The phrase was first used in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn and refers to the first shots fired by the Patriots at the North Bridge.
The first shots were actually fired at sunrise at Lexington. No one knows which side actually fired first. Some say it wasn’t the militiamen or the British, but rather a spectator behind a hedge. Both sides generally agreed that it did not come from any of the men facing each other on the green that morning. Still another theory was that there were multiple simultaneous shots. But whatever happened the militia was outnumbered and fell back. The British proceeded on to Concord, where they searched for supplies. As the militia gathered at the North Bridge they saw wisps of smoke begin to rise over the village of Concord.
The Patriots at the bridge seeing the smoke thought that the Redcoats were burning the town. As they debated what to do, more and more men were streaming in from the surrounding towns, swelling the ranks of the militia. Captain Isaac Davis of Acton is credited with saying “I’m not afraid to go, and I haven’t a man that’s afraid to go.”
The militia began to advance, 5 full companies from Acton, Concord, Bedford, and Lincoln, over 400 men, approaching a British force of only 90-95 men. The militia had orders to load their guns but not to fire unless fired upon. The British were ordered to form up for street-firing but it was not an appropriate formation for the open path beyond the bridge. In the confusion a shot rang out, possibly a warning shot from British troops exhausted by the overnight march and early morning skirmish at Lexington. No matter, the damage was done and a volley of musket fire rang out.
At least 3 were killed and 9 wounded. the British regulars found themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered. With their leaders wounded or dead, they broke ranks and retreated.
Meanwhile in the town, the accidental fire in the meeting-house was being extinguished by a bucket brigade that included the British regulars. The routed British returned to Concord and instead of continuing their retreat stayed in town where they went back to searching for supplies and ate lunch. This allowed the patriots time to position themselves along the road back to Boston.
Through out the march back to Boston the British were harried and fired upon by the militia using what we would call today, guerrilla tactics. They shot from behind stone walls and fences and trees. they tracked through swamps and fields. The ranks of the militia swelling as more and more men arrived from all over New England.
In the morning the British, now safely back in Boston, found that they were surrounded by a huge militia of over 15,000. This was the beginning of the Continental Army. The war of Independence had begun.
Much has been written about the running battle along Battle Road, far too much for this post or this blog, but this is the history behind the reenactment that takes place each Patriot’s Day in Lexington. With any luck, I will be one of the many who will be gathering this Monday in the early morning hours to take a step back in time.