It doesn’t matter whose blood, or who fired the first shot. Whether it was fired by an eager patriot, a nervous redcoat, or a drunken hunter not even on the field, is immaterial. What matters is that the shot was fired and the road to a new nation was trod. The path to this point had been tumultuous, and it was far from set in stone, even after blood had been spilled, but it was now a different path than what had been. No longer would they entreat their king for redress of grievances with lengthy tomes. Now they would speak with the ferocity of black powder and cold steel, and the hot blood of patriots.
The afternoon of April 18, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren, considered by Governor Gage as the most dangerous man in the colonies, had seen five British officers on horseback returning to Boston along Charleston Neck. Their mission had been to reconnoiter the route for an armed excursion into the countryside to seize militia arms and arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, two of the most vocal and radical of the patriots agitating against the long line of usurpations of King George III. The reconnaissance had been designed to prevent raising alarm among the colonists. Instead Dr. Warren mounted the steeple of the Old North Church and lit two lanterns, launching Paul Revere and Richard Dawes on their famous Midnight Ride.
Early on the morning of April 19 approximately 800 British soldiers boarded boats manned by Royal Navy sailors on a deserted beach of Boston’s Back Bay. The men were Royal Marines under Major Pictairn, and Grenadiers and Light Infantry flank companies, the elite of the British Army. Overall command was under Lt. Col. Francis Smith, an experienced and aged officer. Through a source so close to General Gage that his, or possibly her, identity remains a secret to this day, Dr. Warren learned that the column’s target was Concord; and Adams and Hancock.
While the regulars marched through the idyllic countryside, the Sons of Liberty and Minute Men were assembling at Lexington Green and in the surrounding woods militiamen were turning out in ever increasing numbers. As the sun rose over Lexington Common the lead British column drew up in line facing the 80 or so loosely assembled militia who had just exited the Buckman Tavern. British Marine Leftenant Jesse Adair, commanding the advanced guard, ordered Capt. John Parker to dismiss his militia and not impede the forces march to Concord.
This game had been played before. The redcoats and colonists had been playing cat and mouse for months, trying to capture patriot stores in a series of bloodless skirmishes called Powder Alarms. The British would sally forth, the colonists’ early alarm system of dispatch riders, bugles and drums warned of their excursion, and the arms caches were dispersed. Though Capt. Parker expected that today would be no different, he had no illusions what an engagement with trained British regulars would mean. He had no intention of instigating a fight, and had formed his men so as not to block the road to Concord; but he also was determined to make a statement of defiance. “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Lt. Adair marched his men down the common in an effort to flank and surround the militia, while the follow on companies under Maj. Pictairn drew up in their front. Lt.William Sutherland rushed the patriots brandishing his sword, yelling “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!” Adair’s men rushed forward shouting “Huzzah!”, bayonets leveled, to confuse the rebels. Both Pictairn and Parker ordered their men to hold their fire, but in all of the confusion, someone discharged their musket. The “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” had been fired.
The British, acting in an undisciplined manner and without orders, unleashed a devastating volley into the confused ranks of militia. The militia broke and wisely ran for their lives, leaving behind eight dead and 10 wounded. Those killed were Samuel Hadley, John Brown, Jonathon Harrington, Caleb Harrington, Asahel Porter, Robert Munroe, Jonas Parker, and Isaac Muzzey.
The British officers regained control of their men and reformed them for the march to Concord, but in the surrounding countryside the hornet’s nest of Minute Men were swarming.
When they arrived in Concord they found most of the arms had been evacuated. While they fruitlessly searched the buildings and nearby farms, the militia formed on the hills over looking the North Bridge over the Concord River. They formed into a column and marched against the regulars on the opposite bank. To the militia’s surprise the British fired a live volley and two Minute Men fell dead. The militia stopped and fired a volley of their own, and this time it was the British who broke. For most of the redcoats it was their first terrifying taste of combat, and facing an overwhelming force in a confusing situation, they did the unthinkable; the vaunted Lobsterback turned tail and ran.
Both sides then settled into a tense standoff, watching each other from defensive positions while the remainder of the British forces finished their empty search of Concord Town. A local lunatic wandered between the lines selling hard cider to both sides, who sat in stunned disbelief that lethal shots had actually been fired, that blood had finally and truly been spilled.
After lunch the British formed into columns for the march back to Boston. About a mile east of Concord at a crossroads and bridge named Merriam’s Corner, the colonists descended on the British column. To the increasingly worried regulars it was “as if men fell from the sky.” From there, and at places named Bloody Angle, Mason’s Farm, and Fiske’s Hill, the militiamen ambushed the retreating regulars, sniping at them from behind walls and trees with an accurate and deadly fire. At Lexington, the bloodied and bandaged men of Parker’s militia gained revenge when they initiated an ambush which wounded Col. Smith himself.
The planned British withdrawal was now a rout, with British officers having to draw their swords to force their men into lines to engage the yankee militia which swarmed around them like angry wasps. They were close to surrender until they were met with a relief force of 1,000 men with artillery under Lord Percy. Under Percy the reformed column resumed the march in good order, but even more militia had taken the field and the harassing raids and ambushes continued with increasing ferocity and lethality all the way back to Boston. With the increasing desperation of their plight the famed British discipline broke down yet again and soldiers began plundering and looting houses and taverns along the route of march, killing anyone they suspected of being involved in the fighting, including two drunks in Menotomy whose only crime was being too drunk to hide in the cellar.
By dark the ragged column of British marched back into Boston under the protective guns of the Royal Navy. They had marched more than 40 miles in 21 hours, had not slept, been under fire for eight hours, and had lost 75 men killed, 174 wounded and 53 missing. When they woke the next morning Boston was surrounded by a militia force of over 15,000. The nascent beginnings of the Continental Army had marched from all over New England when the rumor of spilled blood was born true.
Although a state of actual war now existed between the colonies and Great Britain, it would be more than a year of debates before the course of complete separation and independence was finally decided upon on July 4th, 1776, widely recognized as the birth of our nation. But it was on that bright spring morning at Lexington Green that the first step on the path to our ordained destiny as the Great Experiment, towards American Exceptionalism, to freedom and liberty, was finally and irrevocably taken.