On June 17, 1775, the entire dynamic of the newborn American Revolution was changed. If the Battle of Lexington and Concord was, in the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the "shot heard round the world," Bunker Hill was the volley that rocked Britain's Parliament and the ministry of King George III to its core. The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first hostile engagement of the Revolution between two organized armies, and the first time that a genuine American army had ever taken the field. It gave the British their first inkling that the Colonial rabble-in-arms they had envisioned might actually prove to be a formidable fighting force.
In this book, award-winning author James L. Nelson tells the exciting and dramatic story of the fight that changed the face of the American Revolution. He looks at the events leading up to that fateful day, the personalities on both the British and American sides who made momentous decisions, and the bloody outcome of those crucial choices, which would affect the British strategy on the battlefield throughout the coming six more years of active warfare.
A masterful new history of the first set-piece battle of the Revolutionary War, With Fire and Sword offers critical new insights into one of the most important actions of our country's founding.
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JAMES L. NELSON is the author of fifteen works of fiction and nonfiction. His novels include the five books of his Revolution at Sea saga and three in his Brethren of the Coast series. His novel Glory in the Name won the American Library Association's W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Best Military Fiction. Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads was his first work of nonfiction, and he has since authored three other histories of naval warfare dring the American Revolution: Benedict Arnold's Navy, George Washington's Secret Navy, which earend the SAmuel Eliot Morison Award from the Naval Order of the United STates, and George Washington's Great Gamble. He lives in Harpswell, Maine, with his wife and four children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE LEXINGTON ALARM
Bunker Hill. It must have looked like the promised land, glowing golden in the setting sun, to the 1,800 or so British soldiers who staggered across Charlestown Neck and along the base of that high ground on the evening of April 19, 1775. They were men of the 4th Regiment of Foot, known as the King’s Own, the 5th, or Northumberland Fusiliers, the 10th, 18th, and 23rd, the famed Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and others. There were Royal Marines and artillery. They were exhausted, starved, wounded, and choking with thirst, dogged and harassed to madness by American militia all the way from Concord, sixteen miles away.
At their head rode Brigadier General Hugh, Lord Percy, the thirty-two-year-old son of the Duke of Northumberland, colonel of the Northumberland Fusiliers, heir to one of the greatest fortunes in England, and a skilled and experienced soldier. The fabric of his fine waistcoat was torn where a bullet had carried a button away, but beyond that he was unhurt. The same was not true for many of the men under his command.
Percy had arrived in Boston on July 5, 1774, as part of the buildup of troops sent to enforce Parliament’s disciplinary measures against the city. A number of things surprised him, including the price of necessities in that embargoed city. For the “handsomest” horse in the country, by Percy’s reckoning, he told his father, “I was forced to give 450£.” He also “got some tolerable chaise-horses from N.Y., for there were none good eno’ in this country.” Additionally he was able to rent the home of the former governor, but used it only for dining, “for we are all obliged to remain at other times & sleep in camp.” Percy entertained his fellow officers as well as “occasionally the Gentlemen of the country.” It was a busy schedule. “I have always a table of 12 covers every day. This, tho’ very expensive, is however very necessary.”
Percy was a Whig and a man of liberal tendencies, generally sympathetic with the struggles of the American colonies, but he arrived with some preconceived notions about the people of Massachusetts that meeting them did not change. Just a few weeks after arriving in America, Percy wrote to his father, “The people in this part of the country are in general made up of rashness & timidity. Quick & violent in their determinations, they are fearful in the execution of them … To hear them talk, you would imagine that they would attack us & demolish us every night; & yet, whenever we appear, they are frightened out of their wits.”
The ten months Percy spent in Boston only reinforced this view, and during that time he was able to see firsthand the deterioration of the political situation. By the end of October, still five months before the fighting at Lexington and Concord, he was writing to his friend and distant cousin the Rev. Thomas Percy, “Our affairs here are in the most Critical Situation imaginable; Nothing less than the total loss or Conquest of the Colonies must be the End of it. Either indeed is disagreeable, but one or the other now is absolutely necessary.”
On the night of April 18, General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the army and governor of Massachusetts, ordered his troops to march on a secret mission. They were to seize military stores, particularly gunpowder, small arms, and artillery, secreted in the town of Concord. Though it was not committed to writing, they were also to arrest the chief leaders of the insurrection, John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
Gage had arrived at Boston about a month before Percy, and like Percy quickly grasped the situation. Indeed, Gage, with the benefit of age and many years of experience in America, understood the situation better than Percy, and far better than the ministry in England. Gage knew, among other things, that the force he had in Boston was utterly inadequate for the mission London expected him to accomplish. In late 1774 Gage had requested of the American secretary in London, William Legge, the Second Earl of Dartmouth, an army of 20,000 men.
It was just a few weeks before the action at Lexington and Concord that Gage received an answer from Dartmouth. The violence committed in Massachusetts, Dartmouth informed Gage, “appeared to me as the acts of a rude rabble, without plan, without concert and without conduct.” Dartmouth in London assured Gage in Boston that “a smaller force now, if put to the test, would be able to encounter them with a greater probability of success” than would a 20,000-man army once the rebels had organized.
The secret mission Gage planned for the 18th was in response to Dartmouth’s letter. It was “the opinion of the King’s servants,” Dartmouth wrote, “in which His Majesty concurs, that the first and essential step to be taken towards reestablishing government would be to arrest and imprison the principal actors and abettors” of the insurrection. No local court would ever find them guilty, of course, but under the new laws governing the colony “the courts of justice are at present not permitted to be opened,” and thus their imprisonment without trial was likely to be a long one.
Gage was also to “on no account suffer the inhabitants of at least the town of Boston to assemble themselves in arms on any pretense whatever either of town-guard or militia duty.” Dartmouth added, pointedly, that “a report prevails that you have not only indulged them in having such a guard but have also allowed their militia to train and discipline in Faneuil Hall.”
Under those suggestions and admonitions Gage gave orders for the troops to assemble on a deserted beach on Boston’s Back Bay, where boats from the Royal Navy would carry them across the Charles River to the opposite shore. In command of the column was Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, an old and experienced officer. Second was the very able Major John Pitcairn of the marines. The troops, about 800 in all, were the elite of Gage’s army.
By the mid-eighteenth century, every British regiment had attached to it two distinct companies called “flank companies.” One of these flank companies was the grenadiers, the biggest and strongest troops in the army, made more formidable looking by their distinctive tall beaver hats. Originally their function had been to hurl the crude hand grenades of the period. By the time of the Revolution they no longer sported grenades but rather served as the shock troops of the army, the unstoppable infantry wave.
The other flank company was the light infantry, and their inclusion as a regular part of the army was largely through the influence of William Howe. While rank-and-file troops were drilled in marching and firing in formation, the light infantry was trained in more irregular tactics such as open-order combat, woodland fighting, swimming, climbing, and marksmanship. Having come to appreciate the utility of light infantry during the French and Indian War, Howe persuaded the king to create such a company in every regiment. The light infantry was composed of the most active and intelligent troops. They were the forerunners of today’s special forces, and their organization, training, and field tactics were largely Howe’s doing.
For the mission to Concord, Gage chose to send only the flank companies. To keep the intended operation a secret, he issued general orders on April 15 that “the Grenadiers and Light Infantry in order to learn Grenadrs. Exercise and new evolutions are to be off all duties ’till further orders.” This subterfuge did not fool many. Lieutenant John Barker commented in his diary, “This I suppose is by way of a blind. I dare say they have something for them to do.”
Not only did the officers guess something was up, but Gage’s secret leaked out to the general public with shocking speed. The first inkling that something was amiss came from the British sailors who had received orders to man the boats and bring them around to Back Bay, and who, in the way of sailors everywhere, could not keep their mouths shut. This and other hints made their way to the Sons of Liberty and the leaders of the insurrection in Boston. Sam Adams and John Hancock had left town a few weeks before to attend a meeting of the Provincial Congress and had concluded that it would be healthier for them to remain out of town. The only man central to the revolutionary movement left in Boston was Dr. Joseph Warren.
Word of British movement reached Warren, but neither he nor anyone else knew what the target was. Warren had another source of information, however, an informant very close to General Gage. That person’s identity was so secret no one but Warren ever knew who it was, though it was and still is strongly suspected that the informant was Gage’s American wife, Margaret Kemble Gage.
Whoever it was, Warren tapped that source and received confirmation of the British plans to march on Concord and to arrest Hancock and Adams. He sent Richard Dawes, Paul Revere, and possibly another express rider to alarm the countryside, though their primary mission was to alert Hancock and Adams to the danger.
John Crozier, who was in command of the flotilla of boats carrying the troops across the river from Boston, recalled that, despite the secrecy, the people of the town guessed that something was afoot. “In consequence of this conception,” he wrote, “a light was shown at the top of a church stiple directing those in the country to be on guard.” That, of course, was Revere’s famous “two if by sea” lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church.
The result of all this activity was that the arrival of the “regulars,” as the British troops were called, at Lexington Green was anything but a surprise. Most of the military stores had been moved to safety, and Hancock and Adams, along with other revolutionary leaders also in the path of the British column, such as Elbridge Gerry, Jeremiah Lee, and Azor Orne, managed to escape.
More ominously for the British troops, American militia had turned out in significant and ever increasing numbers. Lieutenant Colonel Smith sent word to Gage that the countryside was alarmed and reinforcements would be needed. Both British and American officers had admonished their men not to fire the first shot, but as British troops advanced on the American militia on the green, someone disobeyed that order. A gun went off, and when it did, the British regulars, acting without orders, fired a volley into the militia, and the militia fired back. Eight Americans were killed in the brief exchange, ten wounded; the remaining militia dispersed. One British private was injured slightly. The first blood of the war was spilled, the first fight between British and American troops begun.
Who fired the shot, whether British or American, is not clear. It was important to both sides, politically and morally, that it not be them, that they could lay the blame for bloodshed on their enemy. Many depositions were taken after the incident, but no consensus has ever emerged. Most British witnesses believed the Americans fired first, and, predictably, most Americans felt it was the British. It just as likely might have been a misfire, a nervous finger on the trigger, or the weak catch slipping on the flintlock of an ancient musket. Possibly more than one gun went off at the same time. It was one of the most momentous shots in history, and it will probably never be known who fired it.
Smith’s column moved on to Concord, where they destroyed what war matériel they could find, which was not much. The Americans had hidden the most valuable stores, and the regulars found only some gun carriages, musket balls, a few iron cannons, and sundry tools. In fact, the Concord raid did more harm than good. The time spent searching the town gave the militia more chance to collect, and the smoke from two buildings that were burned—whether by accident or purposefully is not known—alerted more militia to the danger.
While Smith’s men were searching the town for supplies, more and more American troops gathered nearby until they numbered around 400. With the smoke from the burning buildings rising in the early morning sky, it was obvious that the time for action had come. The militia marched off to Concord’s North Bridge, “with as much order as the best disciplined Troops,” a British officer noted, where three companies of Smith’s infantry were posted.
The British were “drawn up in order to fire Street fireing,” that is, in three ranks, one behind the other, while the Americans on the other side of the river deployed in a single line. The British fired, but the Americans stood their ground and, to the surprise and dismay of the British, returned fire with an intensity that drove the regulars back. Under the fusillade of American shot the unthinkable happened—the British formation broke, and the redcoats were put to flight, running back down the road toward the protection of the rest of their troops.
By noon Smith had restored order, and his column moved out, beginning the long march back to Boston. Smith sent companies out on the army’s flanks to sweep the militia from the stone walls and stands of trees that bordered the road. For a mile or so they met with no resistance, but then, as the flankers rejoined the column, the firing began. The fighting grew heavier as more and more Yankee militia joined those already lying in wait for the redcoats. To the increasingly worried regulars it seemed as if “men had dropped from the clouds.”
Soon Smith’s column was badly outnumbered, with militia firing on either side and a large body of armed men following behind. Lieutenant Colonel Smith himself was shot in the leg and badly wounded. Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own Regiment of Foot recalled, “The Country was an amazing strong one, full of Hills, Woods, stone Walls, &c., which the Rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with People who kept an incessant fire upon us, as we did too upon them but not with the same advantage, for they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them.”
As Smith’s column began to take casualties, discipline began to break down. By the time Lexington was in sight the men were starting to run, driven by building panic and a desire to get away from the murderous fire of the militia. The officers tried to form the men into column, but they were beyond listening. “At last,” wrote Ensign Henry De Berniere, “we got to Lexington and the officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die. Upon this they began to form under Heavy fire.”
It was around 2:00 P.M., and Smith’s column had been on the move since the evening before, having marched through the night and morning. The men were exhausted, hungry, and thirsty. Many were wounded. They were surrounded by an enemy that they could not get at, and their ammunition was running low. Lieutenant Barker was staggering along with his troops; he later wrote, “Very few Men had any ammunition left, and so fatigued that we cou’d not keep flanking parties out, so that we must soon have laid down our Arms, or been picked off by the Rebels at their pleasure.” Then the men in the van saw a sight that must have seemed like a gift from heaven itself, and they began to shout and cheer. “In this critical situation,” Lieutenant Barker wrote, “we perceived the 1st Brigade coming to our assistance.”
“A CLEVER LITTLE ARMY”
Even before Smith’s request for reinforcements arrived, Gage was growing concerned for the safety of the flank companies. He was certainly aware that his secret was out. Percy had overheard civilians on Boston Common talking about the march to Concord, and he informed Gage of this. According to one British officer, “the town was a good...
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