The Third Strike of the Match

 

British Retreat

British Retreat from Concord

The British Leave Concord

Shortly after noon on April 19, 1775, British Regulars start to retrace their steps out of Concord and back to Boston while the Colonial Militia watch from hilltops and behind stone walls along the way.

The Regulars are spoiling for revenge for their fellow soldiers allegedly “butchered” at the North Bridge. The Colonials want revenge for the uncalled for slaughter on Lexington Green. Many Militia members have walked all night to be here and are just being told of the actions at Lexington Green and Concord. The stage is set for a fight.

British Lt. Colonel Smith and his men see hundreds of the militia lining the hilltops above the road back to Boston. The Redcoats have been awake for more than 30 hours. Having already marched 18 miles from Boston and fought an engagement, they now face an 18-mile gauntlet of Colonials. The British are low on supplies: food and water, but especially ammunition, having started with only 36 cartridges each. Lt. Col. Smith deploys flankers to keep the Colonials out of musket range. His column passes one hilltop and a few farm fields and things go well for the first mile. Then they arrive at Merriam’s Corner.

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Merriam’s Corner

About a mile east of Concord, the road bends slightly then crosses a stream by a narrow bridge. To cross that bridge British flankers must come down from the hills and walk along the stream, thus allowing the Colonials to get within musket range. At this point Militia outnumber Redcoats by over one thousand armed men, and more are still coming

As the Regulars approach Meriam’s Corner, all is silent. No martial music, no fifes and drums playing; nothing is heard but the sound boots make by weary infantry on the march.

In the silence a shot rings out, possibly a militiaman firing at extreme range. The British rear guard quickly fires a volley, which turns out to be their deadly error. The militia open fire in earnest, and their musket balls rain down on the Redcoats. 

Here is the Third Strike of the Match. Colonial militia are not only defending themselves, but are defending freedom. Each band of militia no longer wait to be fired upon first. For the first time the various militia companies become an American fighting unit. The revolutionary fire begins and this time it blazes forth, lighting a war for independence that will last eight years and cost thousands of lives. 

By one o’clock the running fight back to Boston has begun. From here on the British must battle their way through one American ambush after another, often in deadly crossfire. In the smoke and confusion, Lt. Col. Smith has no way of knowing that his force is greatly outnumbered. As the British march, they continue to encounter fresh American militia with full cartridge boxes, while they find no rest, no shelter, no water, and each round expended is precious. At ‘Brook’s Hill’ and ‘The Bloody Angle’ the Regulars take more casualties, but they must march on, as making it back to Boston is their only chance for survival. 

Parker’s Revenge

The Lexington militia did not retire from the fight after the First Strike on Lexington Green, but have regrouped and marched toward Concord. Early afternoon finds them kneeling grimly behind granite boulders, some in the same stiffening bloody bandages they have worn since daylight, they wait patiently for the British, to revenge their comrades shot in the back or bayonetted while attempting to disperse. When the Regulars led by Lt. Col. Smith are directly in front of his men, Capt. Parker gives the order to fire! 

Parker’s men rise and loose two volleys before the stunned British can effectively react. The road is littered with dead and dying Redcoats. Col. Smith is shot through the thigh in the first volley and Major Pitcairn is unhorsed but unharmed. Though Major Pitcairn charges forward with infantry to disperse Parker’s company, the militia have their revenge! Today on the road between Lexington and Concord there is a small monument to ‘Parker’s Revenge’, a reminder of the price paid for our Liberty.

Pitcairn’s luck will run out two months later at a place called Bunker’s Hill. Pitcairn is shot in the head by a Militiaman as he enters the American fortifications, just minutes before the battle is over.

As they retreat the Regulars run lower on ammunition and water. Some of the fiercest fighting occurs around wells, streams and puddles of water where the militia know the Redcoats will stop. The road is filled with dead and wounded men and horses, along with the accoutrements of war: knapsacks, cartridge boxes, muskets, hats, jackets, bayonets, and items looted from the homes of Concord as exhausted Redcoats try to lighten their load.

Redcoats in Disarray

The Regulars in the van flee from the Colonials, leaving their wounded and outrunning their flankers. Unable to maintain order, even at the point of their swords, British officers ride to the head of the column, seize muskets, turn and level them at their soldiers, screaming ‘You will form up now or we will shoot you ourselves’. Their Redcoats have not yet made the five miles back to Lexington, and now defeat seems probable. It looks like the end of the British Brigade. Ironically, their surrender will likely be on the Green in Lexington where the British attacked, without orders, less than ten hours earlier. 

Lexington

As the Regulars stumble into Lexington, wild cheers are heard from the men in front. They see a relief column led by Brigadier the Right Honorable Hugh Earl Percy arranged in line of battle with two cannon trained on the advancing Rebels. General Gage planned all along to send reinforcements for Lt. Col. Smith, but due in part to his obsession with secrecy, Percy’s companies marched hours late and ultimately cost the lives of many British Regulars. 

Brigadier Percy cannot believe his eyes. A formerly proud British army staggers bleeding and beaten through his ranks, exhausted and spent. Percy had placed one cannon on each side of the road on hills overlooking the approach to town. A cannon ball crashed through Lexington’s meetinghouse, sending huge splinters in every direction. The militia have never faced cannon fire and are halted immediately.

Percy, though, is in a precarious position. Like many other British officers he thought little of Colonial military abilities. His cannon have only the ammunition stored in the boxes on the gun carriages. Percy’s artillery will have to keep up enough fire to keep the Rebels at bay, yet ration it for the long haul back to Boston. His infantry carry the same 36 rounds of musket ammunition that Col. Smith’s troops started with and so Percy’s men may soon be short of ammunition too.

Percy finally understands that he is not facing simple country people in small numbers fighting from behind trees, but rather a large and well-regulated militia acting in concert. He orders three houses in Lexington be burned to prevent their being used for sniping by sharp shooters of the militia. 

Despite developing a grudging respect for Militiamen themselves, Percy is yet unaware of an officer arriving on the field to command the American Militia. While this man has never seen combat, he has devised a brand new tactic for fighting the Regulars after reading many military books.

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The Moving Ring of Fire

Militia Brig. General William Heath is a self-described ‘corpulent, balding gentleman farmer’ with a passion for military operations. He saw the coming conflict as inevitable and studied tactics on his own at Henry Knox’s bookstore in Boston, even engaging British officers in conversations on infantry procedures. Heath has developed a maneuver to fight in just this situation.

He calls it the ‘Moving Ring of Fire’. Heath’s battle plan calls for streaming fresh men and supplies ahead of a moving enemy column to keep it under constant fire from all sides. The Ring of Fire would be a difficult tactic to implement even with a trained regular army, keeping units coordinated and constantly in motion with ammunition, food, water, and supplies arriving at the right places and at the right time. General Heath proved it very successful this day.

The Retreat to Boston

Percy’s cannon held off the militia long enough to give Lt. Col. Smith’s British troops a much needed rest at Lexington before they resume the 13 mile march to Boston. It is now 3:15 PM, and the first of the remaining 1,600 Redcoat soldiers begin their retreat, with their two very dangerous cannon bringing up the formation’s rear. Flankers are placed to keep the Rebels out of musket range. Still, the Ring of Fire takes its toll and all along the road Regulars continue to fall.

By 4:30 PM the Brits reach Menotomy, and the fighting becomes less open and more house-to-house. Here the battle reaches a murderous pitch, with the Regulars seething to get at the rebels who will not stand and fight and to revenge their fallen comrades allegedly butchered at the North Bridge. The militia want revenge for the very real killings at Lexington and Concord and the burning and looting of those towns. 

When the Regulars receive fire from a house, they rush it, killing all those within, even non-combatants. The fighting in Menotomy is terrible, as shown by the numbers: 40 Redcoats dead, and over 80 wounded. With 25 Colonists dead and only nine wounded one sees a suspicious ratio that affirms the savagery of the Regulars. Still, the worst is yet to come.

Gen. Heath’s Ring of Fire provides fresh men with full cartridge boxes who keep a constant fire on the Regulars. The Redcoats have no chance of re-supply for their dwindling ammunition supplies. Percy’s intended retreat route takes him through the town of Cambridge, over a bridge across the Charles River, their last obstacle before Boston. Just past the Charles River bridge stands a large contingent of fresh militia spoiling for a fight.

It is now 5:30 PM. Advance units of the Regulars find that militia have pulled up the planks of the bridge, and neatly stacked them on the near side. The Redcoats simply replace the planks. After militia discover this, they pull up the planks again and throw them into the river beyond any chance of speedy retrieval. Percy and his Redcoats are now caught between the anvil of the bridge with its fresh militia, and the hammer of Heath’s moving Ring of Fire

Desperate, Percy instantly makes a bold decision and turns north onto an obscure path called Kent Lane, just outside Cambridge, heading for Charlestown instead of Boston. The Ring of Fire has to be adjusted for Percy’s unforeseen turn. In the confusion, the Redcoat column breaks through militia lines and marches towards Charlestown Neck, a narrow strip of land connecting that almost-island to the mainland.

The Americans have one last chance. North of the Redcoat column is a militia unit under the command of Timothy Pickering. If Pickering moved against the British as ordered, he would stop the Redcoat escape and their entire retreating column would be captured. Unfortunately, Pickering does not act, ignoring the protests of his own men. The British make their way to Charlestown and find security under the 70-gun warship HMS Somerset. General Gage’s battered troops collapse in exhaustion on a knoll known as Bunker’s Hill. One by one the many British casualties are loaded into longboats and ferried across the Charles River to Boston by men of the HMS Somerset. The entire British action has taken a continuous 21 hours. 

Percy notes the time as just past 7:00 PM. The sun is setting on Charlestown, as it begins to set on the British empire. One of the world’s best fighting units has been defeated by determined New England farmers and shopkeepers. It is this determination that will see America through the coming war.

The Aftermath

The next morning, General Heath, General Gage, Lt. Colonel Smith and the British army awake to find themselves surrounded and trapped by a vast American Militia army that has marched to Boston from all parts of New England.Lord Percy, who once boasted that he could subdue the entire North American continent with two companies of Grenadiers, later wrote: “Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself very much mistaken. They have men among them who know very well what they are about”.

Conclusion

This concludes our three-part story of the true events of April 19th, 1775 – the day of “The shot heard ’round the world”. The eight-year American Revolutionary War that followed is too horrible for us to imagine; for most of the duration freedom’s outcome was in serious doubt.

As long as we remember what the founding generation[1] sacrificed, and as long as we maintain the freedoms our forefathers secured in our stead, then their struggle was not in vain. Should we fail to do as they instructed and maintain our freedom by taking part in the political process handed down to us, then we will surely loose the freedom we will not deserve.

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.

John Adams[2]

Next: Epilogue



[1] Ages on July 4, 1776: Marquis de Lafayette: 18; James Monroe: 18, Gilbert Stuart: 20; Aaron Burr: 20; Alexander Hamilton: 21; Betsy Ross: 24; James Madison: 25; Thomas Jefferson: 33; John Adams: 40; Paul Revere: 41; George Washington: 44; Samuel Adams: 53; Benjamin Franklin: 70.

[2] Letter from John Adams to Abigail, April 26, 1777

 

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