The American Revolutionary War’s Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, April 19, 1775

As mentioned in a prior post, British relations with her American colonies deteriorated during the period from 1765 through 1775. Especially towards the end of that period, the colonists were organizing militias, training the Minute Men in how to wage war and gathering and storing munitions and weapons. One of the places for such storage was Concord, Massachusetts, which was about 20 miles northwest of Boston.

It was no secret to the British that the Americans were preparing for war, and the British had secret intelligence that colonial weapons and munitions were being stored in Concord.

Map of British Troop Movements, April 19, 1775

Hoping to surprise the Americans, on the evening of April 18, 1775, a British infantry force of 700 men boarded naval barges in Boston to cross the Charles River to Cambridge, about three miles to the west. Around 2:00 a.m. early the next morning, the troops started marching to Concord, approximately 17 miles to the west of Cambridge. Their objective was to seize and destroy the colonial munitions and arms stored at Concord.

The colonists, however, had intelligence that the British were going to try to seize the weapons and munitions in Concord, and the colonists previously had moved most of those materials to another location. Moreover, the colonists had intelligence on the night of April 18th that the British troops were going to make that attempt the next day.

Paul Revere, Ride,           April 18, 1775

This prompted the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere and another rider (William Dawes) to warn the militias in Lexington and Concord and others in towns along the way that the British were coming.

Battle of Lexington,        April 19, 1775

At sunrise on the 19th the British troops entered Lexington, a village of about 800 people. In the village common green, 80 or so Minute Men stood at attention in plain sight in parade-ground formation just watching the British troops. The British troops turned and advanced toward the Minute Men. There were shouts and confusion when one shot rang out by whom no one knows for certain. This precipitated other shots, and eight militia men were killed and ten were wounded.

The American Revolutionary War had started.

The 700 British troops soon reformed into a column and commenced their march to Concord, a village of about 1,500 people approximately seven miles to the west. As they approached Concord, about 250 militia men saw that they were heavily outnumbered and retreated, and the town was surrendered to the British. The British found three large cannons and smashed them so they could not be moved.

Battle at Concord North Bridge, April 19, 1775

At the North Bridge over the Concord River just outside the town, a contingent of militia men outnumbered the British troops. Gunfire erupted, and the British troops abandoned their wounded and fled to the safety of another contingent of British soldiers.  Around noon the British left Concord.

On their return march to Lexington, the British were ambushed and suffered losses as the number of militia men kept growing with reinforcements from other towns. Around 2:30 p.m. a full brigade of 1,000 British soldiers with artillery arrived to reinforce and rescue their retreating comrades. After a short rest at Lexington, they resumed their return march to Boston around 3:30 p.m. All along their return they were attacked by militia men, many firing their muskets from behind trees and stone fences.

The battles at Lexington and Concord were not major ones in terms of tactics or casualties. But they were important in showing the ability of the colonists to fight and the failure of the British to enforce the Intolerable Acts, capture weapons and munitions and prevent hostilities from the colonists.

In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson commemorated the fight at Concord’s North Bridge in his “Concord Hymn” with these words:”By the rude bridge that arched the flood; Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled; Here once the embattled farmers stood; And fired the shot heard round the world.”

The American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783

The American Revolutionary War with Great Britain started on April 19, 1775, with fighting in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, which will be summarized in a future post. Hostilities ended six years later with the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781. The formal end of the war was concluded another two years later with the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.[1]

John Brown, my maternal sixth great-grandfather, had five sons, all of whom fought for the Americans in that war. The four eldest–John, Perley (my maternal fifth great-grandfather), Benjamin and William–fought in the early Siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill, which will be the subjects of future posts.  Perley, Benjamin and William also fought in the Battle for New York, which will be discussed in another post. (The youngest son, Daniel, joined the war for six months in 1780.)[2]

In the first fifteen months of the war, the colonists’ objective was redressing grievances, not independence.  Indeed, the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775, adopted the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms that stated, “we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored.” The document concluded with this statement:

  • “With an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore his divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the Empire from the calamities of civil war.”

The Declaration of Causes and Necessity also reiterated many of the points made in the First Continental Congress’ Declaration and Resolves of September 1774. The new Declaration continued, “We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated Ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honour [sp], justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have [sic] a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them, if we basely entail hereditary bondage upon them.”

This American plea for reconciliation fell on deaf ears. The British Parliament instead in late 1775  adopted the American Prohibitory Act that stated that “all manner of (the American colonies’) trade and commerce is and shall be prohibited;” that any ships found trading “shall be forfeited to his Majesty, as if the same were the ships and effects of open enemies;” and that “for the encouragement of the officers and seamen of his Majesty’s ships of war” that “seamen, marines, and soldiers on board shall have the sole interest and property of all ships, vessels, goods and merchandise, which they shall seize and take.” The Prohibitory Act was a de facto declaration of war by Great Britain as the blockade it imposed was an act of war under the law of nations.

A copy of the American Prohibitory Act, however, did not reach the colonies until February 1776 and was a final precipitating cause of the American decision to seek independence from Great Britain.

Accordingly on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted, 12-0 with one abstention (New York), a short Resolution of Independence that stated that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

Two days later, July 4, 1776, the Congress unanimously adopted the now famous American Declaration of Independence. Before reciting the specific complaints against Great Britain, it starts with these amazing and earth-shaking words:

  • “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect [sic]their Safety and Happiness. . . .  when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Treaty of Paris by John Jay, John Adams,
Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens & William Temple Franklkin (Benjamin West, painter)

Seven years later (September 1783) the war for American independence was formally ended with the Treaty of Paris. In its Article 1 the British Monarch “acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.” In addition, its Article 7 stated, “There shall be a firm and perpetual peace between his Brittanic Majesty and the said states, and between the subjects of the one and the citizens of the other, wherefore all hostilities both by sea and land shall from henceforth cease.”

[1] E.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], Ch. 7 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Chs. Three through Thirty-Three (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 7-8, 11-12, 17-25, 31-32, 50, 308-10 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).