The “shot heard round the world” on April 19, 1775, was actually the culmination of the midnight ride of Paul Revere and others that had occurred just hours before.
Tensions between the colonists and their British occupiers had been building since the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, which is seen as the event that triggered the American Revolutionary War. After the colonists dumped the British East India Company’s tea into the Boston Harbor to protest taxation without representation, Britain began passing a series of laws to punish the colonists.
The Patriots retaliated by illegally creating the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. This Patriot provisional government controlled all of Massachusetts, except for Boston, which was under British control. The British retaliated with a February 1775 declaration that a state of rebellion existed in Massachusetts.
By April 8, 1775, Samuel Adams and John Hancock had fled to Lexington following notification the British military governor of the area was going to be ordered to arrest both of them. This left Revere and Dr. Joseph Warren as the only Patriot leaders in Boston.
On April 18, 1775, Dr. Warren had been notified of a surprise attack on Lexington and Concord that would begin very soon. That night, the British began moving their boats. At about 10:00 p.m., Warren told Revere and William Dawes to ride to Lexington and warn their leaders. Revere also alerted militias in towns along his route. Dawes had taken a different route to hopefully ensure the success of their mission if one of them were stopped by the British.
Revere arrived in Lexington about midnight, and Dawes arrived half an hour later. After meeting with Adams and Hancock, they decided Concord was where the British were going. Revere and Dawes were told to ride to Concord. Along the way, Dr. Samuel Prescott joined them on their ride. As it turned out, Prescott was the only one that reached Concord.
The midnight rides of Revere, Dawes, Prescott, and approximately 40 other patriots provided time for the colonists to prepare to fight the British.
Approximately 700 British infantry troops had been sent to Concord. After crossing the Charles River and landing at Cambridge, they finally began the 17-mile march to Concord at about 2:00 a.m. on April 19, 1775. Approximately an hour later, the British troops decided to split into two groups, so one of the groups could quick march to Concord.
Captain John Parker, the militia leader in Lexington, sent several scouts out to find the advancing British troops. As the scouts returned and said they had not seen any British, Parker began doubting Revere’s warning. At approximately 4:15 a.m., the last scout returned and reported the British were indeed coming and were very close.
Where Was the Shot Fired?
Amazingly there is no agreement as to where the “shot heard round the world” was fired. Concord and Lexington residents have argued about it since 1824. There was a brief skirmish at Lexington, and later a more intense skirmish at Concord. The “shot heard round the world” phrase comes from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Hymn, written in 1837. According to the poem, the “shot” occurred at Concord’s North Bridge. At the time he wrote the poem, Emerson was living in a house 300 ft. from the Bridge. It remains unknown who fired the first shot, and how many shots were initially fired.
Just past dawn on April 19, 1775, the British troops entered Lexington. Capt. Parker knew the Concord military supplies were safely hidden. He thought when the British got to Concord and couldn’t find the supplies, they would return to Boston as they had done many times before. Parker also knew his men were outnumbered, so he positioned his 80 militiamen for show. They did not hide behind anything, and kept the road to Concord clear.
According to the recollection of one of the participants years after the skirmish had occurred, Parker instructed the militiamen, “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” In a sworn deposition after the skirmish, Parker said:
“I … ordered our Militia to meet on the Common in said Lexington to consult what to do, and concluded not to be discovered, nor meddle or make with said Regular Troops (if they should approach) unless they should insult or molest us; and, upon their sudden Approach, I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse, and not to fire:—Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon, and killed eight of our Party without receiving any Provocation therefor from us.”
As the British advanced into Lexington, one of commanders decided on his own to support part of the British troops instead of going to Concord. Mass confusion resulted within the British ranks. At this point, a British officer rode forward and ordered the militiamen to break up while waving a sword at them. The officer allegedly said, “lay down your arms, you damned rebels!”
Capt. Parker ordered the militiamen to go home, but in all the confusion some didn’t hear him. Suddenly a shot rang out from an unknown source. Parker and the British officer had both ordered their men not to fire their weapons. British Lieutenant John Barker described the incident as follows:
“[A]t 5 o’clock we arrived [in Lexington], and saw a number of people, I believe between 200 and 300, formed in a common in the middle of town; we still continued advancing, keeping prepared against an attack through without intending to attack them; but on our coming near them they fired on us two shots, upon which our men without any orders, rushed upon them, fired and put them to flight; several of them were killed, we could not tell how many, because they were behind walls and into the woods. We had a man of the 10th light Infantry wounded, nobody else was hurt. We then formed on the Common, but with some difficulty, the men were so wild they could hear no orders; we waited a considerable time there, and at length proceeded our way to Concord.”
Various eyewitness accounts of where the first shot came from included a colonial bystander behind a hedge, a British officer, and inside a tavern. Some historians believe there may have been several almost simultaneous shots.
As shots were fired from both sides the British charged with their bayonets. The result was eight dead militiamen, ten others wounded, including militiaman Prince Estabrook a black slave, and one wounded British soldier.
After the British restored order on their side, they continued on to Concord to search for military supplies the colonists kept there. The colonists had been warned 10 days before that the British were going to come for the supplies and had moved them, so the British found nothing.
The search conducted by the British allowed the militia to regroup and they decided to meet the British at the North Bridge in Concord. The militia numbered 250 to the British troop count of 700, so the militia retreated to a hill about one mile from the North Bridge where they could observe the British troop activities. Militias from surrounding towns began arriving and soon the militia was large enough to engage the British. This time the outcome was different.
At approximately 11:00 a.m., the North Bridge skirmish commenced between 400 militiamen and 100 British soldiers.
Again, the British made errors resulting in mass confusion on their side. Shots rang out from three British locations and two militiamen were killed instantly, and four were wounded. The British and militia lines were 50 yards apart, but the North Bridge and the Concord River separated them. Both sides commenced firing. Three British soldiers were killed and 13 were wounded. After both sides sustained casualties, this time it was the outnumbered British that retreated to join the rest of their troops in Concord.
The skirmish lasted approximately 30 minutes and then the British returned to Concord. Sometime after noon they left Concord to return to Boston. Militiamen continued to arrive and help the militia.
As the British returned to Boston, gunfire was periodically exchanged with the militia that now numbered more than 2,000. The militia used ambush tactics against the British, which greatly frustrated the British. The British utilized the Buropean warfare style of linear formations in battle, instead of attacking troops from behind trees and walls as the militia did. After the second main British leader was injured in an ambush, the British troops were again in disarray and confused.
At about 2:30 p.m., a British reinforcement brigade arrived with artillery and approximately 1,000 troops. Commenting on the militia’s tactics of warfare, the brigade commander Earl Percy said:
“During the whole affair the Rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance & resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed, they knew too well what was proper, to do so. Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers against the Indians & Canadians, & this country being much covered with wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting.”
As the British continued their march back to Boston, the militia continued their ambush attacks on the British. Percy ordered some companies of his men to clear the militia from their usual hiding places of behind walls, trees, and buildings. In carrying out their orders, the soldiers committed atrocities out of frustration and losing some of their soldiers.
Militias from other areas continued to arrive and assist the militia in fighting the British. When the British finally reached Charlestown, the guns from a British warship in the harbor protected the troops.
The British troops that left Boston the night before and prompted the midnight ride of Paul Revere and others, ended up marching a total of 40 miles in 21 hours. They were being fired on during eight of those hours.
Both sides sustained casualties throughout the day, but the British had nearly twice as many casualties as the militia.
The next day, Boston was surrounded by more than 15,000 militiamen. This began the Siege of Boston where the militia prevented the British from leaving Boston by land. Lasting approximately 11 months, the siege ended when the British sailed to Nova Scotia.
Some of the Founding Fathers commented on the events of April 19, 1775. After viewing the battlefields, John Adams was certain “the Die was cast, the Rubicon crossed.” George Washington wrote, “the once-happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched in blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?”
April 19, 1775, was day one of the American Revolutionary War that would last for more than eight years, until it ended on September 3, 1783, by the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The treaty recognized the United States of America as a sovereign nation independent of Great Britain.
The American Revolutionary War turned into a world war when France and Spain formally entered the war in 1778, and later the Netherlands also entered the war.