Late in the evening of April 19, 1775 a detachment of British soldiers arrived in the Town of Boston. Clad in their notorious red coats they were easy to see even in the darkest of nights. But on this night the Red Coats, as the Colonials called the soldiers, looked different. They looked like men who been chased by ghosts. They were in total disarray: fatigued, breathless, weary and frightened. Some were wounded, without weapons or ammunition, drained of their courage and the desire to die for King and Country in a wild land over 3,000 miles from home. The day began with the British marching out of Boston, in search of rebel war materials in Concord, Massachusetts. On the way they found much more than war materials. Waiting for the British were groups of local militia, volunteer citizen soldiers standing together to defend their lives and property. On their way to Concord the British Army marched into history, when they encountered America’s First Soldiers.
It was dawn on April 19th 1775 as the British detachment marching to Concord arrived in Lexington. On the Lexington Green stood a group of local men having just emerged from Buckman’s Tavern. They were chilled on this cold early spring morning in New England. They were the local militia, under the command of Captain John Parker and amongst their ranks were farmers, shop keepers, and mechanics - not a single professional soldier. The Lexington men were gathered in formation, off the road not impeding the British, the roadway to Concord was open to travel. Yet, the formation itself was a bold statement to the British traveling to Concord. Their assembly was in defiance of a King, his unjust laws, and the powerful army the King sent to keep his subjects repressed.
The Americans assembled peacefully, called to action by the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere and other messengers. They were armed with their muskets and the courage to stand before the World’s most powerful Army, the British Regulars the infamous Red Coats. Captain Parker issued instructions to the brave men of Lexington, "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” 1
Many of the historical accounts do not accurately report who fired the first shot. When the gunfire ended, the British attacked with their bayonets. The farmer’s muskets did not hold bayonets. Those not wounded fled to safety as the Red Coats moved onto Lexington Green to finish off the fledgling American Army. When it ended, America’s first soldiers counted eight dead with another ten wounded. Only one British soldier was wounded. The British officers ordered their soldiers to assemble and prepare to march to Concord; there would be no opportunity to loot the town of Lexington. The Red Coats fired a victory volley believing the fighting had ended. However, it was not an ending. It was just the beginning of one of history’s most important days.
The British arrived in Concord and immediately searched for the any rebel materials of war. They soon discovered a meager supply of ammunition and three cannons. The British burned the gun carriers and dumped the ammunition into the river. They also discovered that they were surrounded by the gathering local militias. Minute Men from all over Middlesex County gathered as the news of the Lexington slaughter spread. With the smoke rising from the burning gun carriages, some Minute Men thought that the British were burning Concord.
Not far out of town, the Red Coats and the Minute Men met at Concord’s North Bridge. There they fired on each other, and the Americans got the better of the British who began to break ranks and head for Boston. An army of rebel farmers and shopkeepers, a group the British labeled “an army of rabble”2, had bested the world’s most powerful military force.
With their distinctive red coats flapping the British Regulars regrouped and prepared to march back to Boston. But their world had changed on this day, at a place where Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed the “shot heard round the world“3. America’s First Soldiers were in pursuit of the mighty British Army, chasing the Red Coats all the way back to Boston, while firing their hunting muskets from behind dirt mounds, tree trunks and stone walls. To the British, it was like fighting ghosts.
The colonists had just participated in the fight of their lives. Their commander called it a strategic withdrawal. America’s first soldiers who had fought the British in Lexington, Concord, and all the way back to Boston, called it a retreat. The British for their part retreated onto what was then the peninsula of Boston. They secured the neck of the peninsula, effectively bottling themselves up in Boston. Now the only access to the town was via the sea. The colonists surrounded the land areas around the peninsula, and the siege of Boston began.
The American army that had assembled around Boston was like no other force the colonials had ever gathered. Angered by the blood the invading British soldiers had spilled in Lexington and Concord, militia units came from all over New England. United in purpose, the militia units built earthworks to keep the British in Boston. They camped along the Charles River, in the town of Cambridge creating the largest military encampment the area has ever known. By early June it was estimated that as many as 20,000 men had now surrounded the British in Boston.
General Thomas Gage was in command of the British forces that withdrew to Boston. Once in Boston, General Gage decided he must attack the colonists, and regain control of the rebellious Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colonial forces possessed no naval ships in 1775, so it was a relatively easy task for the British Army in Boston to reinforce itself by means of the sea. By the end of May, the British had nearly 6,000 regular army troops in Boston. They also possessed a number of large imposing warships surrounding the Boston peninsula.
Under the direction of General Gage, the British planned to attack Charlestown, another peninsula that was just to the north of the British position on Boston Neck. The attack began with a large amphibious invasion. The British put ashore 3,000 soldiers on Saturday morning, June 17, 1775. In comparison, on D-Day, June 6, 1944 the first wave that landed at Utah Beach consisted of 600 soldiers.
Charlestown Neck, the Americans held the high ground - two hills: Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. The massive British force outnumbered the Americans by three to one. The British began by torching the small village on the shoreline. The rebels watched as Charlestown burned to the ground, its smoke momentarily concealing the next act in this deadly struggle.
The British next fired their large naval guns. Hundreds of guns fired for hours. The powerful and frightening sounds echoed through Boston and the surrounding towns. The unyielding barrage was heard by thousands of stunned colonists; they had never imagined that such power and destruction would descend upon them. Sitting in Braintree across the bay, Abigail Adams and her children watched in disbelief as the British demonstrated their remarkable firepower against the dug-in Patriots. Although remembered as the Battle of Bunker Hill, the battle was fought on Breed’s Hill, just in front of Bunker Hill.
When the British attacked it was a frontal assault. They marched up the hill in defiance of the rebels who could not believe the resolve of the British soldiers and officers. The colonials repelled the British twice. The storm of lead fired by the Patriots from behind their earthworks was deadly accurate and amazingly destructive. Yet, with the carnage of the dead and dying around them, the British officers incredibly ordered a third assault. Undeterred the Red Coats would not yield, and attacked again until the Americans were out of ammunition. The British rifles held sharp, gleaming, cold, steel bayonets and as they closed in on the Americans. Staying with bayonets, they assaulted the Americans who still fought. None were exempt from the killing, and in their frenzied state the Red Coats also bayoneted the wounded. As the American hunting muskets did not hold bayonets, the fight was now close and personal. Ultimately the Americans retreated, and the full measure of British retribution found America’s first soldiers on a hilltop in Boston.
The battle of Bunker Hill was violent and intense, and ultimately a British victory. The cost to Britain was much more than the generals had bargained for, suffering 1,094 killed, wounded or missing. Astonishingly, many of the first soldiers targeted in the battle were British officers. One British General who led part of the assault muttered, “Success is too dearly bought”4. General Howe, one of the British Generals at Bunker Hill, had every officer on his staff killed or wounded. Over forty percent of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers that attacked the Americans were killed or wounded.
This was to the British a most extraordinary tactic, which they had never encountered in the parade ground battlefields of Europe. The British suffered more casualties at Bunker Hill than any other engagement of the entire eight years American Revolutionary War. For the British the battle was at best a Pyrrhic Victory and it was only after the Battle of Bunker Hill that the British began to understand the savage, determined nature of the rebellious American Colonists in Massachusetts defended by, America’s First Soldiers.
For all their courage and dedication the Americans suffered 400 killed or wounded at Bunker Hill. They were farmers and shopkeepers, members of governing councils, mechanics, and blacksmiths. They were Colonial Militia not professional soldiers. They had no common uniforms or weaponry, and little if any supplies and war making materials. They had only their militia commanders to guide them. They were mostly undisciplined and untrained, with no committed strategy and no trained commanding officers.
Remarkably, the British did not say on Charlestown Neck; it was like Boston and the quickly retreating Americans easily bottled up the British on the peninsula. The carnage of Bunker Hill gained the British little. Soon they realized they would have to leave Boston on the very ships that had reinforced General Gauge and his Red Coats. So devastating were the British losses that they would never again fight on Massachusetts soil.
By March of 1776, the gathered Colonial Army and their new commander General George Washington drove the hated Red Coats out of Boston. General Washington a Virginian legislator, and a delegate to the Continental Congress, had served as an officer in the British Army during the French and Indian Wars. Washington was not fond of New Englanders, or Yankees as the Virginians called them. Yet, his Continental Army, camped outside Boston, was composed of ninety percent New Englanders.
The British agreed to evacuate Boston and if granted safe passage they would not burn Boston to the ground. At the time it was a remarkable accomplishment from an army of rabble. Not lost to history, Boston still celebrates March 17th as Evacuation Day, a state holiday.
It can be said that Boston is the cradle of American liberty, the very spirit of America. It is also the place where a group of militiamen became an army, and a place where America’s first soldiers found their first commanding general. The victory in Boston is hard to overstate. In the words of a grateful anonymous New Englander, published in 1775 in the New England Gazette, he praised America’s First Soldiers:
“Your exertions in the cause of freedom, guided by wisdom
…and courage, have gained the love and confidence of your
grateful Countrymen…and they look [and] trust that you
will be the guardians of America…I have the honor
to be an American…among the free…who are
defended by your valor... ”5
I grew up in Burlington, Massachusetts a bicycle ride from nearby Lexington. I could jump on my red, 3 speed, Phillips Raleigh bicycle and race down Lexington Street, turn left onto the Middlesex Turnpike until the road forks. There I bear right onto Adams Street, go by the sand pit and I am in Lexington. From there it is all downhill, as Adams Street becomes Hancock Street - over the old railroad tracks and I am at Lexington Green. The streets are the very same ones that existed in Colonial Times. Roads that Colonial Militia men would have traveled as they gathered into America’s first army. It is a summer’s day in my New England childhood. I am surrounded by large full green trees offering shade. The grass cool as I rest surveying the history all around me.
I see the buildings surrounding the Green. They seem mostly white with black shutters. There is a large white church and the steeple towers above me into the skyline, a reminder that God still looks upon this hallowed place. There is another building, distinguishable by its yellow exterior, Buckman’s Tavern. Walking, I see the monuments and flagpoles. I walk until I am face to face with a huge green man. Captain John Parker, a Minuteman who commanded America’s first soldiers, on Lexington Green on April 19, 1775. His statue dominates the monuments and attaches a name to the sacrifice made here so long ago. Look and you will find his words carved into stone and American legend:
"Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon,
but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
I have walked the long field at Gettysburg, where Picket’s Virginians died for the immortal General Robert E. Lee, falling at the high water mark of the South’s, “Lost Cause.” I have walked the Somme, and Verdun on the western plains of France. Verdun is still haunting, its name conjures images of a place other worldly. To the European Continent a place that represents senseless slaughter. I have been humbled by the massive and moving World War I memorial at Vimy Ridge, outside Arras in Western France. It was there that I traced my great grandfather’s name, M.R. McNutt which is carved into the stone pillars, memorializing my family’s contribution to our freedom. I have been to Bastogne and walked the Ardennes Forrest seeing there a place that only wishes to forget its past. I have walked Omaha Beach and the bluffs above, where thousands of Americans find their final resting place, their stunning white gravestones facing west, forever looking back from whence they came. It is a vivid reminder of the ultimate price others willingly paid for our liberty and freedom.
Lexington Green is a place that I first understood the price American’s have paid for their freedom. Here in a quaint New England town history was made when America’s First Soldiers stared down the barrels of British guns of tyranny and repression. Here first stood America’s finest, in my back yard. It was here that my journeys to far off battlefields began, with a summer’s bike ride to a place where I could see and touch history. A place I never forget as my journeys continue and I uphold my mission:
“Don’t Let Their Glory Fade”
Amelia McNutt, Director
Normandy Research Foundation
Hakim, Joy. From Colonies to Country. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. P.73
Micklos, John. Why We Won the American Revolution, Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2013. P. 10
Conway, Moncure Daniel. Emerson at Home and Abroad. Boston: Osgood, 1882 P. 135
4. Walker, Paul K. Engineers of Independence, Washington, DC: Historical Division, Office of Chief Engineers, 1981. P. 55
5. McCullough, David. 1776 New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. P. 62
Fleming, Thomas J. Liberty!: The American Revolution. New York: Viking Press, 1997. Print
Henretta, James A, and David Brody. America A Concise History, New York:
Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2010. Print
McCullough, David. 1776 New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print
Lockhart, Paul. Bunker Hill: America’s Greatest Battle? Military History Quarterly, May 3, 2011,
D-Day 6th June 1944 Operation Overlord Landings and the Battle of Normandy. http://www.6juin1944.com/assaut/utah/en_index.php