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, May 18, 2019

Where Was Pvt. John Bateman?

Back when I quoted the April 1775 deposition of Pvt. John Bateman about the shooting at Lexington, I said I was more interested in analyzing the circumstances of that document than its content.

But Don Hagist, chief editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, noticed something about the content that’s worth considering. So I asked to run his message as a “guest blogger” posting.

We’ll start with a reminder of Bateman’s testimony:

I, John Bateman, belonging to the fifty second regiment, commanded by Colonel [Valentine] Jones, on Wednesday morning, on the nineteenth day of April instant, was in the party marching to Concord. Being at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex, being nigh the meeting-house in said Lexington, there was a small party of men gathered together in that place, when our said troops marched by; and I testify and declare, that I heard the word of command given to the troops to fire, and some of said troops did fire, and I saw one of said small party lie dead on the ground nigh said meeting-house; and I testify, that I never heard any of the inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.
And here’s Don:

Reading the testimony of Pvt. John Bateman of the 52nd Regiment, I realized something that calls the veracity of his testimony into question. Bateman was a grenadier. As such, he was probably pretty far away from the first shot on Lexington green, not in good position to know who fired it.

There is no disputing that the light infantry got to Lexington first, and that the companies of the 4th and 10th Regiments went onto the green first. This accords well with typical British formations that put the most senior units on the flanks when in line. A number of period maps show that grenadier and light infantry battalions formed in the same way. Formed in a line by seniority, the light infantry companies on April 19, 1775, would be arranged with the 4th on the right, the 5th on the left, the 10th next on the right, 23rd, next on the left, and so forth working inwards. Marching by column from the right puts the 4th and 10th as the first two companies, making them first on Lexington green.

With this formation, Bateman's company from the 52nd Regiment would be near the middle of the grenadier battalion, in column behind the light infantry. Only if they had proceeded partway past the green by the time the first shot was fired would Bateman have been in a position to see who fired it.

This assumes that Bateman was with his company and not with an advanced party. Lt. William Sutherland of the 38th Regiment wrote that, before arriving at Lexington, the column halted “in order to make a Disposition, by advancing men in front & on the flanks to prevent a surprise.” He himself was not a grenadier or light infantry officer, and “went on with the front party which consisted of a serjeant & 6 or 8 men” who could have been chosen from any company in the column. And Lt. Jesse Adair of the Marines said that he was at the head of the column, even though the Marines were between the 38th and 43rd in seniority, and so should have been in the middle of the column.

We don’t know where John Bateman was when the shooting started on April 19, but it doesn’t seem likely that he was in a good position to see who fired the first shot.

Thanks, Don!

I agree with this analysis and think it also reflects the reality of what Bateman said. He claimed to have heard the command to fire, but he didn’t describe seeing those shots or their immediate aftermath. He saw only one dead body, and we know that several men died on Lexington green. Because, most likely, Bateman marched by the scene after the shooting was over.

TOMORROW: But you know who was in a position to see the first shots at Lexington?

[The image above shows a detail from the muster roll of the 52nd Regiment, supplied by Don. It shows how Bateman’s commanders gave him up as dead as of 21 April—two days before his deposition and probably two weeks or more before he died.] 

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