Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Lexington Green (5)

In several previous posts, I’ve walked through much of the source material on the start of the Revolutionary War at Lexington Green, and concluded that there are at least four different plausible scenarios by which a gunshot (or perhaps several) started the outbreak of violence.

What happened after this initial shot (or shots) is in little dispute: British light infantrymen opened fire on the retreating Lexington militia.

The senior British officer on hand, Major John Pitcairn, blandly recorded that “without any order or regularity, the Light Infantry began a scattered fire, and continued in that situation for some little time, contrary to the repeated orders both of me and other officers that were present.”

British Lieutenant John Barker described the scene more vividly:

“…our Men without any orders rushed in upon them, fired and put ‘em to flight; several of them were killed, we cou’d not tell how many, because they were got behind Walls and into the Woods [i.e., the militia had fled]; We had a Man of the 10th light Infantry wounded, nobody else hurt. We then formed on the Common, but with some difficulty, the Men were so wild they cou’d hear no orders; we waited a considerable time there, and at length proceeded on our way to Concord…”

For the Lexington militia, and the dozens of spectators loitering around the green, emotions quickly swung from apprehension to horror:

Timothy Smith: “I saw a large body of Regular Troops marching up towards the Lexington Company, then dispersing, and likewise saw the Regular Troops fire on the Lexington Company, before the latter fired a gun. I immediately ran, and a volley was discharged at me, which put me in imminent danger of losing my life.”

Thomas Fessenden: “[The Lexington] Company of Militia dispersed every way as fast as they could, and while they were dispersing the Regulars kept firing at them incessantly”


The exchange of fire on Lexington Green presents a couple of interesting challenges to those that would visually represent it. First, it is unclear how the firing began. Second, it’s clear enough that the subsequent exchange of fire was extremely one-sided. Eight Massachusetts provincials were killed, another 9 were wounded, and others were spared only by the inaccuracy of British musketry [1] and the rapidity of their flight. Few of the Lexington militia got off a shot.

Doolittle’s depiction was made early in the Revolutionary War and its purpose seems to have been not only to document events, but also to editorialize. He makes it clear that the British were the aggressors. The Lexington militia is shown running from the coldly deliberative British infantry, leaving behind the bleeding bodies of their friends and neighbors [2]. The blunt, ugly message is dulled only by the crudity with which it was executed.

Later paintings borrowed Doolittle’s vantage point, but not his message. In these cases, the purpose appears to have been to memorialize those who fought the British. The artists left ambiguous how the firing started, but instead focused on (and arguably took some historical liberties with) the resistance by the Lexington militia. Doolittle depicted murder. Later artists memorialized brave men defending their liberties.

Amos Doolittle

Howard Pyle

William Barnes Wollen



1. Elijah Sanderson: “All was smoke when the [British] foot fired. I heard no particular orders after what the commander [Pitcairn] first said. I looked, and, seeing nobody fall, thought to be sure they couldn’t be firing balls, and I didn’t move off. After our militia had dispersed, I saw them firing at one man, (Solomon Brown,) who was stationed behind a wall. I saw the wall smoke with the bullets hitting it. I then knew they were firing balls.” In Elias Phinney (1825). History of the Battle of Lexington on the morning of 19th April, 1775.

2. As described in previous posts, American accounts are inconsistent in their description of how the firing started. They implicitly acknowledge that once the British infantry fired, some Americans began to return fire. Doolittle presented a particularly inflammatory version of the event, in which the Lexington militia is all but a hapless victim of purposeful British aggression.

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