In his passion for horses and dogs, Washington, to a certain degree, could
sympathize with him, and had noble specimens of both in his stable and
kennel, which Lee doubtless inspected with a learned eye. During the season
in question, Washington, according to his diary, was occasionally in the
saddle at an early hour following the fox-hounds. It was the last time for
many a year that he was to gallop about his beloved hunting-grounds of
Mount Vernon and Belvoir.
In the month of March the second Virginia convention was held at Richmond.
Washington attended as delegate from Fairfax County. In this assembly,
Patrick Henry, with his usual ardor and eloquence, advocated measures for
embodying, arming and disciplining a militia force, and providing for the
defence of the colony. “It is useless,” said he, “to address further
petitions to government, or to await the effect of those already addressed
to the throne. The time for supplication is past; the time for action is at
hand. We must fight, Mr. Speaker,” exclaimed he emphatically; “I repeat it,
sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms, and to the God of Hosts, is all that
is left us!”
Washington joined him in the conviction, and was one of a committee that
reported a plan for carrying those measures into effect. He was not an
impulsive man to raise the battle cry, but the executive man to marshal the
troops into the field, and carry on the war.
His brother, John Augustine, was raising and disciplining an independent
company; Washington offered to accept the command of it, _should occasion
require it to be drawn out_. He did the same with respect to an
independent company at Richmond. “It is my full intention, if needful,”
writes he to his brother, “_to devote my life and fortune to the
cause_.” [Footnote: Letter to John Augustine. Sparks, ii., 405.]
INFATUATION IN BRITISH COUNCILS–COLONEL GRANT, THE BRAGGART–COERCIVE
MEASURES–EXPEDITION AGAINST THE MILITARY MAGAZINE AT CONCORD–BATTLE OF
LEXINGTON–THE CRY OF BLOOD THROUGH THE LAND–OLD SOLDIERS OF THE FRENCH
WAR–JOHN STARK–ISRAEL PUTNAM–RISING OF THE YEOMANRY–MEASURES OF LORD
DUNMORE IN VIRGINIA–INDIGNATION OF THE VIRGINIANS–HUGH MERCER AND THE
FRIENDS OF LIBERTY–ARRIVAL OF THE NEWS OF LEXINGTON AT MOUNT VERNON–
EFFECT ON BRYAN FAIRFAX, GATES, AND WASHINGTON.
While the spirit of revolt was daily gaining strength and determination in
America, a strange infatuation reigned in the British councils. While the
wisdom and eloquence of Chatham were exerted in vain in behalf of American
rights, an empty braggadocio, elevated to a seat in Parliament, was able to
captivate the attention of the members, and influence their votes by gross
misrepresentations of the Americans and their cause. This was no other than
Colonel Grant, the same shallow soldier who, exceeding his instructions,
had been guilty of a foolhardy bravado before the walls of Fort Duquesne,
which brought slaughter and defeat upon his troops. From misleading the
army, he was now promoted to a station where he might mislead the councils
of his country. We are told that he entertained Parliament, especially the
ministerial side of the House, with ludicrous stories of the cowardice of
Americans. He had served with them, he said, and knew them well, and would
venture to say they would never dare to face an English army; that they
were destitute of every requisite to make good soldiers, and that a very
slight force would be sufficient for their complete reduction. With five
regiments, he could march through all America!
How often has England been misled to her cost by such slanderous
misrepresentations of the American character! Grant talked of having served
with the Americans; had he already forgotten that in the field of
Braddock’s defeat, when the British regulars fled, it was alone the
desperate stand of a handful of Virginians, which covered their disgraceful
flight, and saved them from being overtaken and massacred by the savages?
This taunting and braggart speech of Grant was made in the face of the
conciliatory bill of the venerable Chatham, devised with a view to redress
the wrongs of America. The councils of the arrogant and scornful prevailed;
and instead of the proposed bill, further measures of a stringent nature
were adopted, coercive of some of the middle and southern colonies, but
ruinous to the trade and fisheries of New England.
At length the bolt, so long suspended, fell! The troops at Boston had been
augmented to about four thousand men. Goaded on by the instigations of the
tories, and alarmed by the energetic measures of the whigs, General Gage
now resolved to deal the latter a crippling blow. This was to surprise and
destroy their magazine of military stores at Concord, about twenty miles
from Boston. It was to be effected on the night of the 18th of April, by a
force detached for the purpose.
Preparations were made with great secrecy. Boats for the transportation of
the troops were launched, and moored under the sterns of the men-of-war.
Grenadiers and light infantry were relieved from duty, and held in
readiness. On the 18th, officers were stationed on the roads leading from
Boston, to prevent any intelligence of the expedition getting into the
country. At night orders were issued by General Gage that no person should
leave the town. About ten o’clock, from eight to nine hundred men,
grenadiers, light infantry, and marines, commanded by Lieutenant-colonel
Smith, embarked in the boats at the foot of Boston Common, and crossed to
Lechmere Point, in Cambridge, whence they were to march silently, and
without beat of drum, to the place of destination.
The measures of General Gage had not been shrouded in all the secrecy he
imagined. Mystery often defeats itself by the suspicions it awakens. Dr.
Joseph Warren, one of the committee of safety, had observed the preparatory
disposition of the boats and troops, and surmised some sinister intention.
He sent notice of these movements to John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both
members of the provincial Congress, but at that time privately sojourning
with a friend at Lexington. A design on the magazine at Concord was
suspected, and the committee of safety ordered that the cannon collected
there should be secreted, and part of the stores removed.
On the night of the 18th, Dr. Warren sent off two messengers by different
routes to give the alarm that the king’s troops were actually sallying
forth. The messengers got out of Boston just before the order of General
Gage went into effect, to prevent any one from leaving the town. About the
same time a lantern was hung out of an upper window of the north church, in
the direction of Charlestown. This was a preconcerted signal to the
patriots of that place, who instantly despatched swift messengers to rouse
In the mean time, Colonel Smith set out on his nocturnal march from
Lechmere Point by an unfrequented path across marshes, where at times the
troops had to wade through water. He had proceeded but a few miles when
alarm guns, booming through the night air, and the clang of village bells,
showed that the news of his approach was travelling before him, and the
people were rising. He now sent back to General Gage for a reinforcement,
while Major Pitcairne was detached with six companies to press forward, and
secure the bridges at Concord.
Pitcairn advanced rapidly, capturing every one that he met, or overtook.
Within a mile and half of Lexington, however, a horseman was too quick on
the spur for him, and galloping to the village, gave the alarm that the
redcoats were coming. Drums were beaten; guns fired. By the time that
Pitcairn entered the village, about seventy or eighty of the yeomanry, in
military array, were mustered on the green near the church. It was a part
of the “constitutional army,” pledged to resist by force any open hostility
of British troops. Besides these, there were a number of lookers on, armed
The sound of drum, and the array of men in arms, indicated a hostile
determination. Pitcairn halted his men within a short distance of the
church, and ordered them to prime and load. They then advanced at double
quick time. The major, riding forward, waved his sword, and ordered the
rebels, as he termed them, to disperse. Other of the officers echoed his
words as they advanced: “Disperse, ye villains! Lay down your arms, ye
rebels, and disperse!” The orders were disregarded. A scene of confusion
ensued, with firing on both sides; which party commenced it, has been a
matter of dispute. Pitcairn always maintained that, finding the militia
would not disperse, he turned to order his men to draw out, and surround
them, when he saw a flash in the pan from the gun of a countryman posted
behind a wall, and almost instantly the report of two or three muskets.
These he supposed to be from the Americans, as his horse was wounded, as
was also a soldier close by him. His troops rushed on, and a promiscuous
fire took place, though, as he declared, he made repeated signals with his
sword for his men to forbear.
The firing of the Americans was irregular, and without much effect; that of
the British was more fatal. Eight of the patriots were killed, and ten
wounded, and the whole put to flight. The victors formed on the common,
fired a volley, and gave three cheers for one of the most inglorious and
disastrous triumphs ever achieved by British arms.
Colonel Smith soon arrived with the residue of the detachment, and they all
marched on towards Concord, about six miles distant.
The alarm had reached that place in the dead hour of the preceding night.
The church bell roused the inhabitants. They gathered together in anxious
consultation. The militia and minute men seized their arms, and repaired to
the parade ground, near the church. Here they were subsequently joined by
armed yeomanry from Lincoln, and elsewhere. Exertions were now made to
remove and conceal the military stores. A scout, who had been sent out for
intelligence, brought word that the British had fired upon the people at
Lexington, and were advancing upon Concord. There was great excitement and
indignation. Part of the militia marched down the Lexington road to meet
them, but returned, reporting their force to be three times that of the
Americans. The whole of the militia now retired to an eminence about a mile
from the centre of the town, and formed themselves into two battalions.
About seven o’clock, the British came in sight, advancing with quick step,
their arms glittering in the morning sun. They entered in two divisions by
different roads. Concord is traversed by a river of the same name, having
two bridges, the north and the south. The grenadiers and light infantry
took post in the centre of the town, while strong parties of light troops
were detached to secure the bridges, and destroy the military stores. Two
hours were expended in the work of destruction without much success, so
much of the stores having been removed, or concealed. During all this time
the yeomanry from the neighboring towns were hurrying in with such weapons
as were at hand, and joining the militia on the height, until the little
cloud of war gathering there numbered about four hundred and fifty.
About ten o’clock, a body of three hundred undertook to dislodge the
British from the north bridge. As they approached, the latter fired upon
them, killing two, and wounding a third. The patriots returned the fire
with spirit and effect. The British retreated to the main body, the
Americans pursuing them across the bridge.
By this time all the military stores which could be found had been
destroyed; Colonel Smith, therefore, made preparations for a retreat. The
scattered troops were collected, the dead were buried, and conveyances
procured for the wounded. About noon he commenced his retrograde march for
Boston. It was high time. His troops were jaded by the night march, and the
morning’s toils and skirmishings.
The country was thoroughly alarmed. The yeomanry were hurrying from every
quarter to the scene of action. As the British began their retreat, the
Americans began the work of sore and galling retaliation. Along the open
road, the former were harassed incessantly by rustic marksmen, who took
deliberate aim from behind trees, or over stone fences. Where the road
passed through woods, the British found themselves between two fires, dealt
by unseen foes, the minute men having posted themselves on each side among
the bushes. It was in vain they threw out flankers, and endeavored to
dislodge their assailants; each pause gave time for other pursuers to come
within reach, and open attacks from different quarters. For several miles
they urged their way along woody defiles, or roads skirted with fences and
stone walls, the retreat growing more and more disastrous; some were shot
down, some gave out through mere exhaustion; the rest hurried on, without
stopping to aid the fatigued, or wounded. Before reaching Lexington,
Colonel Smith received a severe wound in the leg, and the situation of the
retreating troops was becoming extremely critical, when, about two o’clock,
they were met by Lord Percy, with a brigade of one thousand men, and two
field-pieces. His lordship had been detached from Boston about nine o’clock
by General Gage, in compliance with Colonel Smith’s urgent call for a
reinforcement, and had marched gaily through Roxbury to the tune of “Yankee
Doodle,” in derision of the “rebels.” He now found the latter a more
formidable foe than he had anticipated. Opening his brigade to the right
and left, he received the retreating troops into a hollow square; where,
fainting and exhausted, they threw themselves on the ground to rest. His
lordship showed no disposition to advance upon their assailants, but
contented himself with keeping them at bay with his field-pieces, which
opened a vigorous fire from an eminence.
Hitherto the Provincials, being hasty levies, without a leader, had acted
from individual impulse, without much concert; but now General Heath was
upon the ground. He was one of those authorized to take command when the
minute men should be called out. That class of combatants promptly obeyed
his orders, and he was efficacious in rallying them, and bringing them into
military order, when checked and scattered by the fire of the field-pieces.
Dr. Warren, also, arrived on horseback, having spurred from Boston on
receiving news of the skirmishing. In the subsequent part of the day, he
was one of the most active and efficient men in the field. His presence,
like that of General Heath, regulated the infuriated ardor of the militia,
and brought it into system.
Lord Percy, having allowed the troops a short interval for repose and
refreshment, continued the retreat toward Boston. As soon as he got under
march, the galling assault by the pursuing yeomanry was recommenced in
flank and rear. The British soldiery, irritated in turn, acted as if in an
enemy’s country. Houses and shops were burnt down in Lexington; private
dwellings along the road were plundered, and their inhabitants maltreated.
In one instance, an unoffending invalid was wantonly slain in his own
house. All this increased the exasperation of the yeomanry. There was
occasional sharp skirmishing, with bloodshed on both sides, but in general
a dogged pursuit, where the retreating troops were galled at every step.
Their march became more and more impeded by the number of their wounded.
Lord Percy narrowly escaped death from a musket-ball, which struck off a
button of his waistcoat. One of his officers remained behind wounded in
West Cambridge. His ammunition was failing as he approached Charlestown.
The provincials pressed upon him in rear, others were advancing from
Roxbury, Dorchester, and Milton; Colonel Pickering, with the Essex militia,
seven hundred strong, was at hand; there was danger of being intercepted in
the retreat to Charlestown. The field-pieces were again brought into play,
to check the ardor of the pursuit; but they were no longer objects of
terror. The sharpest firing of the provincials was near Prospect Hill, as
the harassed enemy hurried along the Charlestown road, eager to reach the
Neck, and get under cover of their ships. The pursuit terminated a little
after sunset, at Charlestown Common, where General Heath brought the minute
men to a halt. Within half an hour more, a powerful body of men, from
Marblehead and Salem, came up to join in the chase. “If the retreat,”
writes Washington, “had not been as precipitate as it was,–and God knows
it could not well have been more so,–the ministerial troops must have
surrendered, or been totally cut off.”