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American Revolution: Early Campaigns

The Shot Heard Around the World

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American Revolution: Early Campaigns

The Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775. Engraving by Amos Doolittle.

Photograph Source: Public Domain

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Opening Shots: Lexington & Concord

Following several years of rising tensions and the occupation of Boston by British troops, the military governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, began efforts to secure the colony's military supplies to keep them from the Patriot militias. These actions received official sanction on April 14, 1775, when orders arrived from London commanding him to disarm the militias and to arrest key colonial leaders. Believing the militias to be hoarding supplies at Concord, Gage made plans for part of his force to march and occupy the town.

On April 16, Gage sent a scouting party out of the city towards Concord which gathered intelligence, but also alerted the colonials to British intentions. Aware of Gage's orders, many key colonial figures, such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams, left Boston to seek safety in the country. Two days later, Gage ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to prepare a 700-man force to sortie from the city.

Aware of British interest in Concord, many of the supplies were quickly moved to other towns. Around 9:00-10:00 that night, Patriot leader Dr. Joseph Warren informed Paul Revere and William Dawes that the British would be embarking that night for Cambridge and the road to Lexington and Concord. Departing the city by separate routes, Revere and Dawes made their famous ride west to warn that the British were approaching. In Lexington, Captain John Parker gathered the town's militia and had them form into ranks on the town green with orders not to fire unless fired upon.

Around sunrise, the British vanguard, led by Major John Pitcairn, arrived in the village. Riding forward, Pitcairn demanded that Parker's men disperse and lay down their arms. Parker partially complied and ordered his men to go home, but to retain their muskets. As his men began to move, a shot rang out from an unknown source. This led to an exchange of fire which saw Pitcairn's horse hit twice. Surging forward the British drove the militia from the green. When the smoke cleared, eight of the militia were dead and another ten wounded. One British soldier was injured in the exchange.

Departing Lexington, the British pushed on towards Concord. Outside of the town, the Concord militia, unsure of what had transpired at Lexington, fell back and took up a position on a hill across the North Bridge. The British occupied the town and broke into detachments to search for the colonial munitions. As they began their work, the Concord militia, led by Colonel James Barrett, was reinforced as other towns' militias arrived on the scene. A short time later fighting broke out near the North Bridge with the British being forced back into the town. Gathering his men, Smith began the return march to Boston.

As the British column moved, it was attacked by colonial militia which took up concealed positions along the road. Though reinforced at Lexington, Smith's men continued to take punishing fire until they reached the safety of Charlestown. All told, Smith's men suffered 272 casualties. Rushing to Boston, the militia effectively placed the city under siege. As news of the fighting spread, they were joined by militia from neighboring colonies, ultimately forming an army of over 20,000.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

On the night of June 16/17, 1775, colonial forces moved onto the Charlestown Peninsula with the goal of securing high ground from which to bombard British forces in Boston. Led by Colonel William Prescott, they initially established a position atop Bunker Hill, before moving forward to Breed's Hill. Using plans drawn by Captain Richard Gridley, Prescott's men began constructing a redoubt and lines extending northeast towards the water. Around 4:00 AM, a sentry on HMS Lively spotted the colonials and the ship opened fire. It was later joined by other British ships in the harbor, but their fire had little effect.

Alerted to the American presence, Gage began organizing men to take the hill and gave command of the assault force to Major General William Howe. Transporting his men across the Charles River, Howe ordered Brigadier General Robert Pigot to directly attack Prescott's position while a second force worked around the colonial left flank to attack from behind. Aware that the British were planning an attack, General Israel Putnam dispatched reinforcements to Prescott's aid. These took up a position along fence which extended to the water near Prescott's lines.

Moving forward, Howe's first attack was met my massed musket fire from the American troops. Falling back, the British reformed and attacked again with the same result. During this time, Howe's reserve, near Charlestown, was taking sniper fire from the town. To eliminate this, the navy opened fire with heated shot and effectively burned Charlestown to the ground. Ordering his reserve forward, Howe launched a third attack with all of his forces. With the Americans nearly out of ammunition, this assault succeeded in carrying the works and forced the militia to retreat off the Charlestown Peninsula. Though a victory, the Battle of Bunker Hill cost the British 226 killed (including Major Pitcairn) and 828 wounded. The high cost of the battle caused British Major General Henry Clinton to remark, "A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America."

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