Thursday marked the 244th anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. On the night of April 18, some 700 British regulars were dispatched from Boston to seize powder and arms belonging to the Massachusetts militia, then believed by the British authorities to be stored in Concord. Warned ahead of time, the Colonial militia commanders had the weapons and stores moved to prevent their capture by the British Army.
Approaching Concord by way of Lexington, the British troops encountered a company of 77 militiamen formed up on the Lexington commons. The British commander elected to draw up his own forces and engage the Massachusetts men. It is unclear which side fired the first shot. What is uncontested is that the British fired several massed volleys of musket fire into the shattered militia ranks. Given contemporary infantry tactics, it is surprising that the British commander would have made repeated volleys rather than advancing with bayonets (the preferred infantry close combat technique of the era). It is doubtful that 70 or so Massachusetts militia would have stood their ground against ten times as many charging British bayonets.
After the threat posed by the Lexington militia had been eliminated, the British resumed the march to Concord. When they arrived, they discovered that the arms they had been sent to capture were mostly gone. What stores were found were burned. The militia of Concord had prudently withdrawn into over-watch positions in the terrain surrounding the British force. When the burning stores gave the appearance that the British might burn the whole town, the militia began to engage with musket fire from what covered and concealed positions as were available, close enough to the British soldiers to be effective. (It is worth noting that as yet, long range rifle fire was not a factor in these battles. The militiamen had to get to within 60 or so yards to be able to bring semi-accurate fires upon the British.)
Repeatedly stung by musket fire from an enemy force that did not present a coherent body of troops to engage, order and discipline with the British ranks quickly broke down. The supposedly well-disciplined British regulars began to panic, running in a disorganized mob back towards Boston, some 18 miles away. Throughout the day, small bands of militia would follow them, maintaining contact, keeping up a steady stream of harassing musket fire. This denied the British officers any opportunity to re-form their ranks and then engage the militia forces tormenting them.
Late in the day, reinforcements from Boston met the panicked British, and some order was reestablished. However, all that could be done by then was to continue the withdrawal back into secure lines of the British garrison. The finest, best equipped and most well-trained army in the world at that time had been defeated by a body of semi-trained (at best), self-armed militia…all over the issue of whether or not the government had the right to seize the guns and powder legally belonging to the citizenry.
Happy Patriots’ Day!Published in