What’s The Deal With Menotomy?

When you think of the American Revolutionary War, what do you think of? Is it Washington grim-faced and stoic gliding across the dark, cold, foggy waters of the Delaware River? Is it the Americans’ desperate stand on Bunker Hill; losing but in such a way as to make the British think twice before engaging in combat again? Maybe you consider the months of preparation in declaring independence from the Mother Country as delegates considered how to write a Declaration. 

Or maybe you, like me, sometimes consider a lonely quiet country road, passing between the hamlets and villages of Concord, Menotomy and Lexington; where the first skirmishes of the Revolution were fought.

The Battle of Lexington shown in a 1910 painting by William Barnes Wollen

The Battle of Lexington shown in a 1910 painting by William Barnes Wollen

A little background on the day.

For years, the English parliament and King George had been ignoring the Colonies1. They expected funds and support—and got those through various oppressive means, often called the Intolerable Acts2—but the American colonists were growing rather tired of it all; more than a full year before the Declaration of Independence was signed. 

Earlier in the week, Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, caught wind of a dump of supplies in the countryside. He wanted to get these weapons and munitions and so hatched a rapid fire and rather secret plan to capture the supplies: he would order his regulars out from Boston at 9 pm, they would march to Lexington or Concord, plunder the supplies and come home, too fast for the colonists to make a ruckus3.

However, Gage also wanted to avoid a conflagration that could start a full-out war. He wrote to his commanding officers, with instructions not to read the orders till they were underway. They were to proceed from Boston “with utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy … all Military stores … But you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants or hurt private property.”4

Too bad for him, the Colonists were readying themselves for just such actions.5 6 They had created rapid communications systems and quick-forming militias that were made of the network of farmers and townsfolk from all over New England. In fact, as the British regulars marched through the night, they heard the bells, whistles, drums, gunshots and trumpets alerting all the towns and villages that the British were on the move. You see, the rebels had learned from earlier mistakes and had improved their communications network so well that colonists 25 miles from Boston were aware of the march before the British had even loaded onto their boats to cross the water.7

This, April 18-19, 1775,  was the night Paul Revere rode to warn the countryside of the approach of the British8. In fact, there were several riders that left from Boston that night and as they reached each town along the possible paths of the march, other riders were dispatched further. Paul Revere was actually apprehended between Concord and Lexington9, but the tactic was so successful that by the morning of April 20 (the day after the first shots were fired)—after the soldiers marched all the way back to Boston—some 15,000 militiamen were surrounding Boston10.

The British Regulars marched all night, then finally reached Lexington common about 5 AM. The sun wasn’t up yet, but it was starting to get light. The Americans, led by a veteran named Parker, were lined up on the side of the common green. They had orders not to fire unless fired upon, but to stand their ground.11 They were outnumbered and definitely weren’t as trained in combat as the British, but they had something to fight for: their homes, their way of life, their liberty.

Even on this day, Parker knew the British had sent expeditions like this out before. They had gone to the countryside, found nothing and gone back home, tired but ultimately without any damage done to either side. He expected them to do the same thing this time.

After the battle, he made a sworn deposition:

The Lexington Minuteman by Henry Hudson Kitson

The Lexington Minuteman by Henry Hudson Kitson

I … ordered our Militia to meet on the Common in said Lexington to consult what to do, and concluded not to be discovered, nor meddle or make with said Regular Troops (if they should approach) unless they should insult or molest us; and, upon their sudden Approach, I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse, and not to fire:—Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon, and killed eight of our Party without receiving any Provocation therefor from us12

Captain John Parker

It was mayhem. The soldiers were trying to get the militia to disperse and give up their weapons (now you know where that part of the 2nd amendment comes from) the American militia on the other hand saw a rushing oncoming major force. No one’s orders were heard and there was tumult everywhere. Then… bang!

No one knows who fired the first shot. Perhaps a bored onlooker (there were perhaps 100 of those), or maybe a musket misfired or one of the soldiers present got anxious. Regardless, that first shot started the war. 

After that there was more confusion, everyone shooting, several militia dying, smoke in the air from powder muskets. When the air cleared, the militia were retreating, the Regulars thought they had the day. After order among the troops was restored, they marched toward their goal: Concord. After reaching Concord, and seeing the American militia gathering outside of town, they performed a search.

They were polite, actually.13 Purchasing the food and drink they got and the Americans used this to their advantage, often misdirecting the troops from looking for smaller supply caches. By the time the Regulars were ready to head back to Boston, they had found 3 cannons, which they disabled by smashing the trunnions—the cylindrical axles that were used to mount cannons onto transports—and they found 550 pounds of musket balls and some food stores. They dumped the latter in a pond and the Americans recovered most of it after the British left.14

What came next though, is what really started things off. Colonel Barret, leader of the American militia, saw some smoke from fires that had been started as the British started a fire—which they were asked to put out, and they did due to a widow in town, Martha Moulton15—and he decided to take his men down to the North Bridge. As he approached, with some 400 militia and Minutemen, the British, about 90 of them, retreated across the Bridge and lined up, aiming at the colonists.(see footnote 16)

Barret told his men to hold fire unless fired upon. Then a shot rang out. Probably from a tired and haggard British soldier as a warning, but it started the battle.  In the ensuing firefight, four of the eight British officers and sergeants, were wounded by the musket fire. At least three privates were killed or mortally wounded, and nine more were wounded.16

As reinforcements came in, the Americans, stunned by their success, retreated a bit to a nearby hill, about 300 yards away. There they waited with orders not to fire. The reinforcing British officers, as their soldiers were rejoining, rode out to survey the Americans facing them, and for a good ten minutes there was a tense standoff.17 A local man wandered through the soldiers on both sides selling hard cider. Well, if you gotta make a buck…18

It was almost noon by the time the British started their march back to Boston. There were now over 1000 American minutemen and militia in the field And growing stronger. All along the march back, the Americans flanked the Regulars19. Sometimes firing, usually not. 

Then came Menotomy.

The most brutal and bloody of the day’s battles happened here. In a bend in the road around a hill, the British and Americans really got into it. The British came away from the day the worse by far. The Americans lost 25 with 9 wounded, whereas the British lost some 40 men and 80 wounded.20

As the British ended their march in Charlestown, just outside of Boston, some of these men had been up for 2 days with no sleep and marched 40 miles in 21 hours, with 8 of those hours under fire. By the morning, there were 15,000 militia and minutemen in the Boston area.21 After surveying the scene, the Americans withdrew to Cambridge to await further orders. The war for American Independence and liberty had officially begun.

Although war is always sad, and we should do all we can to avoid it, Thomas Jefferson said it best:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,… they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes [,but]…When a long train of abuses and usurpations,… evinces a design to reduce them [the People] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence

April 19, 1775 is a startling day. A group of people decided to fight back against the usurpations of their rights and liberty. They held to their resolve against an unjust tyrant. As we, the heirs of such bravery and determination, remember this day, let us resolve to not waste their sacrifice but instead honor their struggle and keep this nation whole and healthy. 

  1. See the Declaration of Independence and associated analysis to understand more thoroughly the list of grievances against the king. ↩︎
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intolerable_Acts ↩︎
  3. French, Allen (1932). General Gage’s Informers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ↩︎
  4. Fischer, David Hackett (1994). Paul Revere’s Ride. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0195088476 ↩︎
  5. Fischer p 96 ↩︎
  6. Tourtellot, Arthur B (1959). Lexington and Concord. New York: Norton. ISBN 0393001946. ↩︎
  7. Fischer, pp. 138–145 ↩︎
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Revere%27s_Midnight_Ride ↩︎
  9. Revere, Paul (1775). Deposition of April 1775. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society. ↩︎
  10. Brooks, Victor (1999) The Boston Campaign: April 1775-march 1776, Da Capo Press, ISBN 01580970079 ↩︎
  11. Galvin, John (2006) The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution, Potomac Books ISBN 1597970700 ↩︎
  12. Massachusetts Provincial Congress (1775). A Narrative of the Excursion and Ravages of the King’s Troops. Worcester: Isaiah Thomas. ↩︎
  13. Tourtellot, pp. 155–158. In his orders to Lt. Col. Smith for the expedition, General Gage had explicitly instructed that “you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants, or hurt private property”. ↩︎
  14. French, p. 197 ↩︎
  15. Martha Moulton Testimony and Petition,  Pulled from the Wayback Machine Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20150406084842/https://www.nps.gov/mima/learn/education/upload/Martha%20Moulton.pdf Original Document from National Park Service records ↩︎
  16. Rev. Joseph Thaxter Letter and news article from the United States Literary Gazette, Vol 1, p. 264 (Rev. Thaxter served as a Minuteman under Lt. Col. Robinson on the Concord Bridge, April 19, 1775 ↩︎
  17. Fischer, pp. 214–215 ↩︎
  18. Fischer, pp. 216 ↩︎
  19. Fischer, pp. 226–227 ↩︎
  20. Hurd, Duane Hamilton (1890). History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Volume 1: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men. J. W. Lewis & co. OCLC 2155461. ↩︎
  21. Brooks, p. 96 ↩︎

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