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Battles of Lexington and Concord
The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. They were fought on April 19, 1775, in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy (present-day Arlington), and Cambridge, near Boston. The battles marked the outbreak of open armed conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and its thirteen colonies in the mainland of British North America.
About 700 British Army regulars, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy military supplies that were reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot colonials had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations. They also received details about British plans on the night before the battle and were able to rapidly notify the area militias of the enemy movement.
The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. The militia were outnumbered and fell back, and the regulars proceeded on to Concord, where they searched for the supplies. At the North Bridge in Concord, approximately 500 militiamen fought and defeated three companies of the King's troops. The outnumbered regulars fell back from the minutemen after a pitched battle in open territory.
More militiamen arrived soon thereafter and inflicted heavy damage on the regulars as they marched back towards Boston. Upon returning to Lexington, Smith's expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Brigadier General Hugh Percy. The combined force, now of about 1,700 men, marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown. The accumulated militias blockaded the narrow land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, starting the Siege of Boston.
The British Army's infantry, nicknamed "redcoats" and sometimes "devils" by the colonists, had occupied Boston since 1768 and had been augmented by naval forces and marines to enforce the Intolerable Acts, which had been passed by the British Parliament to punish the Province of Massachusetts Bay for the Boston Tea Party and other acts of protest. General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts and commander-in-chief of the roughly 3,000 British military forces garrisoned in Boston, had no control over Massachusetts outside of Boston, where implementation of the Acts had increased tensions between the Patriot Whig majority and the Tory minority. Gage's plan was to avoid conflict by removing military supplies from the Whig militias using small, secret and rapid strikes. This struggle for supplies led to one British success and then to several Patriot successes in a series of nearly bloodless conflicts known as the Powder Alarms. Gage considered himself to be a friend of liberty and attempted to separate his duties as Governor of the colony and as General of an occupying force. Edmund Burke described Gage's conflicted relationship with Massachusetts by saying in Parliament, "An Englishman is the unfittest person on Earth to argue another Englishman into slavery."
The colonists had been forming militias of various sorts since the 17th century, at first primarily for defense against local native attacks. These forces were also mustered to action in the French and Indian War in the 1750s and 1760s. They were generally local militias, nominally under the jurisdiction of the provincial government. When the political situation began to deteriorate, in particular when Gage effectively dissolved the Provincial government under the terms of the Massachusetts Government Act, these existing connections were employed by the colonists under the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for the purpose of resistance to the perceived military threat.
On April 14, 1775, Gage received instructions from Secretary of State William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, to disarm the rebels, who were known to have hidden weapons in Concord, among other locations, and to imprison the rebellion's leaders, especially Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Dartmouth gave Gage considerable discretion in his commands.
On the morning of April 18, Gage ordered a mounted patrol of about 20 men under the command of Major Mitchell of the 5th Regiment of Foot into the surrounding country to intercept messengers who might be out on horseback. This patrol behaved differently from patrols sent out from Boston in the past, staying out after dark and asking travelers about the location of Adams and Hancock. This had the unintended effect of alarming many residents and increasing their preparedness. The Lexington militia in particular began to muster early that evening, hours before receiving any word from Boston. A well known story alleges that after nightfall one farmer, Josiah Nelson, mistook the British patrol for the colonists and asked them, "Have you heard anything about when the regulars are coming out?", upon which he was slashed on his scalp with a sword. However, the story of this incident was not published until over a century later, which suggests that it may be little more than a family myth.
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith received orders from Gage on the afternoon of April 18 with instructions that he was not to read them until his troops were underway. He was to proceed from Boston "with utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy... all Military stores... But you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants or hurt private property." Gage used his discretion and did not issue written orders for the arrest of rebel leaders, as he feared doing so might spark an uprising.
The rebellion's ringleaders—with the exception of Paul Revere and Joseph Warren—had all left Boston by April 8. They had received word of Dartmouth's secret instructions to General Gage from sources in London well before they reached Gage himself. Adams and Hancock had fled Boston to the home of one of Hancock's relatives in Lexington where they thought they would be safe from the immediate threat of arrest.
The Massachusetts militias had indeed been gathering a stock of weapons, powder, and supplies at Concord, as well as an even greater amount much further west in Worcester, but word reached the rebel leaders that British officers had been observed examining the roads to Concord. On April 8, Paul Revere rode to Concord to warn the inhabitants that the British appeared to be planning an expedition. The townspeople decided to remove the stores and distribute them among other towns nearby.
The colonists were also aware of the upcoming mission on April 19, despite it having been hidden from all the British rank and file and even from all the officers on the mission. There is reasonable speculation, although not proven, that the confidential source of this intelligence was Margaret Gage, General Gage's New Jersey-born wife, who had sympathies with the Colonial cause and a friendly relationship with Warren.
Between 9 and 10 pm on the night of April 18, 1775, Joseph Warren told William Dawes and Paul Revere that the King's troops were about to embark in boats from Boston bound for Cambridge and the road to Lexington and Concord. Warren's intelligence suggested that the most likely objectives of the regulars' movements later that night would be the capture of Adams and Hancock. They did not worry about the possibility of regulars marching to Concord, since the supplies at Concord were safe, but they did think their leaders in Lexington were unaware of the potential danger that night. Revere and Dawes were sent out to warn them and to alert colonial militias in nearby towns.
Dawes covered the southern land route by horseback across Boston Neck and over the Great Bridge to Lexington. Revere first gave instructions to send a signal to Charlestown and then he traveled the northern water route. He crossed the Charles River by rowboat, slipping past the British warship HMS Somerset at anchor. Crossings were banned at that hour, but Revere safely landed in Charlestown and rode to Lexington, avoiding a British patrol and later warning almost every house along the route. The Charlestown colonists dispatched additional riders to the north.
After they arrived in Lexington, Revere, Dawes, Hancock, and Adams discussed the situation with the militia assembling there. They believed that the forces leaving the city were too large for the sole task of arresting two men and that Concord was the main target. The Lexington men dispatched riders to the surrounding towns, and Revere and Dawes continued along the road to Concord accompanied by Samuel Prescott. In Lincoln, they ran into the British patrol led by Major Mitchell. Revere was captured, Dawes was thrown from his horse, and only Prescott escaped to reach Concord. Additional riders were sent out from Concord.
The ride of Revere, Dawes, and Prescott triggered a flexible system of "alarm and muster" that had been carefully developed months before, in reaction to the colonists' impotent response to the Powder Alarm. This system was an improved version of an old network of widespread notification and fast deployment of local militia forces in times of emergency. The colonists had periodically used this system all the way back to the early years of Indian wars in the colony, before it fell into disuse in the French and Indian War. In addition to other express riders delivering messages, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a trumpet were used for rapid communication from town to town, notifying the rebels in dozens of eastern Massachusetts villages that they should muster their militias because the regulars in numbers greater than 500 were leaving Boston, with possible hostile intentions. This system was so effective that people in towns 25 miles (40 km) from Boston were aware of the army's movements while they were still unloading boats in Cambridge. These early warnings played a crucial role in assembling a sufficient number of colonial militia to inflict heavy damage on the British regulars later in the day. Adams and Hancock were eventually moved to safety, first to what is now Burlington and later to Billerica.
Around dusk, General Gage called a meeting of his senior officers at the Province House. He informed them that orders from Lord Dartmouth had arrived, ordering him to take action against the colonials. He also told them that the senior colonel of his regiments, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, would command, with Major John Pitcairn as his executive officer. The meeting adjourned around 8:30 pm, after which Lord Percy mingled with town folk on Boston Common. According to one account, the discussion among people there turned to the unusual movement of the British soldiers in the town. When Percy questioned one man further, the man replied, "Well, the regulars will miss their aim". "What aim?" asked Percy. "Why, the cannon at Concord" was the reply.[24