At dawn on April 19, 1775, the British detachment of light infantry under Maj. Pitcairn reached Lexington, about two-thirds the way to Concord. There they found the local Lexington Militia Company under Capt. John Parker waiting for them, all armed and formed on the central Lexington Green. Considering it a challenge, the first and second companies of the British column rushed onto the Green rather than taking the road beside it, intending to answer the American challenge with taunts of their own. Some reports say the Americans immediately began to disperse, though some Yankees doggedly remained. Both sides shouted at one another, while officers on both sides tried to keep their men in check and diffuse the situation. And then… a shot rang out! An unordered and scattered British volley rang out in response, and almost simultaneously, some of the Yankees fired in return. More scattered shots were fired until the officers on both sides regained control. The Skirmish of Lexington left eight Americans dead, another nine wounded, with the British suffering just one man wounded in the leg, plus Maj. Pitcairn’s horse grazed in two places. This skirmish was the start of what would be a very bloody, day-long battle, and it marked the start of the Revolutionary War.
But the details of the skirmish have always been unclear. Who fired the first shot? No conclusive evidence exists, and each side blames the other. But there is both circumstantial and direct evidence, and it leads us to believe the Americans shot first!
The First Shot
Let us consider the circumstantial evidence:
First, the British accounts of the battle. Those confirmed to be on the scene to witness the first shots say the Americans fired first (referring to the hedge wall or behind Buckman Tavern).
Lt. William Sutherland was in the thick of the skirmish there at Lexington as he was a lead scout in the vanguard of the British column. Sutherland gave his report days later in a letter to Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, a letter that has proven accurate on other events that day as corroborated by other witnesses. It gives:
“I shall observe here that the road before you go into Lexington is level for about 1000 yards. Here we saw shots fired to the right and left of us, but as we heard no whistling of balls, I concluded they were to alarm the body that was there of our approach. On coming within gun shot of the Village of Lexington a fellow from the corner of the road on the right hand cock’d his piece at me, burnt priming. [That is, Sutherland saw a flash in the pan.] I immediately called to Mr. Adair & party [the vanguard scouts] to observe this circumstance which they did. I acquainted Major Pitcairn of it immediately. We still went on further when three shots were fired at us, which we did not return, & this is sacred truth as I hope for mercy these 3 shots were fired from the corner of a large house [Buckman Tavern] to the right of the Church [Meeting House on Lexington Green] when we came up to the main body which appeared to me to exceed 400 in & about the Village who were drawn up in a plane opposite to the Church, several officers called out to throw down your arms & you shall come to no harm, or words to that effect which they refused to do. Instantaneously the [British] gentlemen who were on horseback rode amongst them of which I was one, at which instant I heard Major Pitcairn’s voice call out ‘soldiers don’t fire, keep your ranks, form & surround them’, instantly some of the villains who got over a hedge fired at us which our men for the first time returned…”
Lt. Jeremy Lister, light infantry officer of the 10th Regiment, among the lead two companies that marched onto Lexington Green, wrote in his private narrative of 1782:
“we saw one of their Compys drawn up in regular order, Major Pitcairn… call’d to them to disperce, but their not seeming willing he desired us to mind our space which we did when they gave us a fire then run of[f] to get behind a wall. we had one man wounded of our Compy in the Leg his Name was Johnson [possibly Thomas Johnston] also Major Pitcairns Horse was shot in the Flank we return’d their Salute [gunfire]…”
Maj. Pitcairn himself, also on the field, reporting to his boss Gen. Gage, wrote this official statement:
“When I arrived at the head of the advance Company, two officers came and informed me, that a man of the rebels advanced from those that were assembled, had presented his musket and attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan. On this I gave directions to the troops to move forward, but on no account to fire, or even attempt it without orders; when I arrived at the end of the Village, I observed drawn up upon a Green near 200 rebels; when I came within about 100 yards of them, they began to file off towards some stone walls on our right flank. The Light Infantry, observing this, ran after them. I instantly called to the soldiers not to fire, but surround and disarm them, and after several repetitions of those positive orders to the men, not to fire, etc. some of the rebels who had jumped over the wall fired four or five shots at the soldiers, which wounded a man of the Tenth and my horse was wounded in two places, from some quarter or other, and at the same time several shots were fired from a meeting house on our left. Upon this, without any order or regularity, the Light Infantry began a scattered fire, and continued in that situation for some little time, contrary to the repeated orders both of me and the officers that were present.”
So, of the British that were on the spot (versus those that were farther back with the column and only came up to the Green after shots had been fired, such as Lt. Frederick Mackenzie’s very reliable diary), they report the Americans fired first, either from over a hedge wall, or from the Meeting House on the Green. Note that they also reported that some wayward American had attempted to fire upon them before they even reached the Green, but the gun misfired, the primer in the flintlock’s pan flashing but failing to ignite the primary charge inside the gun that would have fired the bullet. (So at least one American attempted to fire the first shot!)
In weighing the evidence above, consider too that those same British sources, particularly Sutherland who was also in the thick of the next skirmish at Concord’s North Bridge, openly admitted that the British fired first there in Concord. Note also that the British evidence states the Americans did, indeed fire. (Some early sources suggested they had not.)
To be fair, there are some less certain British sources, but they are unreliable. For instance, captured British officer Lt. Edward Gould was compelled (quite possibly under duress) to give a deposition to the Americans: “which party fired first, I cannot exactly say”. Lt. Frederick Mackenzie, though still with the trailing main British column and thus not near the Green when the shots rang out, wrote in his diary: “Shots were immediately fired; but from which side could not be ascertained, each party imputing it to the other.” Mackenzie’s diary is reliable in most details, but here, having not been eye-witness to the events, it seems he is only recording that both sides were in disagreement. It does not seem that Mackenzie is suggesting there were doubts on the part of his British colleagues. But again, I discount these sources.
Of those British at the Green that were kind enough to leave us historians a report of what happened, all agree that the Americans fired first. Indeed, these same British officers would have had a pro-British bias leading them to blame the Americans, but they all agree in the details. Furthermore, if such a bias slanted their version of the events at Lexington, then the same would be expected for events later that day in Concord. Yet the British reports, in particular Sutherland’s letter, openly admit that the British fired first without orders at Concord. So while human nature leads us to expect the British would have tended to blame the Americans regardless, as they were honest about the Skirmish of Concord, we are persuaded to believe they were honest about Lexington too.
Now, let us consider the American evidence. There is a great wealth of American evidence, as depositions were taken in the days immediately following the battle so as to rush the American version (aka propaganda) to British newspapers in London, hoping to sway the British people against the British Ministry even before the Ministry could learn of the facts of the affair from their official channels.
Capt. John Parker, the man in charge of the Lexington Militia, gave this official deposition:
“I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse and not to fire. Immediately said Troops made their appearance, and rushed furiously, fired upon and killed eight of our party, without receiving any provocation therefor from us.”
Fourteen Lexington Militia attested to this joint official deposition, including Sgt. William Munroe:
“We were faced towards the Regulars, then marching up to us, and some of Company were coming to the parade [Green] with their backs towards the Troops, and others on the parade began to disperse, when the Regulars fired on the Company before a gun was fired by any of our Company on them; they killed eight of our Company, and wounded several, and continued their fire until we had all made our escape.”
The many other American depositions all give similar sentiments, and in each case they claim the British fired first. Thus, we know that the American depositions immediately after the battle are heavily biased, though considering they were taken for the express intent to sway the British people, we can understand why. In the American depositions days after the battle, there is no mention of the shots from the hedge wall, no mention of shots from the Meeting House. Until…
In 1825, for the 50th anniversary of the start of the Revolution, new depositions were taken of the veterans still living. Now we must take any such evidence from fifty years after the fact with a grain of salt, given the ailing memories of old veterans whose stories have grown only grander with each retelling. But if there was an intentional bias in 1775, fifty years later, that bias would have faded a little, given the 1825 deposition was then about preserving history rather than promoting propaganda. So, here again is Sgt. William Munroe, fifty years later:
“They immediately… fire[d], when our company began to retreat, and, as I left the field, I saw a person firing at the British troops from Buckman’s back door, which was near our left, where I was parading the men when I retreated. I was afterward told, of the truth of which I have no doubt, that the same person, after firing from the back door, went to the front door of Buckman’s house, and fired there. How many of our company fired before they retreated, I cannot say; but I am confident some of them did.”
Thus, Munroe admits fifty years after the fact that the Americans fired into the British, something none of the early American depositions of 1775 explicitly admit. And, while Munroe still holds that the British fired first, his 1825 deposition admits that at least two American shots were indeed fired from near Buckman Tavern, which only helps to corroborate the original British claims. That this American shooter apparently shot at least twice implies his actions were deliberate, since some time would have passed for him to reload and take aim again. Note too that Munroe claims it was from Buckman’s Tavern rather than the Meeting House. Still, we have no explicit mention by an American of the hedge walls. But these were likely behind Buckman’s Tavern, and so perhaps are one in the same.
The reason for the differences between Munroe’s two depositions is clear. Those early 1775 depositions were biased towards portraying the Americans as victims, in an effort to enlist the British public’s support. Hence, they avoid details of the Americans firing. But in 1825, after the Americans had fought two wars with Britain, the depositions were more biased towards proving the Americans stood up and fought bravely against a powerful enemy, and so emphasize details of the American musketry.
Of course, some of these late 1825 depositions are incorrect in their details, but broad strokes such as an American shooting from behind Buckman Tavern is not a detail likely to have been changed by constant retellings and 50 years of faded memories.
In weighing the evidence, the British accounts of the day’s later skirmish at Concord, corroborated by American reports of the same, demonstrate the British accounts were honest, at least about Concord. So then, why would the British reports (including the official reports to Gage) all intentionally lie about the first shots at the Skirmish of Lexington, even as they admit fault at Concord? At the very least, we can reasonably believe that the British reports are not intentionally false; if indeed bias has made them false at all (I think not).
Meanwhile, the Americans had the most to lose by admitting they had fired first, such as support from the other American colonies or the British people. The Americans also felt the greatest degree of trepidation and pent up frustration, which would suggest they were more likely to fire without orders. The fact is, after months of a quasi-occupation by the “lobsters” in Boston, most Whiggish Massachusetts men were more likely to pick a fight with the British. In contrast, the young British soldiers were rather disciplined (and so not likely to fire first without orders), and relatively detached from the political debate (and so did not care much about the grander principles of the Revolution as the Yankees did). Now, once those first shots were fired, British discipline would have quickly broken down, and the British officers all reported on the difficulty of getting their soldiers to cease firing and regroup. But that is human nature. Put two armed parties together on a field, and with one shot from either side, it is almost certain both sides will fire immediately in response, without orders, as a natural survival instinct. The fact the British discipline broke down after the first shots does not diminish the fact that they were relatively well-disciplined when not under enemy fire.
In contrast, we cannot ignore that there were many militiamen swarming to the scene before those first shots. Those men mustered and formed on Lexington Green were not the only armed Americans, though given they were orderly and on time, they may have been the most disciplined of the Americans there that day. Every male between 16 and 60 with a gun was also a militiaman, and few of them were formed up. And what of the man that had earlier attempted to fire on the British as they approached Lexington? It is quite likely he had come to the Green, likely with a re-primed musket. Consider too that many of these men spent the night drinking at Buckman Tavern, complaining about the British as they bolstered their bravery with alcohol. Can we be sure alcohol did not play a role in the first shots? (And, were the first shots not from behind Buckman tavern, but inside Buckman tavern, in the form of West Indies rum?) Thus, the Green was surrounded by disgruntled and possibly drunken militiamen of all ages and experiences, all armed, even as a few more disciplined militiamen formed up on the Green itself.
So who fired first? We cannot know definitively, but we have more reason to believe the British reports than those of the Americans. At least the two sides agree that the Americans on the Green did not fire first. Only the British claim someone off the Green on their flank fired first. The American Munroe admits such shots were indeed fired, though contends those were not the first shots.
We can never have proof beyond a shadow of a doubt either way. We can only guess logically, with the limited facts and circumstantial evidence at hand, and my guess is that the Americans fired first, from either the hedge wall or from behind Buckman Tavern (which is likely one in the same). In my mind, the Americans statements (even those of 1825) have the greater motive and bias to hide this detail than the British statements.
Now, if we assume the Americans did fire first, the next question is: Why? Perhaps, amid the confusion, some American had lost his cool. Equally plausible, some zealot had deliberately wished to begin a war. (Remember the man that misfired on the British during their approach to Lexington.) A third, just as likely, was that a musket accidentally fired. It was the most inopportune time for such an accidental fire, but most of the militia there had muskets kept as trophies from the last war, which ended only twelve years prior. For the younger men, theirs were inherited from their fathers who had fought in that war. Old guns usually had a nasty build-up of soot in their barrels and sometimes faulty firelocks and springs. Misfires and accidents with those archaic guns were all too common. Nervousness on the part of an unseasoned young man might have also been a reason for an accidental fire.
Whoever fired that first shot, and whether an accident or of malicious intent, perhaps it did not matter: the war was now on.[Featured Image at Top: Battle of Lexington by Hammatt Billings (1875). Source: Lexington Historical Society]
All years are 1775 unless otherwise noted.
 There is only dubious evidence to support claims that the British officers ordered their men to fire. Dozens of Lexington men testified under oath that some British officers ordered their men to fire, but there is far too much stronger evidence against this, including the British sources themselves, which, while perhaps having the potential for bias, were accurate in all things that can be corroborated with American sources. What those Lexington men probably heard, over the din of the skirmish, was the British officers telling their men to NOT fire. So the Lexington men probably were not lying, they were just mistaken.
 Lt. William Sutherland to Gen. Gage, Apr 27, in Allen French’s General Gage’s Informers (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1932) 42 ff., continues on 58 ff., continues again on 85 ff., concludes on 111 ff., original in Gage MSS, Clements Library, Univ. of Michigan.
 The entire column was under command of Lt. Col. Francis Smith of the 10th, and it was customary, and evidence in fact proves that, the 10th led the column, with the remainder following chronologically. At this point, however, Maj. Pitcairn of the Marines had split off from Smith’s main column, and thus may have had some Marines out front. We know for sure that Marine Lt. Jesse Adair was at the front, and is responsible for leading Pitcairn’s detached column onto the Green. Lt. Sutherland was of the 38th, but came that day as a volunteer, and was at the head with Adair.
 Lt. Jeremy Lister’s Concord Fight…, ed. Harold Murdock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1931) 24 http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000160673.
 William Munroe’s Deposition, Mar 7, 1825, in Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle at Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th April, 1775 (Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825) 33-35 http://books.google.com/books?id=qJYLAAAAIAAJ. All of the late 1825 depositions begin at 31 ff.
 Not to say the Lexington Militia Company was not disciplined—they were. But some did not disperse as ordered. And what about the Yankee spectators, many also militiamen? Were they so disciplined? Read on.