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 09, 2008

“The Regulars Are Coming Out.”

In 1825, Elias Phinney published his History of the Battle of Lexington. As that little book’s title implies, Phinney argued that the shooting on Lexington green at dawn on 19 Apr 1775 was not one-sided and irregular but the first fight of the Revolutionary War. (A local historian from Concord disagreed, naturally.)

Phinney had gathered several legal depositions from current and former residents of Lexington who recalled the royal troops shooting, and themselves or their neighbors shooting back. Back in 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had published similar depositions—including some from the same men—that described only the British firing. That booklet didn’t explicitly deny the possibility that some locals had fired back, but it described an unprovoked and furious redcoat attack.

Phinney’s depositions also offered some other previously unreported details of the events in Lexington on 18-19 April, including what Paul Revere actually said (to one man, at least) about the approaching British soldiers. According to the militia sergeant in command at the Lexington parsonage, Revere didn’t say, “The British are coming.” Here’s the start of that man’s deposition:

I, William Munroe, of Lexington, on oath do testify, that I acted as orderly sergeant in the company commanded by Capt. John Parker, on the 19th of April, 1775; that, early in the evening of the 18th of the same April, I was informed by Solomon Brown, who had just returned from Boston, that he had seen nine British officers on the road, travelling leisurely, sometimes before and sometimes behind him; that he had discovered, by the occasional blowing aside of their top coats, that they were armed.

On learning this, I supposed they had some design upon [John] Hancock and [Samuel] Adams, who were then at the house of the Rev. Mr. [Jonas] Clark, and immediately assembled a guard of eight men, with their arms, to guard the house.

About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested, that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house. “Noise!” said he, “you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.” We then permitted him to pass.

Soon after, Mr. Lincoln came. These gentlemen came different routes. Revere came over the ferry to Charlestown, and Lincoln over the neck through Roxbury; and both brought letters from Dr. [Joseph] Warren in Boston to Hancock and Adams, stating, that a large body of British troops had left Boston, and were on their march to Lexington. On this, it was thought advisable, that Hancock and Adams should withdraw to some distant part of the town.
Munroe called Revere a colonel because that was the title the silversmith received later in the Revolution. He misunderstood how Revere had crossed the Charles River, saying he’d come “over the ferry” rather than rowing himself along the ferry’s approximate route. And Revere didn’t mention Dr. Warren sending letters to Hancock and Adams; he delivered the warning orally. As for “Mr. Lincoln,” that was apparently how Munroe remembered William Dawes.

We can therefore ask whether Munroe quoted Revere accurately. “The regulars are coming out” certainly sounds right for early 1775, though.


Anonymous said...

Before the British arrived at Lexington Green, hadn't they already been fired upon by a couple of colonist. I believe Ensign Lister's diary tells a story of how Lt Sunderland and another Lt. where fired upon by a couple colonist who were running away. Lucky for the british officers, there muskets only "flashed in the pan" and never actually shot anything.

J. L. Bell said...

Lt. William Sutherland described first hearing some alarm shots, but “as we heard no Whissing of Balls I Conclude they were to Alarm the body that was there of our Approach.”

Then, “On Coming within Gun shot of the Village of Lexington a fellow from the Corner of the road on the right hand Cock’d his piece at me, burnt primeing.” Sutherland didn’t claim to have seen or heard evidence of a musket ball, just of the man taking aim. Col. Francis Smith interpreted this as the first shot of the skirmish in his report to Gen. Thomas Gage.

Sutherland then perceived three men firing from a corner of Buckman’s Tavern. This was shortly followed by the shooting on the green, which was the first time anyone was hit.

Interestingly, when Sutherland’s horse bolted because of that volley, it carried him down the road toward the Lexington parsonage. Reportedly there were a lot more militiamen down that way, worried that the army was trying to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

On the question of when the first shots of the war were exchanged, I lean toward 14-15 Dec 1774 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.