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, April 21, 2010

The Shots at Lexington

Lt. William Sutherland was riding in front of the British expedition to Concord on 19 Apr 1775. He reported: “On coming within Gunshot of the village of Lexington a fellow from the corner of the road on the right hand Cock’d his piece at me, [and] burnt priming.” In other words, a local had tried to take a shot at him.

And then: “we still went on further when a few shot more were fired at us from the Corner of a house to the right of the Church which is sacred truth as I hope for mercy.” This building appears to have been Buckman’s tavern, facing onto the Lexington common.

On the other hand, locals insisted that the first shot came from the regulars. In fact, Simon Winship, one of the late-night riders that the British had confined within their ranks, declared on 25 April:
within about half a quarter of a mile of said [Lexington] meeting-house, where an officer commanded the troops to halt, and then to prime and load;

this being done, the said troops marched on till they came within a few rods of Capt. [John] Parker and company, who were partly collected on the place of parade, when said Winship observed an officer at the head of said troops, nourishing his sword, and with a loud voice giving the word fire! which was instantly followed by a discharge of arms from said regular troops; and said Winship is positive, and in the most solemn manner declares, that there was no discharge of arms on either side, till the word fire was given by said officer as above.
Of course, witnesses on both sides had reasons to blame the other.

After the shooting, the British commanders apparently acknowledged that the Middlesex countryside was already alarmed, so there was no use in detaining people to keep that secret. Furthermore, to complete their mission the regulars had to move on to Concord as quickly as possible. The officers therefore decided to release their prisoners.

Silas Dean’s Brief History of the Town of Stoneham (1870) described what happened to two of those prisoners, Asahel Porter and Josiah Richardson, apparently drawing on descendants’ understandings:
Richardson requested permission to return [i.e., go home], and was told by the individual to go to another person, who would no doubt give him a release; but in case the second person he went to told him to run he was by the first ordered not to run; being informed that if he did run he would be shot.

Richardson did as he was told to do; and though he was told to run, he walked away, and was not injured. The reason why he was ordered to run was this: that the guard might think him a deserter, and thereby, in the discharge of their duty, shoot him.

Mr. Porter not being apprised of their artifice in telling him to run, got permission, in the same way of Richardson. Having liberty to go, he sat out upon the run. On getting over a wall a short distance off, he was fired upon and received his death wound.
Did British soldiers truly mistake Porter to be a deserter? Other authors suggest that the two men were released “on condition they departed without attracting any especial observation,” and then Porter drew attention to himself. And maybe a soldier (or officer) was just fed up with defiant Yankees. However it happened, sources agree that Richardson (and, presumably, Winship) walked away safely while Porter ran and was shot dead.

TOMORROW: The aftermath of Asahel Porter’s death.

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