Battle of Lexington and Concord: April 19, 1775

The American Revolutionary War began in April 1775. The Battle of Lexington and Concord was the first real engagement of the war. What happened, and what led up to the beginning of war? We explore that here today.

Prelude to War

The Battle of Lexington and Concord occurred on April 19, 1775. Of course, it did not happen in a vacuum. Decades of growing divisions between Britain and her North American colonies exploded into open warfare. We will explore here the events in the immediate run-up to the battle.

Seven Years War

The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a World War before we called them World Wars. The war between European powers was fought in Europe, North America, South America, and Africa. On one side was an alliance led by Great Britain and Prussia. Opposing them was an alliance led by France, which included Spain, Russia, and other powers. A general understanding of the conflicts in the Seven Years War could easily make up its own article, and we can’t delve into the background for this conflict here.

Rising tensions between Britain and France led to hostilities breaking out in North America in 1754. The conflict in North America pitted British colonists against the French colonists primarily along the Mississippi River and in modern-day Canada. The British and French had different Indian tribes as allies. Americans tend to see this conflict as its own event, known as the French and Indian War. Others tend to view the war in North America as a theater of the broader Seven Years War. We view it as part of the overall Seven Years War. Though conflict had been going on in North America since 1754, Britain declared war on France in 1756.

The war in North America largely ended in September 1760 with French capitulation. Sporadic conflict continued until the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which ended the Seven Years War. With the conclusion of the war, Britain’s government was near bankruptcy. The war doubled the debt of the British government. The British government immediately had to face pacifying former French colonists in Canada and establishing peace with Indian tribes who had been allied with the French.

Paying for the Seven Years War

Almost immediately after the peace treaty among the European powers, a group of Indian tribes near the Great Lakes launched Pontiac’s War against British rule. Hostilities ended in 1764, but this war demonstrated an ongoing security threat to British colonists. To meet the threat, the British government defined a boundary along the Appalachian Mountains between colonists and tribal territories. To insure the security of British colonists, the British had to commit significant resources to North American territories.

Given the dire financial condition of the British government, it seemed only reasonable to the British that the colonists should pay for their own security. In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, imposing a tax on a variety of legal documents. Though the public reason for the tax was to pay for defense of the North American colonists, Britain was also in the midst of a constitutional crisis, or at least a transformation. Likely more important than the revenue was Parliament establishing itself as the dominant institution in British government. It was also simply a power move to establish Parliamentary dominance over the North American colonies.

This was offensive to many North American colonists. This was the origin of the “No Taxation Without Representation” slogan. Protests from colonists, and even some British merchants who didn’t want the tax imposed on their trade with the colonies, led to the repeal of the Stamp Act.

Other taxes and regulations followed from Parliament, however. These were not any more popular with the colonists than the Stamp Act, but colonial protests did not have the success they did with the Stamp Act.

Rising Colonial Resistance

In June 1764, Massachusetts formed a Committee of Correspondence in response to the Sugar Act, imposing a tax on sugar. Committees of Correspondence would eventually appear throughout the colonies. The Committees spread information about British actions that were hostile to the colonists. They also helped to coordinate resistance to British actions. By the spring of 1772, revolutionaries had established committees of correspondence throughout the colonies.

In late 1768, British troops occupied Boston. Their mission was to enforce the Townshend Acts, which imposed taxes on a variety of products. They also were to gain control of radical revolutionaries in Massachusetts. A large proportion of the Boston population resented the British occupation of Boston. Street clashes between British troops and American colonists were not uncommon and foreshadowed the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

Boston Massacre

One such conflict occurred on March 5, 1770. The British knew this as the Incident on King Street. Colonists came to know it as the Boston Massacre. The conflict began when British Private White engaged a 13-year-old apprentice boy who called out to a British officer. The boy accused the officer of not paying his master for services rendered, poking the officer in his chest with his finger. Private White demanded that the boy show greater respect to British officers. The two exchanged more words, and Private White struck the boy in the head with the butt of his musket, leading the boy to scream out in pain.

The commotion led to a growing crowd in the street. Church bells rang out, a signal often used to indicate a fire. More and more people flowed into the street, until a crowd of at least 50 colonists, led by former slave Crispus Attucks, had Private White and the officer surrounded. The crowd closed in on the British soldiers. The soldiers sent runners for backup. A squad of British soldiers was sent to the scene. The British troops arrived and set up a defensive perimeter around Private White and loaded their muskets. British Captain Preston ordered the crowd, now of up to 400, to disperse.

The crowd did not disperse and instead taunted the British troops, daring them to fire into the crowd. Perhaps panicking, many of the British fired into the crowd. Captain Preston had not issued an order to do so. Crispus Attucks, rope maker Samuel Gray, and mariner James Caldwell were killed immediately. The crowd withdrew. Captain Preston called out most of his regiment to defend the state house. The crowd grew in nearby streets.

Boston Massacre Trial and Aftermath

The British moved quickly to investigate the incident. They arrested the soldiers involved, yet colonial anger was not dispelled. A war in the Boston media broke out between loyalists and patriots. The two sides had very different accounts of what had happened. A trial ensued, with John Adams (later, the second President of the United States) acting as defense counsel for the British soldiers. Ultimately, juries acquitted the soldiers of murder, but there were convictions for manslaughter.

The Boston Massacre shaped public opinion in Boston specifically – and Massachusetts more generally – against British troops. The event bolstered the growing revolutionary movement.

Boston Tea Party and the Intolerable Acts

In May 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act. This law effectively exempted the British East India Company from the tea taxes imposed by the Townshend Acts. This would help the company, which was in financial trouble, sell their tea in the colonies. The British also hoped this would lead colonists to buy British tea instead of smuggled Dutch tea. Colonial opposition to the law grew throughout the year, and on December 16, 1773, a group of colonists boarded tea ships in the Boston harbor and threw the tea overboard. The Boston Tea Party was the last straw for Parliament.

In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts (known as the Coercive Acts in Britain) specifically to punish Massachusetts. There were five acts in total.

  • The Boston Port Act closed the port at Boston until the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party were punished and the East India Company fully compensated for the tea dumped into the harbor.
  • The Massachusetts Government Act revoked Massachusetts’ charter, giving a royal governor, Parliament, and the King direct control of all government in Massachusetts and limiting the ability to hold town meetings.
  • The Administration of Justice Act allowed trials of royal officials to be moved out of the colonies at the discretion of the royal governor in the interest of a fair trial. Colonists objected that royal officers could receive a fair trial in the colonies as the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre had.
  • The Quartering Act allowed the royal governor to house troops in various colonial buildings, including private homes.
  • The Quebec Act, though separate from the four others, was considered by the colonists to be one of the Intolerable Acts. The act extended the borders of the former French colony of Quebec into the modern day American Midwest, angering colonists for alleging establishing Catholicism in Protestant areas and for being lenient on the former adversaries in the French and Indian War.

Constitutional Constraints on Similar Action by U. S. Government

It is worth noting that many of the offenses of the Intolerable Acts led to specific protections in the U. S. Constitution (mostly in the Bill of Rights) to prevent similar actions by a United States government.

  • The Massachusetts Government Act infringed the right to peaceably assemble, a right protected by the First Amendment.
  • The Massachusetts Government Act infringed the right of the colonial legislature to meet, yet the Constitution protects Congress from such infringement by the president.
  • The Administration of Justice Act allows for defendants to be tried away from where the crime was committed at the whim of the governor. The Sixth Amendment provides that defendants will be tried in the district where the crime was committed. This is primarily a response to a British practice of taking colonists to Britain or aboard British Navy ships for trial, but it does show the principle of trying accused criminals in proximity to where the alleged crime occurred.
  • The Quartering Act provided for quartering of troops in private homes. The Third Amendment prohibits quartering of troops in private homes in peacetime against the wishes of the owner. In wartime, the government may quarter troops in private homes only with the consent of the owner or as prescribed by law.

The Continental Congress

Britain hoped that the Intolerable Acts would force the Massachusetts radicals into submission. They had the opposite effect, however. The Intolerable Acts created sympathy for Massachusetts, increasing the formation of committees of correspondence. Through their efforts, the First Continental Congress met in September and October, 1774 in Philadelphia. Delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies attended. They sought to coordinate a colonial response to British actions, including an embargo on British goods and the raising of militias to defend the colonies. They prepared a petition to King George to address the colonial grievances about British actions. This petition failed to address colonial concerns.

Massachusetts in Rebellion

In October 1774, the royal governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, dissolved the colonial assembly under the terms of the Massachusetts Government Act. The members of the assembly refused to recognize the governor’s authority to dissolve the body. On October 7, 1774, they met and reorganized themselves as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. They claimed the legitimate authority to govern Massachusetts, including the power to raise and provision a militia.

Understandably, this was alarming to British officials. In Massachusetts, they faced not just some disorganized rabble, but a body claiming to act as the legitimate government of Massachusetts. This clearly threatened British rule in Massachusetts. In February 1775, Massachusetts was officially declared to be in a state of rebellion. How could the British have seen the situation any other way?

The Battle of Lexington and Concord

The British Mission at Concord

British intelligence learned that the Massachusetts militia had stockpiled weapons and ammunition in the city of Concord. On April 14, 1775, General Gage was ordered to disarm the rebels and arrest their leaders, particularly Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

On April 18, General Gage ordered Lt. Col. Francis Smith to seize the militia stockpile. Gage, exercising his own discretion, did not order the arrest of the militia leaders, fearing spreading sympathy for rebellion. The Battle of Lexington and Concord was about to begin.

Rebel intelligence revealed that the British planned to march on Concord. The rebels may have known of the orders to Gage before Gage did, from sources in London. Colonists had moved the stockpile of supplies from Concord to protect them from the anticipated British action. They also prepared a system to raise the militia and warn people between Boston and Concord when the British Army would come.

On the evening of April 18, word came to Paul Revere that British troops were about to depart Boston for Concord. Paul Revere began his famous “midnight ride” to alert the area militias of the impending British action.

The town of Lexington is on the route from Boston to Concord. Rebel leaders hastily met with the mustering militia in Lexington to brief them on the situation.

The Battle of Lexington and Concord

The Skirmish at Lexington

British forces entered Lexington at dawn on April 19. Up to 80 militia emerged from the Buckman Tavern and formed into ranks on the Lexington common. Up to 100 spectators watched from a road along the edge of the common. Militia commander John Parker knew that he was outmatched. Though his forces were visible, they were not obstructing the road to Concord.

A British company moved into position to protect the rest of their column from the assembled militiamen. A British officer ordered the militia to lay down their arms. Parker ordered his men to disperse and go home. Though Parker and the British commander both ordered their men to not fire. A shot, however, was fired. Testimony of leaders on both sides after the engagement claimed that the other side had fired first. Who really fired first is unknown. It is possible that the first shot came not from the British regulars or the colonial militiamen, but from a bystander in or near the tavern.

The colonial militia suffered eight killed and ten wounded. The others dispersed. The British regulars continued on to Concord. The Battle of Lexington and Concord ended its first phase and moved to Concord.

The Battle at Concord

At Concord, the Battle of Lexington and Concord transitioned from British victory to colonial success. The British forces entered Concord without opposition, though local militias were forming up in and near Concord. The British set about searching Concord for weapons. They found and destroyed three cannons and some gun carriages found in the town.

A superior colonial force marched against British troops holding the North Bridge in Concord. Commanders on both sides gave orders to not fire unless fired upon. A British soldier fired a shot, perhaps a warning or an effort to get the attention of other British soldiers. Two other shots followed, hitting the water under the bridge. British forces then formed up and fired on advancing militia forces, likely believing commanders had ordered to open fire. British gunfire killed two of the advancing militiamen, and militia commanders gave the open fire order. The British troops on the bridge broke ranks and fled. Victory at the bridge stunned the militia.

The Return to Boston

The final phase of the Battle of Lexington and Concord was the British return to their barracks in Boston. As the British sought to leave Concord, about 1,000 militia were now arrayed against them. As the British left Concord, they encountered militiamen holding the upper ground along the road out of Concord. Unlike previous engagements, militiamen held their ground. They pressed the tactical advantage of the higher ground to inflict significant casualties on the British.

Militiamen continued to flow into the area from other towns, allowing colonials to continually ambush the retreating British forces. This style of warfare undoubtedly frustrated the retreating British. The colonials were waging a war of ambushes, rather than following the European norms of lining up in ranks across a field and exchanging volleys of gunfire.

This style of harassment followed the British forces all the way back to Boston. Ambushes targeted British officers, inflicting heavy casualties among British leadership. Discipline in some British units broke down with exhausted soldiers committing atrocities against any colonials they encountered.

Colonial Victory and Commitment

When dawn broke on the morning of April 20, a militia army of 15,000 was surrounding Boston. The American Revolution was now underway. Surveying the battlefield the next day, John Adams reportedly said that the battle was the time “the Die was cast, the Rubicon crossed.” This was a reference to Julius Caesar taking his army across the Rubicon River to march upon Rome and seize power. Once he had done so, there was no turning back. He would either take power or be put to death for rebellion against Rome. Likewise, following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the American rebellion would either succeed or the leaders could expect to face execution for treason.