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Chapter 37

INFATUATION IN BRITISH COUNCILS--COLONEL GRANT, THE BRAGGART--COERCIVE MEASURES--EXPEDITION AGAINST THE MILITARY MAGAZINE AT CONCORD--BATTLE OF LEXINGTON--THE CRY OF BLOOD THROUGH THE LAND--OLD SOLDIERS OF THE FRENCH WAR--JOHN STARK--ISRAEL PUTNAM--RISING OF THE YEOMANRY--MEASURES OF LORD DUNMORE IN VIRGINIA--INDIGNATION OF THE VIRGINIANS--HUGH MERCER AND THE FRIENDS OF LIBERTY--ARRIVAL OF THE NEWS OF LEXINGTON AT MOUNT VERNON-- EFFECT ON BRYAN FAIRFAX, GATES, AND WASHINGTON.


While the spirit of revolt was daily gaining strength and determination in America, a strange infatuation reigned in the British councils. While the wisdom and eloquence of Chatham were exerted in vain in behalf of American rights, an empty braggadocio, elevated to a seat in Parliament, was able to captivate the attention of the members, and influence their votes by gross misrepresentations of the Americans and their cause. This was no other than Colonel Grant, the same shallow soldier who, exceeding his instructions, had been guilty of a foolhardy bravado before the walls of Fort Duquesne, which brought slaughter and defeat upon his troops. From misleading the army, he was now promoted to a station where he might mislead the councils of his country. We are told that he entertained Parliament, especially the ministerial side of the House, with ludicrous stories of the cowardice of Americans. He had served with them, he said, and knew them well, and would venture to say they would never dare to face an English army; that they were destitute of every requisite to make good soldiers, and that a very slight force would be sufficient for their complete reduction. With five regiments, he could march through all America!

How often has England been misled to her cost by such slanderous misrepresentations of the American character! Grant talked of having served with the Americans; had he already forgotten that in the field of Braddock's defeat, when the British regulars fled, it was alone the desperate stand of a handful of Virginians, which covered their disgraceful flight, and saved them from being overtaken and massacred by the savages?

This taunting and braggart speech of Grant was made in the face of the conciliatory bill of the venerable Chatham, devised with a view to redress the wrongs of America. The councils of the arrogant and scornful prevailed; and instead of the proposed bill, further measures of a stringent nature were adopted, coercive of some of the middle and southern colonies, but ruinous to the trade and fisheries of New England.

At length the bolt, so long suspended, fell! The troops at Boston had been augmented to about four thousand men. Goaded on by the instigations of the tories, and alarmed by the energetic measures of the whigs, General Gage now resolved to deal the latter a crippling blow. This was to surprise and destroy their magazine of military stores at Concord, about twenty miles from Boston. It was to be effected on the night of the 18th of April, by a force detached for the purpose.

Preparations were made with great secrecy. Boats for the transportation of the troops were launched, and moored under the sterns of the men-of-war. Grenadiers and light infantry were relieved from duty, and held in readiness. On the 18th, officers were stationed on the roads leading from Boston, to prevent any intelligence of the expedition getting into the country. At night orders were issued by General Gage that no person should leave the town. About ten o'clock, from eight to nine hundred men, grenadiers, light infantry, and marines, commanded by Lieutenant-colonel Smith, embarked in the boats at the foot of Boston Common, and crossed to Lechmere Point, in Cambridge, whence they were to march silently, and without beat of drum, to the place of destination.

The measures of General Gage had not been shrouded in all the secrecy he imagined. Mystery often defeats itself by the suspicions it awakens. Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the committee of safety, had observed the preparatory disposition of the boats and troops, and surmised some sinister intention. He sent notice of these movements to John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both members of the provincial Congress, but at that time privately sojourning with a friend at Lexington. A design on the magazine at Concord was suspected, and the committee of safety ordered that the cannon collected there should be secreted, and part of the stores removed.

On the night of the 18th, Dr. Warren sent off two messengers by different routes to give the alarm that the king's troops were actually sallying forth. The messengers got out of Boston just before the order of General Gage went into effect, to prevent any one from leaving the town. About the same time a lantern was hung out of an upper window of the north church, in the direction of Charlestown. This was a preconcerted signal to the patriots of that place, who instantly despatched swift messengers to rouse the country.

In the mean time, Colonel Smith set out on his nocturnal march from Lechmere Point by an unfrequented path across marshes, where at times the troops had to wade through water. He had proceeded but a few miles when alarm guns, booming through the night air, and the clang of village bells, showed that the news of his approach was travelling before him, and the people were rising. He now sent back to General Gage for a reinforcement, while Major Pitcairne was detached with six companies to press forward, and secure the bridges at Concord.

Pitcairn advanced rapidly, capturing every one that he met, or overtook. Within a mile and half of Lexington, however, a horseman was too quick on the spur for him, and galloping to the village, gave the alarm that the redcoats were coming. Drums were beaten; guns fired. By the time that Pitcairn entered the village, about seventy or eighty of the yeomanry, in military array, were mustered on the green near the church. It was a part of the "constitutional army," pledged to resist by force any open hostility of British troops. Besides these, there were a number of lookers on, armed and unarmed.

The sound of drum, and the array of men in arms, indicated a hostile determination. Pitcairn halted his men within a short distance of the church, and ordered them to prime and load. They then advanced at double quick time. The major, riding forward, waved his sword, and ordered the rebels, as he termed them, to disperse. Other of the officers echoed his words as they advanced: "Disperse, ye villains! Lay down your arms, ye rebels, and disperse!" The orders were disregarded. A scene of confusion ensued, with firing on both sides; which party commenced it, has been a matter of dispute. Pitcairn always maintained that, finding the militia would not disperse, he turned to order his men to draw out, and surround them, when he saw a flash in the pan from the gun of a countryman posted behind a wall, and almost instantly the report of two or three muskets. These he supposed to be from the Americans, as his horse was wounded, as was also a soldier close by him. His troops rushed on, and a promiscuous fire took place, though, as he declared, he made repeated signals with his sword for his men to forbear.

The firing of the Americans was irregular, and without much effect; that of the British was more fatal. Eight of the patriots were killed, and ten wounded, and the whole put to flight. The victors formed on the common, fired a volley, and gave three cheers for one of the most inglorious and disastrous triumphs ever achieved by British arms.

Colonel Smith soon arrived with the residue of the detachment, and they all marched on towards Concord, about six miles distant.

The alarm had reached that place in the dead hour of the preceding night. The church bell roused the inhabitants. They gathered together in anxious consultation. The militia and minute men seized their arms, and repaired to the parade ground, near the church. Here they were subsequently joined by armed yeomanry from Lincoln, and elsewhere. Exertions were now made to remove and conceal the military stores. A scout, who had been sent out for intelligence, brought word that the British had fired upon the people at Lexington, and were advancing upon Concord. There was great excitement and indignation. Part of the militia marched down the Lexington road to meet them, but returned, reporting their force to be three times that of the Americans. The whole of the militia now retired to an eminence about a mile from the centre of the town, and formed themselves into two battalions.

About seven o'clock, the British came in sight, advancing with quick step, their arms glittering in the morning sun. They entered in two divisions by different roads. Concord is traversed by a river of the same name, having two bridges, the north and the south. The grenadiers and light infantry took post in the centre of the town, while strong parties of light troops were detached to secure the bridges, and destroy the military stores. Two hours were expended in the work of destruction without much success, so much of the stores having been removed, or concealed. During all this time the yeomanry from the neighboring towns were hurrying in with such weapons as were at hand, and joining the militia on the height, until the little cloud of war gathering there numbered about four hundred and fifty.

About ten o'clock, a body of three hundred undertook to dislodge the British from the north bridge. As they approached, the latter fired upon them, killing two, and wounding a third. The patriots returned the fire with spirit and effect. The British retreated to the main body, the Americans pursuing them across the bridge.

By this time all the military stores which could be found had been destroyed; Colonel Smith, therefore, made preparations for a retreat. The scattered troops were collected, the dead were buried, and conveyances procured for the wounded. About noon he commenced his retrograde march for Boston. It was high time. His troops were jaded by the night march, and the morning's toils and skirmishings.

The country was thoroughly alarmed. The yeomanry were hurrying from every quarter to the scene of action. As the British began their retreat, the Americans began the work of sore and galling retaliation. Along the open road, the former were harassed incessantly by rustic marksmen, who took deliberate aim from behind trees, or over stone fences. Where the road passed through woods, the British found themselves between two fires, dealt by unseen foes, the minute men having posted themselves on each side among the bushes. It was in vain they threw out flankers, and endeavored to dislodge their assailants; each pause gave time for other pursuers to come within reach, and open attacks from different quarters. For several miles they urged their way along woody defiles, or roads skirted with fences and stone walls, the retreat growing more and more disastrous; some were shot down, some gave out through mere exhaustion; the rest hurried on, without stopping to aid the fatigued, or wounded. Before reaching Lexington, Colonel Smith received a severe wound in the leg, and the situation of the retreating troops was becoming extremely critical, when, about two o'clock, they were met by Lord Percy, with a brigade of one thousand men, and two field-pieces. His lordship had been detached from Boston about nine o'clock by General Gage, in compliance with Colonel Smith's urgent call for a reinforcement, and had marched gaily through Roxbury to the tune of "Yankee Doodle," in derision of the "rebels." He now found the latter a more formidable foe than he had anticipated. Opening his brigade to the right and left, he received the retreating troops into a hollow square; where, fainting and exhausted, they threw themselves on the ground to rest. His lordship showed no disposition to advance upon their assailants, but contented himself with keeping them at bay with his field-pieces, which opened a vigorous fire from an eminence.

Hitherto the Provincials, being hasty levies, without a leader, had acted from individual impulse, without much concert; but now General Heath was upon the ground. He was one of those authorized to take command when the minute men should be called out. That class of combatants promptly obeyed his orders, and he was efficacious in rallying them, and bringing them into military order, when checked and scattered by the fire of the field-pieces.

Dr. Warren, also, arrived on horseback, having spurred from Boston on receiving news of the skirmishing. In the subsequent part of the day, he was one of the most active and efficient men in the field. His presence, like that of General Heath, regulated the infuriated ardor of the militia, and brought it into system.

Lord Percy, having allowed the troops a short interval for repose and refreshment, continued the retreat toward Boston. As soon as he got under march, the galling assault by the pursuing yeomanry was recommenced in flank and rear. The British soldiery, irritated in turn, acted as if in an enemy's country. Houses and shops were burnt down in Lexington; private dwellings along the road were plundered, and their inhabitants maltreated. In one instance, an unoffending invalid was wantonly slain in his own house. All this increased the exasperation of the yeomanry. There was occasional sharp skirmishing, with bloodshed on both sides, but in general a dogged pursuit, where the retreating troops were galled at every step. Their march became more and more impeded by the number of their wounded. Lord Percy narrowly escaped death from a musket-ball, which struck off a button of his waistcoat. One of his officers remained behind wounded in West Cambridge. His ammunition was failing as he approached Charlestown. The provincials pressed upon him in rear, others were advancing from Roxbury, Dorchester, and Milton; Colonel Pickering, with the Essex militia, seven hundred strong, was at hand; there was danger of being intercepted in the retreat to Charlestown. The field-pieces were again brought into play, to check the ardor of the pursuit; but they were no longer objects of terror. The sharpest firing of the provincials was near Prospect Hill, as the harassed enemy hurried along the Charlestown road, eager to reach the Neck, and get under cover of their ships. The pursuit terminated a little after sunset, at Charlestown Common, where General Heath brought the minute men to a halt. Within half an hour more, a powerful body of men, from Marblehead and Salem, came up to join in the chase. "If the retreat," writes Washington, "had not been as precipitate as it was,--and God knows it could not well have been more so,--the ministerial troops must have surrendered, or been totally cut off."

The distant firing from the mainland had reached the British at Boston. The troops which, in the morning, had marched through Roxbury, to the tune of Yankee Doodle, might have been seen at sunset, hounded along the old Cambridge road to Charlestown Neck, by mere armed yeomanry. Gage was astounded at the catastrophe. It was but a short time previous that one of his officers, in writing to friends in England, scoffed at the idea of the Americans taking up arms. "Whenever it comes to blows," said he, "he that can run the fastest, will think himself well off, believe me. Any two regiments here ought to be decimated, if they did not beat in the field the whole force of the Massachusetts province." How frequently, throughout this Revolution, had the English to pay the penalty of thus undervaluing the spirit they were provoking!

In this memorable affair, the British loss was seventy-three killed, one hundred and seventy-four wounded, and twenty-six missing. Among the slain were eighteen officers. The loss of the Americans was forty-nine killed, thirty-nine wounded, and five missing. This was the first blood shed in the revolutionary struggle; a mere drop in amount, but a deluge in its effects,--rending the colonies for ever from the mother country.

The cry of blood from the field of Lexington, went through the land. None felt the appeal more than the old soldiers of the French war. It roused John Stark, of New Hampshire--a trapper and hunter in his youth, a veteran in Indian warfare, a campaigner under Abercrombie and Amherst, now the military oracle of a rustic neighborhood. Within ten minutes after receiving the alarm, he was spurring towards the sea-coast, and on the way stirring up the volunteers of the Massachusetts borders, to assemble forthwith at Bedford, in the vicinity of Boston.

Equally alert was his old comrade in frontier exploits, Colonel Israel Putnam. A man on horseback, with a drum, passed through his neighborhood in Connecticut, proclaiming British violence at Lexington. Putnam was in the field ploughing, assisted by his son. In an instant the team was unyoked; the plough left in the furrow; the lad sent home to give word of his father's departure; and Putnam, on horseback, in his working garb, urging with all speed to the camp. Such was the spirit aroused throughout the country. The sturdy yeomanry, from all parts, were hastening toward Boston with such weapons as were at hand; and happy was he who could command a rusty fowling-piece and a powder-horn.

The news reached Virginia at a critical moment. Lord Dunmore, obeying a general order issued by the ministry to all the provincial governors, had seized upon the military munitions of the province. Here was a similar measure to that of Gage. The cry went forth that the subjugation of the colonies was to be attempted. All Virginia was in combustion. The standard of liberty was reared in every county; there was a general cry to arms. Washington was looked to, from various quarters, to take command. His old comrade in arms, Hugh Mercer, was about marching down to Williamsburg at the head of a body of resolute men, seven hundred strong, entitled "The friends of constitutional liberty and America," whom he had organized and drilled in Fredericksburg, and nothing but a timely concession of Lord Dunmore, with respect to some powder which he had seized, prevented his being beset in his palace.

Before Hugh Mercer and the Friends of Liberty disbanded themselves, they exchanged a mutual pledge to reassemble at a moment's warning, whenever called on to defend the liberty and rights of this or any other sister colony.

Washington was at Mount Vernon, preparing to set out for Philadelphia as a delegate to the second Congress, when he received tidings of the affair at Lexington. Bryan Fairfax and Major Horatio Gates were his guests at the time. They all regarded the event as decisive in its consequences; but they regarded it with different feelings. The worthy and gentle-spirited Fairfax deplored it deeply. He foresaw that it must break up all his pleasant relations in life; arraying his dearest friends against the government to which, notwithstanding the errors of its policy, he was loyally attached and resolved to adhere.

Gates, on the contrary, viewed it with the eye of a soldier and a place-hunter--hitherto disappointed in both capacities. This event promised to open a new avenue to importance and command, and he determined to enter upon it.

Washington's feelings were of a mingled nature. They may be gathered from a letter to his friend and neighbor, George William Fairfax, then in England, in which he lays the blame of this "deplorable affair" on the ministry and their military agents; and concludes with the following words, in which the yearnings of the patriot give affecting solemnity to the implied resolve of the soldier: "Unhappy it is to reflect that a brother's sword has been sheathed in a brother's breast; and that the once happy and peaceful plains of America, are to be either drenched with blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?"


Washington Irving