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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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Lt. William Sutherland’s Wild Ride

Yesterday I quoted (Alexander Cain quoting) Lt. William Tidd of the Lexington militia company on how a mounted British officer had chased him off the common on 19 Apr 1775.

I suspect that officer was Lt. William Sutherland, and he wasn’t chasing anyone. Here’s his description of the shots at Lexington, prepared for his commanders in Boston a few days afterward:
When we came up to the Main body who were drawn up in the plain opposite to the Church when several Officers called out, throw down your Arms & you shall come by no harm, or words to that effect

which they refusing to do, instantaneously the Gentlemen who were on horseback rode in amongst them at which time I heared Major [John] Pitcairns voice call out Soldiers dont fire keep your ranks and form & surround them,

instantly some of the Villains were got over the hedge, fired at us, & it was then & not before that the Soldiers fired which sett my horse agoing who gallopped with me 600 yards or more down a road to the right amongst the middle of them, at last I turned him and in returning a vast number who were in a wood at the right of the Grenadiers fired at me, but the distance was so great that I only heared the Whissing of the Balls, but saw a great number of people in this Wood,

in consequence of their discovering them being there our Grenadiers who were then on our flank and close to them gave them a very smart fire.
The main point of Sutherland’s narrative was that the provincials fired first—even before the British vanguard reached the Lexington common and again there. These weren’t a few peaceful subjects but a large mass of armed rebels. Sutherland emphasized how his sudden ride took him “amongst the middle of them,” with men on the common to his left, more around the Buckman tavern to his right, and “a vast number” in the woods further along.

Meanwhile, how did Sutherland’s behavior look to the men of Lexington? In the midst of the soldiers’ first volley of shots he charged “600 yards or more down a road to the right”—i.e., the road toward the Lexington parsonage, which militiamen had been out guarding all night. Sutherland’s horse had bolted, but the locals didn’t know that. (This moment might even have produced the wild story that British soldiers actually did raid the Lexington parsonage.)

The Lexington men also saw Sutherland turn and ride swiftly back to the regulars under fire. Like Lt. Tidd, they might have assumed that their shots had forced him back from his goal when in fact Sutherland never wanted to go down that road—it was all his horse’s idea.

Lt. Sutherland made it back to the army column unscathed and continued on to Concord, where he was also present for the exchange of fire at the North Bridge. Quite a day for an officer who hadn’t even been assigned to the march—Sutherland rode along as a volunteer.

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