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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Thursday, April 08, 2010

When the Real Battle Started—and Where

One of the basic questions about the Battle of Lexington and Concord is why it took so long for the major fighting to get started. There were men killed at Lexington at dawn, about 5:00 A.M. There were men on both sides killed at Concord’s North Bridge about 10:00. But then the militia commanders pulled half their men back from the bridge, and held their fire when four British companies marched by. The concerted provincial counterattack didn’t start until the early afternoon.

Some, but not all, of the answer lies in how the provincials had to work up to fighting against fellow British subjects. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had built up a military over the preceding six months in the hopes that it would cause the royal authorities to back down. People wanted a peaceful solution, not a civil war. Of course, after seeing regulars fire first at the North Bridge, the militiamen in Concord felt less reluctance about shooting at them.

This question also makes me think of a comparison I once read between the provincials attacking the British column and a dog chasing a car. If the dog ever catches the car, what would he do with it?

There was an argument well after the war over whether the Essex County militia under Col. Timothy Pickering could have cut off the British before they reached Charlestown. But if the provincials had captured Col. Percy and several hundred soldiers, what would they have done with those men? Who was ready to assume that authority? I doubt the men of Massachusetts really tried to stop the British withdrawal. I think they wanted to exact some punishment and hurry those regulars back to their garrison.

I have to acknowledge that waiting until early afternoon meant that more militia companies showed up, but I don’t think that was decisive.

I think the most significant factor in the the timing is that the Middlesex County militiamen started their concerted attack after the British troops had left the center of Concord. Until then, there had been hundreds of soldiers in the middle of the civilian population and some valued public property. (The print by Amos Doolittle above, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg, gives an impression of that brief occupation.) Once those troops were a mile to the east, at Meriam’s corner, it was open season.


Barbara said...

I'm enjoying your pieces about the Revolutionary War, guess the main reason is because I lived in Lexington for eight years...there are many memories coming to surface by reading your posts. Thanks. I'll be sharing some things in my blog as well and will link your site, if that is ok.

Mark Kociemba said...

This is a very cool blog. I am very interested in History and Have done some reserch in to how the revolution has been like the flip of a coin. one one side you have the fight for freedom and on the other side you have the denial of freedom to African Americans. I think that it is very interesting.

If you would like to join my Blog that I just started please go to www.thehistoryking.blogspot