It’s baffling, really, to look back at the American Revolution and wonder how the colonists could be so organized. No cell phones, no computers, no Facebook. How in the world did that madcap crew (who we now refer to as our forefathers) make this all work?
As things were heating up in Boston, General Thomas Gage received orders from the Earl of Dartmouth to get himself and a crew to Concord and get rid of the weapons stash which the colonists were building up. Along with that, the report contained orders that Samuel Adams and John Hancock be found and locked up. Or hung. Most likely with the charge of treason. Our dear friend Doctor Warren got wind of this little report even before General Gage, and he was able to get Adams, Hancock and the primary players out of Boston. (Rumor on the block is the snitch was none other than Margaret Kemble Gage . . . New Jersey-born wife of General Gage . . . who had “sympathies with the Colonial cause and a friendly relationship with Warren.” You go, girl!)
With Adams and Hancock hiding out in Lexington, Warren and Revere were holding down the fort in Boston. Their next piece of business was to work out a plan. They needed to come up with a way to communicate to the leaders, the minutemen, and the townspeople. There needed to be a surefire way to forewarn them so that they could stay one step ahead of the British.
What they came up with was something akin to a good old-fashioned telephone tree (the precursor to emails blasts, tweets and what have you) without the aid of a telephone (or emails, Twitter and what have yous). They devised an alert system that used a daring combination of express riders, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a few trumpets. (I guess one really needs a good melody for something like that.)
On April 16, Revere made a quick trip to Concord with the pre-warning that the British landing craft were being drawn from the water which was a clear indication that something was up. The locals, understanding what that meant, began to move their arms supplies around hiding them in wells, barns and swamps. Revere went back to Boston to prepare the communication system should the Regular Army start the move.
Knowing that this was the inevitable, Revere set up a system whereby three Boston Patriots (not the football players, but colonists sympathetic to the cause) would wait for word as to which direction the British would take on their move to Concord. Would they march over Boston Neck or would they take boats across the Charles River? Over in Charleston there were a few backup riders who needed to know which way to ride. The patriots were to have two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church (then known as Christ Church) and be ready to shine a signal: “One if by land, two if by sea.”
Sure enough, on the 18th of April 1775, the British made the first move. Revere the second. And thus begins the legendary story that led to “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”
One thing that the Longfellow poem leads the reader to believe is that Paul Revere was the lone rider. This in fact was not the case. There were a number of patriots out that night sounding the alarms. Heading in the direction of Lexington & Concord was our famous Mr. Revere (riding the northern route out of Boston) and a young shoemaker named William Dawes (riding the southern route out of Boston). Once in Lexington, they met up with Dr. Samuel Prescott. The three of them continued on their way, but before they could get to Concord, Dawes and Revere were both captured. Only Dr. Prescott was able to make it through. (Not to worry: Dawes & Revere were both able to escape that same evening and get back to Lexington in time for the start of the war.)
The other urban legend passed down from that famous night is that Paul Revere road through town and country shouting “The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!” This (while a little more dramatic than what Revere actually said) is sadly untrue. It’s more likely that he stopped at farms and local establishments to warn that the “Regulars are out.” (You see, technically most of those who lived in the colonies were British so it would have been rather confusing to know which British he was talking about.)
Because of the courage and stamina of the midnight riders and their system of alerts, on the morning of April 19, 1775, about 80 militiamen were lined up in battle formation on the town green at Lexington waiting for redcoats. (One report has them coming out of the local tavern . . . somehow, that just makes it all the better!) The British Regular army did not disappoint. They did a “one up” on our colonists, showing up with 500 of their own.
Captain John Parker, the leader of our 80 or so militiamen from the local tavern, saw that he and his merry band of 80 were no match for the redcoats, and it is believed that he said "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” (This is now engraved in stone where the battle began.)
A British officer, most likely believing this meant they could start with some negotiations ranted something to the effect, “lay down your arms, you damned rebels!” Now, I may never have stood in line ready for a war to start but I’m thinking that isn’t what you want to say to 80 guys just coming out of a tavern and ready for a fight. And sure enough, shortly after that the first shot was fired. And to this day, as far as I can tell, nobody knows from whence it came.
At the end of that little kerfuffle, eight Massachusetts men were killed and ten more were wounded. Only one British Regular was wounded.
But the day was not yet done. The British commanders were able to find their little drummer boy to beat out the assembly, get them in line and move on to Concord so they could continue on their mission of capturing the militia supplies.
Once in Concord, the troops were divided and sent out to capture as many supplies as possible. Colonel Smith must have had a lady friend as well because he was well equipped with information as to where many of the supplies were hidden. While the raids were taking place it seems that the minutemen (colonists) and the militiamen (more colonists) were starting to meet around the North Bridge.
The colonists, about 400 strong, got themselves organized on one side of the bridge, while on the other side there was an inexperienced captain overseeing about 90 British troops. Clearly, this would not end well. Like many moments of that particular day, there was confusion all around. On the British side, their original orders were to march into Concord and capture the ammunitions stores (as well as Adams & Hancock, should they be so lucky). On the colonists side, they were only told to not shoot unless an order was given. Now that there was a standoff, neither side knew if they were to shoot, stay, or run.
But then someone shot first. Possibly a warning shot from the side of the British to try and get some semblance of command. While this fact will live in the mute body of history, Ralph Waldo Emerson would famously capture the moment when he wrote "Here once the embattled farmers stood / and fired the shot heard round the world."
Like all moments in history, we can go back and get many accounts of what people were thinking, what they wanted, what their expectations were. While everyone was certainly preparing for war, I would like to believe that some people were still holding out for something a little more civilized. Perhaps, by this time, both sides were at the end of their ropes and someone took the first shot out of sheer frustration. Perhaps war was simply inevitable. Or, perhaps we, as societies, still don’t know how to get what we want through common sense and negotiation. Who’s to say? The only clear fact that remains is that on that very famous day, on that very famous bridge, our little Colonies That Could were in a War of Independence that would soon begin one of the greatest experiments of all time.