America’s Revolutionary War was formalised on 4 July 1776, when the original group of 13 North American British colonies unanimously adopted and proclaimed the Declaration of Independence. This was no precipitous or impulsive act, however. Instead, it was the culmination of a series of events that spanned more than a decade.
The initial tensions were felt in 1763, after the French and Indian War, as the Crown increased its burden on the colonies to help pay for the conflict, while also imposing other hardships and injustices. Organised resistance grew. By April 1775, the relationship between the American colonies and Britain had reached breaking point. On one side were the Whigs or Patriots – colonists who supported the American Revolution, making up roughly 40% of the population. On the other were the Loyalists, Tories, Royalists or King’s Men – colonists loyal to the British Crown, accounting for another 20%. The rest of the population were relatively ambivalent.
With war in the air, the colonists raised local militias, known as Minutemen. In Boston, Dr Joseph Warren, a 33-year-old physician, coordinated local Patriot activity, while Paul Revere, a 41-year-old silversmith, helped gather intelligence.
What happened next
The rebel leadership had known for weeks that the British General Thomas Gage planned to march through Lexington to Concord, about 20 miles north-west of Boston, to capture or destroy colonial munitions stored there. In anticipation, Warren had Revere organise an early warning system that included lanterns displayed from the Old North Church.
By the early evening of 18 April, Royal Navy activity indicated that the anticipated raid would start that night. Later, British troops began to assemble on the Boston Common. All told, there were around 700 British soldiers and marines under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and his second in command, Marine Major John Pitcairn.
In response, Warren dispatched his first rider, 30-year-old William Dawes, to Lexington. Departing around 8.45pm, Dawes rode the 17-mile land route over the Boston Neck – the narrow strip of land connecting the peninsular city to the mainland. Warren then sent for Revere, his second rider, and directed him to transit via the water route – over the Charles River to Charlestown, then on to Lexington, where he would link up with Dawes, warn the Patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams who were staying there, and ride on to Concord. However, before Revere left Boston, he ensured that two signal lanterns were lit and briefly hung from the Old North Church belfry, to warn the militia in Charlestown that the British would soon be arriving by boat.
Rowed across the river, past a British warship, Revere was dropped off on the far shore. Borrowing a fast mount, he began his famous ride at around 11.15pm. Rapidly covering the remaining 12 miles, he raised the alarm along the way – shouting ‘The Regulars are coming!’ (and not ‘The British are coming!’, as is often supposed, since most colonists considered themselves British).
Arriving in Lexington around 12.30am on 19 April, Revere met Hancock and Adams to warn them of the approaching Regulars. The men were finishing their discussion when Dawes arrived to join them.
Back at Phipps Point, Cambridge – just over the water from Boston – Smith’s Redcoats were finally ready to depart on their 17-mile march to Concord. It was 2am.
The Butterfly Effect
Shortly after Revere and Dawes rode out of Lexington at around 1.30am at the start of their seven-mile onward journey to Concord, they were overtaken on the Bay Road (since renamed Battle Road) by a 24-year-old physician by the name of Samuel Prescott – who, according to legend, was returning home from Lexington after a night courting his fiancée. A member of the rebel Sons of Liberty, Prescott had been born and raised in Concord.
British patrols were everywhere, setting up temporary roadblocks to keep Patriots from spreading the word of Smith’s advance – so the knowledge of a local such as Prescott would be invaluable. He volunteered to join the two riders, and they accepted.
Three miles out of Lexington, near the town of Lincoln, Revere was scouting a bend in the road some 200 yards ahead in the bright moonlight, while Dawes stopped at a farm to issue a warning. Prescott waited on the road. From the shadows of the woods on either side, two British riders appeared before Revere. The time was 1.50am.
‘We have been seen!’, the colonial yelled.
In response, Prescott rode forward to assist Revere, only to have two more mounted British Regulars emerge from the shadows. At gunpoint, the two messengers were escorted off the road and into the pasture.
Sensing an opportunity, Prescott yelled, ‘Put on!’, and the two men galloped off in opposite directions. Familiar with the area, Prescott made for a stone wall. Spurring his horse to leap over it, he left his pursuers behind as he escaped into the darkness of the swampy woods.
Revere was not so fortunate. Closely pursued, he rode into six more Regulars, who blocked his path.
Dawes, meanwhile, observing from a distance, sought to make his escape. With two Redcoat riders in pursuit, he galloped into the dark yard of a quiet farmstead, deceptively shouting out, ‘Halloo, boys, I’ve got two of ’em!’ The ruse worked. Fearing they had been lured into an ambush, the Redcoats turned back, just as Dawes was tossed off his horse, and left to limp back to Lexington on foot.
The British patrol escorted Revere back towards Lexington. But as the group approached the town at around 2.30am, the test-firing of muskets and the ringing of bells could be heard. Unnerved and concerned that the local militia were gathering, Revere’s captors set him free, allowing him to walk on to Lexington as they fled the area. Arriving at around 3.30am, Revere assisted Hancock and Adams with their escape.
While Revere was being detained and escorted back to Lexington, Prescott continued to make his way towards Concord. Having escaped through the woods, he re-emerged on to the main road near Hartwell Tavern, three miles from Concord. Ensuring that the local militia commander was roused, and the word sent out through the countryside via other riders, Prescott rode into Concord at around 2.30am. Immediately, the First Parish Church bell was rung for the militia to muster.
Meanwhile, the British Regulars were marching with Major Pitcairn in the lead. Two hours into their march, at 4am, Lieutenant Colonel Smith made what proved to be an insightful decision. Knowing that the element of surprise had been lost, and unsure of what may lie ahead, he wisely sent a messenger back to General Gage requesting reinforcements.
At Lexington’s Buckman Tavern, the local militia officer Captain John Parker – a veteran of the French and Indian War – had been waiting for a sign of the approaching Regulars. Finally, at 4.15am, he received confirmation that the Redcoats were arriving in force.
Parker’s men were emerging from the tavern and assembling on Lexington Common (Battle Green) just as Pitcairn’s advance guard of 240 British soldiers came marching into town with fixed bayonets at 5am. Around the Common, approximately 100 spectators gathered to watch.
Standing in plain sight before the approaching Redcoats was a ragtag group of 77 Minutemen, aged 19 to 62. Parker positioned his company in parade formation on the Common, ensuring the road to Concord was not blocked. Given their only intent was a show of demonstration, Parker barked out an order to his men, ‘Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon’.
However, rather than turn left towards Concord, the lead advance guard decided to protect the flank of the British column by first turning right and then advancing on to the Common itself, in an effort to surround and disarm the militia. Pitcairn arrived from the rear of the advance force and led his three companies to the left and halted them.
Pitcairn rode forward, sword waving, demanding the militia disperse. Significantly outnumbered, Parker was clearly aware war had not been declared. He was not about to sacrifice his men for no reason. With a raspy voice, he ordered his men home. There was momentary confusion.
Suddenly, a shot rang out. From where has never been ascertained, other than that it most likely did not come from the men on the Common facing each other. This single shot was followed moments later by several other intermittent shots from both sides. Then, uncharacteristically and without orders, in an undisciplined display of escalated violence, the lines of Regulars began to fire volleys. Smoke shrouded the Common.
The clash was brief. Few of the militia were able to load and return fire. The Redcoats charged forward with their fixed bayonets. By the time the smoke had cleared, eight Minutemen were dead and ten wounded. The British suffered one wounded. Regulars started to fan out to pilfer from private homes.
Hearing the firing and riding forward, Lieutenant Colonel Smith re-established order. A ‘Victory Volley’ was fired. Moments later, the column began to move on to Concord.
Concord’s courthouse bell rang at around 8am, announcing the approach of the Regulars. Opting not to defend Concord, the colonial commander, Colonel James Barrett, having been warned earlier by Prescott, withdrew through Concord and over the North Bridge to a ridge that overlooked the town a mile away.
Seven companies of British infantrymen under Captain Parsons also moved to the North Bridge, within 300 yards of Barrett’s force on the ridge. Leaving one company to secure the bridge, Parsons advanced two miles up the road to search Barrett’s farm, leaving two companies behind to secure the route back.
In Concord, British soldiers searching for military equipment and supplies accidentally set fire to a building, which they tried to extinguish. On the ridge, however, Barrett’s troops, now numbering more than 400, mistook the smoke for a sign that the British had intentionally set fire to the town.
‘Will you let them burn the town down?’, cried Adjutant Joseph Hosmer as a call to action.
Barrett marched his men from the ridge to a lower point, 200 yards from the North Bridge. As the militia advanced, the two British companies Parsons had left to secure the road to the farm fell back to the bridge, joining the single company there. All told, there were approximately 95 Regulars at the bridge under the leadership of an inexperienced commander.
With the road cleared of Redcoats, Barrett formed his men and ordered them to load their weapons but not to fire unless fired upon. They then began to advance in column on the bridge, prompting the British guards on the near side to retreat to the far side.
Flustered, the British commander formed his men behind the bridge into a column that ran perpendicular to the river, a formation more suitable for street fighting, not open fields. Disorder reigned in the ranks as some obeyed and others sought to form differently.
From the British ranks, a single, panicked warning shot was fired. It was quickly followed by two other off-target shots that triggered the remainder of the British formation to discharge a ragged volley.
At the head of the advancing Minutemen column, Captain Isaac Davis and Private Abner Hosmer fell dead, while four others were wounded. Ordering the men to halt, Major John Buttrick of Concord yelled the fateful order to return fire on the British regulars: ‘Fire, for God’s sake, fellow soldiers, fire!’
Fired from 50 yards away across the Concord River, the colonists’ resulting volley killed three and wounded 13, four of them representing half of the leaders. Lacking competent leadership, outnumbered, outmanoeuvred, and with their spirit broken, the Redcoats broke ranks and fled back to Concord, leaving their dead and wounded behind.
The colonial militia were not only stunned by the Regulars’ disorderly retreat but also by the fact that each side had shot to kill. Though undeclared, war had commenced. As Barrett and the colonials hesitated and sought to make sense of the situation, Smith was able to secure the return of Parson’s men from Barrett’s Farm back to Concord at around 11.30am. At noon, the column was prepared to march the 17 miles back to Boston. By now, the Redcoats had been up and on the move for 15 straight hours.
The British retreat back to Lexington was gruesome. Smith’s earlier message to Gage for reinforcements resulted in a link up in Lexington at 2.30pm with Brigadier General Lord Hugh Percy’s relief brigade of 1,000 men and two 6-pounder field guns. Consolidating forces, the British column resumed its march at 3.30pm.
Closely pursued, the battle ebbed and flowed. By the time Percy made it back to Charlestown, under the protective guns of the Royal Navy, the colonial militia facing them had grown to 4,000. For Smith’s exhausted men, the relief came none too soon. They had marched 40 miles in 21 hours, eight of them under fire.
For the British, the retreat from Concord to Boston had been bloody and humiliating. All told, the Regulars suffered 273 casualties: 73 dead, 174 wounded, and 26 missing in action. Such losses left no doubt that the colonial militia were a formidable foe.
The war dragged on for years with no guarantee of American victory. Finally, though, with their victory at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781, the Americans effectively won their independence – formally recognised by Britain with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783. The flower that finally bloomed in September 1783 can be traced back to the seeds planted in April 1775 at Concord, more than eight years earlier.
Of the three ‘midnight’ riders, Dawes was a participant at the Battle of Bunker Hill – the first major battle of the American Revolution, fought in Charlestown two months later – before fading into obscurity, his grave long forgotten. Revere, ironically, would have a less than stellar military career, charged with cowardice and insubordination in 1779. Court-martialled and dismissed from the militia, he would find success as a businessman, and lived to the age of 83.
Sadly, the details regarding Prescott’s life after his ride are sparse and ambiguous. The general consensus is that he served as a surgeon in the Continental Army and participated in the invasion of Canada. Captured and imprisoned in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Prescott is believed to have died there in 1777. He never did marry the fiancée he was reported to have been visiting that evening in Lexington, and there is no record of where he was buried.
How a conflict starts can be every bit as important as why. The American Civil War had its Fort Sumter. The Spanish American War had its ‘Remember the Maine’. World War II had Pearl Harbor. The Afghanistan conflict had 9/11.
Samuel Prescott’s encounter with Revere and Dawes on the road leading out of Lexington to Concord was nothing more than a chance meeting, but it was one that would lead to a new world. The issue was not if there was going to be a war, but how it was going to start, and how it could be sustained. The colonies were a powder keg – and a powder keg can either flame out, smoulder, or explode.
At Lexington, the powder keg smouldered; at Concord, it exploded with ‘the shot heard around the world’. Prescott’s warnings to towns along the way alerted their militia companies to muster and march to Concord, where they arrived in time to engage the British Army at the Old North Bridge and along its route of retreat. In Concord itself, Prescott’s alarm provided the town’s militia with the opportunity to assemble and evacuate to the ridge overlooking the bridge, where they were able to plan as the situation developed.
Without Prescott’s warning, the famous ‘shot heard around the world’ may not have been fired at the Old North Bridge, had not a large enough militia been mustered in time to confront the Regulars. Without this engagement – the first deadly exchange of fire between the colonial militia and the British Regulars – the chances are there would have been no bloodbath defeat for the British returning to Boston.
The engagements at both Lexington and the Old North Bridge could be construed as minor and major skirmishes. It was the carnage laid on the Regulars during their retreat that elevated the skirmishes to outright war. The rout of the British column provided a significant boost to the colonial militia’s morale. The stand at Concord and subsequent thrashing of the British during their retreat to Boston gave the colonials confidence that they could stand toe to toe with the world’s best. It was a confidence that led to the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775, and which set the tone for the rest of the war.
The British had hoped to stop the war before it started. Instead, the raid on Concord ignited a conflict that would last eight years. The case could be made that without the ‘explosive’ start afforded by Prescott’s warnings, the colonial militia may not have obtained the necessary confidence to sustain such a war of attrition.
The news of Lexington and Concord spread quickly through the colonies. Americans were finally forced to choose between loyalty to the Crown and the revolutionary cause – with no middle ground. On 19 April 1775, the colonial militia came into their own with their first victory against the world’s greatest military power. It would serve as a rallying cry for the battles to come.
Lord Percy, who led the combined British column in retreat to Boston, would later formally report to London. ‘The rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner,’ he wrote, ‘but with perseverance and resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed, they knew too well what was proper, to do so. Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself very much mistaken.’
It was reported that, as the British troops and their German Hessian auxiliaries marched out of Yorktown to surrender in 1781, they played an old English ballad titled ‘The World Turned Upside Down’. Long before Yorktown, however, Prescott’s Butterfly Effect had already turned the world upside down.
While Revere gained eternal acclaim, it was Prescott who really delivered – as the result of an accidental encounter late at night, and of a horse successfully clearing a wall.
John D Lock, Lieutenant-Colonel, US Army (ret’d), is a graduate and former assistant professor of the United States Military Academy, West Point. A Ranger-qualified Master Parachutist and honour graduate from many of the Army’s premier leadership courses, his assignments included the 1st Armored and 82nd Airborne Divisions, as well as serving as the chief NATO SFOR engineer in the Balkans during the Kosovo Campaign.