Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Lexington Green (2)

One of the best known images of the opening of the Revolutionary War at Lexington, Massachusetts, is the iconic engraving, below, created by Amos Doolittle. At left, the Lexington militia walks off the village green. At center, a company of British regulars fire into the backs of the militia, bringing down a handful of men. An officer on horseback, identified as Major Pitcairn, waves his sword in apparent exhortation of the rank and file.

Battle of Lexington, by Amos Doolittle (click to enlarge). The image has been slightly cropped to improve ease of view.

In some respects, the representation is quite consistent with eyewitness statements. Depositions by members of the Lexington militia, for example, clearly indicate that they were walking away from the British at the time that the firing began. More controversially, Doolittle depicted a British officer seemingly ordering his men to open fire. British sources (to be reviewed in an upcoming post) provide a very different version of events, and the Lexington militia (with 1 exception among the 50 men that gave statements) did not claim to have heard a verbal order to fire.

One place where evidence can be found for Doolittle's depiction is in the depositions made by civilians and militiamen that either were on the edge of the village green, or observing from neighboring houses. However, these statements also lend themselves to other interpretations.

Depositions by Spectators

  • William Draper: Claimed that the British fired first: “...the commanding officer of said Troops (as I took him) gave the command to the said Troops, "Fire! fire! damn you, fire!"...’”
  • Thomas Fessenden: “I saw three officers on horseback advance to the front of said Regulars, when one of them being within six rods of the said Militia, cried out "Disperse, you rebels, immediately;" on which he brandished his sword over his head three times; meanwhile the second officer, who was about two rods behind him, fired a pistol pointed at said Militia, and the Regulars kept huzzaing till he had finished brandishing his sword, and when he had thus finished brandishing his sword, he pointed it down towards said Militia, and immediately on which the said Regulars fired a volley at the Militia…”
  • Levi Harrington and Levi Mead: “...some of the Regulars on horses, whom we took to be officers, fired a pistol or two on the Lexington Company, which was then dispersing. These were the first guns that were fired, and they were immediately followed by several volleys from the Regulars…”
  • Elijah Sanderson: “...the Regulars shouted aloud, run, and fired on the Lexington Company, which did not fire a gun before the Regulars discharged on them.”
  • Timothy Smith: “...[I] saw the Regular Troops fire on the Lexington Company, before the latter fired a gun.”
  • Benjamin Tidd and Joseph Abbot: “...the Regulars fired first a few guns, which we took to be pistols from some of the Regulars who were mounted on horses, and then the said Regulars fired a volley or two before any guns were fired by the Lexington Company.”
  • Thomas Price Willard: “ officer rode before the Regulars to the other side of the body, and hallooed after the Militia of said Lexington, and said, "Lay down your arms, damn you; why don' t you lay down your arms?" and that there was not a gun fired till the Militia of Lexington were dispersed.”


Four of the nine men said that one or more mounted officers, firing pistols, started the shooting. Two claimed that the British fired first, but did not elaborate. One man claimed that a British officer, waving his sword, silently ordered the troops to fire. Another claimed that a British officer verbally ordered the troops to fire. The final deponent did not say who fired first.

The possibility that a British officer triggered the start of the war (either intentionally or accidentally) by firing a pistol is not easily dismissed. The other two possibilities, although consistent with Doolittle's representation, are probably incorrect.

British accounts confirm the statements by Fessenden, Harrington and Mead, and Tidd and Abbot, that there were several mounted officers on Lexington green when the firing began. They also indicate that Major John Pitcairn, who commanded the detachment, led this group.

Fessenden’s version of events is unlikely to be correct as the officer silently waving his sword would not have been Pitcairn, but instead someone like Lieutenant William Sutherland of the 38th Foot, an officer that accompanied the expedition, but held no command in it. It’s also dubious that the sword motions described by Fessenden would be taken as a signal to open fire. More believable is that an officer was waving his sword about, but stopped when (much to his surprise) the troops behind him began firing.

Draper’s version of events is also unlikely as a verbal command to fire should have been heard by many of those present, yet almost none reported hearing such an order. Fessenden’s statement and that of some others indicate that at least one British officer was shouting for the militiamen to lay down their arms and disperse. Perhaps Draper wrongly inferred that the shouting was a command to open fire when the shouts were quickly followed by gunshots.


  1. I read your blog on a regular basis...very cool, Its like I'm slipping back into the 18th century, which I would love to do.

  2. Many thanks. I would enjoy visiting the 18th Century also... at least for the little while I can bear to go without Internet access and a laptop.