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This Week in History

April 15-21, 1775:
The American Revolution Begins
The Shot Heard 'Round the World

April 2012

Paul Revere, portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1768-70.

"In the fall of '74 and winter of '75, I was one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers, and gaining every intelligence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green Dragon. We were so careful that our meetings should be kept secret, that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible that he would not discover any of our transactions but to Messrs. Hancock, Adams, Doctors Warren, Church, and one or two more. In the winter, towards spring, we frequently took turns, two and two, to watch the soldiers, by patrolling the streets all night."

So wrote Paul Revere, describing the activities of the American patriots in British-occupied Boston during the months which led up to the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Ever since George III and the British Parliament had shut up the port of Boston and militarily occupied the city to try to force the payment of the tea tax to the bankrupt East India Company, the Americans had been expecting, and preparing for, a military confrontation. British Gen. Sir Thomas Gage, the military governor of Boston who had served in America during the French and Indian War, did not underestimate the patriots' military abilities and therefore moved carefully. But pressure from London kept building for him to challenge the Americans.

Paul Revere was instrumental in warning the patriots of Portsmouth, N.H., in December of 1774, that Gage would send a detachment to strengthen Fort William and Mary so that the local militia could not seize it. The militia acted quickly to seize the fort and empty it of all gunpowder and small arms. When George III heard of this action, he demanded that Gage punish every man involved, and seize all rebel military supplies.

Another British attempt in February to seize American military supplies in Salem ended in defeat when the patriots refused to let down the drawbridge over the North River, thus stranding the British soldiers. Revere had not been able to ride to warn the inhabitants of Salem, because he had been locked up in Castle William by the British, who rightly suspected he had been responsible for warning the Portsmouth patriots in December.

When King George's order to seize all rebel military supplies reached General Gage in the spring, he could no longer postpone a major confrontation. To prepare, he sent spies westward to Concord and Worcester, to determine how easily those American military armament depots could be taken. Concord also was the meeting site of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which had defied the military occupation, and continued to plan resistance and communicate with the other colonies. To make Concord even more attractive as a target, Samuel Adams and John Hancock were rumored to be staying in Lexington, on the Concord road, before they journeyed to Philadelphia as Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress.

One of Gage's spies, an enlisted man named John Howe who posed as a patriot gunsmith, was able to reach Worcester and report back to Boston. Howe wrote in his memoirs that the British generals asked him how many men would it take to destroy the stores in Worcester and return safely. "I said, if they should march 10,000 regulars and a train of artillery to Worcester, which is 48 miles from this place, the roads very crooked and hilly, the inhabitants generally determined to be free or die, that not one of them would get back alive." But a military expedition to closer Concord would be a very different matter, and Howe knew where the military stores were hidden.

The British government had been egging on General Gage to arrest Adams and Hancock, and could not understand why Gage had delayed so long. He had explained to them, again and again, that if he attempted to arrest two of the rebel leaders, the letter they were holding would be the last they would ever receive from him, for he would be knocked on the head. But when King George dispatched three other British generals to Boston to "help" him, Gage knew he could delay no longer. The Concord expedition was ordered, to arrest Adams and Hancock, on the way to seizing the American military supplies.

The patriot intelligence network discovered Gage's plans, and Paul Revere was dispatched by Dr. Joseph Warren, the head of patriot intelligence activities in Boston, to warn Adams and Hancock of an attempt to arrest them, and to alert Concord that it was most likely a British target. Secretly slipping out of the city on April 16, Revere was able to carry out his mission and return to Boston, unobserved by the British. The citizens of Concord moved as much of their munitions as they could to Worcester. But the patriots still did not know when the British thrust would come.

Meanwhile, Gage and the three "helpful" generals were formulating their own plans. A group of officers were selected, and sent out to create a screen on the roads to Lexington and Concord, so that no rebel express could ride through and warn the towns. The man-of-war "Somerset" was moved to the mouth of the Charles River, to command the water between Boston and Charlestown, so that rebel couriers could not cross it by boat. The patriots were looking for any sign that the British were about to move, and they soon saw many.

Paul Revere wrote that, "The Saturday night preceding the 19th of April, about twelve o'clock at night, the boats belonging to the transports were all launched and carried under the sterns of the men-of-war. (They had been previously hauled up and repaired.) We likewise found that the grenadiers and light infantry were all taken off duty. From these movements we expected something serious was to be transacted. On Tuesday evening, the 18th, it was observed that a number of soldiers were marching towards the bottom of the Common. About ten o'clock, Dr. Warren sent in great haste for me and begged that I would immediately set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the movement, and that it was thought they were the objects. When I got to Dr. Warren's house, I found he had sent an express by land to Lexington—a Mr. William Dawes."

Revere then said that on his way back from his previous trip to Concord, he had returned through Charlestown, and had "agreed with a Colonel Conant and some other gentlemen that if the British went out by water, we would show two lanthorns in the North Church steeple; and if by land, one as a signal; for we were apprehensive it would be difficult [for a messenger] to cross the Charles River or get over Boston Neck."

But Revere did succeed in passing under the watchful eye of the British Navy and reached Charlestown, where he mounted a good horse and made his way, outrunning one British patrol, to Lexington. When he delivered his message to Adams and Hancock, John Hancock decided to fight with the militia on Lexington Green, and it was with great difficulty that Samuel Adams convinced him that it was more important to fulfill his commission as a delegate to the Continental Congress.

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U.S. National Park Service
The ride of Paul Revere et. al.

Revere, with two companions, rode on toward Concord, but they were intercepted by another British patrol. One of the patriots was able to escape and warn the town, but Revere and the other rider were arrested. When the patrol received the news that the main body of British soldiers was nearing them, they took Revere's horse and left him in a field. He made his way back to Lexington and helped to remove John Hancock's trunk, which was full of papers which would have given the British a good overview of the patriot networks. Just as Revere and his companion got the trunk to safety, the fighting broke out on Lexington Green.

Eight Americans were killed and ten were wounded. The British soldiers fired a victory volley into the air and gave three cheers. Then, while the stunned citizens of Lexington watched from doors and windows, the Redcoats formed into columns and marched to Concord to the tune of fife and drum. Although news reached Concord that some fighting had occurred at Lexington, it was unclear exactly what had happened. Therefore, when the British column appeared, the patriot militia withdrew beyond the North Bridge. Farmers around Concord were just finishing plowing over the cannon buried in their fields, and the women in town were putting the silver from their churches into barrels of soft soap.

The Redcoats scoured the town for munitions, and started to burn some gun carriages they had found. The fire spread to buildings, and the smoke alerted the patriots watching from the bridge. More and more companies of Minutemen were arriving from neighboring towns, and one of their leaders shouted, "Will you let them fire the town?" Captain Isaac Davis of the Acton militia drew his sword and said to his company, "I haven't a man that is afraid to go," and gave the command, "March!"

As the patriots approached the bridge, the British fired three warning volleys but the Americans didn't stop. The British then aimed their shots, and an Acton fifer cried out that he had been hit. It was then that the Americans aimed their weapons, and "fired the shot heard 'round the world."