Few knew the pressure that Sir Thomas Gage was under to put down the rebellious spirit that had swept through Massachusetts Colony. Sir Thomas Hutchinson, and Sir Francis Bernard, who had both aspired to the position of Governor had found that their ambition was ill-equipped for the task in front of them as the Colony always seemed to simmer right near the boiling point, ready, at a moment’s notice, to spill over into violence. Appointed Military Governor by the Board of Trade in 1774, Gage had but one task, to bring those colonists in line by reminding them that they were loyal British subjects by whatever means he deemed necessary.
Married into an old American family that has immigrated when New York was still New Amsterdam, many had perhaps hoped that Gage, with his reputation as a fair minded individual, would be more sympathetic than his predecessor had been. He was not. He was there on the King’s business and he would do the Kings business.
Now he had received word that the Americans were gathering and storing cannons and gunpowder.
In the earliest hours of the morning on April 19th, 1775 British Redcoats gathered under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, with Major John Pitcairn to lead the advance party. Their orders from Gage were to set about in haste, under the cloak of the utmost secrecy and to march on Lexington to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock before turning to Concord to destroy any rebel weapons stores that they may find.
As they began to cross the Charles River at Boston Neck, they were perhaps oblivious to the two lanterns that Robert Newman hung from the Steeple at the Old North Church. It was the warning sign of the Patriots, “One if by Land, Two if by Sea”, as the alarm was sounded. What they were becoming aware of though was the fact that the farmhouses along their march, they should have been in the quiet peace of the nights rest, yet they were not. The lights in the windows burned as a bustle of activity seemed to be occurring behind those closed doors. Spies near to the Governor had already shared Gage’s plans with Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the few rebels left in Boston, and Warren turned to William Dawes and Paul Revere to sound the alarm. Just ahead of the British troops they rode, first Revere to the North, slipping past the HMS Somerset docked in the harbor, followed a short time later by Dawes to the South, pounding on the doors of Patriots declaring that “The Regulars are coming out”.
By the time Smith and Pitcairn reached Lexington at Sunrise, Colonel John Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian Wars, and his Minutemen were waiting, well-armed with rifles that had better aim and distance than the bayonet and muskets carried by the Red Coats. Three officers would ride in full gallop, Pitcairn, it is said, yelling, “Throw down your Arms ye Villains, ye Rebels. Why don’t ye lay down your arms?” Defiantly Parker would declare, “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Suddenly a shot would fire, from where no one really knows. Though the full extent of the gravity of that shot perhaps wasn’t fully understood at that time it would become “The shot heard round the world.” Fighting would erupt at the British charged with their bayonet in hands. Parker’s cousin Jonas would be run through with a bayonet in front of his eyes. John Harrington, wounded, would drag himself home, only to die on the steps at his wife’s feet. As eight of Parker’s men lay dead, Colonel Smith had to realize the gravity of the situation. They had engaged in open hostilities with Colonists, now, regardless of who fired the first shots, they would ultimately need to justify that action to Gage upon their return. They needed to find the weapons stores. They would continue their march to Concord.
Perhaps, with what happened at Lexington, they felt that the Patriots had received word and pulled back, or that word of their march had not travelled that far west because it was quiet when they had arrived, almost sleepy when they arrived. It wouldn’t last.
Having pulled back to determine the next move Colonel James Barrett and his troops waited over the ridge as Smith and Pitcairn tore into the town. Under the tavern of Ephraim Jones they’d find three 24-pounder long guns. Having had word for some time of the plans of the British they had been buried there, but Loyalists in the town had tipped off the British as to their location, and now, at the edge of a bayonet, they forced Jones’ to reveal where on his premise they were placed. What they didn’t know was that as they searched the town fresh militiamen from Sudbury, Acton and other neighboring towns arrived to aid the small company of Patriots at Concord.
With orders not to fire unless fired upon the Militia began their advance on the North Bridge at just before noon. Suddenly the worst fears of General Gage were coming to fruition as the Patriots rose up and charged against the Regulars. The British had no choice but to retreat as the withdrawal turned into a chaotic panic as they fled back to Boston. The American’s would not relent, they would fire upon them, even taking out Pitcairn’s horse, as they engaged in a different sort of fighting than the British Regulars were familiar with, combining marksmanship with Native cover-and-concealment strategy and ambush tactics. The neat lines the British were used to forming were no match for it. Though Smith would try to drive them off, he would find they wouldn’t be moved, inflicting heavy casualties on the British forces as they continued to rain down hell on then. Even the relief that must have been felt as they began to hear the familiar drum beat of re-enforcements was short lived.
Worried he had sent too small of a force General Gage had dispatched Lieutenant General Hugh Percy and a thousand additional troops to the field a short time after Colonel Smith began his fateful advance. Now they were meeting as Smith was being chased from the field. Yet even the sight of fresh troops wouldn’t deter the Colonials as they pushed forward undaunted. Now under the command of Brigadier General William Heath they gave no relief as they pushed them back, refusing to give up even an inch of ground.
In the end the British army was forced back to Boston and the war was upon them as Massachussets reached out in the struggle for liberty to slap back the long arm of the most powerful Empire in the world.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Concord Hymn