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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Saturday, April 23, 2011

The First Shots on 19 April 1775

Immediately after the battle in Lexington and other parts of Middlesex County on 19 Apr 1775, each side tried to make the case that the other had fired first.

British officers filed reports emphasizing how they had heard alarm signals and seen provincials with guns moving over distant hills during the march out to Concord. Lt. William Sutherland described a specific example of gunfire from the provincials:
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, burnt priming, I immediately called to Mr. [Jesse] Adair & the party to observe this Circumstance which they did & acquainted Major [John] Pitcairn of it immediately.
Lt.-Col. Francis Smith included this incident in his report to Gen. Thomas Gage, and Gage included it in his report to the ministry in London.

When the two forces approached each other on the Lexington common, Sutherland continued, someone shot “from the Corner of a house to the right of the Church”—probably Buckman’s tavern. After army officers ordered the militia company on the green to disperse, the lieutenant went on, “some of the Villains were got over the hedge, fired at us.”

Maj. Pitcairn reported “several Shott were fired from a Meeting House on our Left,” but other British officers pointed to the men grouped to the right side of the common. Some wrote that it was impossible to know where that first shot had come from, but no officers blamed the militiamen actually lined up on the green. (The impressions of the British enlisted men went unrecorded.)

In contrast, all the provincials insisted that the regulars on Lexington common had fired first. John Robbins said that “the foremost of the three [mounted] officers ordered their men saying, ‘Fire!—by God!—fire!’” Within a short time that officer was widely identified as Maj. Pitcairn. Benjamin Tidd and Joseph Abbot described hearing “first a few guns, which we took to be pistols, from some of the regulars who were mounted on horses.”

Many other Lexington men offered no details of the first shot beyond insisting that it had come from the redcoats before anyone had fired at them. In fact, dozens of men signed the same two depositions attesting to that vital fact. The only thing their accounts had in common with the British officers’ reports is that each agreed that the other was to blame.

Until the early twentieth century, almost all American historians echoed the provincial sources and described the British firing first. With more British sources appearing, more skepticism, and less defensiveness, more recent American authors acknowledged that the situation was probably more confused than that, and even that it was possible that the first short came from someone on the provincial side.

At his “1775” blog, Derek W. Beck has shared his conclusion that some American(s) must have fired first—though not necessarily while deliberately aiming at the soldiers. I’ve heard Christopher Bing, a son of Lexington who’s produced a handsome edition of Paul Revere’s Ride, make a similar argument: that the British soldiers were too well drilled to fire without being ordered to or being attacked (though even their own officers complained that, once attacked, the regulars on the green went out of control for a little while).

All that said, I think that for some of the men in Lexington that morning, the war had already started, making the first shot on the common less significant. Lt. Sutherland, for example, would state that locals had shot at him twice before the confrontation on the green. And one young man from Lexington had been in the thick of the conflict since the previous afternoon.

TOMORROW: Solomon Brown’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.


Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Thanks for your comments on this subject. It has always been a very interesting topic for those of us passionate about the Revolution, even if, in the great scheme of things, it matters not who shot first. However, I have wondered, if I do indeed get my book "1775" one day turned into a miniseries, what should be depicted? It is the same conundrum for the re-enactors. When depicting this sort of thing, one must actually decide who shot first, or try very hard to make it unclear for the live audience. When I attended the dawn re-enactment in 2009, they did have a shot from behind Buckman Tavern, as I recall. (The meetinghouse being no longer in existence, that was not an option.)
-Derek, Author of "1775" the book

AD said...

There are many mysteries concerning the Revolutionary War, but this is a favorite one, I think, for good reason. The events at Lexington were described by dozens of eye-witnesses. With such a wealth of information, this should be one of the best-understood episodes of the war. But bafflingly, the eye-witness accounts are hopelessly contradictory, and it's impossible to say with surety which version (if any) is correct.

Here's a stray thought. The depositions made by the Lexington militia notably shed little light on how the firing started (John Robbins' dubious account aside). Instead, they simply stated that the regulars fired on them while they were walking off the green and had their backs turned to the British. These bland statements seem to allow both the possibility that the British regulars were acting without provocation, and the possibility that they were. In either case, these depositions still make an important moral argument. Even if the first shot was fired by some rogue American on the edge of the green, the subsequent volley by the British regulars was still, in their eyes, an unjustifiable act of collective punishment. In other words, their moral outrage (and by extension, that of like-minded colonists) may have depended less on who fired first than on what happened after the first shot was fired. Some of the other depositions would seem to support this view; statements about the British burning houses and terrorizing civilians later in the day surely reflected anger at (and fear of) collective punishment.

Robert S. Paul said...

The British fired first. In Boston. In 1770.

Or the Colonials fired first. In Portsmouth. In 1774.

Basically, I think the idea that "the war had already begun" is probably true, so the shot at Lexington is almost irrelevant. If it hadn't happened there, it would've happened in Concord, or somewhere else in the coming days.

RFuller said...

How about staging it as the winesses testified it actually went in 1775? They swore it was the truth.

Of course, for various reasons, including memory creep, and sheepishness over their role of just trying to survive, the participants and others associated with the event changed their stories as time went on. However, the first draft of history, before everyone's got a chance to commingle their memories and the verbalized memories called stories, is often the truth.

I've been reading [url=http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Greatest-Generation-History-Americans/dp/0415956773]Kenneth D. Rose's The Myth of the Greatest Generation[/url] and I am struck how much the WW2 generation of fighting men and the men of 1775 Lexingon have in common.

Neither side saw themselves as heroes intially, but as time went on, they found being "heroes" benefited them, as well as helped cover up cracks in the nation's psychic armor of trying to deal with what had transpired in the American Revolution. Both groups went along with the utter hagiography, just to get along. It was easier to let others born after them, who would never understand what had happened to them in combat, do so.

If anything, I'd say it was worse for the Lexington militia. They had had no mental preparation for or expectation of being gunned down and bayonetted by their own government's soldiers.

Charles Bahne said...

I haven't examined the original depositions in detail, but I've seen many articles like this one (and the ensuing comments) which attempt to answer this question. Given the lack of certainty as to "which side fired first", I think it likely that the first shot came from somewhere outside the center of activity -- i.e., from near the meeting house, the tavern, the hedge, the spectators, a misfired gun from someone at the back of the lines, or so on. That's why no one could pinpoint exactly where it came from. Everyone was concentrating on the two sides that were facing off, but the first shot may not have come from either side. It probably came from someplace that no one was looking at!

Then after that first shot, both sides started shooting at each other.

This is consistent with the points made above, that "who fired the first shot" was irrelevant. The situation was simply a tinder box awaiting some spark, somewhere.

And, of course, the most significant fighting of the day occurred hours later, along the Battle Road.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

There are all quite interesting thoughts. On my own blog, one comment added that perhaps the first shot was an alarm gun from some militiaman nearby. Quite possible too. I like the comment that the first shot was probably not from those on the Green, otherwise some better agreement would be expected from the depositions.

On the thought that the British fired first in Boston, 1770. I'd argue that the Colonists struck first, though not in any deadly way perhaps, with their assault of the lone soldier outside the Town House (Old State House), using ice balls and clubs. I'm not excusing that the British fired into the crowd and killed several, mind you. Just making an observation.

But in Portsmouth, 1774, it seems the colonists did not fire first, rather the British fired their cannon into the oncoming Colonists swarming the Ft. William and Mary.

But Mr. Paul's comment is nevertheless the same: "If it hadn't happened there, it would've happened in Concord, or somewhere else in the coming days."


J. L. Bell said...

I doubt anyone would have shot off an alarm signal so close to the Lexington green as to make the soldiers there think they were being shot at. The whole town was already alarmed, after all.

As for the Boston Massacre of 1770, the first violence on King Street that night was Pvt. Hugh White’s blow at young Edward Garrick. Only after that assault did the apprentice’s companions gather a crowd that threw insults and snowballs at White. Then more soldiers arrived, followed by sailors with cordwood clubs.

Both on King Street and at Fort William & Mary in 1774, the Crown forces used firearms when they feared being overwhelmed by the locals’ numbers. Which party was the aggressor? Which party practiced inexcusable violence? Well, that was what all the subsequent fighting was about.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Excellent points as always!

The whole town was already alarmed, after all.

Ah, yes, I had not thought about that! Very true!