A Great Noise

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 04-19-2020

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 issue was not simply taxation, but the loss of local authority; about governments that rule only through the consent of the governed. And it all came to a head 245 years ago today.

It began 155 years earlier; in one of the most bizarre and enlightened moments in history the Pilgrims, in drafting the Mayflower Compact, had inserted this - for the time - outrageous sentence: Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. 

Stated otherwise, they were, despite having earlier in the document pledged loyalty to King James, setting themselves up for self rule. They would set their own laws, and no one else.

But what followed, over the next 155 years, were a series of ever tighter set of rules, formulated by Parliament, that took power from the colonists and transferred it to the governors appointed by the Crown. Taxation and limits on trade were the visible and immediate facts of that transfer - seizure - of power, but the root question was power. And two men who knew that as well as anyone in the Colonies were John Hancock and Sam Adams.

In May 1774 Parliament passed the Massachusetts Government Act, which effectively negated the Massachusetts Charter (1691) and transferred all real power into the hands of the Royal Governor. The Committee of Correspondence - a sort of “shadow government” that had become ever more vocal over the preceding few years - of the various counties met and argued for each county to close their courts and basically shut down in protest. In August the Suffolk Committee met and began to draft what would become known as the Suffolk Resolves. Published in September, the Suffolk Resolves called for a boycott of British imports, a halt to paying certain fees and all taxes, and called for the raising of a militia - a militia separate and apart from those that the Royal Governor could raise.

On August 31st, General Gage had ordered his army to seize a large cache of gun powder in Somerville. On September 1st his army did just that. The unintended consequence of this action was to make the Colonists both more diligent in organizing their own militias and more careful with their stockpiles of weapons and powder. And more leery of the British. Why were they disarming the Colonists if not to oppress them?  

The issuing of pamphlets, secret meetings, and a general recalcitrance by the colonists to all things Royal grew over the following 6 months. By the following spring the colony of Massachusetts was seething. And the British had reinforced the garrison in Boston; it now held more than 3,000 trained soldiers.

Eventually, the Crown had had enough. On April 14th General Gage - Military Governor - received orders to arrest the rebel leaders. Hancock and Adams - the two chief rabble rousers - were to be arrested, more stockpiles of ammunition and weapons were to be seized, and the colonists were to be brought to heel. Troops would be sent out to round up these two men, seize the stockpiles, and if anyone got in the way, well, there would be enough firepower to deal with them. A few days later Gage sent out a mounted patrol - approximately 20 men - to find Adams and Hancock, but this, in effect, provided the colonists some definitive warning that action was imminent.

In addition, the Colonists had inside information - it is suspected that one source was Gage’s wife, who was from New Jersey and had Colonial leanings. In any case, it was known that Gage wanted to act on the 19th. Paul Revere and William Dawes learned of the specifics - how many and how they would move from Boston to, it was supposed, Concord, where the Provincial Congress was meeting, and hence was where they might find Hancock and Adams. Revere and Dawes, after passing the alert, met with Hancock and Adams and discussed what was happening, that some 700 regulars, under LtCol Francis Smith, were leaving Boston. Their general assessment was that a force that large was going to do more than arrest Hancock and Adams and a general alarm was passed; the militia began to assemble.

Interestingly enough, Gen. Gage’s force was a volunteer force with soldiers drawn from 11 different regiments, to include a number of Royal Marines, and formed into 10 light infantry companies and 11 Grenadier companies. And all were commanded by volunteers as well. In short, everything was provisional. 

After 9 on the night of the 18th the 700 Redcoats rowed across the harbor and, once back on land, set off for Lexington and Concord. The advance element, under Maj. John Pitcairn, arrived at Lexington just as the sun rose, and ran into Captain John Parker and 70 to 80 militia. Parker’s scouts had told him of their approach at 4:15   

Parker told his men: "Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” And they waited.

Pitcairn and the British arrived shortly before 5 AM with some 300 to 400 men, and drew up on Lexington Green, with the Royal Marine, LT Adair, swinging his company to his right (to the north as they were approaching from the east) and onto the Green itself in an effort to protect the larger force’s right flank. Pitcairn drew his forces up to the left and halted, then rode out in front of the force, waved his sword and yelled: 

“Lay down your arms, you damned rebels."

Parker, seeing the obvious disparity in size of the forces, ordered his men to disperse, to make less obvious targets, but his order wasn’t heard and firing began. Despite Emerson’s eloquence, no one actually knows who fired the first shot, “the shot heard ‘round the world” - whether British or Colonist - but in the brief skirmishing that followed Jonas Parker, Captain Parker’s cousin, was killed, as well as Ensign Robert Munroe, third in command. 

In all, 8 militiamen were killed and 10 wounded; one British regular was wounded. The militia then scattered, and Pitcairn led his men further west, to Concord.

By the time the British column reached Concord they were at full strength - roughly 700 men, while the Militia numbered perhaps 250. The militia had moved down the road to challenge them but when they saw the size of the force they withdrew to the west, keeping perhaps a quarter mile ahead of the advancing British. Colonel James Barrett - in command of the militia - and whose farm was one of the storage sites for weapons and gunpowder - led the troops back through town, northerly across North bridge and up onto Punkatasset Hill where they could observe the British.

At Concord Pitcairn found most of the supplies already removed, and as the countryside was already well alerted, there was no chance to arrest any of the sought-after leaders of the rebellion. He ordered a search, and his men did so, and found some weapons, to include 3 cannons, and supplies and burned it. Seeing the smoke from the fire, Col. Barrett consulted with the officers and men - by this point numbering nearly 500 men - and they decided to attack. In mid morning Barrett led them down the hill and towards the Bridge. 

Capt. Walter Laurie, 43rd Regiment of Foot, in command of the British company north of the bridge, saw the larger force approaching and led his men back across the bridge and took up a defensive position. But with little experience in command - and a provisional company - Laurie issued irregular orders and the firing that followed was equally irregular. LT Sutherland, his subordinate, recognized the error in the orders and tried to correct it, but only 4 men in the company knew him and no one followed this new order. Meanwhile, the Colonial militia drew up at less than 50 yards range on the other side of the bridge and began to return fire.

The British were seriously outgunned and their position - in the open just beyond the bridge - was untenable. They broke contact and hastily backed out.

The Militia was stunned and it took several minutes to realize that they had come out with the better portion. At this point LtCol Smith came up with the rest of the British force; he conducted his own quick reconnaissance of the situation and decided not to try to force the bridge. The British regulars continued their search in the town south of the bridge, the Militia remained north of the bridge, and the British troops had a quick lunch. By noon it was time to go.

By this point there were more than 1,000 militia in the general area of Concord and many  more along the route back to Boston. All told, nearly 4,000 militia showed up, conducting  a  series of hit-and-run attacks on the Regulars as they headed back to Boston, and setting up a series of serious ambushes. The British fought their way through at least 8 separate engagements - these were good soldiers with a good deal of experience in broken field fighting - but they were now out-numbered and in the horrible position of trying to fight their way back to their own lines through miles of de facto enemy territory.

The original force nearly ran out of ammunition and only made it back to Boston when Lord Percy showed up with a full regiment of 1,000 men.

All in all, it was a bloody affair, with 49 killed and 39 wounded Colonists, and 73 killed and 174 wounded British Regulars. In a statement that might be seen as prescient, Lord Percy wrote later that day:

During the whole affair the Rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance & resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed, they knew too well what was proper, to do so. Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers against the Indians & Canadians, & this country being much covered with wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting.

Later, John Adams road out to Lexington and Concord and noted that: 

“The Die was cast, the Rubicon crossed.”

It would be another 14 months before we declared Independence, and almost 8 years before the war was won, but the fight had begun.