Modern history

THE FIRST SHOT

image The Fight on Lexington Green

I saw, and heard, a gun fired, which appeared to be a pistol. Then I could distinguish two guns, and then a continual roar of musketry.”

—Paul Revere, Deposition, 1775

WHILE Paul Revere escorted the Whig leaders to safety, General Gage’s Regulars marched steadily toward Lexington. Five hours had passed since the British troops had left Boston, and still they did not know where they were going or what they were expected to do. Even the company commanders had not been told the purpose of the mission. But the men could feel the tension in the air, and they could see in the demeanor of Colonel Smith that things were not going according to plan. As they advanced rapidly through Cambridge, they began to hear gunshots in the distance. One officer looked at his pocket watch and noted that the time was about three o’clock. Another thought to himself, “a very unusual hour for firing.” 1

Suddenly they heard the hoofbeats of many horsemen galloping toward the column from the west. In the van, Marine Lieutenant Jesse Adair and Tory guide Daniel Murray anxiously searched the moonlit road ahead. In a moment, the riders were upon them, shouting General Gage’s password, “Patrole! Patrole!”

It was the party of British officers who had been scouting the road to Concord—Major Edward Mitchell, Captain Charles Lumm, Captain Charles Cochrane, and seven others, fresh from their encounter with Paul Revere. The column halted to hear their news. In high excitement, Major Mitchell announced that “the whole country was alarmed” and that they had “galloped for their lives.” He explained in a few breathless sentences what had happened on the Concord Road. “We have taken Paul Revierre,” the major said, “but was obliged to let him go, after having cut his girths and stirrups.” 2

Mitchell repeated Paul Revere’s warning that 500 New England men were mustering in Lexington. He told of the alarm bells and the signal guns, and the volley of musket-fire near the Green. The news raced back along the column. Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own never forgot that moment, “about five miles on this side of a town called Lexington which lay in our road,” when “we heard there were some hundreds of people collected together intending to oppose us and stop our going in.” 3

Others also remembered with vivid clarity this electrifying instant when they halted on the road, and Paul Revere’s warning reached them through the mouth of his highly excited captor, Major Mitchell. The message struck the column with shattering force. For five hours they had been kept in the dark, in more senses than one. Most had left Boston with no idea of the mission’s purpose, or whether it was a mission at all, or merely another training march.

They recognized the name of Paul Revere. Lieutenant William Sutherland of the 38th Foot made special mention in his report that it was Revere whom Major Mitchell intercepted on the road that night. Another wrote that the information had come from “the noted Paul Revere.” The British soldiers knew this man. Some had heard that he was an “ambassador” from the Whig Committees of Massachusetts to the Continental Congress. Others were aware that he had frustrated their Portsmouth plans by galloping from Boston to New Hampshire. A few knew that he tried to do the same thing again to the Salem expedition, and that the 64th had caught his men and kept them prisoner at Castle William in Boston harbor. 4

Now as they were marching deep into a dangerous country on a supposedly secret expedition, Paul Revere was ahead of them again—captured on a fast horse near Concord twenty miles west of Boston, while they were still slogging through Cambridge. They knew that this meddlesome Yankee meant trouble, and were horrified to learn from Major Mitchell that he knew more about their mission than they did. His presence was a sign that the people of New England were organizing against them. They would not be opposed merely by a milling mob of angry “peasants” with pitchforks in their hands. 5

Suddenly they also knew what many had suspected from the start. This night march was no drill. They had not been sent on one of “Old Woman” Gage’s hated training exercises, or another of his futile demonstrations to impress the country people of New England. They began to realize that they were marching deep into a hostile country, and might have to fight before the day was done. Few of these men had been in combat before. The thoughts of young soldiers on the eve of their first battle raced through their minds.

As if to punctuate the news that Major Mitchell brought them, the column heard more alarm guns, repeating in the distance. They listened as meeting bells begin to toll. The bells were not very loud—nothing like the carillons of ancient English churches they had known at home. These were small, solitary country bells, clanging faintly in the night, but the sounds came from every side—west, north, and even east behind the column. 6

Ensign Jeremy Lister of the 10th Foot listened to the bells in the night. He searched the skyline, which now was faintly visible against the brightening sky. On distant hilltops he began to make out beacon fires burning brilliantly across the rolling landscape. 7

The march resumed. Suddenly a Yankee rider came galloping out of a crossroad in front of the column, and was taken prisoner. Another horseman appeared, and vanished into the countryside. A small chaise of the sort that Yankees called a sulky came down the road toward them, driven by a “very genteel man” who warned the officers in the van that 600 men were waiting for them in Lexington. Lieutenant Adair responded by confiscating the sulky and riding in it himself for a time. The soldiers met a wagon coming toward them, full of cordwood for the Boston market. The teamsters solemnly assured them that 1000 men were in arms. 8

It was now four o’clock in the morning, the hour when everything in New England appears cold and bleak and colorless. The countryside was beginning to grow visible in the first gray light of dawn. The men in the marching column looked about them. As their eyes adjusted slowly to the coming of the light, they noticed a figure in the distance moving parallel to their column. Then other figures came into sight. As the light improved they were shocked to discover that the distant fields were alive with armed men, half-walking, half-running to the west, faster than the column itself. In the vanguard, Lieutenant Sutherland could make out “a vast number of country militia going over the hill with their arms for Lexington.” Further back in the column, a private soldier rememberedthat “about four o’clock in the morning… we could perceive inhabitants assembling in many parts.” 9

Lieutenant Sutherland suddenly collided with one of these inhabitants, a thirty-one-year-old Lexington militiaman named Benjamin Wellington, with his musket and bayonet in hand. Sutherland ordered the militiaman to give up his weapons, “which I believe he would not have done so easily,” Sutherland wrote, “but for Mr. Adair’s coming up.” Outnumbered, Wellington surrendered. The British officers took his weapons and told him to go home, as if they were talking to an errant child. Wellington walked away in the direction whence he came. When out of sight he turned and ran toward Lexington center to warn his neighbors. Later he found another weapon and joined his company. 10

A little after this encounter, a party of Yankee horsemen appeared in front of the column. They stopped at a distance from the British van and shouted a warning: “You had better turn back, for you shall not enter the town!” The riders wheeled and began to ride away. Then one of them turned back toward the Regulars. At the point of the column, Private James Marr of the 4th Foot watched the horseman raise his weapon and “offer to fire.” In the half light, Marr swore he saw a flash of flame and puff of smoke. Others saw it too. It might have been an alarm gun, but the green British soldiers at the head of the column were sure that it was aimed at them. 11

The officers in the van called Major Pitcairn to the front, and reported that a “provincial” had fired on them. Instantly Pitcairn halted the column, and ordered the companies to load. The men reached into their cartridge boxes, withdrew a paper-covered round, ripped it open with their teeth, and poured powder and ball into the long barrels of their muskets, leaving a litter of torn cartridge papers in the road. 12

The order to load was another moment of truth for the Regulars. Marine Captain William Soutar remembered, “We were surprised, not imagining in the least that we should be attacked or even molested on the march, for we had but that instant loaded and had marched all night without being loaded.” 13

The time was nearly 4:30 in the morning. It was almost light. Major Pitcairn studied with concern the rocky hills and granite outcroppings that were coming into view. He observed the strong stone “fences” as the Yankees called them: rude piles of granite boulders, topped with heavy logs. He ordered out flanking parties, and resumed the march. The Regulars were now very near to Lexington center. In the distance they began to hear a military drum, beating a call to arms. 14

A few minutes later the Regulars rounded a gentle turn in the road, and the village of Lexington came into view. The light was behind them, and the little hamlet lay half-shrouded in darkness. They could dimly make out a scattering of houses around a triangular village common. Directly ahead of them at the near corner of the triangle stood the large dark bulk of Lexington meetinghouse, three storeys high, with a large oak tree just beyond. To the left was the town’s wooden bell tower, low and squat, still sounding the alarm. To the right was the Buckman Tavern, with its old fashioned gambrel roof and heavy chimney stacks. 15

As the Regulars came closer they saw Captain Parker’s militia near the northeast corner of the Common, hurrying into line to the long roll of William Diamond’s drum. The Lexington men were forming up in two long ranks, partly hidden by the meetinghouse. To the left and right of the Common the British soldiers observed two other groups, mostly male, some of them armed.

Perhaps an observant Regular at the head of the column might have noticed two figures staggering across the Common with a heavy burden between them. One of these men was Paul Revere. With his gift for being at the center of events, he happened to be crossing Lexington Common just at the moment when the British troops arrived. Revere and John Lowell had emerged from the Buckman Tavern with John Hancock’s trunk just as the Lexington militia were falling into formation. Their route took them directly through the long ranks of the soldiers. Paul Revere heard Captain John Parker speak to his company. “Let the troops pass by,” Parker told his men. He added in the archaic dialect of old New England, “Don’t molest them, without they being first.” 16

At the same moment the British officers were studying the militia on the Common in front of them. Paul Revere’s warning of 500 men in arms echoed in their ears. As the officers peered through the dim gray light, the spectators to the right and left appeared to be militia too. Captain Parker’s small handful of men multiplied in British eyes to hundreds of provincial soldiers. 17 Pitcairn thought that he faced “near 200 of the rebels;” Barker reckoned the number at “between two and three hundred.” 18

On the other side, the New England men also inflated the size of the Regular force, which was magnified by the length of its marching formation on the narrow road. As the militia studied the long files of red-coated soldiers, some reckoned the force at between1200 and 1500 men. In fact there were only about 238 of all ranks in Pitcairn’s six companies, plus the mounted men of Mitchell’s patrol, and a few supernumeraries. 19

The Lexington militia began to consult earnestly among themselves. Sylvanus Wood, a Woburn man who joined them, had made a quick count a few minutes earlier and found to his surprise that there were only thirty-eight militia in all. Others were falling into line, but altogether no more than sixty or seventy militia mustered on the Common, perhaps less. One turned to his captain and said, “There are so few of us it is folly to stand here.” 20 But Parker had decided that the time for debate had ended. He turned to his men and told them, “The first man who offers to run shall be shot down.” Some heard him say, “Stand your ground! Don’t fire unless fired upon! But if they want to have a war let it begin here!” 21

The Regulars came closer. To men on both sides, time itself seemed to stop—a temporal illusion that often occurs in moments of mortal danger. When the mind begins to move at lightning speed, the world itself seems to slow down. But in fact events were unfolding at a rapid rate. The Regulars came hurrying on at the quick march. Swarming around the head of the column was a cloud of mounted British officers—the same men who had captured Paul Revere and been told that they were in mortal danger. Many were highly excited. Prominent among them was the mercurial Major Mitchell.

In the British van was Marine lieutenant Jesse Adair, the hard-charging young Irishman who had been put at the head of the column by Major Pitcairn to keep it moving. Adair was a bold and aggressive officer—quick to act, but sometimes slow to understand. 22

As he approached Lexington Common this young Marine had a momentous decision to make. The main road divided just before it reached the meetinghouse. Adair’s Loyalist guide would have told him that the left fork led to Concord, running along the southwest edge of the Green. The right fork carried toward the northeast, past the Buckman Tavern to the Bedford Road.

Lieutenant Adair found himself in a dilemma. To bear left on the main road toward Concord would leave an armed and possibly hostile force on the open flank of his column. To take the right fork would carry the Regulars headlong toward the militia. The choice was his to make. His immediate superior, Major Pitcairn, was back in the column and could not help him. The commander of the expedition, Colonel Smith, was far in the rear with the grenadiers, and completely out of touch.

The young Marine did not hesitate. He made a snap decision of momentous consequence. Lieutenant Adair instantly turned to the right, and led the three forward companies directly toward the militia. “No sooner did they come in sight of our company,” Lexington’s minister later wrote, “but one of them, supposed to be an officer of rank, was heard to say to the troops, ‘Damn them, we will have them!’” 23

Back in the column Major Pitcairn saw what had happened, and kicked his horse into a canter, riding rapidly to the front. As he reached the fork, Pitcairn decided differently from Adair. He turned left instead of right, and the rest of the column followed him. It separated from the van and marched along the left fork that ran southwest of the meetinghouse. Beyond that building, Pitcairn halted them in the Concord Road. Somebody also stopped the last of Adair’s three forward companies just beyond the meetinghouse, near the spreading oak tree. 24

Two companies, light infantry of the 4th and 10th Foot, continued straight toward the Lexington militia. In this critical moment Pitcairn lost touch with those men. Adair led them onward at an accelerating pace. The quick march became a run that took the Regulars halfway across the Common in a few moments. About seventy yards from the militia, the two leading companies were ordered to deploy from a column into a line of battle. The men in the rear came sprinting forward. Sergeants and subalterns dropped back to take their places behind the line. The long files dissolved in a swirl of movement. The Regulars began to shout the deep-throated battle cry that was distinctive to British infantry—a loud “huzza! huzza! huzza!” Orders were difficult to hear above the cheering. One British officer remembered that he was deafened by the shouts of his own men. 25

Pitcairn cantered across the Common toward the British line. Other mounted officers were already there. A Lexington militiaman, Elijah Sanderson, observed that “several mounted British officers were forward, I think five. The commander rode up, with his pistol in his hand, on a canter, the others following, to about five or six rods from the company, and ordered them to disperse. The words he used were harsh. I cannot remember them exactly.” 26

Many believed that this officer was Major Pitcairn, but others were unsure of his identity and uncertain of his words. Several men on both sides heard an officer shout, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!” In the front rank of the militia, John Robbins saw a party of three mounted British officers come directly toward him at “full gallop,” and thought he heard the foremost officer say, “Throw down your arms, ye villains, ye rebels.” Jonas Clarke thought that the officer said, “Ye villains, ye rebels, disperse, damn you, disperse!” 27

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Major John Pitcairn (Royal Marines) was British commander in the skirmish on Lexington Green. Born in 1722, he was an officer of long experience, very near the end of his career. A strong Scottish Tory, he had no sympathy for the colonists; but American Whigs admired his character if not his principles. A New England clergyman described him as “a good man in a bad cause.” (New England Historic and Genealogical Society)

Lexington’s commander, Captain Parker, turned to his men and gave them new orders, different from before. He later testified, “I immediately ordered our militia to disperse and not to fire.” Some began to scatter, moving backwards and to both sides. The town minister Jonas Clarke wrote, “Upon this, our men dispersed, but not so speedily as they might have done.” In the confusion, some of the militia did not hear the order and stayed where they were. None of the militia laid down their arms. 28

Behind the Lexington militia, Paul Revere and John Lowell were still struggling with their trunk. At last they reached the far end of the Common and crossed the road, heading toward a patch of woods beyond a house. Paul Revere glanced back over his shoulder and saw the red-coated Regulars approach the militia. As he returned to his task, suddenly he heard a shot ring out behind him. It sounded like a pistol, but he could not be sure, and he did not see where it came from or who fired it. He looked again and saw a cloud of white smoke in front of the Regulars. Revere could no longer see the American militia. He had passed beyond the houses on the edge of the Green, and a building blocked his sight. Later, his testimony indicated that he could not tell who fired first. With John Lowell he went back to his work, carrying the trunk to a place of safety. 29

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On the other side, Lieutenant Edward Gould was very near the center of the action. As an officer of light infantry in the King’s Own, he was part of the force that Adair led directly toward the militia. As the two lines drew near, Gould heard the sharp report of a gun. Like Paul Revere he could not see where it came from, and was unable even to hear it clearly because his own men were cheering wildly. Lieutenant Gould, like Revere, was an honest man and a careful observer. He later testified, “Which party fired first I cannot exactly say, as our troops rushed on shouting and huzzaing.” 30

As the bitter smell of black powder began to spread across the Common, men on both sides searched quickly around them, looking for the source of the shot. On that field of confusion, one fact was clear enough. Nearly everyone, British and American, agreed that the first shot did not come from the ranks of Captain Parker’s militia, or from the rank and file of the British infantry. 31

Several British officers were convinced that they saw a “provincial” fire at them from behind a “hedge” or stone wall, some distance away from Parker’s line. Lieutenant Sutherland of the 38th Foot wrote, “Some of the villains were got over the hedge, fired at us, and it was then and not before that the soldiers fired.” Major Pitcairn to his dying day believed that “some of the Rebels who had jumped over the wall, fired 4 or 5 shott at the soldiers… upon this, without any order or regularity, the Light Infantry began a scattered fire.” 32

It might have been so, but other Regulars thought that the first shot came from “the corner of a large house to the right of the Church,” which could only have been the Buckman Tavern. This also could have happened. Many armed men had been in the Buckman Tavern that night, and more than a few had partaken liberally of the landlord’s hospitality. Firearms and alcohol made a highly explosive mixture. 33

The Lexington men saw things differently. Most believed that the first shots were “a few guns which we took to be pistols, from some of the Regulars who were mounted on horses.” As many as five or six mounted men were present with the forward companies. Most of the Lexington militia, only thirty yards from these men, clearly saw one of these British officers fire at them. 34

Some thought that the first shot came from Major Pitcairn himself. One swore that he “heard the British commander cry, ‘Fire!’ and fired his own pistol and the other officers soon fired.” Pitcairn, an honorable man, absolutely denied that he did any such thing, and insisted that he told his troops not to fire. His brother officers strongly supported him. Lieutenant Sutherland wrote, “I heard Major Pitcairn’s voice call out, ‘Soldiers, don’t fire, keep your ranks, and surround them.’” 35

Other Americans believed that the first shot came from another British officer. Thomas Fessenden testified that as Pitcairn rode to the front, a second officer “about two rods behind him, fired a pistol.” The minister Jonas Clarke also thought that “the second of these officers fired a pistol towards the militia as they were dispersing.” It might have been the excitable Major Mitchell, or possibly Lieutenant Sutherland, an aggressive young volunteer who was armed with a pistol and mounted on a fractious horse that he could not control. 36

What probably happened was this: several shots were fired close together—one by a mounted British officer, and another by an American spectator. Men on both sides were sure that they heard more than one weapon go off; men on each side were watching only their opponents. If there were several shots at about the same time then all spoke the truth as they saw it, but few were able to see the entire field. 37

It is possible that one of these first shots was fired deliberately, either from an emotion of the moment, or a cold-blooded intention to create a incident. More likely, there was an accident. Firearms seemed to have a mind of their own in the 18th century. Only a few years earlier, such an accident had happened at a military review of the 71st Foot in Edinburgh, “some of the men’s pieces going off as they were presented.” Many weapons at Lexington, both British and American, were worn and defective. An accident might well have occurred on either side. If so, it was an accident that had been waiting to happen. 38

We shall never know who fired first at Lexington, or why. But everyone on the Common saw what happened next. The British infantry heard the shots, and began to fire without orders. Their officers could not control them. Lieut. John Barker of the 4th Foot testified that “our men without any orders rushed in upon them, fired, and put ‘em to flight.” Major Pitcairn reported that “without any order or regularity, the light infantry began a scattered fire.”

The British firing made at first a slow irregular popping sound, which expanded into a sharp crackle. Then suddenly there was a terrible ripping noise like the tearing of a sheet, as the British soldiers fired their first volley. That cruel sound was followed by what Paul Revere described as a “continual roar of musketry” along the British line.

Things were moving very quickly, but to the New England men who received this fire only a few yards away, events seemed to be happening in slow motion. Lexington militiaman Elijah Sanderson saw the Regulars shoot at him, but he was amazed that nobody seemed to fall, and thought that the Redcoats were firing blanks. Then one British soldier turned and fired toward a man behind a wall. “I saw the wall smoke with the bullets hitting it, Sanderson recalled, “I then knew they were firing balls.”

John Munroe also believed that the Regulars were firing only powder, and said so to his kinsman Ebenezer Munroe who stood beside him. But on the second fire Ebenezer said that “they had fired something more than powder, for he had received a wound in his arm.” He added, “I’ll give them the guts of my gun,” and fired back. 39

The two lines, British and American, were very close—about sixty or seventy yards apart, John Robbins remembered. Others thought them even closer. Sanderson was amazed that the Regulars “did not take sight,” but “loaded again as soon as possible.” The British infantry were doing automatically what they had been taught. There was no command for “take aim” in the British manual of arms in 1775, only “present.” The men were firing, reloading, presenting, and firing again with the incredible speed that made the British infantryman and his Brown Bess so formidable on a field of battle. One of the officers wrote that the firing “was continued by our troops as long as any of the Provincials were to be seen.” 40

With the crash of musketry, one of the British officers, Lieutenant Sutherland, lost control of his captured horse. The frightened animal bolted forward, straight through the New England militia to the far end of the Green. Sutherland managed to turn his terrified horse and galloped back again, as the militia and spectators scurried out of his way. Two New England men, Benjamin Tidd of Lexington and Joseph Abbott of Lincoln, were also looking on from horseback. After the volley from the Regulars they testified, “Our horses immediately started, and we rode off,” not of their own volition.

The spectators fled for their lives. Timothy Smith of Lexington testified that after the Regulars fired, “I immediately ran, and a volley was discharged at me, which put me in imminent danger. Thomas Fessenden, watching from near the meetinghouse, said, “I ran off as fast as I could.” 41 Heavy lead musket balls flew in all directions, making a low whizzing noise which sounded to some like a swarm of bees. Paul Revere, still struggling with John Hancock’s trunk, found himself directly in the line of fire, about “half a gunshot” from the British troops. He later remembered that the balls were “flying thick around him.” Revere and Lowell stayed bravely with the trunk as the British rounds passed close above their heads. They carried their precious burden into the woods beyond the Common, and remained there for about fifteen minutes. 42

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Ralph Earl’s sketch of the fight at Lexington Green was made shortly after the battle, on the basis of interviews with eyewitnesses. It is an important piece of evidence, very accurate in its location of British and American units, and in its rendering the Common itself. (New York Public Library)

The Common was shrouded in dense clouds of dirty white smoke. One militiaman remembered, “All was smoke when the Foot fired.” Another recalled that “the smoke prevented our seeing anything but the heads of some of their horses.” The British infantry fired several ragged volleys, then charged forward without orders through the smoke, lunging with their long bayonets at anyone they found in their way. 43

A few American militia managed to get off a shot or two. The youngsters ran, but several of the older men were determined to fight back. Many remembered seeing Captain John Parker’s kinsman Jonas Parker “standing in the ranks, with his balls and flints in his hat, on the ground between his feet, and heard him declare, he would never run. He was shot down at the second fire… I saw him struggling on the ground, attempting to load his gun… As he lay on the ground, they run him through with the bayonet.” 44

John Munroe also fired back. “After I had fired the first time, I retreated about ten rods, and then loaded my gun a second time, with two balls… the strength of the charge took off about a foot of my gun barrel.” Ebenezer Munroe stood and fought too. He wrote later, “The balls flew so thick, I thought there was no chance for escape, and that I might as well fire my gun as stand still and do nothing.” He remembered trying to take aim, but the smoke kept him from seeing the Regulars, and he did not hear Captain Parker’s orders to disperse. 45

Most of the American militiamen did not return fire. Their minister Jonas Clarke wrote that “far from firing first upon the King’s troops; upon the most careful enquiry, it appears that but very few of our people fired at all.” 46 The British infantry suffered only one man wounded, Private Johnson of the 10th Foot, shot in the thigh. Major Pitcairn’s horse was hit in two places, and Pitcairn himself was later seen nursing a bloody finger in Concord. 47

On the other side, the toll was heavy. Two militiamen (only two) fell dead on the line where they had mustered—Jonas Parker and Robert Munroe. The rest were killed while trying to disperse, as they had been ordered. Jonathan Harrington was mortally wounded only a few yards from his home on the west side of the Common. His wife and son watched in horror as he fell in front of the house, and struggled to get up again, his life’s blood coursing from a gaping chest wound. Jonathan Harrington rose to his knees and stretched out his hands to his family. Then he fell to the ground and crawled painfully toward his home, inch after inch, across the rough ground of the common. He died on his own doorstep.

Samuel Hadley and John Brown were also shot while running from the Common. Hadley’s body was found near the edge of a nearby swamp. Asahel Porter, the Woburn man who had been taken prisoner, tried to run and was killed a few rods beyond the Common. 48

Four Lexington militiamen were in the meetinghouse, which was also the town’s powder magazine. They came out just as the shooting started. One of them, Caleb Harrington, was killed as he tried to flee. Another, Joseph Comee, was wounded in the arm as he ran for cover. A third, Joshua Simonds, ducked back into the meetinghouse with British soldiers in pursuit. He raced to the upper loft where the munitions were kept, sank to the floor, and thrust his loaded musket into a powder barrel, determined to explode the entire magazine if the Regulars entered. British soldiers moved toward the building; several began to enter it. Joshua Simonds heard their footsteps on the stair, and prepared to blow up the powder. 49

At that moment Colonel Francis Smith suddenly arrived on the field, with the main body of his force. Smith was horrified by the scene that greeted him. The bodies of wounded and dead militiamen were scattered about the bloody ground. The British infantry, famous for their discipline in battle, were running wildly out of control. Their officers appeared helpless to restrain them. Small groups of Regulars were firing in different directions. Some were advancing on private houses. Others were moving toward the Buckman Tavern. A few were inside the meetinghouse, and preparing to assault the upper story where Joshua Simonds awaited them, with his musket plunged into a powder barrel and his finger on the trigger.

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Tavernkeeper William Munroe was Lexington’s orderly sergeant, who told Paul Revere not to make so much noise, as people were trying to sleep. Afterward he helped Adams and Hancock find a place of safety, and returned in time to muster with Captain Parker on Lexington Common. This portrait was painted by Ethan Allen Greenwood in 1813, when Munroe was seventy-one. (Lexington Historical Society)

Unlike his green junior officers, Colonel Smith knew from long experience exactly what to do. He rode straight into the center of the scene, met Lieutenant Sutherland, and asked, “Do you know where a drummer is?” A drummer was quickly found, and ordered to beat to arms. The throb of the drum began to reverberate across the Common. The Regulars had been trained in countless drills to respond automatically to its commands. The British infantry heard the drum’s call, steady and insistent even above the rattle of musketry. Reluctantly, the men ceased firing and turned toward their angry commander. 50

Smith ordered them to form up. Some of the men responded sullenly. Others did not respond at all. One officer remembered “We then formed on the Common but the men were so wild they could hear no orders.” Another wrote, “We then formed on the Common, but with some difficulty.” Slowly the companies came together, and sergeants prodded the men into ranks. 51

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Militiaman Amos Muzzey mustered on Lexington Green with Captain Parker’s company. This is one of the few surviving paintings of an American private who fought on April 19. One sees in this strong face the seriousness of purpose that contributed to the outcome of that event. Fifty-three years later, Muzzey was buried between his two wives in Lexington. His stone reads, “… reserved for Mr. Amos Muzzey and wives, and no other corpse to be laid there.” In death as in life, Private Muzzey fiercely defends his own turf. (Lexington Historical Society)

Colonel Smith would have many detractors before this day was done, but one must respect his remarkable performance in recovering control of his men under fire on Lexington common. Many a life was saved by his intervention. He wrote later that “I was desirous of putting a stop to all further slaughter of those deluded people.” To have succeeded in doing so was no small achievement. 52

While the Regulars shuffled resentfully into line, Colonel Smith ordered his officers to gather round him. At long last he told them of their mission. For the first time they learned that Concord was their destination. The officers were appalled. The thought of marching farther into this hostile countryside with green and undisciplined troops, after the terrible accident that had just happened, filled them with horror. Several junior officers spoke out bravely at risk to their careers, urging Smith to “give up the idea of prosecuting his march.” They reminded him about the “certainty of the country being alarmed and assembling.” They asserted that the original purpose of the mission had become “impracticable,” and recommended a speedy return to Boston. Colonel Smith listened politely and refused. He explained his reasons in terms that any soldier could understand, telling his officers simply that he “had his orders” and was “determined to obey them.” 53

While the officers met with their commander, the men stood in their ranks. One remembered that “we waited a considerable time there.” At last the officers’ call ended, and the order to march was given. Smith was concerned about the state of his troops. To revive their spirits and empty their weapons, he allowed them to fire a victory salute and give three cheers. A heavy volley of 800 muskets, and the soldiers’ triumphant shouts echoed across the empty Common. Then the sergeants barked their harsh commands, and the column began to move toward Concord.

In the houses and woods along the road, the people of Lexington listened bitterly to the British cheers and began to count their dead. Seven Lexington men had been killed and also one of the Yankee prisoners taken on the road, the unlucky Woburn man who was shot while “trying to escape.” Nine other Lexington men were wounded, some severely. The toll was heavy in that small town. Eight pairs of fathers and sons had mustered on the Common. Five of those eight were shattered by death. Most families in that small community suffered the loss of a kinsman—if not a father or son, then an uncle or cousin.

As the British troops disappeared into the west, the people of the town gathered on the Common. There was at first a sense of shock, a terrible numb and empty feeling of cruel and bitter loss. Then there was another raw emotion: deep, consuming, abiding anger. The people of Lexington asked themselves, who were these arrogant men in their proud red coats? By what right did they act as they did?

Other militiamen were now arriving from the far corners of the town. Those who had slept through the alarm began to appear, weapons in hand. Captain Parker mustered his company once again on the bloody ground. There were not sixty militia as before, but twice that number. The men were silent, grim and pensive. Most had lost friends and relatives only a few minutes before. Some wore bloody bandages. A few had faces and shirts blackened by powder stains. Their weapons were no better than before, but they replenished their ammunition from the dwindling store in the meetinghouse.

This time, there were no consultations or debates. With a few terse words of command, Captain Parker ordered his company to fall in. The men were no longer in doubt about what to do. They were ready to give battle again, but on different terms.

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