Battle of Lexington - Brenda Kamphuis
IntroductionFor a map of the USA in 1775 click here
The British were to find that 1775 was to be a disastrous year. They did not appreciate the scale and difficulty of the military task facing them in America until too late, and they allowed the bulk of their forces to become bogged down in an exposed base while the British positon collapsed throughout much of Northern America. By the end of the year the British government faced the possibilities that it would lose Canada as well as the Thirteen Colonies.
For the Revolutionaries the year was marked by the succesfull hemming in of the British at Boston, a very creditable performance at the battle of nearby Bunker Hill, the creation of a national army, and the invasion of Canada. At the same time major difficulties had been revealed in the new military force, while the invasion of Canada was not to be a triumph.
The British government had decided the previous November to take a tougher line towards America, George III informing his first minister, Lord North, that: '...blows must decide wether they are to be subject to this country or independent.' General Thomas Gage, who was both Governor of Massachusetts, the most rebellious of the colonies, and commander-in-chief of the troops in North America, was order to use force to restore royal authority in the colony. He was instructed to arrest the leaders of the provincial Congress. In February North asked the House of Commons to declare Massachusetts in rebellion and to approve the use of troops. The ministry was confident that if there was any popular response it could not be 'very formidable', a view Gage did not share. This attitude in London not only ensured that the news of Concord and Lexington was received with great surprise, but also meant that Gage had not received the major reinforcements he had called for. Furthermore, because the government did not appreciate that the revolution would spread throughout the Thirteen Colonies, they failed to provide the assistance that royal governors elsewhere required. The British war effort in 1775 was therefore too little, too late and narrowly focussed, though had Gage been successfull in his operations near Boston the consequnces of this would have been less serious.
Concord and LexingtonOperations began with an attempt to seize a cache of arms reported to be at Concord, a town 16 miles from Boston, past the village of Lexington. Secrecy was lost and when the British reached Lexington at first light on 19 April they found about seventy militia drawn upon in two lines. Heavily outnumbered, the militia began to disperse, although not to lay down their arms, when someone, it is not clear who, fired. The shot was followed by two British volleys and the militia scattered. Concord was not such an easy proposition. The British were able to occupy the undefended town but then withdrew in the face of militia pressure.
On their route back to Lexington they suffered grieviously from sniping, their flanking manoeuvres being insufficient to prevent ambushes. At Lexington a relief column under Brigadier- General Hugh Percy lessened the pressure, although there were renewed attacks on the route back to Boston. Percy reported to Gage the following day:
In obedience to your Excellency's orders I marched yesterday morning at 9 o'clock with the 1st brigade and 2 field pieces, in order to cover the retreat of the grenadiers and light infantry in their return from their expedition to Concord. As all the houses were shut up, and there was not the appearance of a single inhabitant, I could get no intelligence concerning them till I had passed Menotomy, when Iwas informed that the rebels had attacked his Majesty's troops who were retiring, overpowered by numbers, greatly exhausted and fatigued, and having expaned almost all their ammunition - and at about 2 o'clock I met them retiring rough the town of Lexington - I immediately ordered the 2 field pieces to fire at the rebels, and drew up the brigade on a height.In fact, no onewas scalped and no ears were cropped. Jeremy Lister, who was wounded on the retreat, wrote of ' general firing upon us from all quarters, from behind hedges and walls'. The news of the shedding of blood produced an outraged response throughout New England and a substantial force soon encircled theBritish in Boston. Poorly organized and supplied, largely dependent on their personal arms , and short of powder and ball, the Revolutionaries nevertheless benefited from the heavy British losses on 19 April, which discouraged Gage from acting untill he received reinforcements and ensured that when he did act it would be in order to improve his defensive position, not to end the encirclement or to attack futher afield. Meanwhile the Revolutionaries were entrenching their positions, one British observer, writing on 31 May, that they had strongly fortified 'every road, every pass and every hill within ten miles of Boston' so that even if the British attacked successfully their army would be decimated.
The shot from the cannon had the desired effect, and stopped the rebels for a little time, who immediately dispersed, and endeavoured to surround us being ery numerous. As it began now to grow pretty late and we had 15 miles to retire, and only 36 rounds, I ordered the grenadiers and light infantry to move of first; and covered them with my brigade sending out very strong flanking parties wch wre absolutely very necessary, as there was not a stone wall, or house, though before in appearance evacuated, from whence the rebels did not fire upon us. As soon as they saw us begin to retire, they pressed very much upon our rear guard, which for that reason, I relieved every now and then.
In this manner we retired for 15 miles under incessant fire all round us, till we arrived at Charlestown, between 7 and 8 in the evening and having expended almost all our ammunition. We had the misfortune of losing a good many men in the retreat, though nothing like the number which from many circumstances I have reason to believe were killed of the rebels. His Majesty's troops during he whole of the affair behaved with their usual intrepidity and spirit nor were they a little exsperated at the cruelty and barbarity of the rebels, who scalped and cut off the ears of some of the wounded men who fell into their hands.