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 20, 2022

The First British Army Casualty of the Revolutionary War

In describing the skirmish at Lexington, the senior British officer on the scene, Maj. John Pitcairn of the Marines, wrote:
…some of the rebels who had jumped over the wall fired four or five shots at the soldiers, which wounded a man of the Tenth and my horse was wounded in two places, from some quarter or other, and at the same time several shots were fired from a meeting house on our left.
Reporting that the provincials had shot “a man of the Tenth” was significant for Pitcairn and army commander Gen. Thomas Gage. They wanted to portray the locals as starting the fight. But British officers typically didn’t care much about enlisted men as individuals. Maj. Pitcairn gave that wounded private about as much space as his horse.

Not until 1782, when a younger British army officer named Jeremy Lister wrote out his memoirs of army life, did our sources record the name of the wounded man—the first British casualty of the Revolutionary War.

Back in 1775 Lister was an ensign, the lowest-ranking officer, in the 10th Regiment of Foot. He volunteered to go with that regiment’s light infantry company on the 18–19 April expedition to Concord. That company became part of the vanguard of the British column. As they passed through the center of Lexington, they found a large portion of the town’s militiamen lined up on their common with firearms.

Ens. Lister’s account of that event was:
we saw one of their Compys. drawn up in regular order Major Pitcairn of the Marines second in Command call’d to them to disperce, but their not seeming willing he desired us to mind our space which we did when they gave us a fire then run of to get behind a wall.

we had one man wounded of our Compy in the Leg his Name was Johnson also Major Pitcairns Horse was shot in the Flank we return’d their Salute, and before we proceeded on our March from Lexington I believe we Kill’d and Wounded either 7 or 8 Men.
One curiosity about Lister’s report is that the 10th Regiment’s light infantry company didn’t have anyone named Johnson on its muster roll for 19 Apr 1775. So did Lister just make up that name seven years later, or assign a common name to a soldier he dimly remembered?

In Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer noted that muster rolls show a private named Thomas Johnson transferred into the light infantry company from another part of the 10th Regiment just five days after that battle. Was that date just an artifact of the paperwork, and Pvt. Thomas Johnson was already with the company on the 19th? That seems like the most likely explanation for Lister’s statement, though it would be nice if the evidence were more definite.

Whatever injury Johnson sustained, it didn’t stop him from proceeding with the column all the way to Concord. The lights of the 10th Regiment were among the companies deployed to guard the area around the North Bridge while other soldiers proceeded to James Barrett’s farm to search for artillery. Pvt. Johnson thus got to participate in the first two fatal exchanges of fire in the war.

As the redcoats left Concord, the provincial militia companies began a more concerted attack. Ens. Lister wrote, “I recd a shot through my Right Elbow joint which efectually disabled that Arme.” A military surgeon removed the ball at Lexington, but for weeks the ensign thought he would lose that arm.

The British soldiers made their way under fire to Charlestown by evening. Ens. Lister rode a couple of miles on a horse, but decided that made him too big a target, so he walked most of the way. We don’t know if Johnson made the whole journey on foot or became one of the wounded soldiers who crowded onto horses, artillery carriages, and confiscated vehicles. At the end of the day the 10th Regiment reported seventeen wounded, one killed, and one missing.

Parts of the 10th Regiment also fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June. Ens. Lister was still recovering from his wound in Boston. Pvt. Thomas Johnson went into the battle and was killed.

[The photograph above shows a member of the recreated 10th Regiment, which has been portraying the soldiers at the start of the Revolutionary War for over fifty years.]


Old Nick said...

I believe Dr. Fischer is wrong about private Johnson. In reviewing my copy of the WO. Rolls there is no private Johnson in the light infantry company. There was a Johnson transferred into the Grenadier company of the 10th but not the light infantry company. Its always good to double check these things.

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you for that addition.

This is the third reversal I’ve seen on Lister’s claim. First, the ensign said a man named Johnson was wounded. In the 1970s Vince Kehoe and others pointed out that the company had no man named Johnson. In the 1990s Fischer proposed this theory about a man transferring into the company. Now you’re saying that was another company.

That puts us back to the idea that Lister had the name wrong, and perhaps that no British soldier was wounded in the first skirmish at Lexington at all.