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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Sunday, January 16, 2022

Victory on Battle Road

The latest issue of Discover Concord magazine includes an article by one of our region’s most knowledgeable and experienced public interpreters of the Revolutionary War, Ranger Jim Hollister of Minute Man National Historical Park.

In just two pages (with handsome photographs) this article tackles the question of who won the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Ranger Jim begins:
On the surface this may seem simple. The colonists were able to keep most of their military supplies safely out of British hands. The British soldiers then suffered heavy casualties during their retreat to Boston where they were trapped and besieged.

However, though things certainly did not go the way they wanted, did the British Army actually lose on April 19, 1775? The answer depends upon how you define victory.
The article then examines the mission from the British point of view, quoting Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders, Humphrey Bland’s military manual, and the accounts of officers like Capt. John Barker and Lt. Frederick Mackenzie. The popular view of the event doesn’t really take British perspectives into account, not least because many of those sources weren’t available as the American version cemented.

Another aspect of the battle is that, as those early lines of the article say, the provincials’ primary objective was to keep hold of their military supplies. The Committee of Safety had established a policy of “opposing” an army expedition into the countryside, but did that mean stopping the column from returning to Boston?

In that respect the militia regiments were like the proverbial dog chasing a car. Imagine that dog is successful—what would it do with a car? Likewise, no one in Massachusetts had made any plans about what to do with a few hundred captured soldiers. People had to improvise fast when they ended up with a couple dozen.

Had the provincials made a concerted effort to cut off the British troops, they might have succeeded. But those militiamen would certainly have suffered more casualties, put nearby property and civilian lives at risk, and prompted a stronger response from the Crown. They might well have lost the moral upper hand, so important in the following weeks, and they could even have ended up suffering a demoralizing defeat. By eking out a partial success in leading the redcoats back to safety, Col. Percy might have left both sides in stronger positions.

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