On This Day…
…in 1775, the first shots were fired in the cause of American independence. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous poem, “the shot heard ’round the world” came from the musket of a Concord militiaman. In reality, the first blood was shed hours before the Redcoats reached the Old North Bridge. The confrontation on Lexington Common between 77 militiamen and nearly ten times that number of British Regulars ended with the death of eight Lexington men. The Redcoats moved on to Concord. When they got there, they found several thousand farmer-soldiers who had already heard of the bloodshed at Lexington. With their nerves steeled, the Americans drove the Redcoats back to Boston and placed the city under siege. The Revolution had begun.
Ralph Waldo Emerson immortalized the musket fire at the Old North Bridge in Concord as “the shot heard ’round the world,” the event that marked the beginning of the War for Independence. But the first shot on April 19, 1775, was not in fact fired in Concord but hours earlier on the Town Green at Lexington. The man who most likely triggered the fighting that day was not one of Emerson’s “embattled farmers” but an impetuous youth from Lexington.
Neither the captain of the Lexington militia nor the British commanding officer wanted bloodshed that morning. Not so the fiery patriot Sam Adams. Hearing gunfire, he was said to rejoice at the sound; he knew that the events unfolding on the town Common were almost certain to start the war he and other radical revolutionaries desperately wanted.
It was the presence of Adams and John Hancock in Lexington that first brought out the Lexington militia. Returning from a market trip to Boston on the evening of the 18th, Solomon Brown, the 18-year-old son of a prominent Lexington farmer, overtook a dozen men on horseback loitering along the main road. As he passed them, the wind blew their overcoats open; he saw that they were British officers and that they were armed. Solomon Brown knew that Adams and Hancock –already considered traitors by the British – were staying with Jonas Clarke, the Lexington minister, and he feared the Redcoats were on their way to seize the Patriot leaders.
Young Brown rode on to Lexington, passed his own house on the main road, and continued to the Munroe Tavern. Tavern keeper William Munroe was orderly sergeant in the militia; he immediately dispatched men to stand guard at the minister’s house. Several others, including young Solomon Brown, set out to trail the British officers as they passed through town.
Rumors quickly spread that something was afoot, and militiamen began to gather around the Common and at Buckman’s Tavern just off the Green. Militia units from towns all over Massachusetts had been preparing for the past eight months for a strike by British troops. On the night of April 18th, the people of Lexington believed the moment had arrived.
It was near midnight when Paul Revere galloped down the main road, through the village center, and up to the door of Reverend Jonas Clarke. As he loudly demanded to see Adams and Hancock, one of the guards stationed there hushed him, saying that the family had gone to bed and his noise would disturb them. “Noise?!” he is reported to have exclaimed. “You’ll have noise enough before long! The Regulars are coming out!” Hancock opened the front shutters and called down, “Come in, Revere, we are not afraid of you.”
While the men at the parsonage debated what to do, Revere left to alarm Concord. He would not make it. Shortly after he rode out of Lexington village, he fell into the hands of British sentries – the same guards who earlier captured Solomon Brown as he attempted to spy on them. Brown later testified that he was held until 2 a.m., searched, questioned, taunted by the soldiers, and then released. The young man and a companion headed across the open fields and made their way back to Lexington. But the excitement that night was far from over.
As soon as Revere arrived with news of the British approach, church bells began ringing, summoning militiamen from all corners of the town. The Lexington captain, John Parker, was a seasoned soldier and a man respected for his sound judgment. He decided that his men should conceal themselves, not confronting the Redcoats unless the soldiers threatened their homes or families. Then, since the night was cold and Parker’s lookouts had not returned with reports of advancing troops, the captain sent his men to find shelter in homes around the Common. Most went to Buckman’s Tavern. They were unaware that most of the lookouts had been captured and that British Regulars were advancing steadily towards Lexington.
Just before dawn, one of Parker’s lookouts raced up to the tavern, bringing news that a column of 700 British Redcoats was no more than half a mile from the center of town. Parker ordered his drummer to beat the call to arms. The British regiment was just passing Solomon Brown’s house when they heard the battle summons. The sound confirmed for them rumors they had heard on the march west from Boston that thousands of angry colonists were massing, readying to confront and slaughter them. Their commanding officer ordered the men to stop and load their muskets, then advance at double step. The soldiers complied, uncertain what they would meet as they rounded the bend to Lexington Common.
Only 77 of the 120 Lexington militiamen had time to arrive and form two meager lines before the Redcoats burst upon the scene. The two sides nervously — and briefly — faced each other, until British Major John Pitcairn ordered the Lexington men to drop their weapons and retreat. Captain Parker, seeing that his men were hopelessly outnumbered, ordered them to disband. But as they turned to disperse, a shot rang out. The normally disciplined Regulars ignored Major Pitcairn’s frantic demands to cease firing. As they retreated across the Common, eight Lexington men were killed and nine injured – many shot in the back.
No one knows for sure who fired the shot that incited the Redcoats. Solomon Brown later told a companion that he had stood outside Buckman’s Tavern, taken aim at an enemy officer, and fired. Later that day, he brought his friend to the spot where the officer had been standing. Two pools of blood lay on the ground.
The British soldiers gathered for a victory cheer, then continued on the road to Concord in search of munitions that had been stored there. But their actions on Lexington Common had already determined their fate. The rumors they had heard of thousands of colonists converging on Concord were true; the alarm had spread to towns across Massachusetts. Over 3,500 militiamen met the Redcoats at the Old North Bridge and inflicted heavy casualties before forcing them back to Boston. The next day, the city was under siege.
Legend has it that Sam Adams, hearing the musket fire on the Common as he and Hancock left Lexington for safer quarters, commented that it was a fine morning. An irritated Hancock responded that he did not find the weather at all to his liking. Adams replied, “It is a fine morning for America.” Both men undoubtedly knew that the shot fired that morning on Lexington Common had started a revolution.
The Battle of April 19, 1775, by Frank Warren Coburn (Lexington Historical Society, 1922).
Lexington and Concord: The Beginning of the War of the American Revolution, by Arthur B. Tourtellot (W.W. Norton & Co, 1959).
Paul Revere’s Ride, by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 1994).
The Day of Lexington and Concord: April 19th, 1775, by Allen French (Little Brown & Co. 1925).
Online at: http://www.massmoments.org/