For some time Gage had been unable to send his men out into the Massachusetts countryside. Attempts to scout out the local area had been foiled, but he still had his sources of information. Amongst the things he did know was that there were sizable stores of militia weapons at Concord and Worcester. Gage began to make secret preparations to raid this arms dump. His plan was to use the elite grenadier companies and the highly mobile light infantry companies from each regiment to form a special force. However, the requirement for secrecy meant that the troops involved did not know of their mission until very close to the day itself. The same was true of the two commanders, Colonel Francis Smith, famous for his obesity, and his second in commander, Major John Pitcairn of the marines, not a logical choice to command a purely army operation.
Despite these attempts at secrecy, the British were being watched. On 16 April the small boats needed to carry the troops were prepared and rowed out into the Charles River, ready to use. This was impossible to hide from the watching Americans, who were made aware that something was being planned. In Boston, Joseph Warren acted to coordinate the observation. On 16 April he sent Paul Revere to Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were in hiding, to warn them about the British movements. On his way back, Revere stopped in Charlestown, opposite Boston, to organise signal lights to be lit when the British moved.
Within Boston, accurate rumours spread about the upcoming British expedition, probably as a result of loose tongues amongst the British forces. Despite this, late on 18 April Gage had his troops roused silently. They formed up on Boston common, before rowing across Boston harbour. News of their movement almost preceded them. Signal lights had been lit while the troops were on the common. Paul Revere then rowed across the harbour to Charlestown, where he gained a horse and rode towards Lexington. A second rider, William Dawes, was sent overland via Boston Neck. Revere reached Lexington at midnight, followed half an hour later by Dawes.
Meanwhile, the British were still waiting at the beach. It was only at two in the morning that they finally started their march to Concord. The British formed up with their four hundred light infantry in the lead, commanded by Pitcairn, with the four hundred Grenadiers following behind. At Lexington, 130 militia had formed up soon after midnight, and before the British had even started moving had already dispersed to await developments. When they did finally start moving, attempts were still being made to avoid detection, but they were increasingly futile. As they marched through the villages on the way to Lexington, the alarm guns were being fired ahead of them.
At Lexington, the militia, commanded by Captain John Parker, had dispersed to await the warning drum. At 4.30 the British were spotted, and after a few chaotic moments, the militia reformed, in two ranks of 70. They were formed across the green, but not blocking the road to Concord, which ran 100 yards away at the edge of the green. The first British troops to appear were Pitcairn’s light infantry. On sighting the militia, Pitcairn ordered them to form up into three ranks, as if ready for battle. At first, Parker ordered the militia to stay put, but when Pitcairn approached and ordered them to lay down their arms and disperse, Parker ordered his men to peacefully disperse, but not to lay down their arms.
What happened next is unclear. The eyewitnesses disagree on what happened. What is certain is that a shot was fired. British eyewitnesses deny that they fired, while American witnesses were certain that they did. The British fired a first volley, probably on the orders of one of their officers. Pitcairn then attempted to stop the firing, but was too late to prevent a second volley or a charge. When the smoke cleared, eight militiamen were dead and another ten wounded. One British infantryman had been lightly wounded. The first blood of the American war of Independence had been shed.
Despite the lack of surprise, so far the day had gone relatively well for the British. Their first confrontation with the militia had confirmed their low opinion of American fighting spirit. They now abandoned all attempts at stealth and began the march to Concord. Once again, they were expected. Dr Samuel Prescott, who had been alerted at Lexington, had managed to get through British patrols to reach Concord and raise the alarm. From all around, militiamen began to concentrate at Concord and Lexington.
At 7.00am the British reached Concord. Their target was the house of Colonel James Barrett, where the weaponry was thought to be stored. The road from Lexington led straight to the main part of Concord town, while Barrett’s house was north of the Concord River, crossed by the North Bridge, which was overlooked by Punkatasset Hill. At first the British met with no resistance. One militia company made an appearance as the British advanced into the centre of town but withdrew without firing. Still outnumbered, the militia pulled back onto Punkatasset Hill.
The British settled down to search the town. Three companies of light infantry guarded the bridge, three more crossed it to search Barrett’s house, while the Grenadiers searched the main town. For several hours, the British were left alone while they searched the town. Very little was found – 500 pounds of musket balls, but no muskets or artillery. However, during the search the blacksmith and courthouse were set on fire.
Up on the hill, this roused the militia, now increased to 400 men, but still outnumbered two-to-one by the British. The militiamen decided to fight, and advanced down towards the North Bridge. At the bridge they faced two hundred of the light infantry, giving them a numerical advantage. Even better, the British were arrayed in three companies, with only the first able to fire on the Americans. After a brief exchange of fire, the outnumbered British fell back in disarray towards the village. If the American militia had held their discipline, the British would have been in serious trouble, with 200 of their number trapped on the wrong side of the North Bridge. However the American formation also broke down as they advanced across the half-mile between the bridge and the town. Colonel Smith was able to extract his men across the bridge, and by noon was ready to start the return journey to Boston.
Up until this point, the day had not been disastrous. Concord had been reached and the militia had not yet proven itself dangerous. Things were soon to change. The countryside between Concord and Boston was now swarming with American militia, who now outnumbered the British, knew the terrain, and were fighting from cover. The onslaught started one mile into the march back to Boston. From that moment on, the retreat became a running battle. The Americans were able to fire into the British column from cover, and inflicted heavy casualties. The British return fire also took its toll, and on several occasions the light infantry were able to trap militiamen between themselves and the main column, but as the march continued, the British column became increasingly ragged. As they approached Lexington, the British formation had almost disintegrated. Luckily for the British, the American militias had also lost formation, so most of the opposition they faced was from individuals or small bands. Even so, by the time the British attempted to reform at Lexington things looked grim.
Luckily, at about the same time that Colonel Smith was pulling out of Concord, a relief force was leaving Boston. Commanded by Brigadier General Lord Percy, the future duke of Northumberland, this force of 1,000 men reached Concord at 2.30. For an hour Percy’s cannon bombarded the American militia while Smith’s men rested and recovered from their dreadful march. At 3.30 the combined force resumed its march. This time they got half way to their destination before the militias attacked again. The attacks resumed again at Menotomy, and this final part of the battle was perhaps the most brutal. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, while the British found that most of fire against them was coming from behind, with colonists hiding in buildings until the troops were past and then shooting from cover. The British troops began to loot and plunder, burning down houses as they passed. Finally, at Cambridge the pursuit ended. Finally, after dark, the British staggered into Charlestown.
The raid on Concord had cost the British 273 casualties, compared to American losses of only 95. The inevitable bitterness engendered by the fighting hardened attitudes in American, finally destroying any chance of compromise. As news of the battle spread, militiamen rushed to Boston. Within days, Gage was besieged in Boston. The fight for independence had begun.