April 21, 2008

Patriot's Day

In New England and in selected locations down the mid-Atlantic seaboard, the third Monday in April is celebrated as Patriot’s Day.

This is because on April 19, 1775, the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired in the Battle of Lexington near Boston. The battle concerned an attempt by the British to occupy an armory in Lexington, to deny the colonials access to the muskets and rifles stored there. As a secondary objective, they were also assigned to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were at the time rumored to be staying at an inn in Lexington.

The British advanced out of Boston and were first fired on at the North Bridge at Concord with a little bit less than 100 men. However, there was a leak. The likeliest source of the leak was Margaret Kemble Gage, the wife of the British theater commander, but it is yet uncertain that she was in fact the source of information. Regardless, a patriot, Dr. Joseph Warren, learned of the date and plans of the British troops, and informed another one of the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere, of what he had learned on the night of April 18.

Revere and his colleague William Dawes went door to door along the entire route from Boston to Lexington all night long, so the colonial leaders knew that the redcoats would attempt to take the armory that day. Revere rode north, evading a Royal Navy ship and numerous foot and horse patrols, and went through Charlestown and what is today Medford, and Dawes rode a more southern route, through Brookline and Cambridge, and the two met at Munroe Tavern near Lexington. There, Revere, Dawes, Hancock, and Adams discussed what was happening, and additional riders were sent out in nearly every direction. A third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott, was sent with Revere and Dawes to head further west to Concord.

Revere was captured and arrested; Dawes evaded capture but had to flee back to Boston. Hancock and Adams withdrew from the scene, being determined to be of too much importance to risk an open engagement with the enemy at this early stage of hostilities. Prescott carried the warning all the way to Concord by the dawn.

Meanwhile, something like a hundred redcoats had already crossed the mouth of the Charles River in a rowboat, and headed more or less straight west from Boston to Concord along the Lexington Road. They were less than two hours behind Revere and Dawes. The British were tipped off as to what happened by a loose-lipped, drunk patriot at an inn, who blabbed to Hugh Percy, a minor nobleman in the army, that the cannon at Concord was being evacuated even as they spoke. Percy immediately reported this to General Gage, who dispatched Percy with a thousand men to reinforce the initial mission.

Some seven hundred additional troops were sent with full gear, including a day’s worth of rations as they were to march to Concord and back, a journey of about seventeen miles each way. They were obliged to land in waist-deep water and had to begin their march, weighed down with this heavy equipment, in wet uniforms of bright red wool, as they heard gunfire from the surrounding countryside, telling them that they had lost the element of surprise. Inexplicably, it took the British commander nearly two hours to realize just how serious the situation was before he sent back to Boston for additional reinforcements to be sent.

The advance guard, now down to about 75 men because of sentries posted en route and messengers going back and forth to the column of soggy, easily-spotted regulars, met a similarly-sized force of minutemen gathered in formation on Lexington Common. The best information is that the patriots stood and watched the vanguard enter the common, and no one raised any weapons. (Bear in mind, there had not yet been open hostilities between the British and the colonists and these were all still countrymen of one another.) The commander of the patriots ordered his men to stand down and not fire, but was not heard, because he was dying of tuberculosis and his voice could not carry. Instead, the patriots stood in formation in the middle of the common as a British lieutenant ordered his men to move down the sides of the common to surround the assembled colonials.

Nothing happened for several very tense minutes. Then British commander rode in front of his men and ordered them to advance to the left, down one side of the common. Then he took out his sword and addressed the minutemen, who were tending to their wounded: “Disperse, you rebels! Damn you, throw down your arms and disperse!” The colonials looked at their red-coated oppressors, and the soldiers looked at the armed rebels in silence. Then…


Someone fired their weapon. Civil war had begun.

The first engagement of the Continentals went badly. In military terms, they had allowed themselves to be completely outmaneuvered, and were surrounded on at least two sides. Socially speaking, many of them still could not quite believe that it had come to this -- they thought that the British were firing powder only to make a point, until they saw their comrades slump to the ground and cry out in pain. They began to return some fire but were cut down in a bayonet charge before being routed out of the Common. The British officers struggled to regain control of their troops, and then continued the march to Concord.

Upon arriving at Concord, the local militia scattered into the hills. As soon as they had been given word that the British were coming to seize the armory, they had quickly dug holes and buried the cannons underground. While some British troops tried to find the cannon and attempted to disable them, others looked for the rebels in the hills. Some 400 troops crossed and later tried to regroup over the

So it was that the first wave of about a hundred redcoats met something like 400 minutemen gathered near the North Bridge at Concord. Hopelessly outnumbered, and outmaneuvered due in no small part to the confused orders of an inexperienced line commander, few redcoats even participated in exchanging a volley of fire with the colonials who were only fifty yards away but separated by the barrier of a river. The result was that many of the lower-ranking officers and sergeants were felled, some on the bridges, and the men who remained panicked and ran.

Routed, the regulars retreated back to Concord, where they formed up with the rest of the detachment from Boston. For the entire seventeen-mile hike back to the mouth of the Charles River, the British were harried and harassed by the Continentals. This second engagement proved the turning point in the protracted operation.

The regulars recombined forces with grenadiers, who had tried to spike the cannons, and the force retreated from Concord, having seized only a few dozen rifles and only temporarily disabled the buried cannons. However, the grenadiers had succeeded in destroying some stockpiles of bullets, ammunition, and fuse.

On their way back to Lexington, they were confronted with a roughly equal force of Continentals who had hastily gathered near the road and were in firing formation. The two bodies of troops faced one another tensely. These minutemen had no idea what had just happened at the North Bridge, and had no orders to fire on the British. The British regulars, for their part, were in no mood to fight, being out of grenade range and the riflemen having had the fight taken out of them at the North Bridge. They stared at each other for ten minutes, interrupted only by a mentally ill man from the village who wandered about between the forces trying to sell apple cider.

From Concord to Lexington, the troops were harassed eight times. Contrary to popular myth, the Continentals did not use guerrilla tactics like hiding behind trees or using snipers concealed by local rock walls. Instead, they engaged the British in open formations on open ground. The reinforcement force of about 1,000 reinforcements under Percy, marching to the tune of Yankee Doodle as a way of mocking the colonials, finally met up with the withdrawing vanguard force at Lexington Common. Unfortunately for him, Percy had ordered his men to march without extra ammunition, ordering the cart with the extra powder and shot to follow them for speed's sake. This caravan was captured by a squadron of 60+ former militiamen who had been deemed too old to join the Minutemen but spontaneously organized as sort of a rear guard after Revere's warning.

So now there was a combined force of just under two thousand British in Lexington, where they stopped to rest, eat their lunches, and form up again. But they knew that their ammunition was limited and that they faced a hostile twelve mile march back to the city and safety. The march -- retreat, really -- from Lexington back to Boston saw the Continentals use tactics more like what arose in legend later -- they would ride ahead of the column, stop and take a few shots when the column came into range, and then dart ahead again before the British could form up and volley. Meanwhile, other Minutemen took long-range shots from fields nearby, hoping to fell troops in the column. Occasionally, small formations of the militia would form up to skirmish, using ambush tactics and scattering after the initial volley. Frustrated, the British troops began ransacking the villages and houses they ran across, killing civilians and plundering houses (and, in one case, a church). The officers had lost substantial control over their men.

The closer the British column got to Boston, the thicker the Colonials became, until eventually Percy came back to find that General Gage had ordered the great bridge into Boston dismantled and the city was under siege by a force of over 20,000 colonials who had come from as far away as Connecticut. The rebels lost about 50 killed and a smaller number who went missing or were wounded. 73 British were killed, 26 went missing, and nearly 200 were wounded.

The casualty numbers are very small compared to later engagements in the war, but they favored the patriots. More important than the numbers, though, were two major victories had been won by the independence movement. First, the atrocities committed by the British became a significant propaganda coup for those favoring independence. This included Edmund Burke, who became prominent among the Whigs in Parliament in opposing the Tory policy of iron-fisted control over the rebellious colonials. Second, the Continental armies realized that although the British army was well-financed, well-trained, and well-equipped, they could stand toe to toe with them; they could line up in a formation and fight -- and win.

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.

Happy Patriot's Day.

1 comment:

zzi said...

I bet this was not mention in LA public schools today. Maybe you should substitute teach one day, next year. Good post

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,