J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Firing at & Kill'g. Hogs, Geese, Cattle & Every Thing?

Here’s an incendiary account of the British actions in Lexington on 19 April 1775, apparently written in Hartford four days later and then printed in the Pennsylvania Mercury five days after that. The letter’s description of events in Concord was fairly accurate, but as for Lexington:

the Regulars fired without the least provocation about fifteen minutes, without a single shot from our men; who retreated—in which fire they killed six of our men & wounded several, from thence they proceeded to Concord:

on the Road thither, they fired at & killed a Man on Horseback, went to the House where Mr. [John] Hancock lodged, who with Samuel Adams luckily got out of their way by secret & speedy Intelligence from Paul Revere—when they searched the house for Mr. Hancock & Adams, & not find them there, killed the Woman of the house & all the children & set fire to the house;

from thence they proceeded on their Way to Concord, firing at & kill’g. hogs, geese, cattle & every Thing that came in their Way, & burning houses.
Among the inaccuracies:
  • The British volley at Lexington was short, not fifteen minutes long.
  • Some locals fired back, though without much effect.
  • The British soldiers didn’t shoot up the countryside on their way from Lexington to Concord; only on the return trip, as they were being surrounded by provincial militiamen, did the regulars start firing.
  • The British never went to the Lexington parsonage where Hancock and Adams had lodged (shown above, courtesy of BattleRoad.org); despite American suspicions, arresting those men was never part of Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders.
  • The regulars therefore didn’t kill any woman, children, or animals at that house. (The only child killed by British fire on 19 Apr 1775 was Edward Barber of Charlestown.)
The letter writer might have heard an exaggerated account of what happened at the house of Joseph and Hannah Adams of West Cambridge, and shifted that action to Lexington. I’ll tell that story one day. But no one was killed in that incident, either.

In sum, this letter from Hartford reflects not what the British soldiers had actually done, but what New Englanders were telling each other those troops had done—which was significant in its own right in motivating men to join the besieging provincial army.

Whoever wrote this account seems to have been well informed otherwise. For example, the letter mentions Paul Revere by name as the man who brought news of the British march to Lexington. Revere was being singled out among the alarm riders more than eighty years before Longfellow’s poem.

Another interesting detail appears in a portion of the letter I haven’t transcribed: it said the provincials “Made eight prisoners. Ten more clubbed their firelocks & came over to us.” In other words, ten British soldiers deserted while eight captives wanted to go back to their army. The prisoner exchange on 6 June sent two officers and six enlisted men back to Boston—but another officer had been traded earlier. (More about him later.) So those numbers need reconciling. The deserters are even harder to count because they were already fading quietly into New England society.

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