It was a war nobody wanted. Even rabblerousers like Sam Adams and John Hancock agreed that tangling with the mother country would probably to lead to grief. The preferred method was to pressure the crown into repealing the acts the colonists found so intolerable. The Intolerable Acts, as the colonists called them, had been imposed to punish them for throwing 92,000 pounds worth of tea into Boston Harbor. That was a lot of tea. And King George III wasn’t having it.
The colonists had been protesting a tax on tea, which the crown had kept in place after repealing a number of other taxes the colonies had objected to. It was a line in the sand. It was the crown’s way of declaring that it had the right to tax the colonies, even though the colonists had no representation in parliament. The colonists disagreed.
The Intolerable Acts
The Intolerable Acts were the British crown’s way of doubling down. If the colonists insisted on acting like unruly children, they would be punished. Among other things, the Intolerable Acts closed the Port of Boston, throwing thousands of people out of work and dealing a severe blow to the Massachusetts’ economy. It seemed almost designed to provoke unrest. If so, the crown was prepared to deal with it.
Another one of the Intolerable Acts permitted British magistrates and their proxies to use whatever means necessary to suppress riots and enforce revenue laws. Should the magistrates commit murder in the process they would be tried in Britain, among those who hired them, not in the colonies among those they policed. George Washington derisively called it “the murder act.”
If the unrest provoked by such provocations led to armed rebellion, the crown was prepared to deal with that as well. The Quartering Act allowed military authorities to house British soldiers in abandoned buildings, barns and other buildings in the prosecution of their duties. The language was loosely interpreted to mean the army could confiscate the homes of private citizens to use as barracks any time it wanted. The colonists were furious. But that wasn’t all. The crown intended to hem them in as well.
Wealth and Power
The American colonies were unique among the British colonies in 1775. They were well to do. The average standard of living in Massachusetts was higher than anywhere else in the world, and the source of all that wealth was land. Plenty of land. Free land, taken from the Indians.
At the time of the American Revolution most Americans were middle-class farmers living on land they owned. By comparison, the average British citizen in London lived in squalor. It stands to reason the crown would want to tax the Americans, and the Americans would probably have accepted those taxes grudgingly if they had been given a voice in parliament. But they were not. The reason why is the tainted core around which the crisis crystallized.
The crown was worried that America was growing too rich and powerful. Britain’s centuries old aristocracy felt threatened by that. They wanted the Americans kept in check. They would take their money, sure, but they would not give them a voice in parliament. That would be giving them too much.
At the same time, they recognized where all that wealth was coming from. The endless expanse of the American frontier was a piggy bank the colonists could raid anytime they wanted to. The Quebec Act was passed to change all that. It expanded Quebec’s southern border all the way to the Ohio River and its western border all the way to the Mississippi. The crown claimed the American frontier as its own, which meant the colonists could not expand westward without running into the mother country. It was intolerable, and the Americans were fed up. But a war with Great Britain? No one wanted that.
Among those who shrank from the idea of war was General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief of the British army in North America. Gage was a pragmatist. Having resided in North America for decades, he recognized something the political leadership in London didn’t. If it came down to a war between Britain and her American colonies, Britain would lose.
The Americans were not only well to do with plenty of resources, they outnumbered the British army in Boston, and they were well armed. Almost every American farmer owned a musket and knew how to use it. For Britain to impose its will militarily on the colonies would take an army several times the size of the one Gage had.
What’s more, a war with the colonies could drag on for years. The colonists had the advantage of knowing the terrain and could easily strike and recede. A war with America would almost certainly turn into a guerilla war, and the Americans would be fighting for their homes, while the British soldiers, illiterate, underpaid and largely recruited from the dregs of society, would be invaders with no personal stake in the fight. Gage abhorred the idea of a war with the colonies and tried to talk the king and parliament out of pushing the colonies too far. They ignored him.
The Powder Alarm
Under the Intolerable Acts, the citizens of Massachusetts could no longer gather to govern their own communities. Town meetings were prohibited. Henceforth, the colonists would be ruled from above. But the act was easily circumvented, and almost at once the colonists began to flout it. Gage tried to crack down, but he lacked the manpower to enforce it. When the king got word of the colonists’ obstinacy, he demanded Gage get tough. When the colonists learned of the king’s attitude toward them, they worried the army might try to seize their arms.
In the town of Medford, just outside of Boston, the town’s selectmen decided to secure the gunpowder stored in a nearby powder house to keep the British from confiscating it. General Gage learned of their intentions and got there first. British troops carried away the gunpowder.
Unfortunately, this act sparked wild rumors that the army was preparing to seize ammunition throughout the colonies. In response thousands of armed colonists marched on Boston, brandishing guns and demanding the return of the gunpowder. Patriot leaders scurried to defuse the situation. In the end, bloodshed was averted, but just barely. The experience shook Gage. What’s more, it told him something about his American adversaries. They would rise up against any attempt to seize their arms. Eight months later the king would demand he do just that.
The Battle Road
Minuteman National Historical Park is unusual among American national parks in that it is entirely confined within a densely populated metropolitan area. The towns of Lexington and Concord are wealthy suburbs of Boston with a combined population of more than 50,000. The median annual income is around $120,000. This has always been a prosperous place.
Laid out across 967 acres, the park stretches from Fiske Hill in the east to Meriam’s Corner in the west with separate reserves at Concord’s North Bridge and Colonel Barret’s farm beyond. For most of its length the park straddles Highway 2A, “The Battle Road”, so called because it was along this road that American patriots and British redcoats fought a running battle on April 19th, 1775. Today, Boston commuters stuck in traffic on Highway 2 use it as a cut-off to reach Interstate 95. It’s frequently backed up with cars.
For all that, Minuteman National Park has done a nice job of retaining some of the key features of the landscape the patriots witnessed some 250 years ago. Restored homes and taverns along the route give a sense of the high standard of living the patriots enjoyed in 1775. Colonel Barrett’s farm, the newest addition to the park, was built in 1705 and restored in the 2000’s. By 18th century standards it was posh, and the story of the Battle Road begins there.
Two if by Sea
After the Powder Alarm the patriots redoubled their efforts to secure and conceal their arms. The town of Concord had one of the largest arm caches in Massachusetts. Patriot leaders felt it was vulnerable to British seizure, so Paul Revere rode to Concord and alerted the town to the possibility of a surprise raid. In response, the townspeople moved the bulk of the armaments to the farm of their political leader, James Barrett.
On the evening of April 18th, 1775, at the king’s urging, General Thomas Gage gave the orders to mount a secret raid on Concord and seize the arms. But no secret was safe in Boston where patriots and loyalists mingled. In no time at all the patriots were alerted. The only question then was by which direction the British would come.
In 1775 Boston was practically an island, surrounded by water and connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land. To cross the bay, the British could either row across to Charlestown in boats or march down Boston Neck to Roxbury. To mount an effective resistance, the patriots needed to know which way they were coming. Paul Revere devised a system for signaling the patriots across the bay by hanging lanterns in the belfry of the Old North Church, the highest point in Boston, one if by land, two if by sea. It worked. The British crossed by boat, and the patriots were ready for them.
The First Mistake
It was a war nobody wanted. The British column marched west with patriot eyes following them the whole way, but nobody fired a shot. To retain any credibility in the eyes of their loyalist neighbors and the British people as a whole, the colonists could not be seen to be the aggressors. In addition, they were outnumbered — at least initially. With Paul Revere riding hard to rouse the countryside, the minutemen, so called because they were prepared to respond in a minute’s time, were just rolling out of bed. It was two o’clock in the morning.
At Buckman’s Tavern just off Lexington Green the few patriots who had gotten the word gathered before dawn and waited under the command of their militia leader Captain John Parker. Around 5:00 a.m. the British column reached Lexington. The Lexington militia poured out of Buckman’s Tavern and assembled on the green. They were seventy-seven in number.
In retrospect it was a mistake for Captain Parker to assemble his militia on the green to oppose a much larger force when he had no intention of initiating a conflict. In fact, the British column could have thumbed their noses at the patriots and kept right on marching, but the militia’s appearance was a provocation, and the redcoats were fed up with being harassed by the colonists.
British redcoats who were stationed in America had not had an easy time of it in recent months. Since the imposition of the Intolerable Acts, they had been glared at, ridiculed and spat on. General Gage had held them in check, forbidding any retaliation that might lead to escalation. As a result their frustrations mounted. They had come to loathe the colonists. For some the confrontation on Lexington Green was the last straw.
Somebody fired a shot, the militiamen turned and ran, and then the whole column of redcoats started shooting, cutting down patriots as they fled. A wild melee ensued as the redcoats chased down Parker’s men, killing and wounding with abandon. By the time it was over eight militiamen were dead and nine wounded, which may not seem like a lot until you consider it was a 22% casualty rate.
News of it was enough to shift the perspective of the patriots rushing to the scene. The British had spilled first blood. The time for restraint had come to an end. The war that nobody wanted was about to begin.
The British were so contemptuous of the colonists, and so certain they were too cowardly to use the guns they were so fond of brandishing about that they continued on to Concord without arresting Parker’s men, nor even disarming them.
Patriot messengers raced ahead to alert the countryside. One of them arrived at Hartwell Tavern, but the proprietor, Samuel Hartwell, was out, so the messenger informed his wife, Mary Hartwell, who helped spread the word, going from door to door. By the time the redcoats arrived at Concord, patriot militiamen were gathering on Punkatasset Hill overlooking the Concord River and the North Bridge. They were guarding the road to Colonel Barrett’s farm. As the morning wore on, their numbers swelled.
Meanwhile, the British were ransacking Concord, looking for weapons. They didn’t find much. In due time, spies informed them that the bulk of the weapons had been moved to Colonel Barrett’s farm. Seven regiments were dispatched to seize them. It would be necessary to cross North Bridge to do so. They were 120 in number. 400 patriots awaited them.
The Second Mistake
When the patriots on Punkatasset Hill saw that the odds were in their favor, they moved closer, taking up positions at Buttrick’s farm, which was situated on short rise across a four-acre meadow from the North Bridge. Their movement spooked the twenty or so redcoats who had already crossed the bridge, causing them to scamper back over to the other side where they gathered with the others. After a moment of confusion, they formed up and began crossing the bridge again. That’s when the militiamen at Buttrick’s farm saw smoke rising in the distance. “They’re burning the town!”
It wasn’t true. British grenadiers were setting fire to some wood cannon mounts they had seized, but the patriots didn’t know that. From their perspective, they couldn’t stand idly by and let the redcoats burn down their town. A number of them advanced toward the bridge, intending to push the enemy back. The sight of their approach caused the redcoats to stop and fire a few warning shots. The militiamen kept coming. Then came the fateful decision. The redcoats formed up and fired a volley. It was a mistake.
The patriots retaliated. “Fire!” shouted the patriot leaders. The militiamen hesitated. They had been drilled so long in not to fire the first shot that they sought confirmation. “Fire! Fire!” cried the patriot leaders. They did so, and the American Revolution was on.
Hungry for Revenge
What unfolded over the rest of the day was exactly what General Gage had feared. The British were outnumbered, the patriots had access to arms and ammunition, they were expert in the use of their weapons, and they were prepared to use guerilla tactics. With three dead and four wounded at the North Bridge, the British pulled back to Concord to wait for reinforcements. The reinforcements never arrived. Three hours later, demoralized, they began the long march back to Boston. But the patriots weren’t done with them yet.
At Meriam’s Corner near the home of patriot Nathan Meriam and his family, the redcoats crowded together as they queued up to pass over a small bridge. Earlier that day they had barged into Nathan Meriam’s house and helped themselves to breakfast, infuriating Meriam’s sons who had rushed off to Concord to confront them. Now they were back, and Meriam’s sons were waiting for them, along with hundreds other patriots, hungry for revenge.
Outmanned and Outgunned
Just over the bridge, hidden behind fences, bushes and trees the militiamen waited. As the redcoats crossed the bridge and formed up, the patriots fired, killing two. Recognizing they were outgunned, the British marched on, quickening their pace.
A mile further down the road they came under fire at Hardy’s Hill in the town of Lincoln. Ducking and running, they crossed Tanner’s Brook and climbed a short rise to where the road took a sharp turn. Here the patriots cut them to pieces. The place became known as the “Bloody Angle”. The British lost thirty killed or wounded in the fight.
It was two-o’clock in the afternoon by then. The patriot’s ranks had swelled to 2,000. The British were in serious trouble. They ran the four miles back to Lexington at a trot, harried by patriot gunfire. Some British soldiers panicked and ran. Their commanders frantically shouted orders. They were in real danger of losing control. Worse yet, they were running out of ammunition.
As they staggered onto Lexington Green, they were a different army than the one that had marched off hours earlier full of bluff and bluster. Now they were badly beaten and surrounded by angry patriots who wanted to kill them, including the militiamen they hadn’t bothered to disarm after murdering their compatriots on Lexington Green that morning.
It was a pivotal moment for the British. They were seriously considering surrendering when their reinforcements finally arrived. Yet even then there was no question of engaging the patriot militiamen; their numbers were simply too large, and more were arriving every minute, so the British beat a hasty retreat back to Boston, the patriots shooting at them the whole way.
The Battles of Lexington and Concord
By the time they got back to Boston after 7:00pm that night the world had changed. Suddenly the British crown was no longer the dominant force in Massachusetts. The patriots they had looked down on with such contempt were now a formidable enemy, and the British army in Boston was under siege.
The British had lost 73 killed, 174 wounded and 26 missing in the day’s fighting. The patriots, by comparison, had lost 49 killed, 41 wounded and 5 missing. By modern standards the numbers were miniscule, but what had been set in motion that day would claim the lives of millions in the centuries ahead.
The Shot Heard Round the World
The first shot fired in anger by a patriot militiaman that day became hailed as “the shot heard round the world”. It ushered in the Age of Revolution in which the oppressed people of country after country rose up against their overlords and overthrew their governments. Some ended up in bloody mayhem. Others ended up establishing governments more ruthless and oppressive than the one that had been ousted. Only the American Revolution stands out as an unqualified success.
But the American Revolution was different. It was not the uprising of a downtrodden and illiterate underclass wallowing in poverty. Instead, it was the righteous backlash of a well to do, middle-class community against a British ruling class that refused to recognize their legitimacy. When it was over, the colonists knew exactly what they wanted and had the means to make it a reality.
After six years of fighting, the British surrendered at Yorktown, and the nightmare the British aristocracy most feared came to pass, American wealth was taken from their hands. The Americans were independent. What’s more, the newly formed nation had the riches of a continent before them on which to build a bright future. Britain, on the other hand, had reached the apex of her global influence and would be on a downward trajectory for the next two centuries.
It seems so simple in retrospect. All they had to do was grant the colonies representation in parliament and the crisis would have been averted. But with power comes arrogance, and with arrogance comes recklessness, setting in motion events with the potential to reshape history. In the case of April 19th, 1775 it sparked a war that nobody wanted and set America on a path to independence.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Plymouth, MA
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Rome, ME
My American Odyssey Route Map
Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World. W.W. Norton, 2018. website
Minuteman statue, Malcolm Logan
The Boston Tea Party, lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, Public domain
Redcoats demanding to enter a private home, NPS.org
King George III, a painting by Johan Zoffany, Public domain
Map showing the extent of Quebec under the Quebec Act of 1774, Engraved and published by William Fadden in 1777
General Thomas Gage, a painting by John Singleton Copley, Public domain
The Old Powderhouse, Erik Edson
Map of Minuteman National Park, Minuteman National Historical Park
Colonel James Barrett house, Historical perspective
Paul Revere, a painting by John Singleton Copley
Sketch of the Old North Church in Boston, Public domain
Buckman’s Tavern, Malcolm Logan
The Battle of Lexington, a painting by William Barnes Wollen, Public domain
The patriots fleeing under British fire, a painting by Howard Pyle, Public domain
Hartwell Tavern, Malcolm Logan
View across the North Bridge, Malcolm Logan
The Battle at North Bridge, painting by Don Troiani
Nathan Meriam house, Malcolm Logan
Redcoats on the Battle Road, The History List
Lexington Green today, Malcolm Logan
Map of Boston in 1775, Public domain
Paddleboarder on the Concord River, Malcolm Logan