Modern history

AFTERMATH

image The Second Battle of Lexington and Concord

I have now nothing to trouble your Lordship with, but an affair that happened on the 19th instant.”

—General Gage’s report on Lexington
and Concord, April 22, 1775

All eyes are turned upon the tragical event of the 19th.… We are unanimous in the resolution, to die, or be free.”

—A letter from a gentleman of rank in New England, April 25, 1775 1

IT WAS NEARLY DARK when Lord Percy’s men entered Charlestown. Behind them the sun was setting on the ruins of an empire. A great blood red disc of fire sank slowly into the hills of Lexington, as the long column of British Regulars marched doggedly down to the sea. The militia of New England followed close at their heels. Fighting continued into the twilight, as fresh regiments continued to arrive from distant towns. On Boston’s Beacon Hill, crowds of spectators could see the muzzle-flashes twinkling like fireflies in the gathering darkness. 2

Night had fallen when the last weary British troops crossed over Charlestown Neck and took up a strong position on high ground, supported by the heavy guns of HMS Somerset. American General William Heath studied their deployment and decided that “any further attempt upon the enemy, in that position, would have been futile.” He ordered the militia to “halt and give over the pursuit,” and called a conference of senior officers to make his dispositions for the night. Fearing a British attack, General Heath decided to withdraw the main body of the militia a few miles to the rear. He ordered “centinels to be planted down the neck,” and “patrols to be vigilant in moving during the night.” The rest of the New England troops were sent to Cambridge, and told to “lie on their arms.” 3

Attack was the last thing in British minds. As the rear guard of British Marines passed over Charlestown Neck, Lord Percy looked at his watch and noted that the hour was past seven o’clock. His men were utterly exhausted. The grenadiers and light infantry had not slept for two days. Some had marched forty miles in twenty-one hours. Most had been under hostile fire for eight hours. The soldiers sank gratefully to the soggy ground on the heights above Charlestown, and fell instantly asleep. One British officer, unconscious of the irony, noted that their refuge was a place called Bunker Hill. 4

Later that night a cold rain began to fall, as it did so often after an American battle—as if heaven itself were weeping over the pain that mortal men inflicted on one another. Andover militiaman Thomas Boynton remembered that “there was a smart shower and very sharp lightning and thunder, the most of us wet to the skin.” 5

The many British casualties were ferried across the Charles River to Boston by seamen of HMS Somerset. Ensign De Berniere noted in his diary that “all her boats were employed first in getting over the wounded.” Long rows of broken men with bloody bandages and smoke-stained faces lay quietly at Charlestown’s landing, shivering from the shock of their wounds. One by one, seamen of the Royal Navy lowered them gently into longboats with the special tenderness that men of violence reserve for fallen comrades. 6 A spectator wrote that the boats were busy “till ten o’clock last night bringing over their wounded.” So numerous were the British casualties that the navy needed three hours to ferry them across the river. Later that night, the remaining light infantry and grenadiers were also carried back to Boston. Fresh troops of General Gage’s 2nd Brigade were sent to replace them on the hills of Charlestown. 7

In the morning, the Regulars awoke to find themselves besieged by a vast militia army, which had marched from distant parts of New England. “The country is all in arms,” wrote Lieutenant Evelyn of the King’s Own on April 23rd, “and we are absolutely invested with many thousand men, some of them so daring as to come very near our outposts on the only entrance into town by land. They have cut off all supplies of provisions from the country.” 8 Fresh food instantly disappeared from the beleaguered garrison. Ensign De Berniere wrote, “In the course of two days, from a plentiful town, we were reduced to the disagreeable necessity of living on salt provisions, and were fairly blocked up in Boston.” 9

British soldiers who strayed into American hands were now treated as enemies. One of Gage’s officers reported that “the rebels shut up the [Boston] Neck, placed sentinels there, and took prisoner an officer of the 64th who was trying to return to his regiment.”10Many of the British wounded had been taken captive, and remained in American hands. A private soldier’s wife poured out her woes on paper. “My husband was wounded and taken prisoner,” she wrote, “but they use him well and I am striving to get to him, as he is very dangerous; but it is almost impossible to get out or in. We are forced to live on salt provisions.” She ended, “I hear my husband’s leg is broke, and my heart is broke.” 11

Regulars of every rank felt the sharp sting of defeat, and many displayed a growing hatred of the “country people” who had humiliated them. A wounded survivor wrote home, “They did not fight us like a regular army, only like savages behind trees and stone walls, and out of the woods and houses, where in the latter we killed numbers of them.” 12 Many repeated in their letters the story of the wounded Regular who had been killed with a hatchet. That atrocity made a great impression, and grew with every telling. One soldier wrote, “These people are very numerous, and as bad as the Indians for scalping and cutting the dead men’s ears and noses off, and those they get alive, that are wounded, and cannot get off the ground.” 13

From General Gage to the humblest private, men of every rank had never imagined in their darkest dreams that such an event could happen to British infantry. Many searched for someone to blame. Lieutenant Barker of the King’s Own held Colonel Francis Smith to be responsible. “Had we not idled away three hours on Cambridge marsh waiting for the provisions that were not wanted, we should have had no interruption at Lexington,” he wrote in the privacy of his diary. Lt. Barker believed that Colonel Smith could also have prevented the fighting at Concord, if he had moved more quickly to the North Bridge when trouble threatened. “Being a very fat, heavy man,” the angry young officer wrote, “he would not have reached the bridge itself in half an hour though it was not half a mile.” 14

Others blamed their much hated commander in chief. “The fact is,” Lieutenant Mackenzie of the Welch Fusiliers confided to his diary, “General Gage… had no conception the Rebels would have opposed the King’s troops in the manner they did.” 15

The senior officers themselves could not understand what had happened to disrupt their plans, and differed among themselves as to what should be done. Colonel Smith, in much pain from his wound, was still wondering what had hit him. He concluded that he was the victim of a deep-laid American conspiracy. “I can’t think,” he wrote, “but it must have been a preconcerted scheme in them, to attack the King’s troops at the first favorable opportunity.” 16

Lord Percy, who alone emerged with credit from the affair, took a different view. He strongly advised a change of attitude, and warned his superiors they must not continue to underestimate their American opponents. “You may depend upon it,” he wrote bluntly, “that as the Rebels have now had time to prepare, they are determined to go through with it, nor will the insurrection here turn out so despicable as it is perhaps imagined at home. For my part, I never believed, I confess, that they would have attacked the King’s troops, or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday.” 17

Gage later came to agree with Percy. He wrote to Dartmouth on June 25, “The Rebels are not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be, and I find it owing to a military spirit encouraged amongst them for a few years past, joined with an uncommon degree of zeal and enthusiasm that they are otherwise.… In all their wars against the French they never showed so much conduct, attention and perseverance as they do now.” 18

Admiral Samuel Graves, commanding the Royal Navy in Boston, responded in yet another way. Before the battle he had been outspoken in his contempt of Americans. Afterward, he gave way to alternate moods of rage and fear. He reported scathingly to the Admiralty, “The Rebels followed the Indian manner of fighting, concealing themselves behind hedges, trees and skulking in the woods and houses whereby they galled the soldiers exceedingly.” 19

In a moment of panic he ordered his captains to make elaborate preparations for his personal evacuation if the Americans should storm the town. He instructed them to “have your ship ready for action every Night, with Springs upon your cables, and in case the rebels should attempt to force the lines, you are to send a Boat armed with a Lieutenant and a Midshipman in her to what is commonly called the Admiral’s Wharf or to Wheelwright’s Wharf, as the tide shall best serve. The Officer to come to me, the Boat to wait his return upon their oars.” 20

The next day Graves surrounded Boston with a ring of boats and ordered his men (much to their disgust) to stop every woman and child who tried to leave the town. His avowed object was to hold them hostage as a deterrent against attack. Afterward the admiral boasted that the decision “to keep the women and children in the town” helped to “prevent an attack upon Boston.” 21 When the moment of immediate danger passed, the admiral’s panic gave way to fury. He proposed to destroy the entire towns of Roxbury and Charlestown. His flag secretary later recalled that “it was indeed the Admiral’s opinion that we ought to act hostile from this time forward by burning and laying waste to the entire country.” 22

General Gage stopped the admiral from executing his plan, and continued his search for a peaceful solution. He sent a plan of conciliation to Governor Trumbull of Connecticut and came close to negotiating a “cessation of hostilities” with two of Trumbull’s emissaries, until Massachusetts Whigs learned what was happening and put a stop to it. In Boston, Gage refused to impose martial law immediately after the battle, though strongly urged to do so. To prevent bloodshed he persuaded the selectmen to arrange the surrender of all private weapons in the town, in return for a promise that all who wished to leave could do so. He kept his troops inside defensive lines and forbade them to attack the Americans, though many were itching to fight. “We want to get out of this cooped up situation,” Lieutenant Barker wrote in frustration on May 1. “We could now do that I suppose but the General does not seem to want it. There is no guessing what he is at.” 23

While British commanders quarreled among themselves, the Americans went to work with a renewed sense of common purpose. Along the Battle Road they gathered up the wounded and buried the dead. Dedham’s Dr. Nathaniel Ames went to the scene of the fighting. “Dead men and horses strewed along the road above Charlestown and Concord,” he wrote in his diary. In the field, Dr. Ames dressed wounds and “extracted a ball from Israel Everett.” 24

In the town of Lincoln, Mary Hartwell watched with grief as the men of her family “hitched the oxen to the cart and went down below the house and gathered up the dead.” Five British bodies were piled into the cart and carried to Lincoln’s burying ground. She specially remembered “one in a brilliant uniform, whom I supposed to be an officer. His hair was tied up in a cue.” 25

At Menotomy, the dead militiamen from Danvers were heaped on an ox-sled and sent home to their town, while the children looked on. Many years later Joanna Mansfield of Lynn still vividly remembered the terrible image of the American dead piled high on the sled, their legs projecting stiffly over the side as they passed through her village. All of them, she recalled, were wearing heavy stockings of gray homespun. 26

On Lexington Green, the minister’s daughter, eleven-year-old Elizabeth Clarke, watched as the dead were gathered up and laid in plain pine boxes “made of four large boards nailed up.” She wrote long afterward to her niece, “After Pa had prayed, they were put into two large horse carts and took into the graveyard where your grandfather and some of the neighbors had made a large trench as near the woods as possible, and there we followed the bodies of the first slain, father and mother, I and the baby. There I stood, and there I saw them let down into the ground. It was a little rainy, but we waited to see them covered up with the clods. And then for fear the British should find them, my father thought some of the men had best cut some pine or oak boughs and spread them on their place of burial so that it looked like a heap of brush.” 27

While these scenes were repeated along the Battle Road, the Whig leaders gathered in Cambridge and began to prepare for the struggle ahead. Once again, Paul Revere was at the center of events. On the morning after the battle he was at the Hastings House in Cambridge, which became the temporary seat of government in Massachusetts. There he was invited to meet with the Committee of Safety, the nearest thing to a functioning executive authority for the province. 28

Rachel Revere remained in Boston, one of Admiral Graves’s female hostages. She was less concerned about her own fate than about the safety of her husband. After the battle he managed to get a message to her, but Rachel continued to worry that he had nothing to live on but the charity of his many friends. She decided to smuggle money to him by Dr. Benjamin Church, who seemed able to pass through British lines with remarkable ease. Somewhere, perhaps from the cash box in the shop, she collected a substantial sum and sent it with a letter of love:

My dear by Doctor Church I send a hundred and twenty-five pounds & beg you will take the best care of yourself & not attempt coming into this towne again & if I have an opportunity of coming or sending out anything or any of the children I shall do it. Pray keep up your spirits & trust yourself 8c us in the hands of a good God who will take care of us. Tis all my dependence, for vain is the help of man. Adieu my love. from your
Affectionate R. Revere

The message appears never to have reached its destination. The traitorous Doctor Church delivered even this testament of affection to General Gage, in whose papers it turned up two centuries later. One wonders what happened to the money. 29

In Cambridge, Paul Revere had nothing but the clothes he had worn on his midnight ride. He wrote to Rachel, “I want some linen and stockings very much.” Increasingly filthy and probably smelling more than a little ripe, he continued to attend meetings of the Committee of Safety at Hastings House. 30 At a session one day after the battle Doctor Warren, perhaps sitting downwind from Paul Revere, turned to him and asked if he might be willing to “do the out of doors business for that Committee.” Revere agreed. For the next three weeks he traveled widely through New England in the service of the committee. Later he submitted an expense account for seventeen days’ service from April 21 to May 7, at five shillings a day, plus “expenses for self and horse” and “keeping two colony horses.” 31

It was common practice in the American Revolution for leaders to be reimbursed for their expenses, and common also for lynx-eyed legislators to pare their accounts to the bone. George Washington himself served without salary during the Revolutionary War, on the understanding that he would be reimbursed only for his expenses. This was thought to be an act of sacrifice, until General Washington’s expense account came in. Then there was much grumbling in Congress. The same thing happened to Paul Revere. A tight-fisted Yankee committee insisted on reducing his daily allowance from five shillings to four, before agreeing to settle his account. 32

No evidence survives to indicate what exactly Paul Revere did for the Committee of Safety in the days after the battle. But in a general way, the activities of the committee are well known. It had much “outdoor work” to be done. The most urgent task was to raise an army. The committee resolved to enlist 8000 men for the siege of Boston, and sent a circular letter to town committees throughout the province. 33 A draft of this document survives, written in Doctor Warren’s flowery style, and heavily revised by the Committee in the meetings that Revere attended. Its impassioned language tells us much about the state of mind among the Whig leaders after the battle:

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Paul Revere received no pay or reimbursement for his midnight ride, but like George Washington and many other leaders, he submitted an expense account “for self and horse,” for extended service while “riding for the Committee of Safety” from April 21 to May 7, 1775. The account was approved, but only after his per diem expenses were reduced by one shilling a day, and the bill was signed by sixteen Whig leaders. (Massachusetts Archives)

Gentlemen,—

The barbarous murders committed on our innocent brethren, on Wednesday, the 19th instant, have made it absolutely necessary that we immediately raise an army to defend our wives and children from the butchering hands of the inhuman soldiery, who, incensed at the obstacles they met in their bloody progress, and enraged at being repulsed from the field of slaughter, will, without the least doubt, take the first opportunity in their power to ravage this devoted country with fire and sword. We conjure you, therefore, by all that is dear, by all that is sacred, that you give all assistance possible in forming an army. Our all is at stake. Death and devastation are the instant consequences of delay. Every moment is infinitely precious. An hour lost may deluge your country in blood, and entail perpetual slavery upon the few of your posterity who may survive the carnage. We beg and entreat, as you will answer to your country, to your own consciences, and above all, as you will answer to God himself, that you will hasten and encourage by all possible means the enlistment of men to form the army.… 34

Paul Revere probably carried this document to meetings with town committees throughout the province. The men of New England responded with alacrity, turning out by the thousands to form new regiments which later became the beginning of the Continental Line.

The next “out of doors” job was to supply this army, the largest that New England had ever seen. Some “carcasses of beef and pork, prepared for the Boston market” were found in the hamlet called Little Cambridge. A supply of ship’s biscuit, baked for the Royal Navy, was discovered in Roxbury. The kitchen of Harvard College was converted to a mess hall, and the militia were fed by a brilliantly improvised supply service. The army was successfully maintained in the field, but then another problem arose. Within weeks an epidemic (or polydemic) that was collectively called the Camp Fever broke out among the New England troops, and spread rapidly through the general population. The Camp Fever took a horrific toll. Rates of mortality surged to very high levels in many New England towns, spreading outward from the communities between Concord and Boston. 35

The most important part of the committee’s “out of doors work” was to rally popular support for the Whig cause, in the face of these many troubles. Within a few hours of the first shot, it began to fight the second battle of Lexington and Concord—a struggle for what that generation was the first to call “public opinion.” 36 The Whig leaders in New England had none of our modern ideas about image-mongering or public relations, and would have felt nothing but contempt for our dogmas about the relativity of truth. But long experience of provincial politics had given them a healthy respect for popular opinion, and they were absolutely certain that truth was on their side. With evangelical fervor they worked to spread what Doctor Warren called “an early, true and authentick account of this inhuman proceeding.” 37

The news of the battle was already racing through America as fast as galloping horses could carry it. A citizen of Lexington wrote that the report of the fighting “was spreading in every direction with the rapidity of a whirlwind.” It was said that on April 19 Concord’s Reuben Brown rode “more than 100 miles on horseback to spread the alarming news of the massacre at Lexington. This process of communication was not left to chance. From the start, the Committee of Safety worked actively to spread the news, and even to shape it according to their beliefs. 38

As early as ten o’clock on the morning of April 19, when the Regulars had barely arrived in Concord, the committee sent out postriders with reports of the the first shots in Lexington. One of these hasty dispatches survives. It summarized what was known at that early hour, and was signed by Paul Revere’s friend Joseph Palmer “for the committee.” A postscript added that “the bearer Mr. Israel Bissel is charged to alarm the country quite to Connecticut & all persons are desired to furnish him with fresh horses as they may be needed.” 39

Israel Bissell, twenty-three years old, of East Windsor, Connecticut, was a professional postrider who regularly traveled the roads between Boston and New York. On the morning of April 19, Bissell was in Watertown, ten miles west of Boston. The Committee of Safety recruited him to carry an early report of the fighting at Lexington. He left about ten o’clock, and galloped west on the Boston Post Road, spreading his news to every town along the way. According to legend, Bissell reached Worcester about noon (more likely a little later), shouting, “To Arms! To Arms! The War has begun!” So hard had he ridden that as he approached Worcester’s meetinghouse his horse fell dead of exhaustion. The men of Worcester remounted him and he galloped on, carrying his message “quite to Connecticut,” as the committee had asked. 40

Bissell made rapid progress on the road. He was in the Connecticut town of Brooklyn by 11 o’clock on the morning of April 20, Norwich by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and New London by 7 o’clock that evening. From New London, the news traveled west on Long Island Sound. It arrived in New Haven (150 miles from Boston) by noon on the 21st, and New York City (225 miles) by 4 p.m. on the 23rd. Another messenger continued through the night from New York to Philadelphia, and arrived at 9 o’clock in the morning of the 24th—ninety miles in seventeen hours. Baltimore heard the news by April 26, Williamsburg by the 28th, New Bern by May 3, and Charleston by May 9. In the second week of May, the first reports were carried across the mountains to the Ohio Valley. When news of the fighting reached a party of hunters in Kentucky, they called their campsite Lexington. It is now the city of the same name. 41

These first reports of Lexington and Concord were received by Americans in a manner very different from our common way of thinking about great events—not merely as factual news of a secular happening, but as a sign of God’s Redeeming Providence for America. A “gentleman of rank in New England” wrote to a friend on April 25, “I would only ask, if in all your reading of history, you have found an instance of irregular troops, hurried together at a moment’s warning, with half the number at first, attacking and driving veterans, picked men, 17 miles, and continually firing the whole way, and not losing one third the number they killed? I view the hand of God in it, a remarkable interposition of Providence in our favour.” 42

This belief was shared by many Whig leaders in New England. They sought to propagate it, by private messages and the public press. Here again, careful preparations had been made. On the night of April 16, 1775, two days before the battle, Paul Revere’s friend Isaiah Thomas, editor of the Massachusetts Spy in Boston, had packed up a press and printing types, and smuggled them across the Charles River with the help of the network that Paul Revere had established with the Whigs of Charlestown. After the battle, the Committee of Safety urged him to set up his press at Cambridge or Watertown, but Thomas preferred the safety of Worcester. The Provincial Congress found him a supply of paper, and his printing shop was soon back in operation, turning out the first newspaper to be published in an inland town of Massachusetts. Its motto was “Americans! Liberty or Death! Join or Die!” 43

General Gage had respected freedom of the press, in the Blackstonian meaning of freedom from prior restraint. But Admiral Graves was not so scrupulous. He sent a party of seamen ashore with orders to arrest John Gill and Peter Edes of the Boston Gazette on a trumped-up charge of possessing firearms. They were imprisoned in Boston Gaol. Benjamin Edes got away, and with the support of the Committee of Safety began to issue his Boston Gazette from a battered press in Watertown. 44

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Other Whig printers were already hard at work. Ezekiel Russell’s Salem Gazette printed an account of the battle as early as April 21. A few weeks later Russell issued a dramatic broadside, with forty small coffins across the top, and the headline, “Bloody Butchery by the British, or the Runaway Fight of the Regulars.” The handbill was offered to New Englanders, “either to frame or glass, or otherwise preserve in their houses… as a perpetual memorial.” It went through at least six printings. More coffins were added to subsequent editions, to represent New England men who died of wounds after the battle. 45

The clergy were also recruited to preach from their pulpits. Before the battle, Concord’s William Emerson delivered a sermon on II Chronicles 13:12: “And behold God himself is with us for our captain, and his priests with sounding trumpets to cry alarm.” Afterward he was sent to Groton, where the minister had been “dismissed for Toryism,” and delivered a sermon on the text, “It is better to put trust in the Lord than to put confidence in Princes.” The Provincial Congress also recruited chaplains for the field, and ordered a series of anniversary sermons to commemorate the battle. The first would delivered in 1776 by Lexington’s Jonas Clarke, and published with an eye-witness account of the event. 46

While couriers, printers, and preachers were busy, the Committee of Safety tried to reach public opinion in yet another way. Within four days of the battle, it mobilized the justices of the peace, and systematically collected sworn testimony from eyewitnesses on the disputed question of the first shots at Lexington and Concord. Paul Revere was asked to testify, along with many others. Depositions were taken from most of the militiamen who had mustered on Lexington Common in the early morning. British prisoners in American hands were also asked to give evidence, and many did so. Other depositions were taken from men who had fought at Concord’s North Bridge. These documents were edited and prepared for publication. 47

On April 25, the Committee of Safety learned that General Gage was sending to London on that very day his own report of the battle. These official dispatches were entrusted to a British naval officer, Lieutenant Nunn, who was ordered to travel by the first available means, which turned out to be the brig Sukey, a slow sailing private vessel that belonged to Boston merchant John Rowe.

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The Coffin Broadside was a graphic illustration of American casualties on April 19. It was issued by Salem printer Ezekiel Russell in at least six editions. He carefully added more coffins in later printings, for Americans who died of wounds in the weeks after the battle. The broadside was part of a Whig campaign for public opinion, which succeeded brilliantly in both America and Europe. (American Antiquarian Society)

The Committee of Safety saw an opportunity, and acted with its usual dispatch. On April 26, it decided to send copies of nearly 100 depositions to London, together with a letter by Dr. Joseph Warren addressed to the “Inhabitants of Great Britain.” The Whig leaders sought out Captain John Derby of Salem, owner of the very fast American schooner Quero. They also enlisted his sailing master, William Carleton, a skilled seaman with expert knowledge of winds and currents in the North Atlantic. Derby and Carleton were asked to carry the American depositions abroad as swiftly as possible. Confidential instructions from the Congress ordered them to make all speed to the coast in Ireland, then to cross the Irish Sea by stealth, and deliver the documents directly to the Lord Mayor of London, who was known to be sympathetic to the American cause. Captain Derby was told to keep his orders “a profound secret from every person on earth.” Their crew was not to be told the purpose of the voyage until they cleared the Grand Banks and were safely in blue water. 48

Quero sailed in ballast on April 29, four days after Gage’s ship. So swift was her passage that she reached Southampton May 27, 1775, a full two weeks before Sukey straggled in. Captain Derby presented his documents to the Lord Mayor, and the American depositions were instantly published by the London press. 49

The news caused a sensation. The British government, caught by surprise, was unable to confirm or deny the American accounts. The most powerful impression was made by a deposition from a mortally wounded British officer, who generally supported the American version of events and praised the humanity of his captors. A supporter of Lord North complained that “the Bostonians are now the favourites of all the people of good hearts and weak heads in the kingdom.… their saint-like account of the skirmish at Concord, has been read with avidity… [and] believed.” 50

Even Lord George Germain, no friend of the colonists, wrote on May 30, “The news from America occasioned a great stir among us yesterday… the Bostonians are in the right to make the King’s troops the aggressors and claim a victory.” 51

When General Gage’s dispatches at last arrived two weeks later, Lord North and his ministers drew the fatal conclusion that the failure in Massachusetts lay not with their own policies, but the man they sent to execute them. Lord Suffolk wrote to Germain, on June 15, “The town is full of private letters from America which contain much more particular accounts of the skirmish than are related by the general. They don’t do much credit to the discipline of our troops, but do not impeach their readiness and intrepidity.”

Germain wrote back, “I must lament that General Gage, with all his good qualities, finds himself in a situation of too great importance for his talents.… I doubt whether Mr. Gage will venture to take a single step beyond his instructions, or whether the troops have that opinion of him as to march with confidence of success.” 52

While the King’s ministers in London judged General Gage to be weak and over-scrupulous, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts condemned him in exactly the opposite way. On May 5, 1775, the Congress passed a sharply-worded resolution: “Whereas, his Excellency General Gage, since his arrival in this Colony, hath conducted as an instrument in the hands of an arbitrary Ministry to enslave this people.… Resolved, That the said General Gage hath, by these means, and many others utterly disqualified himself to serve this Colony as a Governor.… No obedience ought, in future, to be paid.…” 53

British leaders tried their best to compete in this contest for popular opinion. General Gage himself took a leading role, both in England and America. While the Whig expresses were galloping across the countryside, the British commander in chief dispatched his own messengers with instructions to spread a “true account of all that has passed.” These couriers were Loyalist “gentlemen,” who were ordered to carry their dispatches directly to governors throughout the colonies. 54

Altogether, General Gage became as active as the Whig leaders in trying to spread his version of events, but he went about that task in a different way. Where the New England leaders addressed themselves broadly to an entire people, the British commander sent his gentleman-couriers to senior officials. From long habit he preferred to work through a chain of command. He tended to trust others in proportion to their rank, and genuinely believed that the opinion of ruling elites was what really mattered in the world.

Further, Gage preserved his old habits of obsessive secrecy even when he was trying to communicate with others. This was not entirely by choice. Secrecy was forced upon him because the countryside was now strongly hostile, and his messages were intercepted. Gage warned Governor Colden that Whig leaders were “not suffering any letters to pass by the post, but those that would inflame the minds of the people.” 55

Gage’s early efforts to make known his own account of the battle took the form of confidential communications to high officials, whom he expected to pull the levers of power in their provinces. Several tried to do so—Governor Trumbull in Connecticut and Governor Colden in New York with an eye to reconciliation; Lord Dunmore in Virginia with more militant purposes in mind. But they found themselves captives of public opinion that New England whigs had done so much to shape. Gage complained bitterly of the “inflammatory expresses from this province,” and lamented their success. “They have had the effect the Faction here wished they should have,” he wrote. 56

Still, General Gage kept trying. When private couriers failed to make a difference, he also attempted to put his version of events into print. Once again he had very small success. While governor he had supported Loyalist printers. They failed him in his moment of need. On April 19, Boston had two newspapers that admitted Loyalist pieces. One of them, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, shut down immediately after the battle. The other waffled. At a time when Whigs were detailing the event in copious detail, the spineless Tory editor of the Boston News-Letter told his readers, “The reports concerning this unhappy affair, and the causes that concurred to bring on an Engagement, are so various, that we are not able to collect anything consistent or regular, and cannot therefore with certainty give our readers any further account of this shocking introduction to all the miseries of a Civil War.” 57

When Loyalist printers failed to get out the news, General Gage issued his own broadside, called “A Circumstantial Account of an Attack that happened on the 19th of April, 1775 on his Majesty’s troops, by a Number of the People of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.” Its argument was summarized in a sentence. “I have shewn them,” Gage wrote, “that the people of this Province were the first aggressors, and that the conduct of the leaders here is the cause of all the misfortunes that have happened, or shall arise.” 58

The document was elegantly printed on good paper, and made a handsome appearance. But as an appeal to the public it was not a success. At a time when the Whig leaders were issuing impassioned appeals to Heaven, Gage offered an arid factual statement—and one in which so many facts were mistaken that a week later this honorable man felt bound to issue his own correction. Worse, his argument was contradictory its substance, and stilted in its style. In describing the search of Concord, for example, Gage wrote, “Neither had any of the people the least occasion to complain, but they were sulky…” After thirty years of command, General Gage was not at his best in efforts of popular persuasion. The common touch consistently eluded him. 59

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“The Yankey’s Return from Camp” was also called “The Lexington March” after the battle. Like most 18th-century American songs, it borrowed a British tune and developed it in many different forms. This early version, published in 1775, has the same modal rhythm as the tune we know as “Yankee Doodle.” American Antiquarian Society.

This second battle of Lexington and Concord was waged not with bayonets but broadsides, not with muskets but depositions, newspapers and sermons. In strictly military terms, the fighting on April 19 was a minor reverse for British arms, and a small success for the New England militia. But the ensuing contest for popular opinion was an epic disaster for the British government, and a triumph for American Whigs. In every region of British America, attitudes were truly transformed by the news of this event.

Before the battle, John Adams had been toiling on a reasoned appeal to the rights of Englishmen, which he published under the significant pen name of Novanglus. Later he remembered that the news of Lexington put a sudden end to that project, and instantly “changed the instruments of War from the pen to the sword.” John Adams was not a man of violence. He was genuinely shocked by news of the fighting, and deeply troubled by the question of how it began. Immediately after the battle, he saddled his horse and went off to find out for himself, traveling “along the scene of the action for many miles.” He picked his way past burial parties and burned-out houses, through crowds of refugees with cartloads of household goods, and marching soldiers with their drums and guns. Everywhere he found “great confusion and distress.” It was only a trip of a few miles from Braintree to Lexington, but John Adams later remembered it as one of the great intellectual journeys of his life. He wrote that he “enquired of the inhabitants the circumstances” of the fight, wanting to be sure about what had happened. Later he testified that his inquiries “convinced me that the Die was cast, the Rubicon crossed.” John Adams returned from Lexington, went on to the second Continental Congress, and never looked back. 60

In Pennsylvania, the news from Lexington had a similar effect on an English immigrant who had arrived only the year before. At the age of thirty-seven, Thomas Paine had lost everything in England: his home, two wives, and many jobs. He decided to start again in America, and with the help of a letter from Benjamin Franklin, he found employment in Philadelphia as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Suddenly things began to go better for him. Circulation leaped from 600 to 1500 subscribers. Paine threw himself into his work and kept clear of politics. He wrote later that he regarded the Imperial dispute as merely “a kind of law-suit” which “the parties would find a way either to decide or settle.” Then the news of Lexington arrived. Paine remembered that “the country into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears.” Afterward he recalled, “No man was a warmer wisher for a reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775, but the moment the event of that day was known, I rejected the hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England forever.” 61

In Virginia, April was the planting time in the Potomac valley. The countryside was in bloom, and the air was soft with the scent of Spring. George Washington was working happily on his farm at Mount Vernon when the first report of Lexington arrived. Like many thousands of Americans, he left his fields and gathered up his weapons with a sadness that was widely shared in the colonies. To a close friend he wrote, “Unhappy it is, though, to reflect that a brother’s sword has been sheathed in a brother’s breast and that the once-happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with blood or inhabited by a race of slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?” 62

Many men, virtuous or not, faced that same choice throughout the colonies. The battles of Lexington and Concord posed it for them in a new way. Long afterward, the novelist Henry James visited the Old North Bridge, and looked back upon that moment of decision. He wrote, “The fight had been the hinge—so one saw it—on which the large revolving future was to turn.” 63

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