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, October 03, 2006

Where Was the "Shot Heard Round the World"?

I've decided to start an irregular series of postings called "Myths of Lexington and Concord." By "Lexington and Concord" I mean the conflict between the British army and the militias of Massachusetts on 19 April 1775, which started with shooting on Lexington Green, restarted with a skirmish at the North Bridge in Concord, and then became a running battle all the way along the British withdrawal from Concord to Charlestown—hence the alternate term "Battle Road."

And by "myth" I mean "Something which someone somewhere has written down, which I can treat as conventional wisdom to be debunked, thus making what I write seem more original and important." Promising to debunk myths is a valuable tool in marketing history books, or indeed almost any sort of nonfiction.

So my first myth will be the "shot heard round the world." What shot does that phrase refer to, and does the shot deserve such phrase?

There's no question of what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he wrote his "Concord Hymn" in 1836:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Emerson lauded the militia companies from Concord, Acton, and Lincoln who marched down on the North Bridge. But of course Emerson had a dog in that fight. He was a Concord boy. His grandfather, the Rev. William Emerson, had turned out with the Concord militia that day, and would later die of disease while on campaign. And he wrote his hymn for the dedication of a monument in Concord. Of course Emerson said that what happened in Concord was most important!

But already there were folks in Lexington who felt their town deserved more credit. American historians had always pointed to the deaths of several Lexington militiamen at dawn on 19 April as the war's first casualties. In 1775, Massachusetts wanted to portray the British regulars as violent oppressors, so provincial leaders were careful not to publish much evidence of their preparations for a military conflict or of any forceful resistance to the British column before Concord. But fifty years later the men of Lexington got tired of being portrayed as mere victims. They began to insist loudly that they had fired back at the redcoats.

Thus, argued Elias Phinney in his 1825 pamphlet History of the Battle at Lexington, his town deserved credit for making the first forcible resistance to the British army. He published several depositions from survivors to support that claim. Nonsense, answered Concord minister Ezra Ripley; in A History of the Fight at Concord (1827), he published other depositions to show that the Lexington men had done little or no damage to the British column. Thus, by the late 1800s both towns claimed to be the site of the real "shot heard round the world."

And those aren't the only claims about when and where the war started. Ray Raphael argues in The First American Revolution that Massachusetts's political revolution took place in the summer and fall of 1774 as crowds of citizens stifled all royal authority in most of the province—several months before any shooting. People in Salem suggest that military hostilities between the British and Americans began there, with the confrontation between companies of the 64th regiment and locals on 26 Feb 1775. But that face-off turned into a face-saving compromise between Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie and the local elite; no one at Salem wanted to start a war.

So what's my answer as to where the Revolutionary War started?

Portsmouth, New Hampshire
On 14-15 Dec 1774, companies of New Hampshire militia under current and future Continental Congress delegates John Sullivan (shown above) and John Langdon attacked Fort William & Mary in Portsmouth harbor. The five-man British squad in the fort under Capt. John Cochran fired cannon at the intruders, but were overwhelmed by numbers. Nobody was killed or wounded. The provincials removed cannon, powder, and other supplies from the fort to use later.

Why do I consider that the first shot of the Revolutionary War? For the first time British and American military units deliberately confronted each other and used deadly force to seize territory (temporarily) and ordnance (permanently). The London government could not have overlooked the raid on Fort William & Mary; it was an act of rebellion and civil war.

So if I truly believe that, why did I name my blog "Boston 1775" instead of "Portsmouth 1774"? Um. Er. Oops, out of time for today. More myths tomorrow!


Anonymous said...

My personal belief is that a colonist fired the first shot. The British army at this time in history was a proud and well trained army. I don't believe a field of colonist dispersing would encourage any of them to fire. Lt. Sunderland of the British noted that on their march to Lexington a few colonist leveled their rifles and fired at them, but the muskets only misfired. My belief is once the Minuteman got behind a stonewall a few of them took aim and fired, which (with tensions so high) the British responded in kind then gave a full volley. Thoughts?

J. L. Bell said...

I think the first shot in Lexington more likely came from a local than from a soldier. However, the British officers' own complaints about their soldiers after the firing began indicates lack of absolute discipline, so the possibility of the first shot coming from the redcoat ranks remains a possibility.

I doubt the first shot came from the militiamen lined up on the Green. However, an equal or larger number of armed locals were standing near Buckman's tavern, in the woods on the way to the parsonage, and elsewhere. The shot seems more likely to have come from one of those men. (I have my own theory about which man we know about was most likely.)

Finally, the first shot need not have been intentional or aimed for it to have convinced the soldiers on the Green that their lives were in danger, prompting them to respond with fatal force.

Anonymous said...

I believe the British responded with fatal force only because that lone shot was the 'straw that broke the camels back.'

These troops were highly trained but did not have much battle field experience and after a months of being taunted by the colonist and Sam Adams and a march that had them hearing town bells and musket fire going off, only made these troops VERY jumpy.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the British troops were very jumpy. The march out to Concord was supposed to have been a secret, yet they were seeing armed men hurrying along the hills beside them. That could not have been enjoyable. Plus there had been brawls and insults between soldiers and locals since the army was ordered back into central Boston in May 1774.

I think the provincial militiamen were jumpy as well. In the previous twelve months, they had seen their capital occupied by troops, their legislature shut down, their main port closed, and some of their militia supplies seized. In the political disputes between local government and Crown since 1765, soldiers or royal appointees had killed six Bostonians. (In contrast, one British naval officer was killed at sea while trying to impress Massachusetts sailors.)

Some of the men waiting at Lexington Green had, like Paul Revere, been taken prisoner by British officers earlier in the evening, then released with the loss of their horses. I wonder if for those men the war had already started. Like the soldiers who had heard shots fired, they might have seen whatever they did as a response to aggression, not as initiating aggression.

Anonymous said...

The legend I learned as a Wellesley boy, was that Sam Adams fired the shot from behind the Buckman's tavern. Sam had been trying to start a conflict since the "Boston Massacre". He saw this as a perfect chance to start the revolution he had been working toward for so many years.

J. L. Bell said...

The problem with that hypothesis is that Samuel Adams was miles away from Lexington when the shooting began.

Also, I don’t think Adams was nearly the provocateur that some twentieth-century historians painted him as. His strategy was not to give an inch and let the royal government overplay its hand.

There was a Patriot leader in Lexington that day who wanted to confront the British column. Adams talked him out of it. Someday I’ll write about that man’s actions.

Chris McNulty said...

Sam Adams was only away from Lexington after repeated warnings from the underground network in and around Boston...

So, what's your position on the Salem Alarm/Leslie's Retreat?

J. L. Bell said...

My position on Leslie’s raid on Salem? About 35 miles and over 225 years away.

As for its importance, I think it was a crucial stepping-stone toward Lexington and Concord. Like the Portsmouth confrontation and other events going back to early September 1774, the raid on Salem was part of an “arms race” between New England militia units and the Crown military. Both were trying to secure all the artillery and other military supplies they could locate.

Gen. Thomas Gage received word of field guns in Salem, and sent Lt. Col. Leslie after them. Later he had an intelligence report of such guns being moved from Salem to Concord, and started planning a march to the latter town. So the Salem and Concord expeditions probably had the same objectives.

Chris McNulty said...

Yeah, I'm with you in that my thesis for a while has been that the Boston campaigns of 1774-76 were just that, culminating in, as I call it, the Great Siege of Boston, won thanks to General Knox' cannon in March 1776

Anonymous said...

DeWitt said...
" Lt. Sunderland of the British noted that on their march to Lexington a few colonist leveled their rifles and fired at them,"

Was it in Menotomy? I remember previously seeing a vague reference to Menotomy colonists firing on British going to Lexington.

Anonymous said...

" the British officers' own complaints about their soldiers after the firing began indicates lack of absolute discipline, so the possibility of the first shot coming from the redcoat ranks remains a possibility. "

From accounts,my impression was British LI were a bit too lacking in discipline at Lexington green.
Also it was a peace time army not a veteran group