The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book....
Captain Parker’s men waited nervously for the arrival of the British regulars. As the troops approached, many began to realize the danger they were in. One was bold enough to tell Parker “There are so few of us! It is folly to stand here!” The militia captain, ignoring the outcry, turned to his company and stated “Let the troops pass by, and don't molest them, without they begin first.”
Pitcairn was confronted with a military quandary. If he chose to ignore the militia company drawn up on the village common, he would be leaving an armed opponent to his rear. If he halted, he could exacerbate an already tense situation.
The light infantry officers in the lead company of the column, the 4th Regiment of Foot, resolved Pitcairn’s dilemma by directing their men towards the Lexington militia. The next regiment, the 10th Regiment of Foot, quickly followed. The two lead companies raced towards the increasingly nervous militia. Suddenly, they deployed into a line of battle and began to shout “Huzzah!” Pitcairn, realizing the situation was getting out of hand, “instantly called to the soldiers not to fire, but rather to surround and disarm the militiamen.” Many of the excited troops and officers may never have heard this order as they continued to shout and yell. Lieutenant Edward Gould of the 4th Foot later testified that he could not hear above the noise his men were making.
Pitcairn and other officers then rode towards Captain Parker and his men. According to Sutherland, several officers began to shout, “throw down your arms and you shall come by no harm, or words to that effect.” Private James Marr of the 4th Foot believed Pitcairn exclaimed, “Stop you rebels!” However, many of the Lexington militiamen later asserted that the officers shouted “Lay down your arms, Damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms?” Militiaman John Robbins, who was in the front rank as the regulars approached, recalled the officers chastised the militia by stating, “Throw down your arms ye Villians, ye Rebels!” Spectator Thomas Fessenden heard an officer order “Disperse you rebels, immediately.” Jonas Clarke, believed he heard an officer demand “Ye villains! Ye rebels! Disperse, damn you! Disperse!”
Recognizing the situation was becoming more and more dangerous, Parker turned to his men and issued new orders. “I immediately ordered our militia to disperse, and not to fire.” Most of the men obeyed his command and began to file off the common. Some, however, either did not hear Parker’s order or chose to ignore it. As a result, several Lexington men held their ground as the light infantry surged forward.
Suddenly, a single shot rang out. Revere, who was still in the woods with Lowell, said later he could not determine the source of the shot. Lieutenant Edward Gould also stated he could not determine where the shot came from. Many of the British officers believed the provincials fired at them. Major Pitcairn reported that “some of the rebels who had jumped over the wall, fired four or five shott 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 shott were fired from a meeting house on our left.” According to Lieutenant Sutherland, “instantly, some of the Villains who got over the hedge fired at us which our men for the first time returned.” Even Lieutenant Colonel Smith, who was not present, asserted “[our] troops advanced towards them, without any intention of injuring them, further than to inquire the reason of their being thus assembled, and if not satisfactory, to have secured their arms; but they in confusion went off, principally to the left, only one of them fired before he went off, and three or four more jumped over a wall and fired from behind it among the soldiers; on which the troops returned it.”
Months later, as he lay dying from wounds sustained at Bunker Hill, Major Pitcairn again spoke of the Battle of Lexington. According to Ezra Stiles, Pictairn asserted he was “riding up to them, he ordered them to disperse; which they did not do instantly, he turned about and ordered his troops to draw out so as to surround and disarm them. As he turned, he saw a gun in a peasant’s hand, from behind a wall, flash in the pan without going off; and instantly, or very soon, two or three guns went off . . . [the] guns he did not see; but believing they could not come from his own people, and that thus, they began the attack.”
From the provincial point of view, the first shot was from the King’s army. Simon Winship described an officer on horseback “flourishing his sword, and with a loud voice, giving the word fire, fire, which was instantly followed by a discharge of arms from the said regular troops.” Nathan Munroe contradicted William Sutherland when he stated he stumbled over a wall into John Buckman’s land, about six rods from the British, and then turned and fired at the regulars only after they had fired at him first. Jonas Clarke insisted one of the mounted officers with the expedition fired the first shot. “The second of these officers, about this time, fired a pistol towards the militia as they were dispersing. The foremost, who was within a few yards of our men, brandishing his sword, and then pointing towards them, with a loud voice said to the troops: ‘Fire! By God, fire!’--which was instantly followed by discharge of arms from the said troops, succeeded by a very heavy and close fire upon our dispersing party, so long as any of them were within reach.” John Robbins agreed with him, stating, “the foremost of the three officers order’d their men, saying fire, by God, fire! At which moment we received a very heavy and close fire from them.” Even John Bateman, a British soldier with the 52nd Regiment of Foot, declared he “was in the Party marching to Concord, that I heard the word of command given to the troops to fire, and some of the troops did fire.”
Although the source of the shot will never be known, what happened next is. The light infantry began to fire either with or without orders. “Upon hearing the report of a pistol or gun, then the Regulars huzzaed and fired, first two more guns, then the advanced guard and so the whole body.”
At first, the militiamen thought the regulars were firing blanks. Yet, when Elijah Sanderson saw a light infantryman fire at a man behind a stone wall, he observed “the wall smoke with bullets hitting it. I realized they were firing balls.” Ebenezer and John Munroe also believed the troops were firing only powder until Ebenezer Munroe was wounded in the arm. Angered by his injury, the militia man returned fire, screaming, “I’ll give them the guts of my gun!”
With the volley, the spectators gathered along the edges of the common broke and ran. Timothy Smith, who was watching the events unfold, recalled that he “immediately ran, and a volley was discharged at me, which put me in imminent danger of losing my life.” Thomas Fessenden later testified, “I ran off as fast as I could.” Benjamin Tidd and Joseph Abbot of Lincoln lost control of their horses, as did Lieutenant Sutherland whose horse bolted, carrying him through the ranks of the fleeing militia and several hundred yards down Bedford Road.
The regulars continued to fire, “made a huzza” and charged furiously towards the retiring militia. As the light infantry surged forward, Ebenezer Munroe remembered Jonas Parker "standing . . .with his balls and flints in his hat, on the ground between his feet, and heard him declare he would never run. He was shot down at the second fire . . . I saw him struggling on the ground, attempting to load his gun . . .As he lay on the ground, they [ran] him through with the bayonet."
Photo Credit Jennifer Wilbur Heim
John and Ebenezer Munroe also returned fire. According to John Munroe, he retreated ten rods, fired and then reloaded, ramming two lead balls down the barrel of his musket. The force of the charge took off a foot of his musket’s barrel. Ebenezer Munroe believed “there was no chance for escape and that I might as well fire my gun as stand still and do nothing.” In an interview with the Reverend Gordon, James Brown stated “being got over the wall, and seeing the soldiers fire pretty freely, he fired upon them, and others did the same.” According to Lieutenant Tidd, he retreated “up the north road and was pursued about thirty rods by an officer on horseback . . . I found I could not escape him unless I left the road. Therefore I sprang over a pair of bars, made a stand and discharged my gun at him; upon which he immediately returned to the main body.”
Solomon Brown ran across Bedford Road, hopped over a stone wall and fired at the regulars. When they returned fire, the young man ran into Buckman Tavern through the back door. Once inside, he sprinted over to the front door, kicked it open and fired two more shots. Believing that Brown’s actions would lead to the tavern being burned to the ground, Buckman physically ejected Brown from the establishment; forcing him to seek cover in the woods.
Yet very few militiamen returned fire. Nathaniel Mulliken stated, “not a gun was fired, by any person in our company, on the regulars.” A year later, the Reverend Clarke strongly asserted, “far from firing first upon the King’s troops; upon most careful inquiry it appears that very few of our people fired at all and even they did not fire till, after being fired upon by the troops, they were wounded themselves.” Several militiamen later testified “we attended the beat of our Drum, and were formed on the Parade; we were faced towards the Regulars then marching up to us, and some of our Company were comeing to the parade with their backs towards the Troops, and Others on the parade, began to Disperse when the Regulars fired on the Company, before a Gun was fired by any of our company on them.” The British sustained only three light injuries. The toll was very heavy for the Lexington Training Band. Eight men were killed and eleven more were wounded in the brief encounter.