Our First Strike of the Match ended with the Regulars firing a “victory volley”, followed by three shouts of “Huzzah!” to the people of Lexington after shooting their neighbors and kinsmen in the back on Lexington Green.
The time is 6:45 AM. The sun is low, but bright. Dr. Prescott sounded the alarm in Concord, and from there more riders spread the alarm. Prescott continued to Acton, where he called on the local Minutemen commander, Captain Isaac Davis.
Isaac Davis was a 30-year-old gunsmith and farmer with a wife named Hannah and several children. On this morning, all of their children are sick, two with the symptoms of the deadly “canker rash1“, a horrible disease that often took entire families in colonial New England. Isaac and Hannah are distraught, but when Isaac receives the alarm from Dr. Prescott, he makes his choice. Isaac solemnly gathers his musket and gear and moves toward the door on his way to join his company of Minutemen at Concord.
At the door, Isaac pauses for a moment. Hannah can see that Isaac means to say something of great import. All he can muster is “take good care of the children”, and off he goes to meet his destiny.
In Concord, the prudent Town Fathers wish to verify the alarm and so they send Reuben Brown to Lexington. Reuben witnesses the beginning of the fight at Lexington Green although he does not remain to see how it ends. Reuben returns to Concord in great haste and reports on the fighting. The men of Concord ask whether the British soldiers were firing ball, or just powder as a warning. Reuben cannot be certain, but he thinks it probable they were firing ball.
A great fear is now gripping the people of New England. It began at midnight with Paul Revere’s alarm. Today we see the War for Independence today as a great victory, but the Colonists could not foresee that. They looked toward independence as a dark and ominous path, filled with much uncertainty and foreboding. They knew once they started Britain would not simply let them walk away.
By now men from New England militias are streaming from all parts of the countryside to Concord, their forms silhouetted against the rising sun on the tops of the hills above the roads into town. The British soldiers note this, one writing later that rebels moved along with a curious half walk, half run. And although the Redcoat 5-mile march to Concord finishes without further skirmishes, nervousness now prevails among the green Redcoat troops.
Colonial Militia leaders in Concord take stock of the situation and debate what to do:
The brash young Minutemen want to intercept the Redcoats outside town – right now!
The older, more experienced men of the Militia prefer to stand their ground in Concord.
The town elders of the Alarm List want to wait for more men to arrive before committing to any plan.
In typical New England fashion, after some debate, they follow all three courses.
We can picture the scene. British banners flying, fifes and drums playing, and the Regulars marching forward in perfect cadence with an impressive display of military might. The younger contingent of Minutemen march out to meet the Regulars.
The mere sight of the British army must have been stunning, like a great, long, red serpent winding off into the distance, polished steel bayonets gleaming in the morning light. While the young Minutemen wisely decide to return to town, they do so in high order. There is a parade, with the Minutemen just in front of the Regulars, marching back to town matching the beat of British drums. Such a surreal scene, at odds with the brutal events that day.
The Militia and Minutemen march through Concord and across the North Bridge until they gather in formation just past their muster field on Punkatasset Hill. More and more Militia join until their number grows to over 500.
British Col. Smith finds Concord devoid of Militia. Smith divides his troops: Grenadiers search the town for contraband, and one company guards the South Bridge. Seven more companies move to the North Bridge where three stay to guard the bridge and the other four cross the bridge and head to the Buttrick and Barrett Farms in search of weapons.
Fires in Concord
The British troops break into Concord houses in their search for war materiel, but with little luck. They find a few hundred musket balls, which they toss into a pond (only to be recovered by the Colonists the very next day) along with some flour, a couple of gun carriage wheels, and some trenchers (wooden plates). As an insult to the town the Redcoats cut down the town’s “Liberty Pole” and pile it with the contraband in the town common to burn it all. This small fire spread to the town meeting hall and in an odd irony, the Regulars help the townspeople to put out the fire.
British Major Pitcairn has reason to suspect that the owner of the town’s inn and its jailer, Ephraim Jones, has hidden three cannon somewhere in the area, and Pitcairn intends to find them. Ephraim refuses to open the inn after Pitcairn pounds on his door, so the Redcoats break in. Pitcairn confronts Jones and demands the whereabouts of the cannons. When Ephraim refuses to speak, Pitcairn knocks him to the floor and claps a pistol to his head, demanding the whereabouts of the guns. Jones relents and leads Pitcairn to the three 24-pounders buried in his yard. Upon excavating the cannon, soldiers knock off the trunnions which renders them useless.
Col. Smith has, other than the cannon, come up dry for all his soldier’s efforts. Even out at the Barrett Farm his soldiers find nothing. This is because the day and night prior, local farmers had plowed the fields and placed muskets into the furrows, covering them over. The unsuspecting British soldiers marched right past the freshly plowed fields never knowing what was planted!
Smoke Rising from Town
Up on Punkatasset hill, the Militia consult yet again and move their muster field to a hill about 300 yards from the North Bridge. Once there, they see the smoke rising from the town and think the British have set it afire. A young Militia officer named Joseph Hosmer asks ‘Will we stand here while they burn our homes?’ No lieutenant in a traditional army would ever speak to his commanding officer in such a manner, but the Militia was a far more democratic organization.
Militia Col. Barrett finally marches his troops to the bridge and places the Town of Acton Minutemen in front because they are the best equipped, having both cartridge boxes and bayonets provided by their leader, Isaac Davis. When asked if his unit will lead the march, Capt. Davis replies, “I have not a man who is afraid to go“. What an amazing statement: a bunch of farmers facing the finest army in the world, and none afraid to march forward.
At North Bridge2 the British soldiers watch as the militia, now outnumbering them four to one, move down the hill toward them with military precision. Some of the Regulars pull up planking on the bridge, which angers the thrifty Colonists. How dare they destroy private property!
The Regulars cross over the bridge to the town side where they are ordered into a formation used for street fighting. Attempting this rarely practiced drill caused great confusion among the Regulars. The British street fighting formation was narrow and deep, intended for clearing mobs on streets. The front three ranks would fire and then peel off to the rear to reload while the next three ranks fire. This would continue, allowing a constant fire in a narrow area. Not well suited for open warfare, this arrangement left British flanks exposed.
Militia Maj. Buttrick told his men the same thing Captain Parker said earlier in Lexington: do not fire unless fired upon, but stand your ground. As the Militia marched down the hill in line of battle and got closer, a couple of Redcoats fired without orders. Next, the British fired a ragged volley with the same lack of discipline they had shown at Lexington. British green troops fired high as soldiers unaccustomed to battle often do. Most of the balls whistled over the heads of the Militia, but some found their mark. Captain Davis goes down as a ball pierced his heart; his men on either side are covered with Davis’ blood. Captain Davis becomes the first American officer to die in battle. Another of Acton’s Minute Men, Private Abner Hosmer, falls, shot in the head; four others were wounded.
American discipline is better than that of the British, and they hold formation until stopping about 50 yards in front of the bridge, well within the range of British muskets.
As his men fall, Major Buttrick shouts, “Fire men! For Gods sake, fire as fast as you can!” With the first volley, half the British officers go down. Through the musket smoke the Militia can see a shudder of ball pass through the ranks of the British troops. Their line breaks in confusion and the Redcoats retreat without orders toward Concord. The British leave their wounded behind as they flee from these American farmers and shop keepers, many of whom have never seen battle before this day.
This engagement leaves the Americans wondering what to do next. Major Buttrick divides his unit, placing half on the Concord side of the bridge, behind a stone wall, while the rest remain on the north side. Finding his men retreating pell-mell shocks British Col. Smith. On seeing the large number of militia in strong positions, Smith withdraws back to Concord.
Hearing the sounds of the fight the Redcoat raiding party starts to return to Concord from the Barrett Farm. What they see is terrifying: between them and the rest of their men is a large band of Militia controlling the only way home, the North Bridge. The raiding party marches rapidly across the bridge, passing unharmed by the Militia who are still operating under the long-standing requirement to not fire unless fired upon.
Many of the Redcoats take notice of their dead and wounded comrades lying on the field. They spread angry rumors; soon a story spreads about four men butchered, with eyes gouged out, noses and ears cut off. This changed the tone of the fight and caused many atrocities this day and scandal as far away as England.
Militia continue to stream into the area around Concord by the thousands, with many looking down at the British troops from the hills above town.
In Concord, Col. Smith rests his troops and forms up for the 13-mile march back to Boston. Wounded officers go first in ‘borrowed’ carriages, with walking wounded behind them, and then the rest of his army. Badly wounded enlisted men are expendable and simply left behind.
The entire raid and skirmish in Concord lasted about 4 hours. Around noon the British began their return to Boston under the watchful eye of Militia who are now spoiling for justice. At first, the Militia simply shadowed the retreat, watching, waiting for an opportunity. British flankers kept the militia beyond musket range.
Again, the match of revolution is struck. Again, there is a bright flash, a little smoke, and nothing as the match goes out. Had nothing else occurred this day, there would have been inquiries, hearings, hangings and promotions, and the revolution might have died.
But a mile outside Concord, at an obscure little place called Meriam’s Corner, Continental Militia are pouring in, and the match is once again being readied to strike.
As mentioned earlier, Hannah Davis kept a diary. It stands, to this day, as a record of sacrifices made for our Liberty. Hannah wrote of the Acton Minute Men tramping into her kitchen – ‘filling that small feminine space with the strong masculine presence of their muskets, bayonets, tomahawks, and powder horns’.
She wrote that Isaac said only “Take good care of the children” before disappearing into the darkness. What an odd thing for him to say. He knew Hannah would take care of the children; she was their mother and a woman of fine character. A superstitious man, did Isaac know he would meet his death that day?
Through Hannah’s diary, Isaac is in fact speaking to every one of us; are we taking good care of the children? Are we doing everything we can to ensure their continued Liberty? Isaac Davis gave his life for our Liberty. All we have to do is remain alert, informed, and involved in the political process handed down to us by his generation. Are we succeeding?
Hannah wrote “I knew in my heart, that I would not see him again in this world”. Mistaken on that point, she saw him hours later laid out in death beside Private Hosmer and another Minuteman on her parlor table.
Though Hannah seemed to know that she would not see her husband again, she let him go. To lose a husband in New England in 1775, with a house full of sick children, would have been a terrible hardship. Hannah Davis placed a high price on Liberty. On April 19th, 1775, she paid that price in full.
Congress twice suggested recompense for Hannah’s loss and twice voted to deny it. To do so would violate the Constitution and fail to respect Isaac Davis’ choice. To take from one by force of law and give to another, no matter how deserving, is one form of slavery and our forefathers would have none of it.
As you read this tale, remember that you are just like those brave men and women of 1775 – shopkeepers, farmers, businessmen, families. They chose to fight the King’s tyranny then, so we could have our freedom now. America is our birthright, and our responsibility.
This concludes the Second Strike of the Match.
In the Third Strike we will see how terrible Revolutionary War can be.
1 Canker Rash is now known as Scarlet Fever.
2 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.
Emerson, “Concord Hymn”