American Militia in the Revolution: Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Part three of a series on militia in the American Revolution.  Go here and here to read the previous posts in the series.  On the eve of the Revolution the 13 colonies had no Army but they were not defenseless.  Their militias constituted a military force of uncertain power but they had a history as old as their colonies and they allowed the colonists to assume that as a last resort they would not be helpless against the British Army.  General Thomas Gage, the commander of the British garrison in Boston and the military governor of Massachusetts, viewed the militia as a constant threat to his forces, and it was his sending of a detachment of 700 troops to seize the militia arsenal at Concord that precipitated the American Revolution.

The battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 demonstrated both the strengths and the weaknesses of the American militia system.  The initial clash at Lexington involved a standard militia unit of 77 men, not a picked minute man company.  The militia was under the command of Captain John Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian War.  Parker was in ill-health, suffering from tuberculosis, and some accounts indicate he was difficult to hear.  77 men of course stood no chance against 700 British regulars, and Parker seemed to regard his militia as making a political statement rather than actually attempting to stop the British.  Shots were exchange, who fired first is unknown.  The British swiftly brushed aside the fleeing militia and continued their march on Concord.  So far, so ineffective, as far as the American militia was concerned.

But the British did not simply have to deal with one company of militia at Lexington.  The entire country around Boston was up in arms, the word of the British foray spread by Paul Revere, William Dawes and other messengers, and the militia companies were assembling and marching to fight, convinced after the news of Lexington filtered out that the long-expected war had begun.

By the time the British reached Concord some 250 militia had assembled.  Realizing that he was outnumbered by the British, Colonel James Barret withdrew from Concord across the North Bridge and posted his men on a hill a mile north of the village where they could keep an eye on the Redcoats and were joined by reinforcing militia.

Smoke began rising from Concord as the British troops destroyed munitions.  The militia became restive asking their officers if they were to stand idle while Concord was burned to the ground by the “lobsterbacks”.  (Fire had spread to the Concord meetinghouse, but the British had joined in the bucket brigade that put out the fire.)  Seeing only approximately 95 British soldiers, Colonel Barret order his men to advance with muskets loaded, but not to fire unless fired upon.

As the militia advanced the British fired upon them and the militia fired back.  The heavily outnumbered British fled to a reinforcing column of Grenadiers coming from the center of two.  The Americans were astonished by all this, most of the men still surprised that an actual war had started.  Most of them withdrew back to the hill while others ran home, a real war being more than they had bargained for.

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Published in: on November 19, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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