Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On Lexington Green (3)

Last Fall, I commented on depositions made by witnesses to the opening of the American Revolutionary War at Lexington Green (see here and here). These depositions were collected in the days immediately following, and they were soon widely distributed. These depositions have also served as fodder for historians and have greatly shaped views of what took place on that fateful April morning.

Although less widely cited and discussed, journals, letters, and reports authored by British officers also provide a wealth of information about what happened at Lexington. In this post, I relate some of the events described by British sources as leading up to the fight at Lexington.

1. A British expeditionary force departs from Boston. This force consists of two battalions: one made up of light infantry companies, the other of grenadier companies.

Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage to William Legge, Secretary of State for the Colonies:

I having intelligence of a large quantity of Military Stores, being collected at Concord, for the avowed purpose, of Supplying a Body of Troops, to act in Opposition to his Majesty’s Government; I gott the Grenadiers, and Light Infantry out of Town, under the Command of Lieut. Colonel Smith of the 10th Regiment, and Major Pitcairn of the Marines, with as much Secrecy as possible, on the 18th at night; and with Orders to destroy the said Military Stores

Boston Area: April-May, 1775 (Click to enlarge).

2. The British land near Cambridge.

Lieutenant John Barker, 4th Regiment of Foot:

[The troops] were landed upon the opposite shore [from Boston] on Cambridge Marsh; few but the Commandg. Officers knew what expedition we were going upon. After getting over the Marsh, where we were wet up to the knees, we were halted in a dirty road and stood there ‘till two o’clock in the morning, waiting for provisions to be brought from the boats and divided, and which most of the Men threw away, having carried some with ‘em. At 2 o’clock we began our March by wading through a very long ford up to our Middles…

3. Six light infantry companies lead the advance.

Major John Pitcairn, His Majesty's Marines:

Six companies of Light Infantry were detached by Lt. Col. Smith to take possession of two bridges on the other side of Concord

4. The British are unable to keep their march a secret.

Lieutenant William Sutherland, 38th Regiment of Foot:

…we marched with Major Pitcairn commanding in front of the Light Infantry… continued for 3 miles without meeting any person. When I heard Lieut. Adair of the Marines who was a little before me in front call out, here are two fellows galloping express to Alarm the Country, on which I immediately ran up to them, seized one of them and our guide the other, dismounted them and by Major Pitcairn's direction gave them in charge to the men. A little after we were joined by Lieut. Grant of the Royal Artillery who told us the Country he was afraid was alarm'd of which we had little reason to doubt as we heard several shots being then between 3 & 4 in the morning, a very unusual time for firing. When we were joined by Major Mitchell, Capt. Cochrane, Capt. Limm & several other gentlemen who told us the whole country was alarm'd & galloped for their lives, or words to that purpose, that they had taken Paul Revierre, but was obliged to lett him go after having cutt his girths and stirrups…

5. British officers on the road learn that a large body of militia has assembled at Lexington, a village on their route to Concord. The leading light infantry companies halt.

Lieutenant Barker:

after going a few miles we took 3 or 4 People who were going off to give intelligence; about 5 miles on this side of a Town called Lexington, which lay in our road, we heard there were some hundreds of People collected together intending to oppose us and stop our going on

6. The light infantry load their muskets

Ensign Jeremy Lister, 10th Regiment of Foot:

To the best of my recollection about 4 oClock in the morning being the 19th of April the 5 front Compys. was ordered to Load which we did.

7. An American soldier “fires” at a British officer.

Lieutenant Sutherland:

I went on with the front party which consisted of a Sergeant and 6 or 8 men. I shall observe here that the road before you go into Lexington is level for about 1000 yards. Here we saw shots fired to the right and left of us, but as we heard no whistling of balls, I concluded they were to alarm the body that was there of our approach. On coming within gun shot of the Village of Lexington a fellow from the corner of the road on the right hand cock'd his piece at me, burnt priming [i.e., there was a flash in the pan]. I immediately called to Mr. Adair & party to observe this circumstance which they did. I acquainted Major Pitcairn of it immediately.

8. The British light infantry march into Lexington.

Major Pitcairn:

when I arrived at the head of the advance Company, two Officers [i.e., Sutherland and Adair] came and informed me that a man of the rebels advanced from those assembled, had presented his musket and attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan - - On this I gave directions to the troops to move forward, but on no account to fire, or even attempt it without orders: When I arrived at the end of the Village, I observed drawn up upon the green near two hundred of the rebels.


The incident described by Sutherland (#7) and referred to by Pitcairn (#8) is curious. Why did a lone American militiaman apparently try to shoot Lieutenant Sutherland when he was accompanied by a party of armed men? Did a misfire save Sutherland’s life? Or was the militiaman attempting only to frighten the British officer – not kill him? In either case it was a remarkably reckless action. Also remarkable is that the British (who must have been most astonished) did not attempt to apprehend the man.

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