact, when Revere returned once more to Lexington, afoot this time, they were still in Clarke’s parsonage and in the middle of a personal difference of opinion. Hancock, the richest man in Boston and a member of the Continental Congress, wanted to remain in Lexington, shoulder a musket, and stand with Parker’s men. At length, though, Adams and Clarke prevailed on Hancock (with the added persuasion of his Aunt Lydia and his fiancee, Dolly Quincy) to take his chaise for Woburn and out of immediate danger. And none too soon: for about the time the pair were making their way from Clarke’s, Parker’s drummer was beating out the call to assemble. A half-mile up the road Pitcairn, aware of the militia ahead, had halted his column to load and prime their muskets. It was not quite four-thirty in the morning, and in the murky grey the scarlet files of the light infantrymen were now approaching the village green.
Lexington Green was a triangle formed where the road from Menotomy forked, the right leg breaking off past the Buckman Tavern and turning north to Bedford, the left going through the village and west to Concord. At the apex of the triangle was the meeting house. On the green beyond the meeting house Parker had now assembled a kind of pick-up squad of the Lexington defenders, those who remained from the Minute company and the old men of the Alarm company dismissed earlier. Something like seventy men were drawn up in two lines. Parker had had four hours to consider what he would do if and when the redcoats marched up to the fork in this road. Today a stone at Lexington marks the line of the militia, and on it are chiseled Parker’s orders: “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war let it begin here.” At least these are the words Parker’s grandson, Theodore, recounted with patriotic hindsight long after the trouble was over. On that April morning, however, with some of his men running to draw ammunition from the meeting house and many more still legging it toward Lexington to the sound of the drum, Parker was less heroically certain of his course. His first impulse was in fact to stand his ground on the green. One man in the ranks, understandably unnerved by the sight of two-hundred Regulars, bayonets fixed and just a hundred yards off now, weighed in with his judgment: “There are so few of us, it is folly to stand here.” Parker shot back that “The first man who offers to run shall be shot down.”
But as he saw the redcoat column pass the meeting house and form up in line of battle three ranks deep on the green, Parker was not at all sure he wanted a war to begin here. Pitcairn approached on horseback with two or three officers and shouted, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, and disperse!” Parker was no coward, but no fool either. Outnumbered more than two to one, he ordered his men to dismiss. While some turned out without hesitation and others uncertainly drifted off toward the Buckman Tavern or the far end of the green, a thin line remained. No man lay down his musket. Major Pitcairn, though he bore no personal malice for Americans, had once ventured that one “smart action” would be the end of rebellion in Massachusetts. Stern words notwithstanding, he wanted war here no more than Parker. Sergeant Richard Pope, a light infantryman from the 47th, recalled distinctly that when the column halted to load outside Lexington, the men “were positively forbidden to fire without orders.” But if Pitcairn did not want war, neither did he intend to sit his horse idly while Rebels carried their muskets safely away. His men stood in line of battle; opposite them, the militiamen were already turning away. He called out again to the Lexington men, “Damn you! Why don’t you lay down your arms?” Then, according to Lieutenant William Sutherland of the 38th, Pitcairn shouted an order to his own men: “Soldiers, don’t fire, keep your ranks and surround them.”
Only the outlines of what happened next are clear: a shot rang out from somewhere, the Regulars let loose with a heavy volley, and a number of Americans fell in a cloud of dirty blue powder smoke. Sutherland was sure the shot came from the Americans, but he saw no more of the encounter here for a time. With the gunfire, his horse bolted and carried him through the militiamen, clear across the green, and past the Congregational church on the far side. From at least some of the militiamen still on the green came a weak rattle of musket fire, perhaps a dozen shots, in return. In the grey confusion, Pitcairn tried to restore order and stop the firing, but the Regulars had their blood up full and furious. They fired a second volley and, beyond any control now, went in behind it with the bayonet. One British officer later admitted that the “men were so wild they could hear no orders.” By the time Sutherland got command of his horse again and back to his comrades, the only militia left on Lexington Green were eight dead and ten wounded men. One of the dead men was Captain Parker’s aged cousin, Jonas Parker. Faithful to a private vow, he had fired his musket and stood his ground. He was hit with a musketball, then bayoneted as he was reloading. So war had come at last. Sam Adams, with Hancock still in earshot of Lexington when the gunfire erupted, exclaimed, “O what a glorious morning is this!” But there was not much glory for American arms. On the British side, one enlisted man from the 10th was skinned in the leg and Pitcairn’s horse was hit twice. The whole affair had unfolded in perhaps ten minutes.
Truth, it is said, is always among the first casualties of war. Certainly, in Lexington’s aftermath it served the purposes of both the British and Americans to contend that the other had deliberately fired that first fatal shot. Conviction aside, in the confusion of that pre-dawn darkness, all the participants were tired, either from a long cold march or a long uncertain vigil; their nerves were strung tight; most must have been sensibly fearful. None of these factors encourage reliable memory. As one student of the Revolution has written frankly, “the literature of Lexington is voluminous and unsatisfactory.” In any case, no British eyewitness ever testified that a British officer gave an order to fire on Parker’s line. All firmly agreed, then and thereafter, that the first shot came from the American side, though there is no consensus among them about exactly where the shot–or shots–were fired. It is entirely possible that an American musket went off by accident as the British surged forward to surround what remained of the militia line, or even, as one Briton thought, that a flash in the pan from a stone wall nearby incited the British volley. British witnesses were willing to admit that, once fired upon, they went in wildly and with a brutal will.
Americans were equally adamant that the British initiated the fighting with a deliberate volley. The Reverend Clarke in a sermon a year later claimed that a British officer “fired a pistol towards the militia as they were dispersing,” and that another–not Pitcairn–brandished a sword and “with a loud voice said to the troops, ‘Fire! by God, fire!’–which was instantly followed by a discharge of arms from the said troops.” But Clarke, like Hancock and Adams, only heard and did not himself see what he called “this murderous action.” At least one eyewitness account, that of Sylvanus Wood, a militiaman from Woburn, was not committed to paper for nearly a half-century. But Wood did stand with Parker that day and was sure he heard Pitcairn say, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, or you are all dead men. Fire!” Wood’s recollection was after all not so very far from Lieutenant Sutherland’s: except of course that Sutherland heard him say don’t fire. In any case, there were now eight dead men to answer for, and some of these had in fact been shot in the back. It was not quite dawn, and the redcoats were still six miles from Concord.
It was nearly five o’clock in the morning when Colonel Smith marched into Lexington with the grenadiers and the rest of the light infantry and rode over to confer with Major Pitcairn of the Royal Marines. What was done was done. Certainly, the secrecy Gage had intended in Smith’s marching orders was a moot point. Smith’s column gave a cheer and fired the traditional victory volley, and the Regulars stepped out for Concord again, now to the shrill of the fifes and the rattle of drums. Dr. Prescott had already carried into Concord in the dark the news that the British were on the march, but in the first light of day Reuben Brown, a Concord saddler, rode in from Lexington to tell all he knew: there had been a fight with the Regulars on Lexington Green, and he believed men had been shot. At the same time, word of the skirmish at Lexington was coursing through the countryside with the special velocity of bad news. In Concord, the bell had already turned out its militia on the common, and these were soon joined by a company from nearby Lincoln. As the sun rose, militiamen from a half-dozen other towns, in companies, squads, and individually, were converging on Concord as well. Colonel James Barrett of the Concord militia took command. Women and children were to hustle into hiding whatever remained of the military stores; one detachment of militiamen would take up defensive positions on high ground above the road into town; the other, a hundred men or so, marching band and all, would proceed a mile out on the Lexington road and wait for the redcoats.
As Smith now led his column up that road, he should have had a good sense of the terrain ahead, for de Berniere had sketched the town in some detail two months earlier. At Meriam’s Corner just ahead, one road broke off southward to Lincoln and another northward to Bedford. Beyond the Corner at Wright’s Tavern, the Lexington road turned due north into Concord; a long ridge, fifty-feet high, to the east overlooked both the road and the town square to the west. At the far end of the square, Main Street turned due west to the South Bridge over the Sudbury River, a tributary of the Concord. The Lexington road continued for another mile to the North Bridge over the Concord River itself. Beyond the bridge was Punkatasset Hill, two hundred feet high. At its base a country lane ran west to Colonel Barrett’s farm. As the British vanguard approached, Smith could see that the ridge to his right was occupied in some force, and the road ahead was held by Barret’s slim battalion. Under the circumstances, the British commander once again divided his column: Pitcairn took the light infantry up the side of the ridge to the open plain on top; while Smith, with the grenadiers, marched on toward the militia in the road. Perhaps Lexington had taught the Yankees a sharp lesson. For as Pitcairn’s men went up the ridge, the Americans pulled back, went down the other side, and withdrew toward the river. Meanwhile, Barrett’s militiamen wheeled smartly in the road and marched back toward the town, as if incongruously leading the redcoats in a parade toward Concord. “We marched before the redcoats,” a Concord Minuteman remembered, “with our Droms and fifes agoing,” and when their band took up the tune, “we had grand musick.” Indeed, it looked for a time that music was all they would have in Concord this morning, for neither body of militiamen stopped until they had crossed North Bridge and climbed Punkatasset Hill.
Opposite Wright’s Tavern, the British column halted and at last set to work toward achieving their original purpose, the destruction of American war materiel in Concord. Smith sent six companies of light infantry under Captain Lawrence Parsons forward to hold the North Bridge and seize whatever could be seized at Barrett’s farm on the far side of the river. Meanwhile, the grenadiers would search the town. This they did with a good measure of restraint–-though, as a political gesture, they did chop down the town’s liberty pole. Squads went house to house, searching barns and outbuildings as well, but no villager was harmed. (Hungry and thirsty redcoats even paid for food and drink.) What the British had to show for their efforts, though, was not considerable: three small cannon, several gun carriages, some flour, tools, and odds and ends of harness. What was burnable of their seizure went into a pile near the courthouse and was set afire. Meanwhile, Parsons reached the North Bridge by eight o’clock, left three companies there, and, guided by de Berniere, hiked on himself with the other three to search Barrett’s farm. Of the three companies left behind, two went partway up the slope of Punkatasset Hill to form a picket line against the Americans on its crest while the third was posted at the bridge. The day was warming pleasantly, and it must have seemed light duty after the Regulars’ long night of marching in the cold.
On top of Punkatasset Hill, however, was a gathering storm of Americans. In addition to the Concord and Lincoln men, companies and parts of companies from Acton, Bedford, Littleton, and Westford were tramping in, building their number to four or five hundred. But, like Captain Parker before them, they weren’t quite sure what was to be done now that they were here. While the Regulars rested below, a council of war was taking place above. Or, more accurately, a kind of town meeting with muskets was in session. Officers and men of the various commands were debating a motion to attack the British, an issue complicated by a spirited discussion about who ought to lead such an attack. Then someone saw smoke rising from the town. It rose from the fire the grenadiers had set to destroy the captured stores, and the blaze had spread, apparently by accident, to the courthouse nearby. In fact, the grenadiers were even now passing buckets and saving Concord’s courthouse from the flames. But from the crest of Punkatasset Hill, it seemed certain that the Regulars were burning the town. And that was more than enough to move the question and resolve the debate. Down the hill, the Americans came in two loosely organized columns, and as they neared the two companies of Regulars that had advanced westward from the North Bridge, they began to fan out in a long line on the grassy slope. Major John Buttrick of the Concord company, appointed by Colonel Barrett, was nominally in command, but this line was simply a wave of citizen-soldiers united in purpose by the black smoke rising above Concord.
At this point, the two British light infantry companies under the crest looked up, saw what they guessed to be a thousand armed men in motion toward them, and, without lengthy debate of their own, scrambled down the slope to join the third at the bridge. The senior officer there, Captain Walter Laurie, with just a hundred muskets on hand, sent straightaway to Smith for reinforcement from the grenadiers. The militiamen now crossed a stone wall, halted to dress their ragged line, then pushed on to the road leading to the bridge. Laurie ordered his three companies to withdraw across the bridge, but with the Americans so close, well within musketshot, he put his command in an awkward spot. With three companies lined up one behind the other on the road, only the front-most company could bring fire to bear on the advancing Americans. Apparently what Laurie had in mind at this point was one of the light infantry “evolutions” newly introduced in the British army: a “street-fighting” formation, four ranks of eight men each. The front rank was to fire a volley and retire to the rear to reload; the second rank in turn was to step up, fire and retire, and so on. The idea was that a company so formed could keep up a continuous fire on a narrow front.
But Laurie would never get a chance to test the new tactic properly. With the militiamen just fifty yards off, the Regulars closest to the point of collision let loose a sputter of odd shots, then flamed out with a volley. Most of their fire whistled over the Americans’ heads, but it was enough to kill two and wound a third. Some were actually astonished to discover that the Regulars were firing live ammunition in a real shooting war. “God damn it!” one howled, “They’re firing ball!” Quickly recovering, however, the militiamen now let loose a volley of their own, and three redcoats fell dead or dying and nine more wounded. Then something even more astonishing happened: British Regulars, disciplined troops whose conquests stretched from the banks of the Mississippi River to remote Bengal, began to break and run. Some it seems were trying to follow the street fighting tactic Laurie intended, firing and withdrawing to the rear. But, with four of their eight officers down with wounds, the rearward movement became a retreat, and the retreat soon became a rout that did not stop until the redcoats had run a full mile back to town. The Americans meanwhile swarmed over the bridge and down the road, a wild, heady, motley mob with no particular idea of what to do next. One of these excited Americans came upon one of the fallen redcoats on the bridge, and when the wounded man gave a groan and tried to sit up, the startled young American struck him a blow in the head with a hatchet and hurried on. The battle by the rude bridge that arched the flood had lasted five minutes all told.