Friday, April 16, 2010

Lexington and Concord: Intercepted British Letters

The anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord (the start of the Revolutionary War) is right around the corner: 235 years ago on April 19. In recognition (of a sort) of this event, I've included below excerpts from letters written by British participants in that battle. As these are private letters written shortly after the event, they provide a unique insight into the British soldier's beliefs and experience. These letters were intercepted by Americans before they arrived in England and ended up being published in Peter Force's American Archives. Unfortunately, Force's transcriptions omitted the names of the letters' authors and intended recipients. However, as noted below, several of the letters contain clues about the author.

Letter 1: [by a soldier in one of the battalion companies of the 23rd Regiment of Foot]

"Boston, April 30, 1775. DEAR PARENTS: Before this reaches you, you may hear that our regiment has been engaged with the Provincials. The Grenadiers and Light-Infantry marched about nine at night. At six next morning four hundred and twenty-three soldiers, and forty-seven marines, in all fifteen hundred, marched to reinforce the Grenadiers and Light-Infantry, joined about one o' clock, and found them not engaged, which they had been eight hours before; for we had two pieces of cannon, which made us march slow. As soon as we came up we fired the cannon, which brought them from behind the trees, for we did not fight as you did in Germany, as we could not see above, ten in a body, for they were behind trees and walls, and fired at us, and then loaded on their bellies. We had thirty-six rounds, which obliged us to go home that night, and as we came along they got before us and fired at us out of the houses, and killed and wounded a great many of us, but we levelled their houses as we came along. It was thought there were about six thousand at first, and at night double that number. The King' s Troops lost in killed and wounded one hundred and fifty, and the Americans five hundred men, women, and children, for there was a number of women and children burnt in their houses. Our regiment has five killed and thirty-one wounded, particularly Colonel Bernard in the thigh, which all the regiment is sorry for. The shot flew thick. I got a wounded man' s gun, and killed two of them, as I am sure of."

Letter 2: [possibly by a soldier in one of the flank companies of His Majesty's Marines]

"Boston, April 28, 1775.

The Grenadiers and Light-Infantry marched for Concord, where were powder and ball, arms, and cannon mounted on carriages; but before we could destroy them all, we were fired on by the country people, who, not brought up in our military way, as ourselves, we were surrounded always in the woods. The firing was very hot on both sides. About two in the afternoon the Second Brigade came up, which were four Regiments and part of the Artillery, which were of no use to us, as the enemy were in the woods; and when we found they fired from the houses, we set them on fire, and they ran to the woods like devils. We were obliged to retreat to Boston again, over Charles River, our ammunition being all fired away. We had one hundred and fifty men wounded and killed, and some taken prisoners; we were forced to leave some behind, who were wounded. We got back to Boston about three o' clock next morning, and them that were able to walk were forced to mount guard, and lie in the field. I never broke my fast for forty-eight hours, for we carried no provisions, and thought to be back next morning. I had my hat shot off my head three times, two balls went through my coat, and carried away my bayonet by my side, and was near being killed... Direct for me to Chatham' s division of Marines."

Letter 3: [probably by a soldier in one of the flank companies of the 52nd Regiment of Foot]

"Boston, April 28, 1775. I am well, all but the wound I received through the leg by a ball from one of the Bostonians. At the time I wrote to you from Quebeck I had the strongest assurance of going home, but the laying the tax on the New-England people caused us to be ordered for Boston, where we remained in peace with the inhabitants, till on the night of the 18th of April twenty-one companies of Grenadiers and Light-Infantry were ordered into the country about eighteen miles, where, between four and five o' clock in the morning, we met an incredible number of people of the country in arms against us. Colonel Smith, of the Tenth Regiment, ordered us to rush on them with our bayonets fixed, at which time some of the peasants fired on us, and our men returning the fire, the engagement begun. They did not fight us like a regular army, only like savages, behind trees and stone walls, and out of the woods and houses, where in the latter, we killed numbers of them, as well as in the woods and fields."

Two more letters can be read here and here. The former may have been written by a soldier in one of the battalion companies of Marines. The latter was written by a captured soldier's wife.

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