THE troubles between the colonies and the mother country, which, for upwards of half a century, had been accumulating and gaining strength, had been increased to an alarming extent by the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. The loyalty of the colonists had been so much impaired by the passage of the Act, that its repeal, while it temporarily quieted them, did not effectually restore good-will; and the mutiny act, which accompanied the repeal, and the act imposing duties on tea and other necessary articles, which speedily followed, called forth the energetic opposition of the people throughout nearly the whole of the British American colonies.
Letters and remonstrances, and petitions for relief, had been addressed by the colonists and by the colonial assemblies to influential persons in Europe, and to parliament and the king; conventions and congresses had been convened and dissolved; riots and loss of life and limb had marked the progress of the popular antipathies against the representatives of the crown; the committees of correspondence had been organized for the purpose of harmonizing the opposition, and of producing concert of action throughout the young confederacy.
A determined spirit of resistance had been manifested in the different seaports, when an intended attempt to force the tea into the colonies had been made known; and in New York and Boston, at least, the people, in their might, had returned the consignments to their owners, or reconsigned them to the waters of their harbours. The closing of the port of Boston; the abrogation of the rights of the colonial assembly of New York; the suspension of the charter of the colony of Massachusetts Bay; and other measures of a kindred character, had been adopted by the British government, or by the royal governors of the several colonies. Non-importation leagues had been reorganized and their requirements enforced, and other retaliatory measures had been adopted by the colonists; the militia had been put into a state of greater efficiency; arms had been provided by those who were without them; and by the colonies for the general use; the manufacture of arms and of gun-powder had been commenced in several of the colonies; encouragement had been offered to those who would engage in the manufacture of saltpetre; military stores had been collected and deposited in convenient places; and resistance to the power of the mother country, by open force, had been made the subject of common conversation.
The " Committee of Supplies," appointed for that purpose by the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, had purchased a considerable quantity of military stores and provisions, and had placed a portion of them in the custody of Colonel James Barrett, in the town of Concord, seventeen miles northwest from the town of Boston. Early in the spring of 1775, information of this movement had been conveyed to General Thomas Gage, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in Boston, and steps were taken for the capture or destruction of the stores. Officers in disguise had been sent out as spies, to sketch the roads, to ascertain the situation of the stores, and to obtain such other information as might be useful in the prosecution of the enterprise.
A few days before the time appointed to make the seizure, the grenadier and light-infantry companies were taken off duty, under pretence of enabling them to learn a new exercise, but really for the purpose of throwing the people of Boston off their guard. It had a contrary effect, however, and the Bostonians still more closely watched the movements of the troops and the government.
A Daughter of Liberty, in Boston, privately notified Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who had withdrawn from Boston and were residing in Lexington, that within a few days the troops would leave the town, but the object of the expedition was not ascertained. Mr. Adams inferred, from the number of troops to be employed, that the destruction or capture of the stores was the object; and the " Committee of Safety," of the Provincial Congress, voted " that all the ammunition be deposited in nine different towns; and that other articles be lodged, some in one place, some in another: so as to the fifteen medicinal chests, two thousand iron pots, two thousand bowls, fifteen thousand canteens, and eleven hundred tents; and that the six companies of matrosses be stationed in different towns."
On the eighteenth of April, for the purpose of still further concealing the purposes of the general, a party of officers dined together at Cambridge; but after dinner they scattered themselves upon the road leading to Concord, for the purpose of intercepting any expresses which might be sent out of Boston to alarm the country on the departure of the troops. Notwithstanding all their caution, however, they were seen, and the object of their mission was under-stood. The " Committee of Safety " had been in session at Menotomy (West Cambridge), and the veteran General William Heath, who was a member, on his return home, met eight or nine of the party riding towards Lexington. His experienced eye detected the character of their equipments; and that circumstance, connected with the lateness of the hour, and their distance from Boston, excited his suspicion.
In the town the same secrecy was attempted, yet, although nearly all the leaders of the popular party had retired into the country, Dr. Joseph Warren, who remained, noticed the movements, and took immediate steps to prevent their success. Assisted by Paul Revere,—subsequently well known as one of the earliest engravers in the country,—beacon lights were thrown out from the tower of the North Church; and Revere himself (rowed across the Charles River by a tried friend, five minutes before the sentinels on the Somerset, a man-of-war which was anchored in the channel, received orders to prevent any person from passing), hastened towards Lexington, by way of Charlestown, while William Dawes was despatched by way of Roxbury to the same place. A short distance beyond Charlestown Neck, Revere was stopped by two British officers who had been patrolling the road since sunset on the preceding evening, but, being mounted on a fine horse, he escaped, by way of the road leading to Medford. As he rode through that town he aroused the captain of the minute-men, and stopping at almost every house on his way to Lexington, the inhabitants were prepared to discharge the important duty which was rapidly devolving upon them. Dawes also successfully discharged the trust reposed in him, and arrived at Lexington in safety. The two friends immediately proceeded to the house of Rev. Jonas Clark, the pastor of the church at Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were secreted; and notwithstanding the guard of minute-men, who had been posted around the house, strangely forbade their entrance, they succeeded in arousing the sleeping patriots, and in persuading them to retire to Woburn. The two friends, joined by Samuel Prescott, of Concord—an active Son of Liberty—after arousing the minute-men in Lexington, proceeded towards Concord, calling up the inhabitants on their road, until they reached Lincoln, where they fell in with another party of British officers. Revere and Dawes were seized and taken back to Lexington; but Prescott, leaping over a stone wall, escaped and galloped on towards Con-cord, spreading the alarm along the road, and in the villages through which he passed. He reached Concord about two o'clock, and the alarm-bell, on the belfry of their meeting-house, called forth the inhabitants to the town-hall, their place of rendezvous. Old and young alike responded to the call, and while the minute-men and most of the militia, headed by Rev. William E. Emerson, their pastor, carrying their guns, and powder-horns, and ball-pouches, answered to their names at roll-call, others, with equal or greater diligence, ran expresses to distant villages, or hurried away the stores and provisions, and secreted them in the woods and thickets, a load in a place. Children, even, whose tender age forbade heavier labour, ran beside the teams, and, with goads, urged on their unwilling steps, and women, trembling for the result, assisted in the work, wherever their efforts or their words of encouragement were found useful.
At the different villages in the vicinity similar scenes were enacted, and the inhabitants generally seemed to have been thoroughly aroused, and appreciated the importance of the occasion.
At Lexington, by two o'clock, the village green was thronged with excited men. The aged, who were exempt, unless when insurrection or invasion threatened the peace of the town, stood shoulder to shoulder with their sons; and, by their example and their experience, gave encouragement and strength to the undisciplined masses who were present. One hundred and thirty men, strong and true, answered to their names; and John Parker, the captain of the beat, at the same time that he ordered them to load with ball, strictly enjoined them to reserve their fire until after the enemy commenced the assault. No sign of the approach of the enemy being visible, the company was dismissed, with orders to re-assemble at the roll of the drum.
But to return to Boston. Lord Percy, a general in the British service, while crossing the Common in the evening, overtook a party of the townsmen, one of whom—probably recognizing his lordship, and intending to be heard—remarked, in his hearing, " They will miss their aim." Percy inquired, " what aim " was referred to, and was answered,
Why, the cannon at Concord." Perceiving that the in-tended expedition was known in the town, Percy hastened to General Gage with the intelligence, and orders were immediately issued to the sentries on the Neck, and on the different vessels in the harbour, that no person should be permitted to leave the town without special orders from head-quarters. These orders, as we have seen, were issued too late, and the energetic Revere and Dawes were beyond the reach of both the sentries and the general.
At length, about eleven o'clock, the grenadiers and lightinfantry,—the élite of the army,—about eight hundred in number, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, embarked at the Common and proceeded up the Charles River, as far as a place known as Phipps's Farm, in the present town of West Cambridge. Landing at that place, they immediately proceeded on their way towards Lexington, under the guidance of several Loyalists, at whose urgent solicitation the expedition was planned. In the selection of this course the enemy was probably influenced by information which he had received of the meeting of the " Committee of Safety " at Menotorny (now West Cambridge) on the preceding after-noon, and by hopes which he entertained on securing some of its members, as the troops halted when they came opposite Wetherby's tavern, where the meeting had been held. Several members of the committee, among whom were Colonels Orne and Lee, and Elbridge Gerry, were then sleeping in the house; and they barely escaped, in their night-clothes, by the back door, into the fields.
The enemy's approach to Lexington was announced by the firing of guns and the ringing of alarm-bells; and Colonel Smith, perceiving that his advance into the country had be-come known, immediately detached six companies of light-infantry, under Major Pitcairn, of the marines; with orders to press on, by a forced march, to Concord, and secure two bridges over the Concord River, near that town; and, at the same time, he sent a messenger to Boston for reinforcements. Pitcairn, as he was directed, advanced rapidly towards Lexington, capturing several persons on the way. One of these prisoners, named Thaddeus Bowman, escaped, and, hastening to Lexington, informed Captain Parker of the approach of the enemy. The drum was immediately beat to arms, and about seventy, who were in the immediate neighbourhood, assembled on the green, one half of whom were without arms. Captain Parker ordered those who were unarmed to go into the meeting-house (near by), equip themselves, and join the company; while those who were armed, thirty-eight in number, he directed to follow him to the north end of the green, where he formed them in line, in single file. Before those who were in the meeting-house could obtain arms and ammunition, Pitcairn and his detachment came up ; and the latter, probably by design, were wheeled so as to cut the former off, and prevent them from joining their comrades under Captain Parker.
Marching up by column of platoons, the enemy advanced within fifty feet of the position occupied by Captain Parker, and there halted. Major Pitcairn then advanced a few feet in front of his men, brandished his sword, and shouted, "Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, or you are all dead men!" and immediately afterwards, " the rebels" failing to comply with his first order, he ordered his men to "Fire." The first platoon discharged their pieces, but no one was hurt. Captain Parker then directed every man to take care of himself, and they accordingly dispersed. While they were retreating, the second platoon of the enemy also fired, killing several and wounding others.
Accounts of the affair differ respecting the use of their arms by the party under Captain Parker. Some authorities state that they returned the fire when they found that they were fired upon while retreating; and Stedman, who went out from Boston with the reinforcement sent to meet Colonel Smith on his return, states that one British soldier was wounded, and that Major Pitcairn's horse was wounded in two places. Many of those who were present state positively that the enemy's fire was not returned by the Americans; and thus the matter rests, from conflict of testimony, in great uncertainty.
Of the Americans, the following were killed: Ensign Robert Monroe, Jonas Parker, Samuel Hadley, Jonathan Harrington, Jr., Isaac Muzzy, Caleb Harrington, and John Brown, of Lexington, and Mabel Porter, of Woburn; and nine were wounded.
By this time the main body, under Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, came up, and the whole party pushed on for Concord, six miles distant, probably elated with the victory which had been won at Lexington; and, more than ever, convinced of the truth of their insinuations respecting the courage of the colonists. Little did they suppose, however, that the blood shed on the village green at Lexington, like that of the martyrs, was but a " seed " in the hands of the husbandman, which being cast forth, produces fruit in its season. Although not the first blood shed in the cause of American freedom, it was the first which called forth the united opposition, by armed force, of the excited colonists, and broke down the wall of separation which had so long divided the different sections of the country—New York from Virginia, and both from New England.
( Originally Published 1907 )