The Shot Heard ‘Round the World
Paul Revere and William Dawes were not the only riders warning the countryside of the British raid, about a dozen people lost to history took up the alarm. Even more did so later in the morning, most famously Israel Bissel who rode from Watertown Massachusetts to Philadelphia, 345 miles, in four days, shouting “To arms, to arms, the war has begun”. The American system of outriders warning of an attack (usually French or Indian) had been in existence since at least Queen Anne’s War, 70 years before. The Sons of Liberty just coopted it for use against the British. Though there were other riders, Dawes and Revere were the only ones tasked specifically to reach Concord.
On the night of 18/19 April 1775, the British sent out patrols to stop the American early warning. They were only partially effective, and when one was captured, more took their place. “The regulars are coming”, sounded throughout the countryside. Both Paul Revere and William Dawes avoided the patrols and reached Lexington just after midnight. They warned Sam Adams and John Hancock and every house they passed. They then departed for Concord. Just outside Lexington, they met Dr. Samuel Prescott, a Concord native who was supposed to show them the way. The British patrols were further out than they thought, and shortly after they met, one patrol scattered the three riders. Revere was captured, Dawes was thrown from his horse and walked back to Lexington, but Prescott made it to Concord. Prescott warned the Massachusetts Provincial Council, though adjourned until May many were still in town, of the impending British raid.
In Lexington, Captain John Parker mustered his minute company whom fully a quarter were his relatives, and sent out men to watch the road from Lechmere Point. After taking roll, they retired to Buckman’s Tavern to await word from the scouts. Five hours later at dawn, Maj. John Pitcairn with the advanced guard of Lieut. Col. Smith’s column entered the town. Parker formed his men in plain sight on Lexington Green but did not block the regulars’ passage to Concord. About 100 spectators formed on the side of the green. As Pitcairn turned off the road instead of continuing on, Parker said, “Stand your ground, men. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it start here.”
An officer rode up to Parker’s 77 man company and told them to disperse, as 180 regulars behind him fixed bayonets and continued to advance. The detachment was intent on finding Adams and Hancock, and Parker’s militia was in the way. Parker felt that their stand had shown the regulars that the Americans were serious, and wishing no unnecessary bloodshed, told his men to disperse. But during the tense standoff, a shot rang out from an unknown source. The British fired a volley followed by a bayonet charge which routed Parker’s men. Eight Americans were killed, ten wounded, and one British soldier was slightly wounded. Pitcairn’s men quickly searched Lexington and found nothing (Both Adams and Hancock were in Burlington, Massachusetts at the time). Pitcairn then rejoined Smith’s column and the British continued on to Concord.
As the British marched, they heard shots fired warning of their approach and observed the American minutemen watching them from outside of musket range. The American early warning system was so effective that towns 25 miles from Boston knew of the British advance while they were still unloading boats at Lashmere Point. By the time Smith arrived at Concord, all of Massachusetts knew of the British raid, and thousands of minutemen were descending on the obvious British route of march.
At 8 am, Smith’s column arrived at Concord. 400 Americans were formed up on the hill across the Concord River northwest of town but were not actually in the town. So under the watchful eyes of the minutemen across the river, the British searched Concord. They found some old siege cannon which they disabled and some gun carriages which they burned on the green. The carriage fire spread to the meeting house, which the British assisted in extinguishing. Smith also learned from loyalists of vast stores of powder at Barrett’s Farm, the route to which was blocked by the Americans.
Smith decided to move on to the farm fully expecting to rout the rebels just as his men did at Lexington. But as they approached the Old North Bridge, the British noticed the Rebels also advanced towards them. The Americans saw the smoke from the green and meeting house, and thought that the British were setting fire to all of Concord. The Concord minutemen were determined to stop the firing of their town, and the other minute companies joined them. Fire was exchanged. Canalized by the bridge and faced by superior numbers of Americans, Smith couldn’t force his way to Barret’s Farm.
With a growing number of hostile minutemen across the bridge, Smith realized the grave situation his exhausted men were in. They had been up all night and had already marched nearly 20 miles. Safety was still another 20 miles away along an obvious route. Every minute brought more Americans. Smith ordered a retreat back to Boston.
The march back was not going to be as easy as the march to Concord. Thousands of minutemen were streaming in from all over Massachusetts. They lined the road back to Boston (now known as “Battle Road”) shooting at the British from behind trees and stone walls as they passed. Only the aggressive nature of the troops he commanded saved Smith’s column from complete annihilation. The British light infantry and grenadiers that made up the raiding force were the best soldiers in General Gage’s army. Despite exhaustion, they continually sent out flanking patrols and conducted pulse charges to engage the Rebels and break up any concentrations along the route. Still, hundreds were killed and wounded.
At 3 pm, 19 April, 1775, 17 hours after notification of the mission, Smith’s column returned to Lexington where it met a much needed relief column from Boston. However, the British didn’t tarry long and after a brief respite outside of Munro’s Tavern to consolidate, reorganize, and wait for stragglers, they continued on. More than four thousand American minutemen were in the area, and more on the way.
The column arrived back in Boston at dusk, protected by the guns of the Royal Navy. The British marched 41 miles on 19 April and fought a running battle most of the time. It is estimated that some marched over 50 miles along the way trying to engage the Rebels. Within days, 15,000 American militiamen surrounded and laid siege to the British inside Boston, some from as far away as Connecticut and New Hampshire.
America had just picked a fight with the most powerful country on the planet. Though America didn’t know it at the time, “The Shot Heard Round the Word” at dawn on Lexington Green started a new phase in world history. The American Revolution had begun.
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