The first shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired on the village green at Lexington, Massachusetts. More of a skirmish than a true battle, the fighting at Lexington was the inevitable result of almost a year of Anglo-American tensions, agitation by colonial propagandists, the Powder Alarms of 1774 and General Thomas Gage’s aggressive policy of raiding and seizing colonial munitions stores. With the American militias whipped up into a state of readiness, it was only a matter of time before a shot would be fired in anger, sparking a larger conflict. That happened in April 1775 after Gage ordered more than 700 British regular troops to march on Concord in western Massachusetts, where a large store of gunpowder was being held. There was also intelligence that suggested the troops had ordered to arrest the rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock, now the subject of British warrants. The Committees of Safety in Boston, led by Paul Revere and William Dawes, soon became aware of British plans and left the city in advance of Gage’s troops. They took different routes to Lexington, warning residents along the way and alerting the various militia units of the imminent British advance. This was the famous ‘midnight right of Paul Revere’, eulogised (and wildly exaggerated) in a poem by Longfellow.
Travelling west into rural Massachusetts in separate units, the British encountered little resistance until their arrival in Lexington at dawn on April 19. There they were confronted on the village green by a somewhat dishevelled group of 75 colonial militia, many armed only with sticks and scythes. Their commander was Captain John Parker, a sickly veteran of the French and Indian War, who reportedly told his minutemen “Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” With the militia blocking their path, the British officer-in-charge ordered his men to adopt an attack formation, before shouting at the rebels to disperse. Parker, seeing how heavily outnumbered and outgunned his men were and fearful of a massacre, also ordered his men to disperse – and eyewitness accounts suggested most were doing this. Then a shot was fired from an unknown source, the famous ‘shot heard ’round the world’ that began the Revolutionary War. There has been wild speculation about who fired this shot: whether it was a British warning shot, a colonial sniper firing from the forest or an accident discharge. Whoever was responsible, this single shot prompted an exchange of gunfire from both sides. The British soldiers advanced and killed eight colonial militiamen with either gunshots or bayonets; the rest quickly fled. Only one British soldier was wounded.
Eric G. Nellis, historian
The skirmish at Lexington cost the British only a few minutes, however the early warning systems put in place by local Committees of Safety meant that the militias in Concord were well aware of the British advance. Revere’s ‘midnight ride’ had actually ended when he was arrested at a British roadblock just outside Concord, but other riders had made it through to Concord. The first English platoons arrived there at 7.30am and immediately began searching the surrounding area for caches of weapons and gunpowder, without much success – however during their search they accidentally set fire to a church, leading some to believe the British were burning the town. Hundreds of militia gathered and started firing on the British, who returned fire but also retreated back into Concord, before setting out back to Boston. Along the way they experienced sporadic but hostile ambushes and sniping from minutemen and armed civilians. By the end of this fateful 48 hours more than 300 people on each side had been killed. When General Gage awoke on the morning of April 20, he found Boston surrounded by dozens of militia companies which had marched on the city overnight to take revenge on the ‘redcoats’. The colony of Massachusetts, already in a state of rebellion, was now in a state of war.