This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for April 19, 2017: People Like Us

Apr. 19, 2017: on this day: Battles of Lexington and Concord

The Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought on this date in 1775.

For some years, American colonists had been growing tired of the British crown’s interference in their affairs. It was expensive to defend the colonies, and Britain had imposed a series of revenue-generating and cost-cutting acts. These included the Sugar Act, which limited trade and imposed import duties; the Stamp Act, which required all legal documents to be produced on specially watermarked (and taxed) paper; and the Quartering Act, which required the colonies to bear the cost of housing and supplying British soldiers. The American colonies argued that this was taxation without representation. British troops arrived in Boston in 1768, to quell and manage the growing unrest. In 1773, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell its tea in America without paying import duties; Americans were angry at being forced to subsidize a British company, and responded by dressing up as Mohawk Indians and dumping the tea in Boston Harbor.

In 1774, the First Continental Congress met illegally in Philadelphia. Fifty-five delegates representing 12 of the 13 colonies convened to discuss the Coercive Acts — a series of acts intended to bring the colonies back into line. In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament replaced the local Massachusetts government with royal appointees, strengthened the Quartering Act, shut down Boston Harbor, and gave Britain the right to move any trial back to British courts. The Continental Congress declared the acts void, published a list of American rights, and asked King George III to repeal the Coercive Acts. The king declined.

On April 18, General Thomas Gage — who was serving as the governor of Massachusetts at the king’s command — ordered 700 British soldiers to march to Concord and seize the colonial military stores. From there, the troops were to proceed to Lexington, where colonial leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were hiding. The colonists weren’t sure whether the British would be coming over land or via the Charles River, so they worked out a system by which the colonial militia could be warned. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Paul Revere and his role in warning the colonists by way of lanterns in a church steeple:

One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.

When the British regulars arrived in Lexington at about five in the morning, they found 77 armed colonial militiamen waiting for them. In his poem “Concord Hymn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

It’s not clear who fired the first shot — the “shot heard round the world” — but the greatly outnumbered American militia lost the brief battle. Not so in Concord, where there was a much bigger American force waiting. The British destroyed the arsenal, but were forced back to Boston, under American guerilla fire. By the end of the day, the Revolutionary War had begun.