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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The First Shots of the Revolution
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[A magazine of military stores had been collected at the inland town of Concord, about sixteen miles from Boston. This Gage learned of, and determined to destroy. For this purpose he sent a force by night, on a secret and rapid march. Several British officers posted themselves on the road leading to Concord to intercept any messengers who might be sent out to give warning of this design. But the patriots of Boston were too alert to be thus checked. No sooner had indications of the enterprise appeared than messengers were abroad, and the alarm was rapidly communicated by the ringing of bells and discharge of signal- guns. One citizen of Concord, Reuben Brown by name, "rode a hundred miles in the space of twenty-four hours in order to disseminate the intelligence." The story of this expedition we select from Higginson's "History of the United States."]

When France, in 1763, surrendered Canada to England, it suddenly opened men's eyes to a very astonishing fact. They discovered that British America had at once become a country so large as to make England seem ridiculously small. Even the cool-headed Dr. Franklin, writing that same year to Mary Stevenson in London, spoke of England as "that petty island, which, compared to America, is but a stepping-stone in a brook, scarce enough of it above water to keep one's shoes dry." The far-seeing French statesmen of the period looked at the matter in the same way. Choiseul, the prime minister who ceded Canada, claimed afterwards that he had done it in order to destroy the British nation by creating for it a rival. This assertion was not made till ten years later, and may very likely have been an after-thought, but it was destined to be confirmed by the facts..

Boston in the winter of 1774-75 was a town of some seventeen thousand inhabitants, garrisoned by some three thousand British troops. It was the only place in the Massachusetts colony where the royal governor exercised any real authority, and where the laws of Parliament had any force. The result was that its life was paralyzed, its people gloomy, and its commerce dead. The other colonies were still hoping to obtain their rights by policy or by legislation, by refusing to import or to consume, and they watched with constant solicitude for some riotous demonstration in Boston. On the other hand, the popular leaders in that town were taking the greatest pains that there should be no outbreak. There was risk of one whenever soldiers were sent on any expedition into the country. One might have taken place at Marshfield in January, one almost happened at Salem in February, yet still it was postponed. No publicity was given to the patriotic military organizations in Boston; as little as possible was said about the arms and stores that were gathered in the country. Not a life had been lost in any popular excitement since the Boston Massacre in 1770. The responsibility of the first shot, the people were determined, must rest upon the royal troops. So far was this carried that it was honestly attributed by the British soldiers to cowardice alone. An officer, quoted by Frothingham, wrote home in November, 1774, "As to what you hear of their taking arms to resist the force of England, it is mere bullying, and will go no further than words; whenever it comes to blows he that can run the fastest will think himself best off. Believe me, any two regiments here ought to be decimated if they did not beat in the field the whole force of the Massachusetts province; for, though they are numerous, they are but a mere mob, without order or discipline, and very awkward at handling their arms."

But, whatever may have been the hope of carrying their point without fighting, the provincial authorities were steadily collecting provisions, arms, and ammunition. Unhappily, these essentials were hard to obtain. On April 19,1775, the committee of safety could only count up twelve field-pieces in Massachusetts; and there had been collected in that colony 21,549 fire-arms, 17,441 pounds of powder, 22,191 pounds of ball, 144,699 flints, 10,108 bayonets, 11,979 pouches, 15,000 canteens. There were also 17,000 pounds of salt fish, 35,000 pounds of rice, with large quantities of beef and pork. Viewed as an evidence of the forethought of the colonists, these statistics are remarkable; but there was something heroic and indeed almost pathetic in the project of going to war with the British government on the strength of twelve field-pieces and seventeen thousand pounds of salt fish.

Yet when, on the night of the 18th of April, 1775, Paul Revere rode beneath the bright moonlight through Lexington to Concord, with Dawes and Prescott for comrades, he was carrying the signal for the independence of a nation. He had seen across the Charles River the two lights from the church-steeple in Boston which were to show that a British force was going out to seize the patricotic supplies at Concord; he had warned Hancock and Adams at Rev. Jonas Clark's parsonage in Lexington, and had rejected Sergeant Monroe's caution against unnecessary noise, with the rejoinder, "You'll have noise enough here before long: the regulars are coming out." As he galloped on his way the regulars were advancing with steady step behind him, soon warned of their own danger by alarm- bells and signal-guns. When Revere was captured by some British officers who happened to be near Concord, Colonel Smith, the commander of the expedition, had already halted, ordered Pitcairn forward, and sent back prudently for reinforcements. It was a night of terror to all the neighboring Middlesex towns, for no one knew what excesses the angry British troops might commit on their return march..

Before 5 A.M. on April 19, 1775, the British troops had reached Lexington Green, where thirty-eight men, under Captain Parker, stood up before six hundred or eight hundred to be shot at, their captain saying, "Don't fire unless you are fired on; but if they want a war, let it begin here." It began there; they were fired upon; they fired rather ineffectually in return, while seven were killed and nine wounded. The rest, after retreating, reformed and pursued the British towards Concord, capturing seven stragglers,--the first prisoners taken in the war. Then followed the fight at Concord, where four hundred and fifty Americans, instead of thirty-eight, were rallied to meet the British. The fighting took place between two detachments at the North Bridge, where

"once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world."

There the American, captain, Isaac Davis, was killed at the first shot, --he who had said, when his company was placed at the head of the little column, "I haven't a man that is afraid to go." He fell, and Major Buttrick gave the order, "Fire! for God's sake, fire!" in return. The British detachment retreated in disorder, but their main body was too strong to be attacked, so they disabled a few cannon, destroyed some barrels of flour, cut down the liberty-pole, set fire to the court-house, and then began their return march. It ended in a flight; they were exposed to a constant guerilla fire; minute-men flocked behind every tree and house; and only the foresight of Colonel Smith in sending for reinforcements had averted a surrender. At 2 P. M., near Lexington, Percy with his troops met the returning fugitives, and formed a hollow square, into which they ran and threw themselves on the ground exhausted. Then Percy in turn fell back. Militia still came pouring in from Dorchester, Milton, Dedham, as well as the nearer towns. A company from Danvers marched sixteen miles in four hours. The Americans lost ninety-three in killed, wounded, and missing that day; the British, two hundred and seventy-three. But the important result was that every American colony now recognized that war had begun..

The committee [of safety] had authority from the Provincial Congress to order out the militia, and General Heath, who was a member of the committee, rode to take command of the provincials, with Warren by his side, who was sufficiently exposed that day to have a musket-ball strike the pin out of the hair of his ear-lock. The two continued together till the British army had crossed Charlestown Neck on its retreat, and made a stand on Bunker Hill. There they were covered by the ships. The militia were ordered to pursue no farther, and General Heath held the first council of war of the Revolution at the foot of Prospect Hill..

It is always hard to interpret the precise condition of public feeling just before a war. It is plain that the Massachusetts committee expected something more than a contest of words when they made so many preparations. On the other hand, it is evident that hardly any one looked forward to any serious and prolonged strife. Dr. Warren wrote, soon after the 19th of April, "The people never seemed in earnest about the matter until after the engagement of the 19th ult., and I verily believe that the night preceding the barbarous outrages committed by the soldiery at Lexington, Concord, etc., there were not fifty people in the whole colony that ever expected any blood would be shed in the contest between us and Great Britain." Yet two days after the fight at Lexington the Massachusetts committee of safety resolved to enlist eight thousand men. Two days after that the news reached New York at noon. There was a popular outbreak; the royal troops were disarmed, the forts and magazines seized, and two transports for Boston unloaded. At five o'clock on Monday afternoon the tidings reached Philadelphia, when the bell in Independence Hall was rung, and the people gathered in numbers. When it got so far as Charleston, South Carolina, the people sized the arsenal, and the Provincial Congress proclaimed them "ready to sacrifice their lives and fortunes." In Savannah, Georgia, a mob took possession of the powder-magazine, and raised a liberty-pole. In Kentucky a party of hunters, hearing of the battle, gave their encampment the name of Lexington, which it still bears; and thus the news went on.

Meanwhile, on May 10, the Continental Congress convened, and on the same day Ethan Allen took possession of the strong fortress of Ticonderoga. It was the first act of positive aggression by the patriotic party, for at both Lexington and Concord they were acting on the defensive. The expedition was planned in Connecticut and reinforced in western Massachusetts, but the main reliance was to be placed on Ethan Allen and his "Green Mountain Boys," whose daring and energy were already well known. Benedict Arnold, who had been commissioned in Massachusetts for the same purpose, arrived only in time to join the expedition as a volunteer. On May 10, 1775, eighty-three men crossed the lake with Allen. When they had landed, he warned them that it was a dangerous enterprise, and called for volunteers. Every man volunteered. The rest took but a few moments. They entered with a war-whoop the open wicket-gate, pressing by the sentinel, and when the half-clad commander appeared and asked their authority, Allen answered with the words that have become historic, "In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress."

The Congress was only to meet that day, but it appeared already to be exercising a sort of antenatal authority, and a fortress which had cost eight million pounds sterling and many lives was placed in its hands by a mere stroke of boldness. Crown Point gave itself up with equal ease to Seth Warner, and another dramatic surprise was given to the new-born nation.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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