THE SKIRMISHES OF LEXINGTON AND CONCORD were such pulsations of an excited people as not to have a proper place in a strict Battle Record, except as they mark the progress of public sentiment toward the maturing issue of general war.
Raw militia, jealous of the right to bear arms, and thoroughly set in purpose, to vindicate that right and all the franchises of a free people, by the extreme test of liberty or life, had faced the disciplined troops of Great Britain, without fear or penalty.
The quickening sentiment which gave nerve to the arm, steadiness to the heart, and force to the blow, was one of those historic expressions of human will, which over-master discipline itself. It was the method of an inspired madness. The onset swept back a solid column of trained soldiers, because the moral force of the energizing passion was imperative and supreme. No troops in the world could have resisted that movement. Discipline, training, and courage are exponents of real power; but there must be something more than these to enable any moderate force of armed men to cope with a people already on fire with the conviction, that the representatives of national force are employed to smother the national life. The troops them selves had a hard ordeal to undergo. Sent out to collect or destroy some munitions of war, and not to engage an enemy, they were under a restraint that stripped them of real fitness to meet so startling an issue as one of open resistance and active assault. There was a clear reluctance on their part, to use force until the first hasty delivery of fire opened hostilities.
The ill-judged policy which precipitated these memorable skirmishes was directly in the way of military success. It impaired the confidence of soldiers in their ability to maintain the impending struggle, while at the same time intensifying the fever and strengthening the nerve of the uprising commons.
Lexington and Concord were the exponents of that daring which made the resistance on Breed's Hill possible. The invincibility of discipline was shattered, when the prestige of the army went down before the rifles of farmers. The first tendency was to make those farmers too confident of the physical strength of moral opinions, and to underrate the value of an organized force. Years of sacrifice and waste, enforced an appreciation of its value ; and the failures, flights, and untoward vicissitudes of many battle-fields were made their instructors in the art of war.
The military demonstration of April eighth, 1775, was but supplemental to similar movements for the suppression of the general arming, and for the seizure of guns and powder, which began in 1774.
A battery had been established on Boston Neck as early as Au gust of that year. The citizens had refused to furnish quarters for the royal troops, and when the government, during the month of September, attempted to build public barracks, the mechanics of Boston refused to work at any price, and both artisans and laborers had to be brought from the colony of New York. Under date of August twenty-seventh, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren wrote as follows: "As yet, we have been preserved from action with the soldiery, and we shall endeavor to avoid it until we see that it is necessary, and a settled plan is fixed on for that purpose."
The Provincial Congress that organized October twenty-sixth adopted a plan for the organization of the militia, with the express understanding that one-fourth of the aggregate force should be in readiness for service at the shortest notice. The "minute men " of the Revolution, were thus called into being.
Artemas Ward and Seth Pomeroy were chosen general officers. A concentration of military stores and arms at Concord and Worcester was formally authorized. Under date of November tenth, General Gage denounced as treasonable the proceedings of that body.
On the ninth day of February, 1776, a second Provincial Congress, "empowered and directed the Committee of Public Safety, to assemble the militia whenever it was required, to resist the execution of certain Acts of Parliament," just then promulgated.
The following citizens composed that committee, viz., John Han cock, Joseph Warren, Benjamin Church, Richard Devens, Benjamin White, Joseph Palmer, Abraham Watson, Azor Orne, John Pigeon, William Heath, and Thomas Gardner.
The following "Committee of Supplies," was announced, viz., Elbridge Gerry, David Cheever, Benjamin Lincoln, Moses Gill, and Benjamin Hall.
At the same time, John Thomas and William Heath were added to the list of general officers. That legislative body went so far as to warn the people that it was, "The Christian and social duty of each individual, with a proper sense of dependence on God, to defend those rights which heaven gave them, and no one ought to take from them."
By the first day of January, 1775, the garrison of Boston had been increased to thirty-five hundred men, and mounted three hundred and seventy men as a daily guard-detail, besides a field-officers' guard of one hundred and fifty men on Boston Neck. Three brigades were organized and were officered, respectively, by Generals Lord Percy, Pigott and Jones. In November of 1774, General Gage had advised the British government, that he, "was confident, that to begin with an army twenty thousand strong, would in the end save Great Britain blood and treasure."
Meanwhile, the militia drilled openly, rapidly completed company organizations, and made many sacrifices to procure arms, powder and other materials of war. The Home government, in view of the serious aspect of affairs, ordered Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne to join General Gage, and announced that "ample reinforcements would be sent out, and the most speedy and effectual measures would be taken to put down the rebellion,"then pronounced to already exist.
On the eighth of April, the Provincial Congress resolved to take effectual measures to raise an army, and requested the cooperation of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. On the thirteenth, it voted to raise six companies of artillery, to pay them, and keep them at drill. On the fourteenth, it advised citizens to leave Boston and to remove to the country. On the fifteenth, it solemnly appointed a day for "Public Fasting and Prayer," and adjourned to the tenth day of May.
The Committee of Public Safety at once undertook the task of securing powder, cannon and small arms. A practical embargo was laid upon all trade with Boston. The garrison could obtain supplies only with great difficulty, and, as stated by Gordon, "nothing was wanting but a spark, to set the whole continent in a flame."
As a matter of military policy, the statesmanship of war, the whole drift of the Governor's conduct was not to placate, but to excite the people. It was the precursor of military failure. All demonstrations were those of force, and not those of wisdom., or comity. His purpose to seize the stores then accumulating at Con cord had no endorsement of his officers or council, for he advised with neither. It was predicated upon his individual opinion, by which he afterwards sought to justify his conduct, that the show of force in the field and the arrest of leading patriots would extinguish the rebellion.
This rapid and very partial outline of events which immediately preceded the skirmishes of Concord and Lexington, is important in order to disclose the circumstances which so quickly culminated in the siege of Boston, the action on Breed's Hill, and the evacuation of the city. General Gage, as he said, communicated his plan for seizure of the stores at Concord to but one person, and yet it was soon known to Hancock and Adams, so that the colonists took prompt measures to meet the issue. When Lord Percy left Head quarters on the evening of April eighteenth, he passed a group of men, on Boston Common, and heard one man say: "The British troops have marched, but they will miss their aim." "What aim?" inquired Lord Percy, "Why, the cannon at Concord," was the reply.
The detachment, consisting of the Grenadiers of the garrison, the Light Infantry, and Major Pitcairn, of the Marines, all under command of Lieutenant Colonel Smith of the Tenth regiment of infantry, started on the night of the eighteenth, with every reason to believe that their movement was a secret to all but the Governor and themselves. Taking boats up the Charles river as far as Phipps farm, now Lechmere Point, they landed promptly, and pushed for Concord, twenty miles from Boston. The ringing of bells and the firing of small arms soon showed that the country was aroused. A messenger was sent for reinforcements. Sixteen companies of foot, and a detachment of marines, under Lord Percy, was promptly advanced to their support, uniting with them at about two o'clock in the afternoon, on their return from Concord, and making the aggregate of the entire command about eighteen hundred men.
This eventful day closed. The stores at Concord, which had not been removed, were destroyed. The casualties on the British side were seventy-three killed, one hundred and seventy four wounded, twenty six missing. The colonists lost forty-nine killed, thirty-nine wounded, and five missing.
Stedman thus sums up the result. "The events of the day on which blood was first shed, in the contest between Great Britain and her colonies, served to show that if the Americans were unacquainted with military discipline, they were not destitute of either courage or conduct, but knew well how, and dared, to avail themselves of such advantages as they possessed. A kind of military furor had by this time seized the inhabitants of the colonies. They were willing to risk the consequences of opposing in the field, their juvenile ardor to the matured strength of the parent state, and in this resolution they were encouraged to persist, by recollecting the events of the nineteenth of April, by which it appeared, according to their manner of reasoning, that in such a country as America, abounding in dangerous passes and woody defiles, the British troops, with all their valor, discipline and military skill, were not, when opposed to the Americans, so formidable as had been generally apprehended."
The promptness, coolness and moderation of Lord Percy saved the command of Lieutenant Colonel Smith. It was worn out by hard marching, and the fretful kind of warfare which decimated its ranks, and only under the escort of his command were they enabled to reach Boston in safety. It is a historical fact, that Major Pitcairn, whose reputation and character were of a high order, deeply felt the misfortune which so intimately associated his name with the affair at Lexington.
Dr. Dwight says that the expedition to Concord, "was one which in other circumstances would have been merely of little tales of wonder and woe, but it became the preface to the history of a nation, the beginning of an empire, and a theme of disquisition and astonishment to the civilized world."
The issue was joined. The siege of Boston followed. The beginning of the end began to appear in full view of many English states men, and thenceforth their disregarded warnings, and their unexampled assurance of sympathy with the American people, were among the most inspiring elements which sustained the struggle and assured the ultimate result.