April 19Posted: April 19, 2020
We can never let a Patriots’ Day go by without reflecting on the events of April 19, 1775. How did this happen?
The people of countryside Massachusetts at that time were probably the freest and the least taxed people in the British Empire. What were they so mad about?
From my hometown of Needham, MA, almost every able bodied man went out. What motivated people that morning to grab guns and shoot at their own army?
Lately I’ve been reading Rick Atkinson’s book on the first years of the American Revolution. It’s interesting that Atkinson titled his book this, because as he himself notes:
Popular lore later credited him with a stirring battle cry – “The British are coming!” – but a witness quoted him as warning, more prosaically, “the regulars are coming out.”
The word would’ve gotten out anyway, because of information sent by light in binary code: one if by land, two if by sea. (it was two).
Atkinson does a great job of laying out how tensions and feelings and fears and resentments escalated to this point. George III and his Prime Minister Lord North (they’d grown up together, it’s possible they were half-brothers) miscalculated, misunderstood, overreacted.
North held a constituency in Banbury with fewer than two dozen eligible voters, who routinely reelected him after being plied with punch and cheese, and who were then rewarded with a haunch of venison.
The image of a stern father disciplining a disobedient child seemed to guide George III/North government thinking. Violently putting down rebellions was nothing new, even within the island of Britain. Crushing Scottish revolt had been a big part of George III’s uncle’s career, for example.
From the British side, the disobedience did seem pretty flagrant, the Boston Tea Party being a particularly outrageous and inciting example, from a city known to be full of criminals and assholes. The London government responded with the “Coercive Acts.”
With this disobedient child, the punishment didn’t go over well. The mood had gotten very, very tense in Boston when the April 19 expedition was launched.
Everything about it went wrong. Everybody was late, troops were reorganized under new commanders. Orders were screwed up, the mission was unclear. It was a show of force? A search and destroy? Both? The experience for the soldiers in on it was awful: started out cold and wet, ended up lucky if you were alive and unmangled.
What the Lexington militia was up to when they formed up opposite the arriving Redcoats is unclear. Did they intend to have a battle? Doesn’t seem like it, why would they line up in the middle of a field? There’d already been an alarm, and then a weird break where a lot of the guys went to the next door tavern and had a few.
Were they intending just kind of an armed protest and demonstration (as is common in the United States to this day)?
A lot of the guys in the Massachusetts militias had fought alongside the British army in the wars against the French and Indians. Captain Parker of Lexington had been at Louisburg and Quebec. How much was old simmering resentment of the colonial experience serving with professional British military officers a part of all this?
One way or another, a shot went off, and then it got out of hand very fast. When it was over eight Lexington guys were dead.
The painting above is by William Barnes Wollen, he painted it in 1910. Wollen was a painter of military and battle scenes. He’d been in South Africa during the Boer War, so maybe he knew what an invading army getting shot at by locals was like.
Amos Doolittle was on the scene a few days after the events, interviewed participants, walked the grounds, and rendered the scene like this.
But Doolittle had propaganda motives.
After the massacre at Lexington the British got back into formation and kept moving.
They ran into another fight at Concord Bridge.
Information and misinformation and rumor became a part of the day. The story spread that the British were burning Concord, maybe murdering people.
By now minutemen from all over were blasting away. It must’ve been horrific. Atkinson tells us that the British “Brown Bess” musket fired a lead slug that was nearly .75 of an inch in diameter (compare to, say, a Magnum .45, .45 of an inch).
How would history have been different if the British column had been completely wiped out, like Custer’s last stand? It almost happened. The expedition was saved by the timely arrival of reinforcements with two cannons.
The column avoided an ambush at Harvard Square, but several soldiers died in another gunfight near the future Beech and Elm Streets while three rebels who had built a redoubt at Watson’s Corner were encircled and bayoneted. William Marcy, described as “A simple-minded youth” who thought he was watching a parade, was shot dead while sitting on a wall, cheering.
They were able to get back across the river and into Boston, minus 73 killed, 53 missing, 174 wounded. A bad day in Massachusetts.
This event looms large in the American imagination: the gun-totin’ freedom lovers fighting off the government intrusion. But the more you read about it the more it sounds like just a catastrophe for everyone involved.
Back in Needham the Rev. West reported:
In the evening we had intelligence that several of the Needham inhabitants were among the slain, and in the morning it was confirmed that five had fallen in the action and several others had been wounded. It is remarkable that the five who fell all of them had families, and several of them very numerous families so that there were about forty widows and fatherless children made in consequence of their death. I visited these families immediately, and with a sympathetic sense of their affliction I gave to some the first intelligence they had of the dreadful event, the death of a Husband and a Parent.