Paul Revere rode on the night of April 18 to alert the countryside that British General Thomas Gage was sending troops to take colonial ball and powder from the citizens of Concord. When Revere rode, his call was not ‘the British are coming’, for the colonists were all British citizens. Instead, his warning was ‘The Regulars are out!’
Revere stopped at specific houses, and as he continued, one or two riders would head in different directions. Such was the 18th-century equivalent of a phone tree. Historians have established that 14,000 armed Americans were marching toward Concord by dawn the next morning.
On six hours notice, 14,000 Americans were marching to defend liberty. No cell phones, no email, no Facebook, and no news media to alert them.
Would we, or could we do that today? How many people would turn out, if you found out tonight at midnight about a threat to our liberty? Regardless the threat, assume it is such a magnitude that there is no doubt in your mind you have to meet it at dawn the next day. How many of your fellow Americans could you get to show up with you?
Could you get 10,000 to show up?
Could you get 1,000?
Could you get 10 of your friends and neighbors?
What is the measure of liberty to a society? Does one measure liberty by the number of people willing to show up to defend it? If so, which society, that of American in 1775, or that of America in 2017, values liberty more? Americans of 1775 turned out 14,000; few of us might turn out 10.
After completing a full day of duty, 800 Light Infantry and Grenadiers under the command of British Lt. Col. Francis Smith roust out of bed and begin marching through the night toward Lexington. The British march in a split column, with the Light Infantrymen, who can march faster, moving out briskly ahead of the main force of Grenadiers. Before dawn a British patrol reports that there are 500 armed men at Lexington, just ahead of the marching column. With that information, British Major Pitcairn of the Royal Marines, commanding the Light Infantry, has his men stop and load their muskets. Pitcairn’s column proceeds on its way to Lexington. But his men are not alone. In the murky predawn light, a British officer records he can see men on all the surrounding hills. The hills seemed like an overturned ant hill, swarming with ants. Those swarming ants are colonial Militiamen moving toward Concord, although the British do not yet realize it.
Revere is Captured
Paul Revere, on his night-time ride, reaches Lexington shortly past midnight and sounds the alarm. He goes straight to the house where Sam Adams and John Hancock are staying to warn them they are a target for arrest by the marching British. After a brief rest, Revere continues on to carry the alarm to Concord, now accompanied by William Dawes who was a second alarm rider from Boston that night.
As the two ride down that dark road, they meet up with Dr. Samuel Prescott. Dr. Prescott is returning to Concord following some late night courting of his Lexington fiancée, Miss Lydia Mullikin. Discovering that Prescott is a “High Son of Liberty” like themselves, Revere and Dawes invite Prescott to join them in alarming the countryside. Prescott readily agrees.
About halfway to Concord, they run into a British patrol. Revere is captured; Dawes escapes back the way they came; Prescott escapes and make his way to Concord by back trails, there to raise the alarm.
The Lexington Muster
In Lexington, aroused by one of Revere’s night riders, Captain John Parker and his militia company are mobilizing on Lexington Green. Parker, 40 years old and a veteran of the French and Indian war, sends a rider down the road to Boston to see if the report of British columns on the march is true. When that rider does not return, he sends a second. That one also fails to return. We now know the British captured one after the rider ran into them in the dark; the other rider somehow got behind the British and could not get around them.
With no more information, and it being a cold night, Parker dismisses his men while ordering them to ‘stay within the sound of the muster drum’. Most of them head to Buckman’s tavern, a local establishment, for refreshments and to warm up. They must unload their muskets before entering. How does one unload a musket? By firing into the air.
Just before dawn Parker sends another rider down the road to Boston. That rider comes back minutes later with the news of a British column of hundreds of Redcoats and worse, they are only a mile down the road and coming fast!
Captain Parker orders the muster drum to beat and his men assemble on the Green. Seventy seven men, about half his unit strength, are in formation.
Just as the sun crests the horizon, hundreds of Redcoats appear. More than one colonial participant later commented on the sun reflecting off seeming acres of polished bayonets.
Colonials are scurrying in every direction. Parker stops two who are heading for their own mustering units, and asks if they will join his unit to boost his numbers. Both of them, faced with the enemy, agree. Robert Douglass and Sylvanus Wood thus add their names to the list of those standing on Lexington Green.
How many of us would decide the same way as Douglass and Wood? In front of an onrushing enemy? ‘Heck, Captain Parker, we have our own unit to get to, and we’ll get in trouble if we don’t report… .'”
A tough choice for anyone, yet both chose to stand and fight.
Men on Lexington Green and all over New England faced choices that day.
As a militiaman, your firearm is a smooth-bore musket. Perhaps you have trained a few hours on how to rapidly load and fire (four shots a minute was the standard). With Revolutionary War firearms you need to be closer than 65 yards to hit your target. And now you know there are Redcoats on the march just a few hundred yards away.
Redcoat soldiers carried 16-inch long steel bayonets as their primary killing weapon. In a matter of seconds they could cover those 65 yards and, if you don’t run for your life, you will be run through by a bayonet. Your choice? You can stand and fight for freedom, or you can run.
If you want to further understand that choice, consider other factors.
First, there was no modern medical care. The best musket wound was a shot to the body or head, where you would bleed out and die. A wound to a limb probably meant painful amputation and either a long suffering death or a lifetime of pain and disability.
Second, there was no insurance. Your family’s fortunes rested on your shoulders. If killed, you leave your family in poverty. If wounded, your income becomes less than a fully-productive worker. If your house is burned by fire, or looted, you are back to nothing.
Third, that morning you are still a loyal subject of the Crown. Once you level your musket at the King’s troops, you have committed treason, and face the hangman’s noose. And once a traitor, always a traitor; the hoofbeats you hear may be a party coming to arrest and hang you.
Once you make the choice to stand, you cannot back out and you cannot change your mind. You are in it until the end: your capture, your hanging, or your victory. The phrase “Liberty or Death” was no cliché.
We modern Americans know that the choice our forefathers made ultimately resulted in victory. We know it took ‘only’ 8 long bloody years. Revolutionary Americans had no certainty of victory. Some thought they would win, but maybe after twenty years. Some thought it would take generations.
They made their choice for posterity; they made it with our freedoms and our liberties in mind. Are we willing to make that same choice posterity and our future generations?
Dawn on Lexington Green
As the sun peeks over the horizon, Captain Parker’s militia stands tall on the Lexington Village Green. Parker is at the head of his men. He has orders not to fire first. His men later remembered he told them, ‘Do not fire first, but if they mean to have a war, let them have it here’.
Parker also told them, ‘The first man to run I will shoot down like a dog’. That statement reflects the immense gravity and stress of the immediate situation. Parker’s men were his friends, neighbors, and relatives. In that cold half-light of dawn on Lexington Green, with a Redcoat army rapidly approaching, things suddenly become life-and-death serious.
The Regulars spot Parker’s militia and the lead British companies of Light Infantry then march toward Lexington Green to face the threat. Redocats quickly form up into battle array. British officers ride forward, screaming ‘Disperse ye damned rebels! Lay down your arms and disperse!’ Parker quietly orders his men to disperse. Without laying down their arms, most turn to leave.
A shot rings out, and the British companies open fire – so their officers testify later – without orders. When the smoke clears, Lexington Green is empty except for colonial dead and wounded, a few fleeing militia, and British soldiers who break break ranks and bayonet those Americans they can run down.
There are eight pairs of fathers and sons on the Green that morning. Death breaks apart five. Parker’s cousin, Jonas Parker, in his 60s, threw his hat, extra flints, and lead balls at his feet, and vowed not to retreat. Jonas kept his word; after firing one shot and being wounded himself, and on his knees trying to reload, Jonas Parker is run through by British bayonets.
Jonathan Harrington, though dispersing as ordered, is shot and staggers to his house across the street. Crawling to his doorstep he dies in his wife’s arms.
British Redcoats begin to break into houses. British Col. Smith arrives and by the beat of the muster drum orders them back into formation. For the first time Smith tells his officers that their mission is not a Lexington but to proceed five miles further to Concord, where they are to seize arms and military supplies. His officers beg him to return to Boston. Smith refuses, saying he has his orders.
Smith wants to calm the situation and make sure his muskets are unloaded. Remember how one unloads a musket? Smith allows his troops a “victory volley” and three “Huzzahs!” before they march down the road to Concord. With the army’s celebratory cries ringing in their ears, stunned Lexington villagers come out to gather their dead and care for the wounded.
This concludes the ‘First Strike of the Match’.
The match was lit and flared up, but then went out. It would be conceivable no more shots would be fired that day. We will see in the Second Strike how things turned out.