Modern history

THE BATTLE

image A Provincial Protest Becomes a World War

We saw a large body of men drawn up with the greatest regularity.… with as much order as the best disciplined troops.”

—British Ensign Jeremy Lister in Concord

They began to march by divisions down upon us from their left in a very military manner.

—British Lt. Wm. Sutherland, at the North Bridge

Whoever dares to look upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about.

—Brigadier Lord Hugh Percy after returning from Lexington

AMERICANS HAVE A VIVID IMAGE of the fighting that began on the morning of April 19, 1775. In our mind’s eye, we see a scattering of individual minutemen crouched behind low granite walls, banging away at a disciplined mass of British Regulars along the Battle Road. We celebrate the spontaneity of the event, and the autonomy of the Americans who took part in it. As a writer put it in the 19th century, “Every one appeared to be his own commander.” 1

That familiar folk-memory contains an important element of truth. One American militiaman testified that many times in the course of a long day “each one sought his own place and opportunity to attack and annoy the enemy from behind trees, rocks, fences and buildings.” But in more general terms, the idea that every minuteman fought his own private war against the British army is very much mistaken. It is wrong in the same way that the myth of the solitary midnight rider is inaccurate, and the legend of the spontaneous Middlesex rising is far off the mark. After close study of this event, the distinguished soldier and military historian John Galvin concludes that the clash at Lexington and Concord is “the least known of all American battles.” Certainly it is one of the most misunderstood. 2

The fighting on this day was not merely an open running skirmish along the Battle Road. It was also a series of controlled engagements, in which the Middlesex farmers fought as members of formal military units. Here again, America remembers the individual and forgets the common effort. It celebrates the spontaneous act, but shows little interest in its unique heritage of collective action in the cause of freedom. Let us look again at the events of this fateful day.

At Concord, the town fathers had been awakened by Dr. Samuel Prescott early in the morning of April 19. According to the custom in New England, they went to talk with their minister, William Emerson. In the cautious manner of these communities they decided to muster the militia immediately, and also to confirm the accuracy of the alarm by sending several gallopers to Lexington.

One of these “posts” was Reuben Brown, a Concord saddler who went riding down the Boston Road toward the first streaks of dawn in the eastern sky. Brown reached Lexington just before the Regulars arrived. He spoke briefly with Captain Parker on the Green, and was present when the firing began. Without waiting to see how it ended, Reuben Brown turned his horse, galloped home, and told Major John Buttrick what he had witnessed. Buttrick asked if the Regulars were firing ball. Brown answered, “I do not know, but think it probable.” 3

Concord’s men of military age gathered together at the Wright Tavern. Like the Lexington militia, they held an impromptu town meeting among themselves. All agreed that the town should defend itself. The young men of the minute companies wished to march eastward and confront the Regulars outside the town. The men of middle age in the militia preferred to stand and fight in Concord. The town elders on the alarm list thought it wise to wait while their numbers continued to grow. After some discussion, it was decided in the consensual manner of a Massachusetts town that all of these things should be done. 4

The minutemen marched off, spoiling for a fight. They went to the brow of a hill about a mile east of the town center, and looked out across the open countryside. Suddenly they caught their first sight of the advancing British force. It was a breathtaking spectacle: a long flowing ribbon of scarlet and white and sparkling steel that stretched a quarter mile along the road, and was moving relentlessly in their direction. Militiaman Thaddeus Blood, aged nineteen, wrote, “The sun was rising and shined on their arms, and they made a noble appearance in their red coats and glistening arms.” 5

The British commander saw the New England soldiers on the hill, and ordered his light infantry to deploy against them. The minutemen watched in fascination as the head of the long red formation suddenly opened outward to form a skirmish line. The young minutemen of Concord counted their own small numbers, and concluded that their elders had been right after all. They decided to withdraw into the town. 6

The retreat was done in high style. Minuteman Amos Barrett recalled that the Concord men stayed on their hill until the British “got within 100 rods [1650 feet], then we was ordered to about face and marched before them.” He remembered hearing “our drums and fifes a going, and also the B[ritish]. We had grand musick.” The same ritual was repeated several times, as the minutemen retreated slowly before the advancing British troops. 7

In Concord, the older men of the militia companies and the alarm lists were making ready to receive the Regulars in the village. They took a position on a high hill above the meetinghouse, near the town’s tall liberty pole with its flag flying defiantly in the westerly breeze. 8 The hill was a strong position, with long views to the east. Here the Concord men consulted yet again. Their militant minister William Emerson told his fellow townsmen, “Let us stand our ground. If we die, let us die here!” One man remembered that many others “were for making a stand, notwithstanding the superiority in numbers.” 9

Some were of a different opinion. The debate continued on Meetinghouse Hill until suddenly the young men streamed back into town. Behind them the British column appeared in the distance, coming on at a quick march. The sun was rising higher in a bright blue sky, and the morning light reflected brilliantly on the burnished weapons of the advancing infantry. Emerson remembered the vivid spectacle of the Regulars “glittering in arms, advancing toward us with the greatest celerity.” 10

As the Regulars drew near, the throb of their drums began to be heard. William Emerson passed among the militia, speaking words of encouragement to the young soldiers. He came to Harry Gould, eighteen years old, who was “panic-struck at the first sound of the British drums.” Emerson clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Stand your ground, Harry! Your cause is just and God will bless you!” Young Harry Gould took heart from William Emerson’s words, and fought bravely through the rest of that long day. Others did the same, and long remembered the example of the man who had inspired them. After the battle a Concord soldier named his two sons “William” and “Emerson.” 11

On military questions, the men of Concord tended to defer to a small elite of elected officers who stood with them on the hill. The colonel of the Middlesex regiment was a Concord man, James Barrett, sixty-four years old, a prosperous miller who had held many offices of trust in the town. Concord’s five company captains in 1776 included Barrett’s son-in-law Captain George Minot; his brother-in-law Captain Thomas Hubbard; and his nephew Captain Thomas Barrett. These leaders were respected in the town for their caution and prudence. 12

But some of the younger men thought them a little too prudent. Their leader was Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer, thirty-nine years old, a prosperous farmer and furniture-maker. Hosmer was not trusted by the town’s elders. His only jobs had been constable and hog-reeve, which went routinely to the newly married man. But in town meeting he was an eloquent and outspoken Whig, one of the few who could get the better of the polished Tory lawyer Daniel Bliss in political debate. In one of their exchanges, a Loyalist watched as lawyer Bliss “frowned, bit his lip, pounded with his boot-heel, and in a word showed marked discomposure.”

image

William Emerson, the highly respected minister of Concord, was a militant Whig who stiffened the resolve of his town. This wax portrait is in the Concord Free Public Library

“Who is this man?” the Loyalist asked imperiously.

“Hosmer, a mechanic,” Bliss replied.

“Then how comes he to speak such pure English?”

“Because he has an old mother who sits in the chimney corner and reads English poetry all the day long, and I suppose it is like mother, like son.’ He is the most dangerous man in Concord. His influence over the young men is wonderful, and where he leads they will be sure to follow.” 13 On April 19, Lieutenant Hosmer and his radical young friends spoke out for strong measures. Colonel Barrett and his kin were voices of restraint.

The British drums were coming closer, but still the townsmen continued their debate. The men of Lincoln arrived, and joined in. One gestured toward the oncoming Regulars and said, “Let us go and meet them.” Eleazer Brooks of Lincoln answered, “No, it will not do for us to begin the war.” 14

The drums were now very near. Once again the “more prudent” men repeated that it would be “best to retreat till our strength should be equal to the enemy’s.” Prudence prevailed. It was agreed to abandon the village to the advancing British force. The militia, still heavily outnumbered, retreated north to the next hill. To avoid an incident Colonel Barrett took them across the North Bridge, all the way to Punkatasset Hill, nearly a mile from the town center but overlooking it across the open country. 15

Colonel Smith led his Regulars into an undefended village. No men of military age remained to oppose him—only women and children and old men. The people of the town had heard the news of Lexington (some of it at least), and they were angry. Two British officers described them as “sulky” and “surly.” One infuriated elder attacked Major Pitcairn with his fists.

The British soldiers responded with restraint. Colonel Smith strictly enforced General Gage’s orders that the people of Concord were to be treated correctly, and that private property was to be respected. Even so, there was a little looting. One soldier amazed the town by stealing a Bible from the meetinghouse. Another helped himself to a volume appropriately titled Liberty of the Will. Their officers permitted one act of political destruction: the town’s liberty pole was cut down and burned. Otherwise, the troops remained on their best behavior. 16

The Regulars went speedily about their business. General Gage’s elaborate orders were followed to the letter. Both bridges into town were quickly secured. A single company of light infantry was thought sufficient to hold the South Bridge. A larger force, seven companies of light infantry, went to the North Bridge where the men of Concord had retreated. Four of those seven companies were sent on yet another long march, two miles beyond the North Bridge, to Colonel Barrett’s house and mill, which Tories had reported to hold a great store of munitions. Two companies from the 4th and 10th Foot were ordered to hold the high ground along their route, and a company of the 43rd Foot guarded the bridge itself. 17

The grenadiers remained in Concord center. Their assignment was to search the village, and to destroy any materials of war they found there. All morning they toiled at that thankless task. They worked systematically through the village, entering without warrant the houses that had been reported by General Gage’s spies. No resistance was offered except at the tavern of Ephraim Jones, an innkeeper of outspoken Whig principles who doubled as the town’s jailor. Major Pitcairn went directly to the inn and banged on the door. Jones defiantly refused to open it. A party of grenadiers broke it down. Pitcairn rushed inside, and hard words were exchanged. The angry Marine knocked the infuriated innkeeper to the ground, “clapped a pistol to his head,” and threatened to use it unless information was forthcoming. At pistol-point, Jones led them to three large 24-pounder cannon, buried in his yard. Next door, a Tory was found languishing in the town jail, and speedily set free. Major Pitcairn then released his captive, and surprised him by offering to buy a breakfast for his men, and insisted on paying the bill. 18

Aside from the three cannon, not much was turned up in the way of munitions. Paul Revere’s repeated warnings had achieved their purpose. Many things of military value had been spirited away in the busy weeks since he had ridden to the town. The English Whig historian George Otto Trevelyan wrote contemptuously that the grenadiers “spoiled some flour, knocked the trunnions off three iron guns, burned a heap of wooden spoons and trenchers, and cut down a liberty pole.” 19

A cache of lead bullets was also uncovered and tossed into the millpond, from which it would be salvaged the next day. Some of the British Regulars made a pyre of wooden gun carriages, and set it ablaze. The fire spread quickly to the town house and threatened to destroy it. For a moment, in this strange semi-civil war, the soldiers and the townspeople forgot their differences and joined together in a bucket brigade to save the building. The gun carriages continued to burn, sending a cloud of smoke billowing high above the village.

Beyond the North Bridge, four companies of light Infantry marched to Colonel Barrett’s house and mill, which only a few weeks earlier had indeed been an important arsenal. But since April 7, when Paul Revere carried his first warning to Concord, the town had been hard at work, moving military supplies to safety. Much material had been sent to Sudbury, Stow, and other places. What remained was hidden with high cunning. At the last minute, Colonel Barrett’s sons plowed a field on his farm, planted weapons in the fresh furrows, and covered them over again. The British soldiers passed by without a second thought, little suspecting the crop that had been sown there. British Ensign De Berniere wrote in frustration “We did not find so much as we expected.” In fact they found scarcely anything at all. 20

The British troops took their time at Barrett’s house. After the long night march they were tired and hungry, and several demanded breakfast from Mrs. Barrett. She gave them food and drink, saying coldly, “We are commanded to feed our enemy if he hunger.” They offered to pay. When she refused, the soldiers tossed a few shillings into her lap. She told them, “This is the price of blood.” 21

At the North Bridge, the British companies awaited the return of their comrades, and guarded the line of their retreat. To the north, the men of Concord were gathering their strength on Punkatasset Hill as reinforcements came flowing in from surrounding towns. Hovering around them was a crowd of women, children, and dogs. Several soldiers led the noncombatants to a place of safety and tried in vain to shoo the dogs away, at some cost to military dignity. 22

The militia consulted yet again, and decided to move closer. They marched south about 1000 yards from Punkatasset Hill to their muster field, a flat hilltop about 300 yards northwest of the bridge. 23 A company of British light infantry had occupied this high ground; but as the militia advanced, the Regulars retreated down the hill toward the bridge. The New England men and the British troops eyed each other warily, a few hundred yards apart.

Among the militia was an English immigrant named James Nichols, who had become a farmer in Lincoln. He was much liked by his American neighbors, who found him a “good droll fellow and a fine singer.” Nichols was uneasy at the prospect of fighting the King’s troops, more so than the Yankees who surrounded him. He stood quietly for a while, watching the Regulars, then turned to the men in his company and said, “If any of you will hold my gun, I will go down and talk to them.” He walked down the hill, and chatted with the Regulars for a moment. Then he came back, retrieved his gun and announced that he was going home. 24

While Nichols departed, many other men arrived from nearby towns. Parts of two New England regiments were now in the field. Concord’s Major John Buttrick led the local regiment of Middlesex minutemen, of which five full companies were now assembled from Acton, Bedford, Lincoln, and two from Concord. Beside them stood Colonel James Barrett’s regiment of Middlesex militia, five companies of older men from the same towns. Other men were streaming in from Carlisle, Chelmsford, Groton, Littleton, Stow, and Westford, west and north of Concord. Altogether, about 500 armed men were in the field. 25

The senior officer present was Colonel Barrett, who took command of the entire force, supported by Major Buttrick. As a gesture of unity to the young men, Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer was invited to join them as adjutant. None of these officers was in uniform. Colonel Barrett was dressed in “an old coat, a flapped hat, and a leather apron.” Hosmer commonly wore a homespun suit of butternut brown. These Concord leaders did not make an elegant appearance, but they understood their duty and had the confidence of their men. 26

Colonel Barrett ordered the two regiments into a long line facing the bridge and the town, which was clearly in view across the open ground. The officers and men consulted together yet again. They were uncertain what to do. Then suddenly they began to notice smoke rising from the village. Young Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer turned to Colonel Barrett and asked boldly, “Will you let them burn the town down?” 27

In any professional army, no lieutenant who valued his career would dare speak to his colonel that way. But this was the New England militia, and others joined in. Captain William Smith of Lincoln announced that he was prepared to drive the Regulars from the bridge. Captain Isaac Davis of Acton drew his sword and said, “I haven’t a man who is afraid to go.” 28

Colonel Barrett ordered the men to load their weapons. Many had done so already; some deliberately double-shotted their muskets. In his prudent manner, Barrett walked the ranks, speaking words of caution to his men. Several remembered his “strict orders” not to fire until the British fired first, but then “to fire as fast as we could.” 29

image

Joseph Hosmer was the outspoken Concord artisan who challenged his commander Colonel James Barrett to advance on the Regulars at North Bridge. His portrait is in the Concord Free Public Library

At Concord’s North Bridge and Lexington Green, the actions of New England’s military commanders were remarkably similar: to challenge the British force, but not to fire the first shot. It was agreed by these leaders that when the fighting began (most now believed it to be inevitable) the Regulars must start it. This strategy was adopted with surprising unanimity. Probably it was agreed in advance. Paul Revere’s many rides to Concord and Lexington were not merely for the purpose of reporting British movements, but also of concerting the American response. Early that morning, Lexington’s Captain Parker made sure that every private in his company understood this strategy. Concord’s Colonel Barrett did the same thing at the North Bridge.

Then Colonel Barrett gave the order to advance. The men moved forward from their right in double file. This was not a combat formation. It was perhaps Barrett’s hope to move across the bridge without engaging the Regulars, and to make a demonstration before the village.

Below them, the British soldiers were ordered to fall back across the bridge. Several began to pull up the wooden planking. At that sight, a wave of fury swept through the Concord ranks. Major John Buttrick shouted a warning to leave the bridge alone. This wastheir bridge! Buttrick’s home was just behind him. Standing on his own land that had belonged to his family since 1638, he turned to his minutemen and said, “If we were all of his mind he would drive them away from the bridge, they should not tear that up.” Amos Barrett remembered, “We all said we would go.” 30 The New England men were thus consulted—not commanded—on the great question before them. 31

The two New England regiments moved down the hill in a long column, led by young fifer Luther Blanchard of Acton, who had marched onto the field playing a spirited march called “The White Cockade,” an old Jacobite song that was thought to be “intensely galling to the Hanoverians.” Acton’s minutemen were put in the van, because they were one of the few companies to be fully equipped with bayonets and cartridge boxes that allowed a greater rate of fire than powder horns. Behind the Acton company came the minutemen from other towns. The militia followed, and the alarm lists brought up the rear. 32

The Regulars by the bridge turned and looked up the hill in amazement at the men coming toward them. They never imagined that these “country people” would dare to march against the King’s troops in formation, and were astonished by their order and discipline. One British soldier wrote that the Yankee militia “advanced with the greatest regularity.” Another noted that “they moved down upon me in a seeming regular manner.” A third reported that “they began to march by divisions down upon us from their left in a very military manner.” Slowly the British Regulars began to understand that this was no rural rabble confronting them. 33

The senior British officer at the bridge was Captain Walter Laurie. With him were three light infantry companies from the 4th, 10th and his own 43rd Foot, about 115 men in all. 34 Laurie watched the New Englanders advance, and ordered his three companies to form for “street firing” behind the bridge. This was a typically complex 18th-century maneuver, designed to dominate a small space with overwhelming firepower. In one version, each company was ordered to form in narrow ranks, one rank behind the other. The men were trained to “lock” their formation—the front rank kneeling, the second rank shifting half a step to one side, and the third rank moving in the opposite direction, so that three ranks could present their muskets and fire simultaneously. After firing, the front ranks filed quickly to the rear and formed up again. They reloaded while the next ranks stepped forward and fired in their turn. The object was to present continuous volleys of musketry in a constricted area. 35

image

“The White Cockade” was a lively Jacobite tune that enjoyed wide popularity in 1775. It was played by Acton’s fifer Luther Blanchard and drummer Francis Barker on the field at Concord’s North Bridge. This rustic version was set down a few years later by a Yankee musician. It is in the collections of the New Haven Colony Historical Society.

The Americans beyond the west bank of the river were in a different formation. They came forward in double file, holding their muskets at the trail in their left hands. The line of their long formation curved down the hill to the southwest, then turned eastward and followed a causeway that ran eastward beside the river to the bridge. 36

As the New England militia approached, the British soldiers on the other side of the river struggled to form up in their street-firing formation behind the bridge. They were caught in a tangle of confusion. Two companies had hurried back across the bridge and collided with a third. All became intermingled in a milling crowd. In the rear, Lieutenant Sutherland of the 38th ordered the light infantry of the 43rd to move out as flankers onto a field to the south of the road. But he was not their commander, and only three men obeyed him. 37

Suddenly a shot rang out. Captain Laurie saw with horror that one of his own Regulars had fired without orders. Then two other British soldiers fired before he could stop them, and the front rank of the British troops discharged a ragged volley with the same indiscipline that they had shown at Lexington. 38

The inexperienced British infantry fired high, as green troops tend to do. Most of their volley passed harmlessly over the heads of the militia. Thaddeus Blood remembered that “their balls whistled well.” 39 But several shots hit home. Acton’s quiet Captain Isaac Davis was killed instantly by a ball that pierced his heart; the arterial blood spurted from his wound, and drenched the men beside him. Private Abner Hosmer of the same company fell dead, shot through the head. Fifer Luther Blanchard was wounded, and three others were hit. A man from Lincoln received a strange narrow cut from a grazing shot, and wondered aloud if the British were “firing jack knives.” Nearly all of the wounds were to the head and upper body. 40

image

Ralph Earl’s sketch of the engagement at Concord Bridge was crude in its drawing but careful of its facts. Earl worked from interviews of survivors, and he represented accurately the positions of British and American troops at the first fire. His drawing also gives a good sense of the open terrain in 1775. The house in the distance (turned slightly on its axis) belonged to Major John Buttrick, who led the American advance on his own land. The field in the foreground was next to William Emerson’s Old Manse. (New York Public Library)

Still the Americans came on steadily, with a discipline that astonished their enemies. They were now very close, fifty yards from the bridge, well within the killing range of 18th-century muskets. 41 As men began to fall around him, Major Buttrick of Concord turned and cried, “Fire, fellow soldiers, for God’s sake fire!” The men themselves took up the command. Private Blood remembered that “the cry of fire, fire was made from front to rear. The fire was almost simultaneous with the cry.” 42

The New England muskets rang out with deadly accuracy. Recent hours of practice on the training field had made a difference. The Americans aimed carefully and fired low. Many appear to have drawn a bead on the British officers, whose brilliant scarlet uniforms stood out among the faded coats of their men. Two months later at Bunker Hill the best American marksmen were ordered “to fire at none but the reddest coats.” Something similar happened at Concord. Of eight British officers at the North Bridge, four were hit in the first American fire. At least three privates were killed, and altogether nine men were wounded. 43

The Regulars found themselves caught in a trap. The New England minutemen and militia were deployed in two long files curving down the hill and along the causeway. Many men in that formation had a clear shot. The British soldiers were packed in a deep churning mass; only the front ranks could fire. The loss of officers compounded the confusion. As the firing continued, dense clouds of white smoke rose on both sides of the river. 44

The New England men peered through the fog of battle, and saw a strange shudder pass through the smoke-shrouded ranks of the British soldiers. Then, to the amazement of American militia, the Regulars suddenly turned and ran for their lives. It was rare spectacle in military history. A picked force of British infantry, famed for its indomitable courage on many a field of battle, was broken by a band of American militia. British Ensign Lister wrote candidly, “The weight of their fire was such that we was obliged to give way, then run with the greatest precipitance.” 45

The British light infantry fled pell-mell back toward Concord center, defying their officers and abandoning their wounded, who were left to drag themselves painfully away. The American militia watched, less in exhilaration than in what seems to have been a kind of shock, as the Regulars disappeared in the distance, followed by wounded men “hobbling and a’running and looking back to see if we was after them.”

The New England formation was also disrupted by its own success. It had no idea what to do with its victory. This was the moment when one soldier, Thaddeus Blood, remembered that “after the fire every one appeared to be his own commander.” 46 Some advanced; others retreated. Order and discipline disintegrated. A few of the Yankee militia had seen enough of soldiering, and departed for the day. The wife of Captain Nathan Barrett saw one of these men walking away from the bridge. She “called to him and enquired of him where he was a going. He says I am a going home. I am very sick. She says to him, you must not take your gun with you. Yes, he says, I shall. No, stop, I must have it. But no, so off he went upon the run, and she after him, but he got away and she gave up the chase.” 47

The American dead were taken to the house of Major Buttrick near the muster field, where Captain Isaac Davis was laid out in the parlor. Colonel Barrett sent the wounded to his own home, to be looked after by his wife. As that lady was dressing a flesh wound she said, “Poor man, and a little more and you would have been in eternity.” He answered sharply, “Yes, damn it, and a little more and the ball would not have touched me.” When the bandage was complete, he returned to his company. 48

As the British soldiers fled toward the village, a solitary American entered the road near the bridge, carrying a hatchet in his hand. He came upon a severely wounded Regular on the ground before him. The American raised his hatchet and brought it down on the head of the helpless soldier, crushing his skull and exposing his brains, but not killing him. 49

Meanwhile in Concord center, Colonel Smith had been overseeing the search of the houses by his Regulars when a message arrived from Captain Laurie at the North Bridge, asking urgently for reinforcements. Suddenly Smith heard the crash of heavy firing. His experienced ear told him that this was no mere skirmish. He mustered two companies of grenadiers and led them himself toward the sound of the guns. On the road to the bridge, they met the broken remnants of the light infantry, retreating in disorder. Smith, marching at the head of the grenadiers, knew that four of his companies were still beyond the bridge at Colonel Barrett’s house. The British commander was concerned to hold open their line of retreat.

The New England officers began to recover control of their scattered men—no small achievement with green militia after a battle. Colonel Barrett took a chance and divided his force. He held the older men of the militia and the alarm lists on the west side of the river, and sent them to their muster field. Buttrick’s minutemen crossed the North Bridge, advanced a short distance toward Concord center, and took up a strong defensive position on a hill behind a stone wall. One of the men with Buttrick, Concord minuteman Amos Barrett, wrote later in his Yankee dialect, “We then saw the hull body acoming out of town we then was orded to lay behind a wall that run over a hill and when they got ny anuff mager buttrick said he would give the word fire but they did not come quite so near as he expected before tha halted. The commanding officers ordered the hull battalion to halt and officers to the frunt march and the officers then marched to the front thair we lay behind the wall about 200 of us with our guns cocked exspecting every minnit to have the word fire. Our orders was if we fired to fire 2 or 3 times and then retreat.” 50

The grenadiers saw the minutemen behind their wall on high ground, and halted while still out of range 200 yards away. The British officers came to the front, and studied the American force with a new respect. Amos Barrett wrote later, “If we had fird I be leave we could kild all most every officseer thair was in the front, but we had no orders to fire and their want a gun fird.” 51

Colonel Smith observed the strength of the American position, and the steadiness of the quiet men who held it. He wisely ordered the Grenadiers to fall back. “They stayed about 10 minutes and then marched back,” Blood remembered. 52

While the two forces confronted one another, a strangely surrealist scene ensued. A madman wandered unmolested through the center of the action. He was Elias Brown of Concord, a “crazy man” his minister called him. He had long been allowed to move freely in the town, doing odd jobs for his neighbors. That day he had been happily pouring hard cider for men on both sides. His Concord cider had fermented all winter and was twenty proof by April; Elias Brown did a brisk business that day. When the fighting began at the North Bridge he went among his New England townsmen and said that he “wondered what they killed them [the Regulars] for. They were the prettiest men he had ever seen and kept him drawing cider all the time.” For a moment this “crazy man” may have been the sanest person in town. 53

At last the four British companies came hurrying back from Colonel Barrett’s mill on the far side of the North Bridge. When they saw what had happened, they began to run toward the bridge, in fear of being cut off. Their route took them directly under the muskets of Barrett’s militia west of the river, and Buttrick’s minutemen on the east side. To the surprise of the British officers, the New England men held their fire, still reluctant in this twilight zone between peace and war to attack the King’s troops without cause. The British infantry were suddenly very careful not to provoke these dangerous and unpredictable men.

The four companies of light infantry crossed over the North Bridge and turned toward Concord. In the road they came upon the dying Regular who had been brained with an American hatchet, and appeared to have been scalped as well. Instantly the word spread among the Regulars that the Americans were murdering prisoners and torturing the wounded. The story flew from mouth to mouth, growing as it traveled. By the time it reached Ensign Lister he was told that “four men of the Fourth company [had been] killed and afterwards scalped, their eyes gouged, their noses and ears cut off.” 54

image

That report was false, but what had actually happened was bad enough. A wanton atrocity had been committed by a young Concord man, and witnessed by four companies of British troops. It instantly changed the tone of the engagement. Many British Regulars had long felt contempt for New England Yankees; now a spirit of hatred began to grow. The thin veneer of 18th-century civility was shattered by this one atrocity at the North Bridge. It would lead to many others by both sides before the day was out.

The morning hours were rapidly consumed by these events. It was half past eleven before all of the Regulars were back in Concord center. Still, for some unknown reason, Colonel Smith held his men in the town for another thirty minutes. Why he did so is unclear. The Americans, watching from the hills north of the town, observed what they took to be signs of fatal indecision. “For half an hour,” Emerson wrote contemptuously, “the Enemy by their marches and countermarches discovered great fickleness and inconstancy of mind, sometimes advancing, sometimes returning to their former posts.” 55

North of the village, the Americans began to move east across the hills, threatening to cut off the road from Concord to Boston. Smith sent three companies to the high ground north of the highway, with orders to hold open his line of retreat. At the same time he reorganized his command, and formed it into a marching column. Men from broken units were seconded to other formations. The light infantry of the King’s Own was so shattered by its losses at the North Bridge that it was attached to other companies. Horse-drawn chaises were taken from Concord stables to serve as ambulances. Wounded officers were tucked into the small vehicles, and were made as comfortable as possible on pillows and mattresses that had been stripped from Concord beds. Wounded soldiers of “other ranks” were left to shift for themselves. The walking wounded joined the column with bloody bandages around arms and heads, trying desperately to keep up in fear of American hatchets and scalping knives. Severely wounded private soldiers were left behind. 56

At high noon the British column was at last ready to march. Colonel Smith lifted his heavy body into the saddle, and gave the order to move out. His command set off in a long column on the road to Boston, nearly twenty miles away. As he rode out, Smith studied the hills surrounding the town, and saw “vast numbers assembling in many parts.” He noticed a high ridge that rose abruptly on the north side of the Boston road and ran alongside the highway from Concord center for nearly a mile. A large party was ordered to secure the ridge, and protect the flank of the column. Other flankers were sent into low open meadows south of the road. This tactic was successful. No fighting occurred as the Regulars marched the first mile from Concord.

image

Meriam’s Corner and the Meriam farmhouse, in a 19th-century photograph. The season appears to be early Spring. The trees are still bare, as they were on April 19, 1775. The countryside was more open than today, when the forest has reclaimed the fields and rocky pastures. The ruts of light chaises are visible in the unpaved road. The ash in front of the house is still standing today. (Concord Free Public Library

Farther on, the long ridge ended at a place called Meriam’s Corner, an important road junction where several country lanes came together and the highway crossed a small bridge over a stream. 57 Many militia and minutemen were arriving on those roads—parts of two regiments from Chelmsford, Reading, and Billerica to the north. One of Billerica’s minutemen had a special reason for being there. He was Private Thomas Ditson, the Yankee pedlar who had been tarred and feathered in Boston by the soldiers of the 47th Foot. 58

The men from Tewksbury also reached Meriam’s Corner about noon, having mustered and marched twenty miles since 2 o’clock that morning. Other companies were coming up from Sudbury and Framingham, as far as fifteen miles to the south, and joined forces with the companies that had fought at Concord Bridge. The American strength was now more than 1000, larger than Smith’s force for the first time that day. 59

At least six colonels of Massachusetts militia were in the field, and took a leading part at Meriam’s Corner. Lieutenant-Colonel William Thompson, a veteran of two colonial wars, formed three companies from his hometown of Billerica into a line running east from the Meriam farmhouse. Colonel David Green brought five companies alongside Thompson. Tewksbury’s Captain John Trull also led his company to the line, formed them up in close order and told them, “Stand trim boys, or the rascals will shoot your elbows off!” 60

Other men took positions as skirmishers in the fields, or found cover in the farm buildings. Major John Brooks led his Reading minutemen into a strong position “covered by a barn and walls around it,” about 100 yards from the bridge. 61

As the Regulars approached Meriam’s Corner, the British flank guard came down off the hill to cross the bridge. This time there were no fifes and drums, no “grand musick,” and none of the pageantry of 18th-century war. Nothing was heard but the tramp of the weary infantry, and the mournful creak of the ambulance carriages. A Reading man, Edmund Foster, remembered that “silence reigned on both sides.”

Suddenly the silence was broken by a musket shot. Probably an American militiaman fired first, and missed at extreme range. The Regulars turned, presented muskets, and discharged a volley. The balls buzzed above the heads of the militia. Once again, by accident or design, the British troops had fired high. No New England men were hit. 62

The Americans returned fire with greater accuracy. At least two Regulars fell dead, and another officer was wounded, Lieutenant Lister of the 10th Foot. As many as half a dozen British soldiers may have been hit in rapid succession before the column moved out of range. Amos Barrett followed the retreating Regulars into the road. He remembered, “When I got there, a great many lay dead and the road was bloody.” 63

image

Major John Brooks was a country doctor who showed a high talent for command on April 19. On the road to Concord, he collected three or four militia companies and led them into action at Meriam’s Corner, Lincoln Woods, Lincoln Plain, and Fiske Hill. Later he rose to the rank of brigadier general. This painting by Gilbert Stuart is in the Honolulu Academy of Art.

The British column hurried on past Meriam’s Corner, into a cultivated countryside of fields, orchards, meadows and pastures. The road and landscape were very different from their appearance today. Historian Allen French observes that “the present broad highway, with its few curves and easy grades, gives little idea of the one of 1775. The narrow road dropped at times into small ravines which were commanded by hillsides above. At least two large sections of the road bent to the northward, rejoining the modern road after a detour.” Many of these ravines and hillocks were leveled in the 19th century, and sharp bends were taken out. 64

The terrain was not as densely wooded as today, but more open along the road. Fields were lined with stone “fences,” not the neat masonry walls of myth, but straggling piles of rough granite rocks, topped with heavy logs and split rails to a considerable height, and not easy for a man to cross. Much of the land by the side of the highway consisted of rock-studded pastures, open meadows, and arable fields, subdivided by complex systems of drainage ditches, and joined by nearly invisible lanes that threaded their way through swamps and soft ground from one holding to the next. The people who lived in the countryside could move easily through this terrain, but the ground was difficult for men unfamiliar with it.

The open land along the road was broken by patches of orchard and woodlots on rising and rocky ground. Well back from the road were large tracts of woodland, of such a size that the area was called “Lincoln Woods.” Even the forested tracts tended to be comparatively open, with long views through the trees. The hardwoods were still leafless on April 19. Ensign De Berniere remembered seeing that “all the hills on each side of us were covered with rebels.” Colonel Smith sent out his flanking parties again. A few militiamen fired at long range, but the flankers kept them at a distance from the fast moving column. 65

A mile beyond Meriam’s Corner the road entered a stretch of rising ground that was called Brooks Hill, after a tavern and several farms owned by several members of the Brooks family. 66 As the British column reached the hill, they observed a large force of American militia gathering in close formation on the high ground ahead. Sutherland remembered, “Here I saw upon a height to my right hand a vast number of armed men drawn out in Battalia order, I dare say near 1000 who on our coming nearer dispersed into the woods.” By “battalia,” he meant “line of battle.” 67

The American militia officers saw an opportunity here. As many as nine companies from Framingham and Sudbury, nearly 500 men, reached this part of the road before the Regulars. They were led by able and experienced officers—Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Nixon, his older brother Captain John Nixon, and Captains Nathaniel Cudworth, Simon Edgell, Micajeh Gleason and Jesse Eames. Five of these six men were combat veterans who had served together in the French and Indian War. They were accustomed to working as a team, and used their experience to prepare an ambush in the woods south of the road. 68

The trap was sprung too soon. The Americans were visible in the woods, still bare of foliage, and some militiamen may have fired prematurely. Smith’s vanguard charged straight up the hill toward the Americans, with the gallantry for which British infantry were renowned. The Americans stood their ground, and the British force was hit by heavy volleys of plunging fire from the Framingham and Sudbury men on the slope above them. 69

In Nixon’s company of Sudbury minutemen, two men fought side by side at Brooks Hill. One was a tense and nervous youngster who had never been in action before. The other was a tough old soldier, a Scottish immigrant named John Weighton who had survived Braddock’s defeat, and said that he “had been in seven battles, and this eight.” The green young minuteman recalled that “after we had discharged our guns I observed to the Scot, who appeared very composed, I wished I felt as calm as he appeared to be.” The old soldier answered, “It’s a trade to be larnt.” His young friend wrote later, “Before I served through one campaign, I found the Scot’s remark a just one.” 70

image

The fighting grew heavier near the Brooks Tavern. Here a company from Bedford had cut across the the “great fields” at Meriam’s Corner. They were in the “thickest of the fight near the Brooks Tavern.” The Bedford men may have lost several men there, killed in action, and others wounded. 71

On the north side of the road, other men from Bedford, Chelmsford, Billerica, and Reading joined the battle, firing from rough pastures and treelines, and forming in little knots around grizzled veterans of colonial wars. The Chelmsford militia were led by Sergeant John Ford at Brooks Hill. A comrade remembered that Ford “was prominent on the hill. He was an old fighter of the French and Indians, and knew how to handle his musket to an advantage.” Sergeant Ford’s musket was seen to bring down five British soldiers that day. Even this veteran was shocked by the growing intensity of the fighting along the Battle Road. Later he and another old campaigner said that “the day was full of horror to them. The Patriots seemed maddened and beside themselves.” 72

Smith disengaged his force and drove it forward through the ambush. Beyond Brooks Hill the road descended into the valley of Tanner’s Brook, then begin to climb steeply again to a higher hill. As it did so, it entered another patch of woods, and turned sharply to the north—dangerous terrain for the British column. Here, in a “young growth of wood” at the bend in the road, another ambush was organized by militia from a fresh New England regiment, who came running to the action from the north. These were Woburn men, 200 strong. Their commander was Major Loammi Baldwin, a leader of high ability. Later Baldwin wrote, “We proceeded down the road and could see behind us the regulars following. We came to Tanner Brook, at Lincoln bridge, and then concluded to scatter and make use of the trees and walls for to defend us, and attack them.” With a good eye for the ground, he chose a position on a wooded rise near the bend on the south side of the road. 73

Other Americans ran to take up positions in the woods on the north side of the highway. Reading militiaman Edmund Foster remembered, “We saw a wood at a distance, which appeared to lieon or near the road the enemy must pass. Many leaped over the wall and made for that wood. We arrived just in time to meet the enemy. There was then, on the opposite side of the road, a young growth of wood well filled with Americans.” 74

image

The Battle Road, looking east beyond Meriam’s Corner. This glass-plate negative was made by Concord photographer Alfred Hosmer in the 19th century. The narrow highway ran between fields and pastures, with stone walls and fruit trees by the edge of the road. A few apples may be seen still on the trees in the upper left. (Concord Free Public Library)

The Regulars approached rapidly. In the van was the light infantry of the 10th Foot. Its commander, Captain Parsons, was the only officer still unwounded in his company. Behind them came the light infantry of the 5th Foot, and what remained of the King’s Own. The head of the British column reached the bend in the road.

As the British van began to turn the corner, Major Baldwin ordered his Woburn men to fire. From the other side of the road, the Reading men attacked as well. The Regulars were caught in a deadly crossfire and suffered grievously. Foster recalled that “the enemy was now completely between two fires, renewed and briskly kept up. They ordered out a flank guard on the left to dislodge the Americans from their posts behind large trees, but they only became a better mark to be shot at.” 75

Many Regulars were killed or wounded. Once again the Americans aimed at the officers. In the light Infantry of the 5th Foot, every officer but one was hit. Only one officer in the Fourth remained unscathed. The British sergeants took over their companies, rallied the men, and led them forward directly into the brush with the valor that these weary men displayed all day.

image

The terrain north of the Battle Road appears in this artless 19th-century photograph by Alfred Hosmer. The camera faces west toward Concord, across an open landscape of rock-strewn pastures, high stone walls, tree lines, and farming hamlets. (Concord Free Public Library)

The Regulars drove through the ambush in savage fighting, only to meet another one 500 yards beyond, where the road came to another sharp bend at a large “woodpasture.” Here another large force of militia arrived from the east and north, and joined other New England men who had run through a country lane north of the highway. The Americans used cover skillfully, and lost only four men. The British infantry fought with dogged courage in the open road, and lost thirty killed and wounded in this deadly stretch of road that came to be remembered as the Bloody Curve. 76

While Loammi Baldwin’s Woburn companies engaged the head of the British column from the right, and the men of Reading attacked from the left, another fresh American regiment from Westford, Stow, and Groton attacked the rear. At the same time, Colonel Barrett’s Concord men and three other regiments fired into the column from the northwest. 77

The British troops came through the Bloody Curve at a trot, faster than the Americans could make their way through the swamps and woods beside them. As the Regulars kept moving, the American troops, now more than 2000 strong, converged behind them on the highway and became so entangled that control was lost. That disorder allowed the British column to get clear. 78

image

Major Loammi Baldwin, thirty years old, was another field-grade officer who gave direction to the battle. He led three companies from Woburn, and organized the deadly ambush that gave the Bloody Curve its name. As the British column retreated in growing disarray, Baldwin led his men in pursuit, so close that he was nearly killed by Percy’s cannon. (Hurd, History of Middlesex County)

East of the Bloody Curve, the road passed into open farmland. Colonel Smith got his flankers out again, and kept the American soldiers at bay, but not for long. The road curved to the south, past the farms of Ephraim and Samuel Hartwell. Here more militia companies from Bedford, Woburn and Billerica joined the fight and took cover behind barns and outbuildings close to the road. Their numbers were small, but they were aggressively led by Bedford’s Captain Jonathan Wilson, who had little respect for his enemies and a great desire for close combat. Earlier that morning, when he and his men stopped on their march at the Fitch Tavern in Bedford, he was heard to boast, “We’ll have every dog of them before night.” 79

Wilson placed his men behind a barn on the Hartwell farm, very close to the road. They waited until the long red column approached, then fired directly into the van with deadly effect. As the Americans reloaded, a flanking party of British grenadiers caught the militia from behind. Captain Wilson was killed, and Lieutenant Job Lane was severely wounded. With the Bedford men was Woburn militiaman Daniel Thompson, who fired into the column from the barn, then ducked back to reload. A grenadier came around the corner of the building, and shot him. Another Woburn man shot the grenadier, who fell dying in the Hartwell yard. 80

Beyond the Hartwell farm the British force continued to lose men to long range fire and skirmishes around homes by the side of the road. The column was now approaching the boundary between Lincoln and Lexington. To the south, the terrain was low and wet. North of the road was a pasture studded with large granite boulders. Beyond it was a steep rocky hillside, part of a five-acre woodlot that belonged to the farm of Tabitha Nelson. The road headed directly toward the hill, then veered south around it. 81

Waiting on the hill was a band of Yankee militia with a score to settle. They were Captain John Parker’s Lexington company— many of the same farmers who had stood on their town green. Parker had rallied them after their shattering defeat and brought them back into combat—an extraordinary feat of leadership. He led his men westward to the Lexington-Lincoln line, and some of his company took positions in the granite-strewn pasture on the north side of the road just within the town of Lincoln. They found cover in drainage ditches and large stone outcroppings, alongside the Lincoln militia. As the British column approached, the New England men fought stubbornly from behind the great gray boulders. Lincoln’s William Thorning, a crack shot, opened fire from a drainage ditch, retreated to the cover of a large rock, and fired again, killing two Regulars. A British flanking party cleared the ground, but at a cost. More men were killed and wounded. 82

image

The Bloody Curve was a series of engagements at two sharp turnings in the highway on wooded ground. This 19th centurv photograph by Alfred Hosmer shows the intersection of the Bedford Road (left) and the portion of the highway that is now called Virginia Road. The militia were in the trees to the left and right. (Concord Free Public Library)

Just ahead, Captain Parker and the rest of his Lexington company waited on the rocky hill where the road entered their town. Some of the men wore bloody bandages over stiffening wounds they had received that morning. Others were blackened by powder smoke. They knelt grimly on their steep wooded hillside behind large granite boulders as the Regulars approached. 83

The Lexington men held their fire until the van of the British column came very close to their position. Then, as Colonel Smith himself rode up, Parker ordered them to fire. Smith tumbled out of the saddle, painfully wounded in the thigh. Captain Parsons, the last unwounded officer of the 10th Foot, was hit. So great was the shock of this attack that the British column stopped for a moment, compressing on the road. Major Pitcairn came galloping up, and sent the British infantry charging forward up the rocky hillside, driving Parker’s militia away from the road. Now the Americans began to take casualties. Lexington’s Jedidiah Munroe, wounded in the morning, was killed. The American ambush was cleared, but more Regulars were dead and wounded on a rocky hillside that is remembered as Parker’s Revenge. 84

A few hundred yards beyond, to the north of the road lay yet another wooded hill, so steep that it was called the Bluff. Major Pitcairn sent his own reserve of British Marines to clear it, which they did with high courage, in an action that explains why the Marines had the heaviest losses of all the British units engaged this day. 85

The Marines took the hill, only to discover that one more wooded purgatory lay just beyond, at a place called Fiske’s Hill. Here another New England regiment came into action from the east, led by a company from Cambridge under Captain Samuel Thatcher. The New England men waited patiently as the British column marched toward them. One watched in fascination as “an officer, mounted on an elegant horse, and with a drawn sword in his hand, was riding backwards and forwards, commanding and urging the British troops.” The Americans held their fire until the Regulars were in range. Then, an eyewitness recalled, “A number of Americans behind a pile of rails, raised their guns and fired with deadly effect. The officer fell and the horse took fright, leaped the wall and ran directly towards those who had killed his rider.” 86

It was Major Pitcairn himself who had gone down, not killed as the American believed, but badly shaken in his fall. His horse bolted with Pitcairn’s two elegant Scottish pistols secured to the saddle. The Marine officer struggled to his feet, bound up an injured arm, and returned to his command. At least five British Regulars were left dead or dying in the road.

The plight of the British force was growing desperate. Colonel Smith himself had been wounded and Pitcairn injured. Many company officers had been hit. A large proportion of the men had been wounded, and the rest were utterly exhausted. The entire force was nearly out of ammunition, and the Americans were up with them again, firing from every side.

Men on both sides were very tired, and consumed with thirst. Vicious fire-fights broke out by wells along the road. At the Fiske house, a British soldier ran to drink from the well at the same moment that James Hayward of the Acton company came limping up with the same idea in mind. The Regular raised his musket and cried, “You are a dead man.” Hayward took aim and said, “So are you.” Both fired at the same instant. The Regular was killed. Hay-ward was mortally wounded by splinters from his own powder horn. The two men fell side by side at the Fiske farm, while other soldiers drank quickly from the cooling waters of the well and returned to the fighting. 87

At Fiske Hill the British column began to come apart. The officers lost control of their men. Some simply sat down by the side of the road and waited for the end. Noah Eaton of Framingham came upon a Regular with an empty musket. Eaton took aim and said, “Surrender or die.” The British soldier surrendered—not knowing that Eaton’s musket was also empty, or perhaps no longer caring. 88

Lexington militiaman Joshua Simonds captured two British soldiers. The first was a straggler who had somehow become separated from his unit, and was walking alone on the Boston Road. Simonds later recalled that this soldier was Irish, and surrendered without a fight. Many of the Regulars had been recruited in Ireland. As the day wore on, they were beginning to think that this developing disaster was yet another “English war, and an Irish fight.”

Later, Simonds captured a musician, a boy fifer whose coat was closely buttoned, and fife projecting from it. This English fifer was but a child, and begged Simonds not to kill him. The militiaman discovered that the coat had been buttoned to staunch a fatal wound. The child was taken to an American farmhouse, and died a few days later. 89

image

Major Pitcairn armed himself with this elegant brace of silver-mounted Scottish pistols. On the retreat from Concord he secured them to his saddle for safekeeping. Near Fiske Hill he was unhorsed and his mount was captured by an American militiaman, who sold the pistols. They were later given to the Lexington Historical Society, where they may be seen today.

The Regulars in the van began to run forward in a desperate effort to escape their tormenters. The wounded dropped behind, and British flanking parties were no longer able to keep up. De Berniere, one of the few officers still unwounded, remembered, “When we arrived within a mile of Lexington, our ammunition began to fail, and the light companies were so fatigued with flanking that they were scarce able to act, and a great number of wounded scarce able to get forward, made a great confusion; Col. Smith (our commanding officer) had received a wound through his leg, a number of officers were also wounded.” De Berniere remembered that “we began to run rather than retreat in order. The whole behaved with amazing bravery but little order. We attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose, the confusion increased rather than lessened.” 90

The retreat continued across a swale of open land (now the roadbed of Route 128) to another elevation called Concord Hill. The few officers left in the vanguard formed a line across the road, facing backward toward the column, and tried desperately to force their men into ranks. De Berniere wrote, “At last after we got to Lexington the officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die. Upon this, they began to form under heavy fire.” 91

The end was very near for these brave men. Behind them were growing numbers of angry American militia. Ahead was Lexington Green, where they could expect no mercy. The van of the column came round a bend in the road, and Lexington’s meetinghouse came into view in the distance. Some of the officers were thinking of surrender. “We must have laid down our arms, or been picked off by the rebels at their pleasure,” said Lieutenant Barker, the only officer still unscathed in the first three companies. 92

Suddenly Barker was amazed to hear a wild cheer from the the weary, bleeding, smoke-stained men at the head of the column. He ran forward, and in the distance he saw one of the happiest sights of his young life—a full brigade of British infantry drawn up in line of battle on the heights east of the Lexington Common, with artillery at the ready. Near the center of the British line, a cannon boomed. A small black roundshot went soaring through the air, crashed into Lexington’s wooden meetinghouse, and came out the other side in a cloud of flying splinters.

Smith’s shattered force of Regulars stumbled forward in disorder toward the guns of their rescuers, while American militia came after them. On the hill ahead, a panoply of scarlet officers studied the scene with amazement. Their commander, Brigadier the Right Honorable Hugh Earl Percy, wrote later to his father the Duke of Northumberland, “I had the happiness… of saving them from inevitable destruction.” 93

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!