Americans in 1775 faced an ammunition crisis—specifically a crucial shortage of gunpowder. “On Courage I know we have in abundance, conduct I hope we shall not want, but powder—where shall we get a sufficient supply?” John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail.
In every mythic quest, the hero must search for some elusive artifact essential to accomplishing the mission. For the American revolutionaries, that Holy Grail was gunpowder. On the eve of the Revolution, most colonists had guns. Many used firearms to hunt for food, and many had weapons left over from the French and Indian War. However, gunpowder to fire those weapons was extremely scarce. The Patriot leaders realized their predicament early on as the political revolution rapidly moved closer to armed rebellion. Powder enabled or curtailed success on the battlefield. Without it, any revolution would find itself crushed before it began. Adams summed up the desperate search: “Every Thing, has been done, and is now doing, to procure the Unum Necessarium,” the one necessity.
By 1774, the colonists’ organic production of powder had been outsourced from them by the Crown. They had to produce powder domestically, import, or purloin it from Royal sources. While production of the explosive in the colonies in Massachusetts mills dates to 1639, the Navigation Acts that controlled trade between Britain and the colonies discouraged industrial production in North America. The British had shuttered American powder mills that emerged during the French and Indian War and replaced them with cheap imports from the mother country. By October 1774, Royal decrees forbade export and import of powder and arms in the colonies. The provincials found their supply chains for gunpowder, the lifeblood of any eighteenth-century army, deliberately at the mercy of Great Britain.
The British were well aware of the scarcity of gunpowder in the colonies as General Thomas Gage wrote Lord Dartmouth in August 1774, “[I’m planning] a series of missions against the arsenals and powder houses of New England, designed to remove as many munitions as possible—enough to make it impossible for the people of the region to make a determined stand.”
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General Gage’s forces had conducted a number of so-called powder alarms aimed at seizing gunpowder and munitions. His spies informed him of a build-up of ordnance, powder, and ammunition in Concord supplied by the men of Marblehead. The operation to seize the Patriots’ powder unfolded around 10:00 p.m., April 18, 1775. Over 700 British regulars under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith began their journey toward Lexington and Concord.
In fall of 1774, King George III told Lord North, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, that “blows must decide whether they [colonists but hereafter referred to as the Americans] are to be subject to this country, or independent.” The Crown moved toward using force. For years, friction had been building in the provinces.
Mercilessly, they leveled a number of hard economic measures, closed the port of Boston throwing thousands out of work, and passed several acts aimed to destroy the colonies’ economic will. Americans fought back by boycotting British products. In early 1775, after declaring the colonies in a state of rebellion, the Crown ordered General Gage, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America and military governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, to use a “vigorous exertion” of that force and “seize the principal actors and evaders” as well as disarm the Americans. During the previous several months, most colonists had hoped for peace and still considered themselves Englishmen as they prepared to defend themselves. The British had demonstrated throughout the history of their empire that without powder and cannon to support a standing army, any rebellion could be easily crushed. Until reinforcements arrived, however, Gage must conduct the disarmament raids with surgical precision, knowing the colonists could recruit potentially overwhelming forces. He spent weeks preparing for the operation to seize rebel munitions that Americans had amassed at Concord.
British commander Smith detached six companies of his elite light infantry and attached Marines, led by Major John Pitcairn, to march ahead of the column and secure two bridges that led into Concord. He also wisely sent a messenger to Boston for reinforcements—the corpulent officer knew he would need them.
Through the first faint gray streaks of dawn, the vanguard saw the fields and hills come alive with armed men darting toward Lexington. The Americans had been alerted by Paul Revere and other riders that Smith’s regulars were on the march.
Rounding a bend in the road, the British saw the darkened silhouettes of Lexington’s meetinghouse and homes. A drum beat called the Americans to arms. Captain John Parker’s militia assembled on the northeast corner of Lexington Common. A veteran of the French and Indian War, Parker knew how to fight. He was also terminally ill with tuberculosis and only had five months to live, but John Parker would have one more great fight in him. Parker’s militia had been up all night after Revere’s initial warning that the Redcoats were on the march toward Concord. Parker barked to his men:
“Let the troops pass by. Don’t molest them, without they being first.”
One American heard a British officer shout, “Damn them, we will have them!” Parker’s over 70 Patriots nervously eyed the British, as one exclaimed, “There are so few of us, it would be folly to stand here.” It was. The Americans were outnumbered and outgunned. A game of chicken ensued.
Parker firmly implored his troops, “Stand your ground! Don’t fire unless fired upon! But if they want a war, let it begin here.”
Major Pitcairn rode toward the group and yelled to Parker’s men, “Throw down your Arms, ye Villains, ye Rebels!”
None of Parker’s men laid down their arms. But Parker mysteriously changed his orders to “disperse and not to fire.”
Pitcairn barked, “Surround and disarm them.”
Another American heard a British officer shout, “Ye villains, ye rebels, disperse, damn you, disperse!”
The Redcoats shouted “huzza! huzza!” to intimidate the Americans. Some men slowly dispersed, others stood their ground, but nobody laid down their arms. Time seemed to stand still. And then the high-pitched crack of a shot pierced the morning air of the New England common. Nobody knows which side fired first.
The British charged and fired into Parker’s men only about 30 to 60 yards away. Although known for their iron discipline, training, and tactical prowess on the battlefield, the British officers had lost control of their men. The troops ran wildly through the green.
In the ensuing chaos, some Americans held their ground, ignoring Parker’s orders to withdraw. Parker’s cousin, Jonas Parker, did not move an inch, although writhing in pain from a gunshot wound. Knocked prone from the force, on his hands and knees, Parker attempted to reload his musket. One of his fellow Americans heard him declare, “[that] he would never run.” Shortly after uttering those words, a Redcoat charged, impaling the New Englander with a bayonet and disemboweling him.
Horrified by the unfolding bedlam and his men shooting Americans without orders, Major Pitcairn rode out into the melee and drew his sword, flashing it feverishly in the air, signaling a ceasefire. Eight Americans, including several pairs of fathers and sons, would ultimately die during the engagement. Multiple other Americans were wounded.
After regaining control of his men, Smith addressed his officers and only now informed them of their mission: to march to Concord and seize and destroy the cannon and munitions the provincials had secreted away there.
Several of the officers risked their careers and told Smith to abandon the mission. The entire countryside had been alerted. Smith dismissed the warnings and insisted he had his orders. The British column trudged toward Concord. In the distance they heard the drone and toll of Concord’s church bell pressed into service as an alarm. By about 7:30 a.m., the long column of troops that sprawled nearly a quarter of a mile arrived in the town.
Smith ordered his men, without warrants, to search and destroy any munitions or weapons of war located in the town. Following intelligence furnished from Gage’s spies and American traitor Dr. Benjamin Church, they knew exactly where to start looking. After holding a gun to the head of the local tavern owner, they were able to locate several cannons buried behind the tavern, which they disabled. They also found a few wooden gun carriages for artillery and thousands of musket balls that they tossed in a millpond. The British mission of disarmament at Concord had failed. The forewarned Americans had successfully moved most of their stockpiles.
Smith’s troops manhandled the cannon carriages and rolled them into a blazing fire. But soon flames from the inferno spread to the nearby structures. In a bizarre juxtaposition, the Revolution paused, and both sides put aside their differences. Locals in Concord and the Crown’s troops formed a bucket brigade to extinguish the flames that consumed a nearby structure.
On the hill overlooking Concord’s North Bridge, hundreds of minutemen and militia who saw the billowing clouds of white smoke assumed the worst and descended toward the bridge, instructed by their commanding officer not to shoot first and wait until fired upon.
In practically a repeat of Lexington—a shot rang out, but this time the British clearly fired first.
The shot was later dubbed, “the shot heard round the world” by poet and grandson of Reverend Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson. One British soldier fired without orders, followed by two others, and then the front British ranks erupted in a sheet of flame and smoke as they discharged a volley.
Several provincials fell, and many suffered wounds from the fusillade.
The skirmish continued for several minutes until the Americans forced the British back into the center of Concord, where they reformed and eventually marched toward Boston. Smith’s walking wounded with bandaged arms, legs, and heads marched alongside the hitherto unscathed. The light infantry fanned out in an attempt to protect the flanks of the Redcoat column. In the distance, the ridges and hills teemed with swarms of men assembling from the towns in the area, including men from Marblehead and Beverly who would later become the indispensable Marblehead Regiment.
Using the terrain to their advantage, the Americans hid behind boulders, trees, and stone walls while pouring a deadly volley into the retreating redcoats. The light infantry advanced on the flanks, sometimes surprising and slaying the colonists who fought from their homes and farms. Atrocities were committed by soldiers on both sides against combatants that fueled additional atrocities in the ensuing battles.
Hit by multiple ambushes, exhausted, out of ammunition, and having sustained many dead and wounded, Smith’s men neared the ends of their ropes. Most felt like only a miracle could save them. That miracle came in the form of 1,300 troops led by Lord Percy who arrived to rescue the expeditionary force from “inevitable destruction.”
Even in the face of these additional troops, however, the Americans would not yield. The Redcoats ran into many a man like 78-year-old Captain Samuel Whittemore who protected his home as he hid behind a stone wall, killing a soldier and firing his pistol to slay another. While attacking a soldier with his sword, a ball blew off part of his cheekbone. Then the Redcoats bayoneted him numerous times, “shouting we have killed the old rebel.” Whittemore lay in a pool of his own blood having been bayoneted six or eight times, and his hat and clothes “were shot through in many places,” but he would survive and live to be 96.
Burning homes, killing livestock, and plundering anything they could cram in their haversacks, including the church communion silver, the Brits defied Gage’s orders. They lost more men as they pushed east to break through the American gauntlet. A blood red sun set on the British troops, many of whom had not slept for two days, as they finally made their way into Charlestown and set up defensive positions – ironically on a place known as Bunker Hill.
In the morning, the British would find Boston surrounded by thousands of Americans. Terrified, the Americans would storm Boston, and aided by inhabitants, Gage took the entire town hostage, forbidding travel, effectively making the Bostonians human shields. Next, he proposed a gun control and confiscation scheme. Inhabitants were promised they could leave Boston if they turned in their weapons and registered them with British officials for safe-keeping. Over the course of two days, Americans, armed to the teeth, lined up outside Faneuil Hall and turned in over 2,000 pistols and long arms along with nearly 1,000 bayonets.
Weeks passed in Boston before inhabitants could leave the city, but their weapons were never returned as promised. The flood tide of travelers leaving alarmed the Loyalists, however, so eventually Gage reneged on that promise as well, locking down the city once again and issuing a proclamation that any Americans who did not lay down their arms would be considered “rebels” and “traitors.” After the war, British efforts of disarmament and fear of a standing army had a profound impact on the Founders when they composed the 2nd Amendment.
Years after the Revolution, Captain Levi Preston was asked why he fought in the Battle of Lexington. Was it about the Stamp Act? “I never saw one of those stamps.” Was it about the Tea Tax? “I never drank a drop of that stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.” The interviewer then asked him about several esoteric concepts, which Preston dismissed. Americans don’t like to be told what to do. As he then responded, “Young man, what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian