Modern history

THE MISSION

image British Plans, American Preparations

Keep the measure secret until the moment of execution, it can hardly fail of success. … Any efforts of the people, unprepared to encounter with a regular force, cannot be very formidable.

—Earl of Dartmouth to General Gage, Jan. 27, 1775

We may all be soon under the necessity of keeping Shooting Irons.

—Samuel Adams to Stephen Collins, Jan. 31, 1775

IN HIS METHODICAL WAY, General Thomas Gage had already begun to make the necessary preparations, even before his new orders arrived from London. This time he vowed that the outcome would be different—not like the embarrassing fiasco at Portsmouth or the painful humiliation at Salem. The lessons of experience were very clear. He must strike at the heart of the rebel movement and cripple it with quick, clean blows before its large numbers could be mustered against his little army. If he wished to act without awakening the wrath of the continent against him, it was necessary to do these things without the shedding of blood, or at least with as little bloodshed as possible. Everything hinged on secrecy, surprise, and sound intelligence.

On the other side, Whig leaders in New England were preparing too. Forewarned by friends in London, they knew that the British army was about to move against them, but not precisely where or when. They were prepared to fight for their freedom, but they could not start the fight without forfeiting the moral advantage of their cause. These New England Whigs believed that if shots had to be fired, it was urgently important that a British soldier must be the one to fire first. Only then would America stand united. Samuel Adams was very clear about that. On March 21, 1775, this canny politician reminded his fellow Whigs, “Put your enemy in the wrong, and keep him so, is a wise maxim in politics, as well as in war.” 1

New England leaders resolved not to move until Gage committed his forces. Once he had done so, their intention was to react quickly, and muster their full strength against him with all the force at their command. Everything depended on careful preparation, timely warning, and rapid mobilization.

Each side recognized the critical importance of intelligence, and both went busily about that vital task. But they did so in different ways. The British system was created and controlled from the top down. It centered very much on General Gage himself. The gathering of information commonly began with questions from the commander in chief. The lines of inquiry reached outward like tentacles from his headquarters in Province House. This structure proved a source of strength in some respects, and weakness in others. The considerable resources of the Royal government could be concentrated on a single problem. But when the commander in chief asked all the questions, he was often told the answers that he wished to hear. Worse, the questions that he did not think to ask were never answered at all.

The American system of intelligence was organized in the opposite way, from the bottom up. Self-appointed groups such as Paul Revere’s voluntary association of Boston mechanics gathered information on their own initiative. Other individuals in many towns did the same. These efforts were coordinated through an open, disorderly network of congresses and committees, but no central authority controlled this activity in Massachusetts—not the Provincial Congress or Committee of Safety, not the Boston Committee of Correspondence or any small junto of powerful leaders; not Sam Adams or John Hancock, not even the indefatigable Doctor Warren, and certainly not Paul Revere. The revolutionary movement in New England had many leaders, but no commander. Nobody was truly in charge. This was a source of weakness in some ways. The system was highly inefficient. Its efforts were scattered and diffuse. Individuals demanded a reason for acting, before they acted at all. They wrangled incessantly in congresses, conventions, committees and town meetings. But by those clumsy processes, many autonomous New England minds were enlisted in a common effort—a source of energy, initiative, and intellectual strength for this popular movement.

In the beginning, General Gage held the initiative. He organized a formal intelligence staff that consisted largely of his kinsmen—mostly relatives by marriage whom he felt that he could trust. His deputy adjutant-general for intelligence was his American brother-in-law, Major Stephen Kemble, an officer in the British army. His confidential secretary was Samuel Kemble, another brother-in-law. His aide-de-camp for confidential matters was his wife’s cousin, Captain Oliver De Lancey.

Young Captain De Lancey was typical of the American Loyalists who joined this new transatlantic Imperial elite. He came from a rich and powerful New York family which owned a large part of Manhattan Island and Westchester County. His uncles included the acting governor of New York and the chief justice of that colony. De Lancey had been sent to school at Eton, and a commission had been bought for him in a crack British cavalry regiment. He joined Gage’s headquarters in 1775. 2

In the winter and spring of 1774—75, two months before Gage’s secret orders arrived, his staff began to collect information about eastern Massachusetts. Every officer in the garrison with knowledge of the countryside was ordered to report to headquarters. Loyalist agents were actively recruited. They began to send a steady flow of information on provincial politics and military affairs. 3

As General Gage studied the reports that came across his desk, his first thought was to revive an earlier plan, and strike at the shire town of Worcester, forty miles west of Boston. That village had become a major center of the revolutionary movement. Various provincial bodies had met there. A large supply of munitions was stored in its houses and barns, and the tools of war were manufactured in its mills. Agents reported that fifteen tons of gunpowder were on hand, and thirteen cannon were parked in front of the Congregational meetinghouse. For many months the inhabitants of Worcester had been outspoken in support of the Whig cause, and had spurned all compromise. 4 As early as the summer of 1774, Gage had written to Dartmouth, “In Worcester they keep no terms, openly threaten resistance by arms, have been purchasing arms, preparing them, casting ball, and providing powder, and threaten to attack any troops who dare to oppose them.” He concluded: “I apprehend I shall soon be obliged to march a body of troops into that township.” 5

General Gage decided to postpone that plan after the Powder Alarm in September 1774; but through the fall and winter, Worcester continued to be on his mind. In the last week of February 1775, Gage summoned two enterprising young officers, Captain John Brown and Ensign Henry De Berniere of the 10th Foot. He asked them to go out on a confidential mission. They were to dress in plain country clothing and walk from Boston to Worcester, and to return with a sketch of the countryside and a report on the roads. In particular, they were to look for dangerous ambush sites along the way. The need for secrecy was strongly impressed upon them. If anyone asked their business, the British officers were to pretend to be surveyors. 6

De Berniere and Brown were bored by garrison life and leaped at the assignment. The result was yet another bizarre cultural collision between Britain’s Imperial elite and the folkways of New England. The mission began as low comedy, and nearly ended in calamity for the young British officers. They set off on foot, “disguised like countrymen, in brown cloaths and reddish handkerchiefs round our necks.” They were delighted to discover that General Gage himself was unable to recognize them. But when they left town by the Charlestown ferry, a British sentry saluted briskly and nearly gave the game away. 7

They walked west through Cambridge, and by mid-day reached a Whig tavern in Watertown, where they decided to stop for something to eat. The officers had insisted upon traveling with a batman whom they called “our man John.” 8 When they entered the tavern, these young British gentlemen banished their servant to a separate table, and “called for dinner” in what seemed to them an ordinary tone of voice. To their surprise, they noticed that the black serving maid began to “eye us very attentively,” as they wrote in their report.

“It is a fine country,” the officers said in their most agreeable manner, forgetting that they were supposed to be countrymen themselves.

“So it is,” answered the maid with a knowing look, “and we have got brave fellows to defend it, and if you go up any higher you will find it so.” 9

The officers were stunned by her reply. “This disconcerted us a good deal,” they reported, “and we resolved not to sleep there that night.” They called for the bill, and betrayed themselves again by trying to settle in British sterling an account that had been reckoned in the mysterious complexity of Massachusetts “Old Tenor” currency. While they struggled with the rate of exchange, the black waitress approached their batman again and delivered another gratuitous warning: “She said she knew our errand was to take a plan of the country,” and “advised him to tell us not to go any higher, for if we did we should meet with very bad usage.”

Brown and De Berniere held a quick “council,” and decided that they could not return to Boston without dishonor, an act unthinkable for a British officer. They resolved to push on, but agreed that in deference to the customs of this strange country, their batman would be promoted to a condition of temporary equality with themselves—even at dinner. They wrote in their report, “We always treated him as our companion, since our adventure with the black woman.” At least one human relationship was briefly transformed by the American Revolution, even as it had barely begun.

In wintry weather, the three men continued west on the Old Boston Post Road to the Golden Ball Tavern, which still stands today in the suburban town of Weston. This was a Tory inn. They were treated well, but warned once again not to go higher into the country. Still, they gamely insisted on pressing on. Their Tory host in Weston sent them to a Loyalist tavernkeeper in Marlborough, and from there to another Tory inn in Worcester which they reached on Saturday night. Here again they were treated courteously, and even offered the symbolic dish of tea that proclaimed the politics of the establishment.

The strict New England Sabbath began at sundown on Saturday. The British officers were warned that movement was impossible for them until sunset on Sunday. They explained to their superiors, “We could not think of travelling, as it is contrary to the custom of the country, nor dare we stir out until the evening because of meeting, and nobody is allowed to walk the streets during the divine service, without being taken up and examined.”

When the Sabbath ended on Sunday evening, they left the Tory tavern and mapped the hills and roads around Worcester. Then they started back toward Boston, crisscrossing the country lanes of Middlesex County. They spent their nights in Tory taverns, and took their lunches in the woods, dining on a bit of bread and “a little snow to wash it down.” Even so, their movements were quickly discovered and carefully observed. Groups of silent country folk gathered in the villages, watching ominously as they walked through. Horsemen rode up to them on the road, studied their appearance without saying a word, then wheeled and galloped away.

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The Golden Ball Tavern still stands on the Old Boston Post Road in Weston, Massachusetts. It was one of a network of Tory safe houses used by General Gage’s spies, Captain Brown and Ensign De Berniere, on their reconnaissance missions in 1775. Innkeeper Isaac Jones, a Loyalist "friend to government," guided them on part of their journey. This early photograph, circa 1868, shows the tavern in winter as it was seen by the British officers. (Courtesy Golden Ball Tavern)

They were saved from further attentions by a late snowstorm that covered their tracks and kept the “country people” indoors. Increasingly fearful for their lives, the British officers pressed on through the storm, heading back toward Boston. In one horrific day they plodded thirty-two miles in ankle-deep snow, finally arriving exhausted and half frozen at the Golden Ball Tavern in Weston. The next morning, while parties of Whigs scoured the countryside, the landlord guided them through back roads to the safety of Boston. 10

General Gage was pleased with the thoroughness of their report, but not happy at the thought of sending a force to Worcester. The distance was so great that surprise could not be assured. The roads were difficult, and a dangerous river crossing through the broad marshes at Sudbury could turn into a deadly trap. The commander in chief returned to his map of New England and searched for another target. His eyes fell on the half-shire town of Concord. 11 This village had also become an arsenal of revolution. The Provincial Congress had been meeting there. It was barely twenty miles from Boston—half as far as Worcester. With hard marching on dry roads, Gage reckoned that his troops could be there and back again in a long day.

In mid-March, he summoned Captain Brown and Lieutenant De Berniere to Province House, and asked them to go out again on another secret mission, this time to explore the roads to Concord. On March 20, they left Boston by way of Roxbury and Brookline, and walked through Weston on what was called the Concord Road, at that time the most direct route from Boston Neck to their destination. They found it very dangerous for a marching army, and reported that it was “woody in most places and commanded by hills,” as it remains today.

When they reached Concord, the town appeared to them like an armed camp, with sentries posted at its approaches, and vast quantities of munitions on hand. The British officers met a woman in the road and asked directions to the house of Daniel Bliss, a Loyalist lawyer and one of Concord’s leading citizens. She showed them the way. Bliss welcomed the two officers, and offered them dinner. A little later the woman suddenly returned, weeping with fear. She explained between her tears that several Whigs had stopped her and “swore they would tar and feather her for directing Tories.”

A moment later a message arrived for lawyer Bliss himself, threatening death if he did not leave town. The British officers, who were carrying arms, gallantly offered to escort him back to Boston, and protect him with their lives. The three men set out for Boston. Bliss showed them another route that ran further to the north, through Lexington and the village of Menotomy (now Arlington). It was longer than the roads through Weston, but the countryside was more open, and ambuscades were less to be feared. The British officers returned to Boston and made their report, strongly recommending the northern route through Lexington as the best approach. 12

Gage had found the target for his next mission, and a satisfactory way of getting there. It would be Concord, by the Lexington Road. Now his intelligence efforts began to center on the town itself. He had secret agents there, Loyalists who have never been identified, but lived in or near the town and were exceptionally well informed. One of them wrote regularly to Gage in bad French, describing in detail the munitions stored throughout the town, and the temper of the inhabitants.

Among these reports was a detailed inventory, house by house and barn by barn, of munitions stored throughout the entire community. One building alone was thought to hold seven tons of gunpowder. 13 General Gage ordered a map of Concord to be prepared, showing the location of every building known to harbor military stores. He was also told that John Hancock and Sam Adams were staying in the town of Lexington, a smaller community of scattered dairy farms five miles east of Concord center.

In early April, General Gage began to organize his marching force. In strictest secrecy he drafted its orders in his own hand. To command the expedition he selected Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Foot. Smith was a senior officer, very near retirement. Another officer described him as a “heavy man,” inactive, overweight, unfit for arduous service. 14 But he was known to be an officer of prudence, moderation, and maturity. His choice betrayed Gage’s own caution and restraint. So also did his orders. Smith was instructed to march “with utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy all the Artillery, Ammunition, Provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all Military stores whatever.”

Nothing was mentioned in writing about the arrest of Whig leaders. Gage seems not to have been happy with that part of his instructions. He understood better than men in London the structure of the revolutionary movement. He knew that nobody was really in command of it. If one leader were arrested, ten more would be ready to take his place.

Further, Gage believed in the rule of law. Throughout these turbulent events, even when he was furiously angry with the Whig leaders, he rejected a policy of arbitrary arrest. His written orders for the expedition said nothing about seizing Whig leaders, despite explicit instructions from London for their apprehension. Colonel Smith was given strict orders to keep carefully within the law. “You will take care,” Gage told him, “that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants, or hurt private property.” 15

Gage believed that the expedition might be resisted by armed force, and urged many precautions. Smith was ordered to march to Concord by the Lexington Road that offered the least danger of ambush, and he was told to secure the bridges of Concord “as soon as possible” when he reached the town.

With startling prescience, Gage understood the form that resistance would probably take. On March 4, 1775, he wrote to Dartmouth in London, “The most natural and eligible mode of attack on the part of the people is that of detached parties of bushmen who from their adroitness in the habitual use of the firelock suppose themselves sure of their mark at a distance of 200 rods [he surely meant yards]. Should hostilities unhappily commence, the first opposition would be irregular, impetuous, and incessant from the numerous bodies that would swarm to the place of action, and all actuated by an enthusiasm wild and ungovernable.” 16

Even if the worst happened, Gage believed that a strong force of Regular troops under experienced professional officers had little to fear from these “bushmen.” He wrote that he was “firmly persuaded that there is not a man amongst [them] capable of taking command or directing the motions of an army,” It was his only error in a remarkably trenchant analysis—but one error would be more than enough. His mistake in judgment was not about the probability of resistance, or the motives, tactics, and fighting skills of the New England militia, but about the quality of leadership among them. 17

In Boston, the British regiments were ordered to repair their tents, mend their camp kettles, and break out their field equipment. They were sent out on short marches through the country west of Boston, partly to toughen the men, partly to accustom the people of Massachusetts to their movements out of town. Two regiments, the 38th and 52nd Foot, were ordered to march as far as Watertown, and did not return until 5 o’clock at night. Mackenzie noted, “As Watertown is farther than the Regiments have usually gone, and they remained out longer, the country was a good deal alarmed on the occasion.” 18 No explanations were given, but Lieutenant Mackenzie surmised that “it is supposed the general has some object in view, and means to familiarize the people of the Country with the appearance of troops among them for a longer time than usual without creating an alarm.” 19

Some of these preparations could be made without raising suspicions. Others proved impossible to hide. On Wednesday, April 5, Gage asked the navy to prepare for a movement of troops by boat from Boston across the Back Bay to Cambridge. Admiral Graves, the senior naval officer present, was a difficult man: irascible, corrupt and stupid beyond belief. He did not like to do any soldier’s bidding, and he particularly detested Thomas Gage. Unable to refuse the general’s request, Admiral Graves acted with precipitate speed and no subtlety whatever. On the very next day, Thursday, April 6, he ordered his ships in the harbor to launch their longboats, and moor them under their sterns, ready for use. On Friday, April 7, that work was done in full view of the town.

The Whigs of Boston were quick to observe this flurry of activity in the harbor. They were also instantly informed that a party of British officers had been sent to examine the roads to Concord. Those two pieces of intelligence were put together, and it was concluded that General Gage was about to move against Concord. So active were the preparations in the harbor that on Saturday morning Whig leaders decided that the Regulars were ready to march, and guessed that these “godless myrmidons” would move on Sunday, April 9, striking on the Sabbath as they had done at Salem.

It was decided to send an urgent warning to Concord, and the job was given to Paul Revere. On Saturday, April 8, the day after Graves lowered his boats into the water, Revere mounted his horse and rode out of town. He reached Concord in the evening with a letter from Doctor Warren, addressed to the leaders of the town. The contents of the message were recorded by Concord’s Jonathan Hosmer. “We daily expect a Tumult,” he wrote to a friend, “There came up a post to Concord [on] Saturday night which informs them that the regulars are coming up to Concord the next day, and if they come I believe there will be bloody work.” 20

This first warning proved to be a false alarm. In their zeal Joseph Warren and Paul Revere had acted too quickly. General Gage was not yet ready to march. But Whig leaders were convinced that nothing was wrong in the warning except the date. The people of Concord began to move military supplies out of town, scattering them through the surrounding communities. The Provincial Congress, which had been meeting in Concord, suddenly agreed to adjourn on April 15 for a period of three weeks. Its members packed their bags, and hurried out of town. 21

If the British garrison in Boston could keep nothing secretfrom the town, the same was true in reverse. Paul Revere’s trip wasquickly reported to General Gage. A secret agent in Concord senta personal message to Province House: “last Saturday the 7th [actually the 8th] of April P: R: toward evening arrived at Concord, carrying a letter that was said to be from Mr. W[arre]n.” Eachside kept a wary eye upon the other. 22

Through the week that followed, preparations continued in the British garrison. On the evening of Saturday, April 15, Gage took another step that was impossible to hide. He ordered his regimental commanders to relieve their elite companies of grenadier and light infantry from “all duties till further orders.” The official explanation, that the men were to learn “new evolutions,” deceived nobody. “This I suppose is by way of a blind,” Lieutenant Barker noted in his diary, “I dare say they have something for them to do.” The orders were sent to eleven regiments, and instantly became common knowledge throughout the town. Bosto-nian John Andrews not only learned their content in a general way, but was able to repeat them verbatim in a letter to a friend. 23

The next day was Sunday, April 16. Even though it was the New England Sabbath, Paul Revere made yet another ride. This time he went to Lexington, carrying news of the grenadiers and light infantry to John Hancock and Samuel Adams and other Whig leaders. He also met with Whigs in Cambridge and Charlestown and discussed with them the general problem of an early warning system. The Committee of Safety had already voted to establish a night watch in Roxbury, Cambridge and Charlestown to guard the exits from Boston. The Provincial Congress and its committees also organized an alarm system through New England, but this was a slow and cumbersome network of town committees. 24

On April 16, Revere and his friends in Boston, Cambridge, Charlestown, and Lexington considered a more pressing problem: how to send an early warning of movements by the Regulars from Boston on short notice, in the middle of the night, and when exits from the town were closed by General Gage. They worked out what a later generation would call a fail-safe solution that was typical of Revere’s planning: “expresses” of the usual sort if possible, special messengers by clandestine routes, and if all else failed a back-up system of lantern signals from Boston to Charlestown. 25

This second trip by Paul Revere was also reported to General Gage. An alert British officer wrote that “the inhabitants conjectured that some secret expedition was on foot,” and were “on the look-out.” Once again it was abundantly clear to the British commander that he could scarcely make a move in Boston without Paul Revere’s spreading the news through the countryside faster than his infantry could march. The Concord expedition was now seriously compromised. On Tuesday, April 18, one of Gage’s Tory agents in Concord sent a report that most of the military stores had been removed from the town. But the spy added that large stocks of provisions were still there, along with several large 24-pounder cannon and a supply of powder.

Gage realized that unless the Whig express riders could be stopped, the Concord mission had no hope of success. He decided that special measures were necessary to maintain what remained of its secrecy, and specifically to keep Paul Revere from spreading the word. To that end, the British general and his aides planned an elaborate effort of what we would call counter-intelligence.

In the morning of April 18, General Gage sent out a mounted patrol of twenty men: ten officers and ten sergeants, commanded by Major Edward Mitchell of the 5th Foot. Their orders were to intercept American messengers and keep them from giving the alarm. Gage summarized their mission in a sentence to Colonel Smith, “A small party on horseback is ordered out to stop all advice of your march getting to Concord.” 26

The twenty British officers and sergeants left town across Boston Neck, and then fanned out, distributing themselves at choke-points on the roads between Boston and Concord. Some covered the roads south and west of Roxbury and Brookline. At least two were sent north to Charlestown Neck. Others were posted near Watertown and the Great Bridge across the Charles River. Several patrolled the roads between Cambridge and Lexington. At least nine rode beyond Lexington to guard the approaches to Concord itself. 27

Many people noticed them, and remarked upon their strange behavior. Often before, British officers had ridden into the countryside on various missions, or merely for exercise, but usually they returned to Boston before dark. This time they acted differently. The officers walked their horses slowly along the country roads, stopped for dinner in country taverns, and stayed out after sundown. Instead of the casual dishabille that British officers (then as now) often preferred to wear in the field, they were dressed in full uniform, with military cockades in their hats. The thick bulge of pistol-holsters and sword-pommels were clearly visible beneath their long dark blue riding coats. They conversed with travelers on the road, and asked many questions. In particular they inquired about the whereabouts of John Hancock and Samuel Adams. 28

These roving British officers, whose assignment was to stop the New England alarm-riders, had the effect of alarming the countryside themselves. On the road that afternoon was Elijah Sanderson, a cabinetmaker. At about six o’clock in the evening, he “saw a party of officers pass up from Boston, all dressed in blue wrappers. The unusually late hour of their passing excited the attention of the citizens. I took my gun and cartridge box, and thinking that something must be going on more than common, walked up to John Buckman’s tavern near the meeting house.”

Solomon Brown, a Lexington lad of eighteen, was coming home from Boston market in late afternoon when he saw the British officers ambling slowly along the road. They seemed in no hurry to get where they were going, and appeared to be killing time. The evening was not very cold by New England standards, and yet Brown noticed that the officers were wearing heavy blue overcoats. Underneath he could make out the shape of their great horse pistols. Solomon Brown and the officers passed each other several times on the road. Then Brown rode away from them. When out of sight, he galloped to Lexington and told Sergeant William Munroe of the town militia what he had seen. 29

In Menotomy the Provincial Committees of Safety and Supplies had been meeting through the day at Newell’s Tavern. Late in the afternoon the members adjourned, and agreed to meet again the next day. Two of them, Richard Devens and Abraham Watson rode off in a chaise at sunset, heading east toward Charlestown. On the road they met a “great number of British officers and their servants on horseback, who had dined that day at Cambridge.” The officers did not stop them but kept traveling slowly westward. Devens and Watson turned their chaise and rode back through the British officers to warn their fellow committeemen who were still in Menotomy—Elbridge Gerry, Charles Lee and Azor Orne—that British officers were abroad in the night. The warning was delivered, and Gerry instantly scribbled a note and sent it on to Adams and Hancock in Lexington. 30

Gerry’s report reached Lexington early in the evening, probably about 8 o’clock. Jonas Clarke, the town’s minister, remembered that “on the evening of the 18th of April, 1775, we received two messages; the first verbal, the other by express in writing, from the Committee of Safety, who were then sitting in the westerly part of Cambridge, directed to the Honourable John Hancock, Esq; (who with the Honorable Samuel Adams, Esq; was then providentially with us) informing, ’that eight or nine officers of the King’s troops were seen, just before night, passing the road towards Lexington, in a musing, contemplative posture; and it was suspected they were out upon some evil design. …’ Mr. Hancock in particular, had been, more than once, personally insulted by some officers … it was not without some just grounds supposed, that under cover of darkness, sudden arrest, if not assassination, might be attempted.” 31

A squad of Lexington militia was asked to muster with their arms at the parsonage, and protect Adams and Hancock through the night against the British riders. Sergeant Munroe, on hearing that nine British officers were on the road, “selected eight men, armed, and placed them as a guard around the house of Mr. Clarke for the night and remained with them …” Another thirty Lexington militia gathered at the Buckman Tavern nearby. They were there by nine o’clock. 32

Among the militia at the tavern were Sanderson, Brown, and Loring, who began to talk about the British officers whom they had seen on the road that day. In the manner of New England towns, these young men consulted their elders in the tavern as to what should be done. One venerable “old gentleman” advised the young men to “follow the officers and endeavor to ascertain their object,” Elijah Sanderson announced, “If anyone would let me have a horse I would go in pursuit.” Thaddeus Harrington said, “Take mine,” Solomon Brown and Jonathan Loring also found horses. With Sergeant Munroe’s consent, the three men volunteered to go out and watch the officers and report their movements. 33

The three scouts started west from Lexington at about nine o’clock, Sanderson and Loring to observe the movements of the British patrol, and Brown to carry a warning to Concord. Half an hour later, they rode straight into a trap that the Regulars had laid across the highway. One of the Lexington men later wrote that they were “stopped by nine British officers just before we got to Brooks’s in Lincoln. They detained us in that vicinity till a quarter past two o’clock at night. Sanderson recalled, “they put many questions which I evaded. They kept us separately and treated us very civilly.” The officers particularly inquired after Hancock and Adams. 34

Major Mitchell and his men continued to patrol the road to Concord. They passed the farmhouse of Josiah Nelson, who heard hoofbeats in the night and came half-dressed out of his house, to find out what was happening. Mistaking the British officers for countrymen in the dark, Nelson came up to them and said, “Have you heard anything about when the Regulars are coming out?”

Nelson startled the British officers. One of them, perhaps Major Mitchell himself, swung his sword, and slashed the American across the head, and took him prisoner. Bleeding profusely from his scalp, Nelson was released and warned that his house would be burned if he told anyone what had happened. He went back to his home, and his wife bandaged his bloody head. Then Josiah Nelson collected his weapons, saddled his horse, and rode off to warn his neighbors. The news began to spread across the countryside.35

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