Through the night of April 18, 1775, a British column marched westward from Boston, their objective to raid a Yankee store of weapons hidden in the nearby town of Concord. But unbeknownst to the column, William Dawes and Paul Revere rode out ahead, alarming the countryside along the way, sent by forgotten Revolutionary War hero Dr. Joseph Warren.
At about dawn on this day 236 years ago (April 19, 1775), the British reached Lexington, a town about two-thirds the way to Concord. There they found the local militia company waiting for them, all armed and formed on the central Lexington Green. Considering it a challenge, at least the first and second companies of the British column rushed onto the Green, instead of taking the road beside it, only to taunt the Americans. Some reports say the Americans immediately began to disperse, but some Yankees doggedly remained. Both sides shouted at one another, while officers on both sides tried to keep their men in check. And then… a shot rang out! An unordered and scattered British volley rang out in response, and almost simultaneously, some of the Yankees fired in return.1 More scattered shots were fired until the officers on both sides gained control. The Battle (really a skirmish) of Lexington left 8 Americans dead, another 9 wounded, with the British suffering just one man wounded in the leg, plus a British horse slightly wounded in two places. This skirmish was the start of what would be a very bloody day, and it marked the start of the American Revolution. But the details of the battle have always been unclear. Who fired the first shot? No conclusive evidence exists, and each side blames the other. But there is circumstantial evidence, and it leads us to believe the Americans shot first!
An excerpt from Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book, 1775:
Where the shot came from, no one knows to this day. Americans swore they heard a pistol first, suggesting one of the British officers, but the British swore they saw smoke from several fired shots as the militia jumped over the hedge wall, while still other British saw smoke pour out the Meeting House. Undoubtedly, one or more Americans did indeed fire shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern. But whether these shots were the first to ring out that day is unknown. One can only speculate, based on the discrepant, sometimes fallacious, and often biased and exaggerated evidence, but there is a strong case that the Americans fired first, and that the first shots came from the Meeting House or hedge wall. Why the shot rang out is another question altogether. Perhaps, amid the confusion, someone had lost his cool. Equally plausible, some zealot had deliberately wished to begin a war. A third, just as likely, was that a musket accidentally fired. It was the most inopportune time for such an accidental fire, but most of the militia there had muskets kept as trophies from the last war. For the younger men, theirs was inherited from their fathers. Old guns usually had a nasty build up of soot in their barrels and sometimes faulty firelocks and springs. Misfires and accidents with those archaic guns were all too common. Whoever fired that first shot, and whether an accident or of malicious intent, it did not matter: the war was now on.
The circumstantial evidence against the Americans, that they fired the first shot:
- The British accounts of the battle, including private diaries, either say the Americans fired first or that the affair was too quick to be sure (generally referring to the hedge wall or behind Buckman Tavern).
- British accounts of the next skirmish of the day, at Concord’s North Bridge, admit the British fired first. So the British accounts of the second skirmish suggest they gave honest reports, thus why would they all intentionally lie about the Skirmish of Lexington? Even official reports to the British commander-in-chief admit British fault at Concord, yet why would they lie in such official reports about Lexington? We can reasonably believe that the British reports are at least not intentional lies.
- Regardless of whether the Americans fired first, we must also note that every British accounts of the Skirmish of Lexington gives that the Americans fired at some point during the skirmish.
- In contrast, the majority of the various American depositions2 taken days after the battle, deposition intended to prove the British fired first, depositions sent to England for publication in American-friendly newspapers, claim the Americans never fired at all. This despite the British reports that claim Maj. Pitcairn’s horse was grazed by two shots, and a casualty report that one musketball slammed into the leg of a private soldier named “Johnson” of the 10th, possibly Thomas Johnston.
- Thus, we know that the American depositions immediately after the battle are heavily biased, though considering they were taken for the express intent to sway the British people, we can understand why.
- If we were not yet convinced, we have several depositions of 1825, at the 50th anniversary, which admit that the Americans did fire shots in the skirmish. Now we must take any evidence from fifty years after the fact, from the memories of old veterans, with a grain of salt. But such an important detail, that the Americans did in fact fire on the British, is not something that fades with age. As an example, William Munroe, who fought at the battle, reported in 1825 that American shots did ring out from the Meeting House, though he denies these happened before the British fired first. He also mentions those from the tavern. Thus, Munroe admits fifty years after the fact that the Americans fired into the British, and in doing so, proves that the 1775 depositions are false in their claim that the Americans did not fire at all.
What does all of this mean? The original 1775 American depositions are known to contain falsehoods, at least with regard to the Americans not firing. They did fire, as they later admitted, and the British suffered one soldier and one horse wounded. Such a glaring falsehood casts a great tarnish on the American depositions, and must make us doubt the rest of the American claims. In contrast, the British accounts seem to generally accept their role in the day’s affairs, and yet all British reports admit either that it was unclear who fired first, or that the Americans fired first.
So who fired first? We cannot know. Circumstantial evidence is not proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. We can only guess, and my guess is that the Americans fired first, from either the hedge wall or from behind Buckman Tavern. The Americans had the most to lose by admitting they had fired first, such as support from other colonies or the British people. The Americans also felt the greatest degree of trepidation and pent up frustration, which would suggest they were more likely to fire without orders. In contrast, the young British soldiers were rather disciplined (and so not likely to fire without orders), and quite detached from the political debate (and so did not care much about the grander principles of the Revolution as the Yankees did). But we cannot know. Mine is just a theory, and unless new evidence surfaces, my theory will remain just that.
Perhaps we should leave it as two British officers wrote it. Captured British officer Lt. Edward Gould gave (perhaps under duress): “which party fired first, I cannot exactly say”.5 The second account in Lt. Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary gives: “Shots were immediately fired; but from which side could not be ascertained, each party imputing it to the other.” 6
Side note: I suspect some zealous New Englanders may think me an Anglophile for trying to give an honest presentation of the events above. I am no Anglophile, merely a lover of truth. I think this is well evidenced by my considerable former service to the US Air Force, and my ongoing service to the US Air Force Reserve. We have moved beyond the years immediately after the Revolution where our history books were thick with an unreasonably biased American perspective. As in all wars, the Americans misstepped at times, and the British did too. I of course think that on the grander questions of the Revolution, the British were unquestionably in the wrong.
- There is little credible evidence to support former claims that the British officers ordered their men to fire.
- 1775 American Depositions, in Peter Force’s American Archives series 4 in 6v. (Washington, DC: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1837–1846) 4:2:486–501. (British depositions and field reports cited throughout the notes of Chapter 5 of my forthcoming 1775.)
- Late American Depositions, 1825, in Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle at Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th April, 1775 (Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825) 31 ff.
- Not to say the Lexington Militia Company was not disciplined—they were. But some did not disperse as ordered. And what about the Yankee spectators? Were they so disciplined?
- Force 4:2:500–01.
- Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary (Apr 19), in A British Fusilier in Revolutionary Boston, ed. Allen French (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1926) 62 ff.
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At dawn on April 19, some 700 British troops arrived in Lexington and came upon 77 militiamen gathered on the town green. A British major yelled, “Throw down your arms! Ye villains, ye rebels.” The heavily outnumbered militiamen had just been ordered by their commander to disperse when a shot rang out. To this day, no one knows which side fired first. Several British volleys were subsequently unleashed before order could be restored. When the smoke cleared, eight militiamen lay dead and nine were wounded, while only one Redcoat was injured.
The British then continued into Concord to search for arms, not realizing that the vast majority had already been relocated. They decided to burn what little they found, and the fire got slightly out of control. Hundreds of militiamen occupying the high ground outside of Concord incorrectly thought the whole town would be torched. The militiamen hustled to Concord’s North Bridge, which was being defended by a contingent of British soldiers. The British fired first but fell back when the colonists returned the volley. This was the “shot heard ‘round the world” later immortalized by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
After searching Concord for about four hours, the British prepared to return to Boston, located 18 miles away. By that time, almost 2,000 militiamen—known as minutemen for their ability to be ready on a moment’s notice—had descended to the area, and more were constantly arriving. At first, the militiamen simply followed the British column. Fighting started again soon after, however, with the militiamen firing at the British from behind trees, stone walls, houses and sheds. Before long, British troops were abandoning weapons, clothing and equipment in order to retreat faster.
When the British column reached Lexington, it ran into an entire brigade of fresh Redcoats that had answered a call for reinforcements. But that did not stop the colonists from resuming their attack all the way through Menotomy (now Arlington) and Cambridge. The British, for their part, tried to keep the colonists at bay with flanking parties and canon fire. In the evening a contingent of newly arrived minutemen from Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts, purportedly had a chance to cut off the Redcoats and perhaps finish them off. Instead, their commander ordered them not to attack, and the British were able to reach the safety of Charlestown Neck, where they had naval support.