Friday, February 18, 2011

On Lexington Green (4)

In a recent post, I described, from the British point of view, some of the events immediately preceding the opening of the Revolutionary War on Lexington Green. Five British officers who were on the green when the shooting started recorded their observations -- Major John Pitcairn, Lieutenant William Sutherland, Ensign Jeremy Lister, Lieutenant John Barker, and Lieutenant Edward Thoroton Gould. Of these, Pitcairn, Sutherland, and Lister clearly asserted how the firing began. Barker and Gould belonged to the 4th Regiment of the Foot; the light infantry company of this regiment may have been just entering Lexington Green at the time and they may not have participated in the initial exchange of fire. [1]


The Battle of Lexington; propagandistic engraving by Amos Doolittle (click to enlarge). The British entered Lexington Green between the two tall buildings on either side of the tree at center. To the left is Buckman’s Tavern, to the right is the Meeting House. Major John Pitcairn (the mounted officer) indicated that the Meeting House was to his left (not behind him) when the firing started.


Major Pitcairn, who commanded the British vanguard, recorded that:

When I arrived at the end of the Village, I observed drawn up upon the green near two hundred of the rebels. When I came within about one hundred yards of them, they began to file off towards some stone walls on our right flank - - The Light Infantry observing this, ran after them - - I instantly called to the soldiers not to fire, but surround and disarm them and after several repetitions of these positive orders to the men, not to fire, etc.

Tensions were extraordinarily high at this point, and the sound of gunfire from some quarter caused the light infantry company of the 10th Regiment to open fire.

As described in a previous post, American spectators were confident that the first shots were fired by the British, but their accounts are so inconsistent that it is unclear which, if any, is accurate.

The British accounts are similarly inconsistent.

According to Pitcairn, the first shots occurred while the militia was retreating, and the shots came simultaneously from behind a wall and from the meeting house:

some of the rebels who had jumped over the wall, fired four or five shots at the soldiers, which wounded a man of the Tenth, and my horse was wounded in two places, from some quarter or other and at the same time several shots were fired from a Meeting House on our left

According to Lister, the first shots came from some men in the open:

they gave us a fire then ran off to get behind a wall.

According to Sutherland, the first shots came from Buckman’s Tavern, then some moments later from some men on the other side of a hedge:

We still went on further when three shots were fired at us, which we did not return, & this is sacred truth as I hope for mercy these 3 shots were fired from the corner of a large house to the right of the Church when we came up to the main body which appeared to me to exceed 400 in & about the Village who were drawn up in a plane opposite to the Church, several officers called out to throw down your arms & you shall come to no harm, or words to that effect which they refused to do. Instantaneously the gentlemen who were on horseback rode amongst them of which I was one, at which instant I heard Major Pitcairn's voice call out 'soldiers don't fire, keep your ranks, form & surround them, instantly some of the villains who got over a hedge fired at us

So what is one to make of the British and American accounts? Below I list some tentative conclusions:

First, although observers may have twisted the truth to some degree, there is no evidence of a conspiracy to lie about the events at Lexington within either the pool of American sources or the pool of British sources. Each set of statements appears to be about as reliable (or rather, as unreliable) as the other.

Second, there is a measure of agreement that either one shot, or a few shots occurring in close succession, immediately preceded a volley by the British regulars.

  • 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”.
  • Major Pitcairn: “some of the rebels who had jumped over the wall, fired four or five shots”
  • 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 were then dispersing: These were the First Guns that were Fired…”
  • Lieutenant Barker: “one of the rebels fired a shot”
  • Thomas Fessenden: A British officer “fired a Pistol, pointed at said Militia”

Third, there is good reason to believe that observers’ perceptions of the event were strongly colored by their expectations.

For example, spectator William Draper believed Major Pitcairn was shouting “fire! fire! damn you, fire!” to his Regulars, but the Lexington militia (among others) did not. More believable is that Draper heard Pitcairn shouting, but he didn’t quite make out everything Pitcairn said. Pitcairn has himself saying the word “fire” more than once, but in the context of telling the troops not to fire. If Draper heard only part of what was said and saw the light infantry fire a moment later, he could have well become convinced that Pitcairn had ordered the troops to fire.

Another example: Major Pitcairn thought he heard simultaneous gunfire from his right (a wall) and left (the meeting house), but no other British officer, and no American source, claimed that shots were fired from the meeting house. Pitcairn had reason to believe that the Americans were assembling and their intentions were hostile before riding into Lexington. He also may have seen some men running from the meeting house after the firing began. Perhaps gun shots to his right echoed off the building to his left, creating the perception of simultaneous gunfire.


So, who fired this first shot or shots on Lexington Green? Because the source statements are so inconsistent, any interpretation of the event must overlook some of the evidence. However, some scenarios are more believable than others, and I list four of the more plausible scenarios below. What scenario do you think best explains what happened?

Scenario #1: The Lexington militia started the firing. As Pitcairn and Sutherland claimed, some Americans jumped behind a wall (or “hedge”) and fired several shots at the British. These men were acting without orders and their actions were seen by few, if any, of the Americans on or around the Green.

Scenario #2: One of the mounted British officers fired a pistol or two. This officer would have been behind Pitcairn, Sutherland, and the others, and none of the British were looking in his direction. Perhaps the officer fired a pistol in the air so as to goad the militia into dispersing, but in so doing he inadvertently triggered a volley by the regulars.

Scenario #3: An accidental discharge started the firing. British officers were galloping about on horses, members of the Lexington militia were scrambling over a wall to safety -- accidental discharges were not rare events and perhaps this is what caused the nervous regulars to begin shooting.

Scenario #4: The first shot was not fired away on Lexington Green. British officers recorded that shots were repeatedly heard in the countryside on their march towards Lexington. They took these shots to be a signal for the militia to assemble. Perhaps the sound of one of these shots echoing around the green made it sound like several shots had been fired, and each party assumed it came from the other side. If this shot (or shots) was fired at a distance, the sound would have been somewhat muffled, and that might explain why Pitcairn and Sutherland thought the shots came from buildings or walls and why a handful of Americans thought it came from an officer’s pistol.


1. By comparison, the Doolittle engraving appears to depict two British companies deployed in line of battle (presumably those of the 4th and 10th), one of which is firing on the Lexington militia.


Some readers may note that in this series of posts I have not invoked certain sources. My impression is that those that have been discussed include the most trustworthy accounts of the battle and that the omitted statements do not greatly affect the perception of events.

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