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Monday, December 15, 2014

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT THE BATTLE OF LEXINGTON



I learned earlier this week that the American Heroes Channel is sponsoring a three part series entitled "The American Revolution." The producers proudly assert that the events portrayed are extremely accurate and on par with a museum production. For a brief moment I believed that Hollywood and the entertainment industry would finally provide an accurate and truthful presentation that the American Revolution so deserves.


Instead, I found this gem...http://www.ahctv.com/tv-shows/the-american-revolution/the-american-revolution-video/the-battle-of-lexington.htm


Once again it appears that historical accuracy is sacrificed for the purpose of entertainment.


Right out of the gate, I noticed that the Battle of Lexington segment featured a historian who has no credentials linked to April 19, 1775 or the Battle of Lexington. Worse, the Battle of Lexington, as depicted in "The American Revolution", is woefully inaccurate and replete with factual inaccuracies. For the producers to say the Lexington militia were all armed with squirrel rifles, that the "minutemen" actually blockaded the Road to Concord, and that the battle took place in a random field outside of Lexington is unacceptable and grossly misleading. To be blunt, the producers should be ashamed of themselves.


So what really did happen at the Battle of Lexington? The expedition to Concord, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Smith of the army and Major John Pitcairn of the  Marines, consisted of over seven hundred men. The force was composed of one company of marines, and the grenadier and light infantry companies of eleven different regiments.[1] The troops had begun crossing the Charles River by boat at ten o’clock at night and completed their landing at Phips Farm in Cambridge shortly after midnight. For the next two hours, the entire expedition stood in the freezing marshes until rations that they did not need arrived and were handed out.


When the expedition finally got under way at two o’clock in the morning, Colonel Smith soon realized that the entire countryside seemed to know of its existence. As Smith reported days later, “notwithstanding we marched with the utmost expedition and secrecy, we found the country had intelligence or strong suspicion of our coming, and fired many signal guns, and rung alarm bells repeatedly.”[2] Realizing that the expedition was running behind schedule and that the success of the mission was in jeopardy, Smith halted the column upon reaching Menotomy. There, he gave his men a short rest and summonsed Pitcairn. He ordered the Major to take the six companies of light infantry and “march with all expedition to seize the two bridges on different roads beyond Concord.”[3] Pitcairn set off immediately, pushing his detachment hard, and sent forward an advance guard consisting of Lieutenant Jesse Adair of the Marines, loyalist guide Daniel Murray, several other officers and eight light infantrymen.


As Pitcairn’s force pushed forward, the advance guard captured two alarm riders, Asahel Porter and Josiah Richardson of Woburn. As the two riders were taken into custody, signal guns and alarm bells began to sound. Hearing the alarms, Smith +ordered an officer to return to Boston to request reinforcements. At the front of Pitcairn’s column the sound of many galloping horses was heard, and into the ranks of the advance guard rode Major Mitchell’s party which had earlier captured Revere and three Lexington riders. As Lieutenant William Sutherland of the 38th Regiment of Foot remembered, “[we] were joined by Major Mitchell . . . and several other gentlemen who told us the whole Country was alarmed and had Galloped for their lives, or words to that purpose.”[4]


Yet, Pitcairn was determined to press ahead to Concord. As the expedition marched forward, a third alarm rider, Simon Winship of Lexington, was captured. However, unlike his two predecessors, he refused to dismount and had to be dragged off his horse at gunpoint.[5] The column encountered other individuals on the road that morning both on horse and on foot. Each of them, when questioned by the officers, emphasized that a large body of militia was gathered in Lexington and would resist the regulars if they continued their march to Concord.[6]


As the column crossed into Lexington, Lieutenant Sutherland physically collided with Benjamin Wellington, a thirty-one-year-old Lexington resident who had his musket and bayonet in hand. “I . . . mett one of them in the teeth whom I obliged to give up his firelock and bayonet, which I believe he would not have done so easily but for Mr. Adair’s coming up.”[7] Wellington was forced to surrender his musket and then ordered to go home. Instead, he hurried back to the village common and rearmed himself with another musket from the town’s supply of weapons stored in the meetinghouse.


As the column closed in on Lexington’s common, a British sergeant reported that a party of colonial horsemen rode out from the village and shouted, “[you] had better turn back, for you shall not enter the town!” One of the mounted men then “presented a musquet and attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan.”[8] According to Lieutenant Sutherland, another individual fired at him from the vicinity of Buckman’s Tavern.[9] He reported this to Pitcairn who then galloped to the front of the column, halted the men and ordered them to load their muskets.[10] “On this, I gave directions to the troops to move forward, but on no account to Fire, or even attempt it without Orders.”[11]


William Sutherland noted “shots fired to the right and left of us, but as we heard no whissing of balls, I [concluded] they were to Alarm the body that was there of our approach.”[12] Off in the distance, militiamen could be seen hurrying into line. “The road before you go into Lexington is level for about 1000 yards . . . when we came up to the main body which appeared to me to Exceed 400 in and about the village who were drawn up in a plain opposite the church.”[13]


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!”[14] 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.”[15]


Pitcairn now faced 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.[16]


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!”[17] 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.”[18] Many of the excited troops may never have heard this order as they continued to shout their “huzzahs!” Perhaps some of the officers also did not hear his order. Lieutenant Edward Gould of the 4th Foot later testified that he could not hear above the noise his men were making.[19]


Pitcairn and other officers 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.”[20] Private James Marr of the 4th Foot believed Pitcairn exclaimed, “Stop you rebels!”[21] 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?”[22] Militiaman John Robbins, who was in the front rank of the training band as the regulars approached, recalled the officers chastised the militia by stating, “Throw down your arms ye Villians, ye Rebels!”[23] Spectator Thomas Fessenden heard an officer order “Disperse you rebels, immediately.”[24] Jonas Clarke, believed he heard an officer demand “Ye villains! Ye rebels! Disperse, damn you! Disperse!”[25]


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.”[26] 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 the source of the shot, as his men were making too much noise. Many of the British officers believed a provincial fired the mysterious shot. 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.”[27] 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.”[28] Even Lieutenant Colonel Smith 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.”[29]


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.”[30]


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.”[31] 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.[32] 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.”[33] 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.”[34] 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.”[35]


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.”[36]


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.”[37] 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.”[38] Thomas Fessenden later testified, “I ran off as fast as I could.”[39] 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.[40]


The regulars continued to fire, “made a huzza” and rushed furiously towards the retiring militia.[41] 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.[42]


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.”[43] 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.”[44] 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.”[45]


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.[46]


Yet very few militiamen returned fire. Nathaniel Mulliken stated, “not a gun was fired, by any person in our company, on the regulars.”[47] 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.”[48] 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.”[49] The British sustained only three light injuries. Yet, the toll was very heavy for the Lexington Training Band. Eight men were killed and ten more were wounded in the brief encounter.


John Brown and Samuel Hadley were both shot in the back as they ran from the common. Jonathan Harrington was mortally wounded only a few yards from his home. Tragically, his wife and children watched as he desperately crawled towards them. He died in his wife’s arms on the doorstep of his home. Woburn’s Asahel Porter, who was taken prisoner earlier in the morning, was killed as he tried to flee from his captors. Caleb Harrington was killed as he exited the meetinghouse when the skirmish started. Joseph Comee was wounded in the arm as he also tried to escape the building. Remaining inside the meetinghouse, Joshua Simmonds, retreated to the upper loft where the town’s supply of gunpowder was stored and thrust his loaded weapon into a barrel of powder. If the regulars attempted to storm the building, he was determined to destroy it.[50]


As the slaughter continued, Isaac Muzzey was killed and nine more militiamen were wounded, including the African-American slave Price Estabrook. In the space of five minutes, perhaps nearly one-third of the members of the Lexington Training Band who had mustered on the common had become casualties.


When Lieutenant Colonel Smith arrived on the scene, the bodies of dead and wounded militiamen littered the field, his troops were firing in every direction and some were even then preparing to storm the meetinghouse and nearby homes. Major Pitcairn was desperately attempting to regain control, swinging his sword downwards “with all earnestness, as a signal to forbear or cease fire.”[51] Smith realized that order must be restored, and he began to search for a drummer to sound the recall. He approached Lieutenant Sutherland, asked him “do you know where a drum is, which I found, who immediately beat to Arms . . . the men ceased firing”[52] and sullenly returned to ranks.


Smith gathered his officers around him. Lieutenant Sutherland continued, “Col. Smith and Major Pitcairn regretted in my hearing the too great warmth of the soldiers in not attending to their officers and in keeping their ranks and in recommending a more steady conduct to them for the future.”[53] At its conclusion of the meeting, the officers and regulars resumed the march to Concord.


As the soldiers left the onslaught behind them, the spectators emerged from hiding and made their way onto the common. Many were overcome with emotion and grief at the sight of husbands, sons, brothers, cousins and neighbors lying dead or wounded on the field. As they began to tend to the wounded, over two hundred men from Woburn’s militia and minuteman companies arrived in Lexington. Disturbed at what they saw, the men halted and assisted the Lexington residents in treating the wounded and carrying the dead into the meetinghouse. Afterwards, the Woburn men reassembled and resumed their march toward Concord.[54]


Suddenly, at least five British regulars who had fallen behind the main column appeared along the Boston road. The soldiers were immediately set upon and forced to surrender. They were stripped of their muskets and equipment and marched to the common. Later in the morning, the soldiers were transferred under guard to James Reed’s residence in Woburn.[55] The captured muskets and equipment were re-distributed by Ebenezer Munroe to other Lexington militiamen.


Hopefully the remaining segments are treated better than this presentation. However, given one of the advertised "historians" for this series includes a comic book artist who specializes in historical fantasy I'm not holding my breath.








[1] The expedition was composed of the flank (grenadier and light infantry) companies from the following regiments: The 4th, 5th, 10th, 18th, 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 52nd, 59th and the Marines.  The 18th Regiment of Foot only contributed its grenadier company to the expedition.


[2] Report of Lieutenant-Colonel Smith to General Gage, April 22, 1775.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Letter from Lt. William Sutherland to Major Kemble, April 27, 1775.


[5] Deposition of Simon Winship, April 25, 1775.


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Letter from Major Pitcairn to General Gage, April 26, 1775.


[9] “A fellow from the corner of the road on the right hand Cock’d his piece at me, burnt priming. . . we did not return [fire]”


[10] “Simon Winship of Lexington, declared that being upon the road about four o’clock, two miles and an half on this side of the meeting house, he was stopped by the Regulars, and commanded by some of the officers to dismount or he was a dead man; that he obliged to march with the said Troops until he came within about half a quarter of a mile of the said meeting house, when an officer commanded the Troops to halt, and then to prime and load.” An account of the commencement of Hostilities between Great Britain and America, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay. By the Reverend Mr. William Gordon of Roxbury, in a Letter to a Gentlemen in England, dated May 17, 1775; Fischer, 187.


[11] Pitcairn to Gage.


[12] Sutherland to Kemble.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Deposition of Sylvanus Wood, June 17, 1826.


[15] Revere Deposition. According to legend, Captain Parker stated, “The first man who offers to run shall be shot down! Stand your ground! Don’t fire unless fired upon! But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!” William Munroe Deposition; See Fischer 400, Fn 21.


[16] Fischer, 189.


[17] Depositions of Thomas Rice Willard, April 23, 1775. The battle cry “huzzah” is actually pronounced “hu-zay”. As the lights from the 4th and 10th Regiments surged forward, Pitcairn, from his vantage point further back, recognized what had occurred. He rode ahead and redirected three of the companies that had not marched onto the common back onto Concord Road. However, at the same time, an unidentified officer steered the light company of the 5th Regiment of Foot onto Bedford Road.


[18] Pitcairn to Gage.


[19] Deposition of Lieutenant Edward Thronton Gould of His Majesty’s Own Regiment of Foot, April 25, 1775.


[20] Sutherland to Kemble.


[21] Gordon, “An account of the commencement of Hostilities . . .”


[22] Willard Deposition.


[23] Deposition of John Robins, April 24, 1775.


[24] Deposition of Thomas Fessenden, April 23, 1775.


[25] Clarke, “A Brief Narrative . . .”.


[26] Deposition of John Parker, April 25, 1775.


[27] Pitcairn to Gage.


[28] Sutherland to Kemble.


[29] Smith to Gage.


[30] Diary of Ezra Stiles, August 19, 1775.


[31] Winship Deposition.


[32] Deposition of Nathan Munroe, December 22, 1824.


[33] Clarke, “A Brief Narrative . . .”


[34] Deposition of John Robins, April 24, 1775.


[35] Deposition of John Bateman, April 23, 1775. Samuel Lee, a private in the 18th Foot asserted Pitcairn “fired his pistol, drew his sword and ordered them to fire.” Gordon, “An account of the commencement of Hostilities . . .”


[36] Gordon, “An account of the commencement of Hostilities . . .” For a detailed description of this volley, see Fisher, 195.


[37] Fischer, 195.


[38] Deposition of Timothy Smith, April 25, 1775.


[39] Fessenden Deposition.


[40] Sutherland to Kemble.


[41] Deposition of Captain John Parker, April 25, 1775; Deposition of William Draper, April 25, 1775. “The balls flew so thick, I thought there was no chance for escape.” Deposition of Ebenezer Munroe, April 2, 1825.


[42] Deposition of Ebenezer Munroe, April 2, 1825.


[43] Ibid.


[44] Gordon, “An account of the commencement of Hostilities . . .”


[45] Deposition of William Tidd, December 29, 1824.


[46] “As I left the field, I saw a person firing at the British troops from Buckman’s back door . . . I was afterward told . . . that the same person, after firing from the back door, went to the front door of Buckman’s house and fired there.” Deposition of William Munore, March 7, 1825.


[47] Deposition of Nathaniel Mulliken, April 25, 1775.


[48] Clarke, “A Brief Narrative . . .”


[49] Depositions of Nathanael Parkhurst, Jonas Parker, John Munroe, jun. John Winship, Solomon Pierce, John Muzzy, Abner Meeds, John Bridge, jun. Ebenezer Bowman, William Munroe the 3d, Micah Hager, Samuel Saunderson, Samuel Hastings, and James Brown, April 25, 1775.


[50] Fischer, 198.


[51] Stiles, August 19, 1775.


[52] Sutherland to Kemble.


[53] Ibid.


[54] According to Major Loammi Baldwin of Woburn, “We mustered as fast as possible. The Town turned out extra-ordinary, and proceeded toward Lexington . . . I rode along a little before the main body, and when I was nigh Jacob Reed’s I heard a great firing; proceeded on, soon heard that the Regulars had fired upon Lexington people and killed a large number of them. We proceeded on as fast as possible and came to Lexington and saw about eight or ten dead and numbers wounded.”


[55] Deposition of James Reed, January 19, 1825. According to Reed, the prisoners were transferred from Woburn to Billerica. When Billerica residents objected to the presence of British soldiers in their town, the regulars were moved to Chelmsford.

3 comments:

  1. Nice to see someone trying to correct the record. You did a generally good job. But Smith's force consisted of 21 companies. Light infantry and grenadier companies of the 4th, 5th, 10th, 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 52nd, 59th, and Marines. The 18th had only its grenadier company in Boston. There was no extra company of Marines, just the two flank companies.

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  2. Thank you so much for the correction! I will make the appropriate change. Interesting note regarding the Marines. You are correct that only the flank companies accompanied Smith's expedition, but there was a battalion company of Marines that accompanied Percy's Relief Column. Thanks again!

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  3. All 8 battalion companies were with Percy. And all the Marine companies were on a much bigger establishment than the marching regiments. Companies in Pitccairn's battalion were at or around 100 or more men each. That accounts for the high proportion of casualties among them.

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