During the first six decades of the eighteenth century, the American colonies were mostly allowed to govern themselves. In exchange, they loyally fought for Great Britain in imperial wars against the French and Spanish. But in 1763, after the British and Americans won the French and Indian War, King George III began working to eliminate American self-government. The succeeding years saw a series of political crises provoked by the king and parliament. What turned the political dispute into a war was arms confiscation at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775.
In 1774, the British government had realized that because armed Americans were so numerous, they could not be frightened into compliance with British demands. So in the latter months of 1774, the King and his Royal Governors in America instituted a gun control program. All firearms and ammunition imports to the American colonies were forbidden. At the governors’ command, British soldiers began raiding American armories, which stored firearms for militiamen who could not afford their own, and also held large quantities of gunpowder. Because the raids were accomplished peacefully in surprise pre-dawn maneuvers, they caused outrage, but nothing more. Both sides knew that if the British attempted to seize arms by force, the Americans would fight.
Ever since 1768, Boston had been occupied by a British army. In April 1775, a spy informed British General Gage that the Americans had secreted a large quantity of gunpowder in Concord, Massachusetts. Gage ordered his army to seize the American powder. This time, the Americans found out in advance.
On the night of April 18, 1775, British warships conveyed Redcoats across Boston Harbor, so they could march to Concord. Meanwhile, Paul Revere and William Dawes rode from town to town, shouting the warning “The British are coming.” The alarm was spread far and wide by the ringing of church bells and firing of guns.
To get to Concord, the British would have to march through Lexington; while the men of Lexington prepared to meet the British, the women of Lexington assembled ammunition cartridges late into the night.
The American Revolution began at dawn on April 19, 1775, when 700 Redcoats commanded by Major John Pitcairn confronted 200 Lexington militia on the town green. The militiamen, consisting of almost all able-bodied men sixteen to sixty, supplied their own firearms, although a few poor men had to borrow a gun.
“Disperse you Rebels—Damn you, throw down your Arms and disperse!” ordered Major Pitcairn. American folklore remembers the perhaps apocryphal words of militia commander Captain John Parker: “Don’t fire unless fired upon! But if they want to have a war, let it begin here!” The American policy was to put the onus of firing first on the British. Yet someone pulled a trigger, and although the gun did not go off, the sight of the powder flash in the firing pan instantly prompted the Redcoats to mass fire. The Americans were quickly routed.
With a “huzzah” of victory, the Redcoats marched on to Concord. By one account, the first man in Concord to assemble after the sounding of the alarm was the Reverend William Emerson, gun in hand.
At Concord’s North Bridge, the town militia met with some of the British army, and after a battle of two or three minutes, drove off the Redcoats. As the Reverend’s grandson, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, later recounted in the “Concord Hymn”:
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.
Notwithstanding the setback at the bridge, the Redcoats had sufficient force to search the town for arms and ammunition. But the main powder stores at Concord had been hauled to safety before the British arrived.
Having failed to get the gunpowder, the British began to withdraw back to Boston. On the way, things got much worse for them as armed Americans swarmed in from nearby towns. Soon they outnumbered the British two-to-one.
Some armed American women fought in the battle. So did men of color, including David Lamson, leading a group of elderly men who, like him, were too old to be in the militia, but intended to fight anyway.
Although some Americans cohered in militia units, many just fought on their own, taking sniper positions wherever the opportunity presented itself.
Rather than fight in open fields, like European soldiers, the Americans hid behind natural barriers, fired from ambush positions, and harried the Redcoats all the way back to Boston.
One British officer complained that the Americans acted like “rascals” and fought as “concealed villains” with “the cowardly disposition . . . to murder us all.” Another officer reported: “These fellows were generally good marksmen, and many of them used long guns made for Duck-Shooting.”
The British expedition was nearly wiped out. It saved from annihilation by reinforcements from Boston—and by the fact that the Americans started running out of ammunition and gunpowder.
British Lieutenant-General Hugh Percy, who had led the rescue of the beleaguered expeditionary force, recounted:
“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. Nor are several of their men void of a spirit of enthusiasm, as we experienced yesterday, for many of them concealed themselves in houses, & advanced within [ten yards] to fire at me & other officers, tho’ they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant.”
At day’s end, there were 50 Americans killed, 39 wounded, and 5 missing. Among the British 65 were killed, 180 wounded, and 27 missing. On a per-shot basis, the Americans inflicted higher casualties than the British regulars.
That night, the Americans began laying siege to Boston where General Gage’s standing army was located. Soon, the British would begin confiscating guns in Boston. Reinforced by volunteers from other colonies, and commanded by General George Washington, the American forces would maintain the siege of Boston until the British gave up and sailed away on March 17, 1776.
Further reading: David B. Kopel, How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution, 38 Charleston Law Review 283 (2012).
David B. Kopel is adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law.
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