Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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There is some dispute about who fired the first shot of the Revolutionary War.   Was it when British troops encountered Captain John Parker and his Minutemen in Lexington at dawn on April 19, 1775?  Or, was it two hours later when the British were again confronted by a larger contingent of armed Patriots at the North Bridge crossing of the Concord River?

Tensions between the colonists and their British overlords had been mounting due to Parliament’s heavy-handed rule and excessive taxation.  Boston was the seat of government for the Massachusetts Colony and the Royal Governor, Thomas Gage, was charged with enforcing British laws.  After the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Governor Gage remained vigilant about the potential for any further acts of defiance by the colonists against the King.

Gage’s spies had reported that rebel colonists were stockpiling stores of ammunition in a barn in nearby Concord.  He ordered Major John Pitcairn and his unit of 700 troops to leave immediately to seize the contraband weapons in order to curb the potential for treasonous acts against his authority.

Fortunately, the Patriots had their own informants.  On the evening of April 18th, as Pitcairn’s company began its march to Concord, Joseph Warren, a respected doctor and leader in the colonial resistance against the British, received intelligence about Gage’s plans.

By 10:00 P.M., Warren dispatched riders Paul Revere and William Dawes to take different routes to warn the people that the British army was on the move.  As they rode, alerting the people in the small Massachusetts towns, they were joined by additional riders who helped spread the word that British troops were planning a surprise raid in the early hours of April 19th.  Consequently, after marching through the night, the British troops were stunned when they were confronted by Captain John Parker’s company of 77 armed Minutemen on Lexington Green.

As word about the British incursion spread colonial forces grew into the hundreds.  Some men were battle-tested after having fought nearly two decades earlier in the French and Indian War.  Most were fathers and their sons, ages 16 and older, who had trained to be ready at a minute’s notice to defend their families and towns – hence they called themselves Minutemen.

Major Pitcairn shouted at the colonists “Throw down your arms!  Ye villains, ye rebels.”  However, Pitcairn underestimated the courage of these patriotic men.

In response, Captain Parker ordered his militia to “Stand your ground.  Don’t fire unless fired upon.  But if they mean to have war, let it begin here.”

Without warning a single shot rang out and was followed by a volley of rifle fire from both sides killing five Patriots and one British soldier.

The element of a surprise raid was gone.  However, determined to carry out his orders, Pitcairn quickly assembled 220 of his advance troops and proceeded on to Concord where the weapons were reportedly stored in an outbuilding on Amos Barrett’s farm.

Pitcairn and his troops reached the farm at 7:00 A.M.  When they found substantially more artillery, ammunition, small guns, tents, and other supplies than expected, it was clear that the colonists were preparing to defend themselves against the British military.  After the troops set fire to the militia’s arsenal, their orders were to cross the Concord River by way of the North Bridge and return to Boston.  By this time, another 400 Minutemen had been alerted and had positioned themselves on the hills overlooking the bridge, knowing this was the shortest route the British could take.

From their vantage point, the Minutemen saw intense fire and smoke near Concord and it looked like the British had torched the whole town.  They also saw Pitcairn’s troops heading toward the bridge.  They quickly descended from the hilltops to block the British troops’ passage.  Alarmed by the advance of the armed militia, the British Redcoats began firing, killing two Minutemen.  Then, Major John Buttrick, of Concord, shouted, “For God’s sake, fire!”  Buttrick’s order to fire is considered to be the colonists’ first official stand for independence against their British overlords.

Outnumbered, the British troops hastily retreated and joined the rest of their company, which was preparing to return to Boston.  Learning that the colonials had blocked the bridge, they were forced to take the longer twenty-mile route back to Boston.

The Minutemen forces had steadily grown throughout the morning.  Following the encounters with the British on Lexington Green and at the North Bridge, Captain Parker directed his men to flank the main road on which the British would travel.  The contrast between the brightly-clad redcoats marching two-by-two on the dirt road, and the militiamen, dressed in hunting clothes, and concealed among the trees, could not have been greater.  Soon, a barrage of gunfire began, and the aptly named confrontation known as Battle Road commenced.

The tumultuous day of April 19, 1775, finally came to a close.  The remaining British troops had reached Boston where General William Howe commanded a vast number of British soldiers, and his warships controlled the Boston Harbor.  Howe was ultimately preparing to overtake Boston and thereby separate Massachusetts and the other northeast colonies from the rest of the colonies to the south. 

John Parker was a veteran of the French and Indian War.  The war had ended in North America in 1758, however, British and French hostilities continued on to the European Continent and became known as The Seven Years’ War which ended in 1763 with the British as victors.  During the American phase of the war, Parker fought alongside the British.  He then returned to his Lexington farm and over the next two decades he and his wife, Lydia, raised seven children and he was a respected town officer.  In time, the British government in Boston became increasingly aggressive against the colonists.  Recognizing the potential for an uprising, Parker began organizing and training his neighbors into functioning militias.  Even though he led the Minutemen in the Lexington and Concord conflicts, he was unable to participate in the forthcoming Battle of Bunker Hill one month later, because he was weakened by his ongoing bout with tuberculosis.  Captain John Parker died on September 17, 1775.

As a result of British aggressions in Massachusetts in April and May of 1775, and the determined colonial resistance against such tyranny, it was clear that the War of Rebellion had already begun.  In May, the Second Continental Congress was in session in Philadelphia preparing to announce that, due to the British government’s refusal to allow them equal representation in Parliament, the colonies have united to become a separate sovereign country.  With the knowledge that they would be challenged by the British military, Congress had begun the process of establishing a Continental army and had elected George Washington as Commander-in-Chief.  However, upon receiving news that open combat with the British had already taken place in Massachusetts, Congress assigned a committee to draft the document that would formalize their Declaration of Independence from Britain on July 4, 1775.

After two weeks of marching his troops north to Cambridge, Massachusetts, less than three miles from Boston and General Howe’s British fleet, General George Washington rode before his battalion gathered in the town’s square.  In full command of the moment, Washington drew his sword signaling that he was taking command of the Continental Army. 

The courage and determination of the Minutemen of the northern colonies became the model and foundation for today’s oldest-serving military branch, the United States National Guard.  Its insignia represents John Parker as a farmer with one hand on his plow and the other holding his rifle, along with the phrase, “Always Ready, Always There.” 

In 1837, the Boston poet Ralph Waldo Emerson penned his “Concord Hymn,” with the opening stanza: By the rude bridge that arched the flood/Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled/Here once the embattled farmers stood/And fired the shot heard round the world.