Revolutionary War Historical Article
Battle Road- The Road Back to Boston
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the January 1985 Edition of the Valley Compatriot Newsletter
The events of Lexington and Concord were divided into three distinctive parts. The opening shots fired at Lexington Green, the resistance at Concord's North Bridge, and finally, the retreat of the British regulars to Boston. In retrospect, Lexington must be considered a massacre. Had the British troops withdrawn immediately following the slaughter of the Americans at Lexington, history would have recorded the event as one of the world's lesser atrocities - eight killed and twelve wounded. At Concord, the Americans stood their ground, and exchanged shot-for-shot with the King's Troops. The final casualty count - two Americans killed, one wounded ; The British suffered three killed and a score wounded. By any military standards, Concord must be classified as a "skirmish". The third part of that fateful April day, the retreat of the British to Boston was, by all standards, a full fledged battle.
We can not disregard the tremendous impact on the history of the world the events at Lexington and Concord had. The Rev. A. B. Muzzey, grandson of Minuteman John Muzzy, wrote in 1877, ". . In all, the contemporaneous history of Lexington stands as the place where the first resistance was made to the King's troops, and Concord as the place where they met their first repulse and began their retreat. Lexington, by her band of proto-martyrs, led the determined train that finally threw off the British yoke. 'Too few to resist, too brave to flee,' their blood was the seed of that great freedom-harvest gathered by those who came after them. Their service was little, of necessity, in a military point of view, but in a national and political aspect its importance was inestimable."
Lexington and Concord, and the events presented on these pages demonstrated to the British Government that not only would the Americans fight, but more importantly, that they COULD fight!
Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Regiment, commanding the
British expedition to Concord made a great tactical error.
He lingered at Concord for two and one half hours! All of
the countryside was "up in arms", rallying to the defense
of their neighbors, their kinsmen, their country. In battle-scarred
Lexington, they did not bury their dead. One out of every twenty-three
adults had been killed, one out of twelve homes lost the head
of the household! They knew that: the British would have to return
via Lexington in order to reach Boston. They knew that Concord had
been the scene of fighting. They saw smoke from the burning Meeting House at Concord Common. Did they fortify Lexington? No! Instead they marched to the relief of Concord. They marched to meet the foe.
Captain John Parker led his little band of Lexington Minutemen
toward Concord. Youngsters William Diamond with his drum, and
Jonathan Harrington (whose cousin and namesake died at his doorstep
that morning) with his fife, played the "White Cockade". Among the
men was old Jedediah Munroe, wounded that morning, carrying his
ancestral Scottish sword and musket, and alongside him John Raymond
who missed the morning's fight. Both would die that day, both facing the British. Like Lexington, all the neighboring towns were turning out their militia.
Thus was the mettle of the men the British had chosen to cross swords with. They too, were Englishman. They had that stubborn devotion to individual rights, and the strongest possible sense of unity in their cause. Yorktown was eight years off, but from the moment the opening shots were fired, Yorktown was inevitable!
Shortly after the noon hour, Colonel Smith led his troops from Concord. The Patriots watched from the heights above the town. Joining the Concord Minutemen at the North Bridge had been the Acton Minutemen, who had had their well-liked Captain killed there, the Company of Bedford Minutemen, and the eight men from Groton, plus two full Companies from Lincoln: four or five hundred strong. Now, as the King's Regulars were evacuating the town, other Minuteman Companies were streaming into Concord. From the North on the Bedford Road came the Billerica, Chelmsford, Reading, and Woburn Minutemen. From the south, via the Sudbury Road, came the Companies from Sudbury and Framingham. Three Companies from Westford and one from Stow. The Minutemen now numbered at least eleven hundred, and growing each and every minute.
From all accounts, it appears that the British Expeditionary Force was permitted to leave Concord without being attacked. At Meriam's Corner, about 1,500 yards east of Concord, the Reading Minutemen saw the British Flankers (Light Infantry protecting the main British column) rejoining the main column at the Mill Brook Bridge. They took up positions along the rock wall of Meriam House and prepared to fire. Truly, this was a historic occasion. The few minutes of shooting at Lexington Green or Concord's North Bridge, might well have been written off by the British in their attempt to prevent a war. It may well have been another "Boston Massacre" for the colonials. But at 12 :45 P.M. April 19th, 1775 there was no return. The last Company of British Grenadiers to cross the Mill Brook Bridge, suddenly, and without warning, turned and delivered a volley at the Reading Minutemen. This was the point of no return! The Reading men and other Militia Companies swarmed toward the Bridge from both sides of the road. They opened fire with devastating effect. Several Redcoats fell, many more were wounded. Colonel Smith ordered his Light Infantry to protect the main road, but they too, came under heavy fire. To the common soldier on that narrow road the situation must have seemed hopeless. They were under attack from all quarters. They could see large bodies of colonials moving to intercept them at every point on the compass. They were already tired from their all night march, and the colonials were not fighting in the traditional European manner, but rather, were hiding behind the trees, the rocks, the walls, making them all but impossible to hit. Out of their sight, but within earshot was the sound of Captain John Parker's Drum and Fife. One British Officer reported that the sounds of the "White Cockade" filled the distant air. Colonial reinforcements! Panic set in. The officers trying in vain to hold their men in ranks. Perhaps the story told by Ensign Jeremy Lister of the 10th Regiment of Foot about the scalped soldier at the North Bridge, helped to hold the Regulars together. They were told the colonials were not taking prisoners and were treating the captured in a most uncivilized manner.
As the retreating Redcoats approached the top of Brooks Hill (AKA Hardy's Hill) about 1,500 yards past Meriam's Corner, they were met by Captain Nathaniel Cudworth and his Company of Sudbury Minutemen. A spirited fire was kept up by the Sudbury men, forcing the British to run down the slope past Brooks Tavern. A full rout was in the offering. Crossing Tanners Brook Bridge, the Regulars sped on toward Lexington. Others were speeding too. Captain Jonathan Willson and his Company of Bedford Militia raced toward a tall growth of trees lining both sides of the road. When the Regulars reached this spot, the Minutemen volley fired, devastating the leading ranks of Grenadiers. Eight killed outright, and many more wounded. The cross fire was the ruination of the British had not a flanking party of Light Infantry fell upon the rear of the Minutemen. Captain Willson and two of his men were shot, and a fourth injured. The Redcoats put them to the bayonet. Today this part of "Battle Road" is known as THE BLOODY ANGLE. The retreat was now a full rout! William Thorning of the Lincoln Minutemen, found himself alone in a field facing the oncoming British Regulars. He fired, and than ran out of range. After the column had passed, he raced forward and positioned behind a boulder near the Nelson House. From this position he killed two soldiers. Later they were buried on the knoll across the road. Today the rock is known as "The Minuteman Boulder."
Captain Parker and his Lexington Minutemen took up positions on the rise near the Lincoln township line. As the Regulars approached, the men of Lexington avenged their fallen comrades. There Volley crashed into the ongoing ranks. A spirited fight followed, with the Lexington minutemen clearly going out the victors in this, their second encounter.
The effects of the running fight were now at their height. The Redcoats were in full flight. Colonel Smith, himself shot through the leg and Major Pitcairn tried to reorganize their men at Fiske's Hill. A rear guard was stationed on the bluff. Surviving accounts admit that it was hopeless. The British were completely beaten. Lieutenant John Barker later recalled " . . . the numbers of the enemy was increasing from all parts, while ours was reducing from deaths, wounds and fatigue, and we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it's impossible to conceive, our ammunition was likewise near expended." Ensign De Berniere reported in even more defeated tones : "When we arrived within a mile of Lexington, our ammunition began to fail, and the light companies were so fatigued with flanking that they were scare able to act, and a great number of wounded scarce able to get forward, made a great confusion. Colonel Smith had received a wound in his leg, a number of officers were also wounded, so that we began to run rather than retreat in order . . .we attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose, the confusion increased rather than lessened." As the Regulars broke and ran toward Lexington, a little under a mile away, the Patriots. continued to take their toll.
Earl Percy arrived with the First Brigade and saved Colonel
Smith's Expedition from certain annihilation. Percy formed a defensive
square one half mile south of Lexington. Using Sergeant William
Munroe's Tavern for his headquarters. The location was ideal for a
delaying action. Percy had an unobstructed view of the town of Lexington
and the surrounding countryside. On two small hills he posted
his two fieldpieces. Lieutenant MacKenzie of the Royal Welsh Fusil1iers recorded his observations in an exact account: "As we pursued our
march, about two o'clock - we heard some
straggling shots fired about a mile to our
front. As we advanced we heard the firing
plainer and more frequent, and at half after
two, being near the church at Lexington, we
were ordered to form the line, which was
immediately done by extending on each side
of the road, but by reason of the stone walls
and other obstructions, it was not formed in
so regular a manner as it should have been.
The grenadiers and light infantry were at
this time retiring toward Lexington, fired
upon by the rebels, who took every advantage
the face of the country afforded them. As
soon as the grenadiers and light infantry
perceived the first brigade drawn up for
Earl Percy, they shouted repeatedly, and ceased firing for a short time.
The ground we first formed upon was
something elevated, and commanded a view of
that before us for about a mile, where it was terminated by some pretty high grounds covered with wood. The village of Lexington lay between both parties. We could observe a considerable number of rebels, but they were much scattered, and not above fifty of them to be seen in a body in any place. Many lay concealed behind the stone walls and fences. They appeared most numerous in the road near the church, and in a wood in the front and on the left flank of the line where our Regiment was posted. A few cannon shot were fired at those on and near the road, which dispersed them. The flank companies now retired and formed behind the brigade, which was soon fired upon by the rebels most advanced. A brisk fire was returned, but without much effect. During this time the rebels endeavored to gain our flanks and crept into covered ground on either side and as close as they could in front, firing now and then in perfect security. We also advanced a few of our best marksmen who fired at those who showed themselves."
Lord Percy had concluded that his sole objective was to get the remains of Colonel Smith's command to safety at Boston, and to do so as fast as possible. It would appear that he grasped the situation fully, and could visualize his own command's destruction if he did not move fast. With fresh troops, Percy's flanking Light infantry was able to keep the Patriots from the main column for a short period of time. As they approached Pierce's Heights, near Menotomy (now Arlington Heights), they came upon an area known as "Foot of the Rocks." Here they were exposed to direct and crippling fire from an ever growing opponent. The American strength now numbered about 1,700 men. Companies of Minutemen had arrived from Watertown, Malden, Medford, Dedham. Needham, Lynn, Beverly, Danvers, Roxbury, Brookline, Newton and Menotomy. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the day took place over this single mile of rough terrain. The state of mind of the British troops by this time could be best summed up as desperate! They were extracting vengeance from any Patriot captured. In the street fighting in the village of Menotomy, 58 year old cripple, Jason Russell, attempting to defend his house, found himself caught between a party of Patriots and the Regulars. The Patriots ran inside the Russell house. Jason being crippled was the last to enter and was struck down by two musket balls, then bayoneted eleven times. Inside the Russell house a fierce hand-to-hand battle took place with seven Patriots dying. The balance found their way into the cellar. The first British Soldier that tried to follow died instantly. Another died on the floor above. This was the bloodiest half mile of all of the Battle road. Major Isaac Gardner of the Brookline Militia and two volunteers from Cambridge were caught (from behind) by a British flanking party and put to the bayonet. Gardner was the highest ranking Patriot killed that day.
Finally, Percy and his men reached the relative safety of Charlestown, although it was reported that three more Regulars were cut down in that town. Reaching Bunker Hill, Percy turned and formed his second defensive position of the day. The position was far too strong for the Patriots to attack, Thusly, the opening battle of the Revolutionary War ended. A total and disastrous defeat for the King. Had the soldiers of the King realized that the hill they found security on this fateful day, would have to be taken by force of arms in 59 days, costing them dearly. The Earl Percy, who had stated that the Americans were "Timid creatures" and "Cowards" ate his words that day. He later stated : "many of them concealed themselves in houses and advanced within 10 yards to fire at me and other officers, tho' they were mortally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant. . nor will the insurrection here turn out so despicable as it is perhaps imagined at home. For my part, I never believed, I confess, that they would have attacked the Kings troops, or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday." It is obvious from Percy's report that he, at least, foresaw a great fight ahead, and one that the crown was certain to lose.
The following is a list of the first American martyrs in the cause of American Liberty and our Freedom. (listed by their home town)
JONATHAN HARRINGTON, Jr.
(total 49 killed,
39 wounded and 5