Who Shot First? The Americans!


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.[1] 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[2] 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…”[3]

Lt. Jeremy Lister, light infantry officer of the 10th Regiment, among the lead two companies that marched onto Lexington Green,[4] 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]…”[5]

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.”[6]

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.)

Amos Doolittle's engraving of the Battle of Lexington. Source: New York Public Library
Amos Doolittle’s engraving of the Battle of Lexington. Source: New York Public Library

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”.[7] 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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.”[10]

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.”[11]

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[12] 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).[13] 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.[14] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] In 18th Century English, a hedge could have been just a wall, such as the common rock walls still found in New England.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] Lt. Jeremy Lister’s Concord Fight…, ed. Harold Murdock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1931) 24 http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000160673.

[6] Pitcairn, Maj. John to Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, Apr 26, in Allen French’s General Gage’s Informers 52-54, original in Gage MSS, Clements Library.

[7] Peter Force, American Archives series 4 in 6v. (Washington, DC: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1837-1846) 4:2:500–01.

[8] Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary (Apr 19), in A British Fusilier in Revolutionary Boston, ed. Allen French (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1926) 62 ff.

[9] Parker’s Deposition, in Force 4:2:491.

[10] Deposition of Parkhurst, Parker, et. al., in Force 4:2:493-94.

[11] 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.

[12] This and the War of 1812.

[13] 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.

[14] The French and Indian War.

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  • I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Beck’s conclusion about who fired first. I think that there are three factors that must be considered:

    1. The Americans were well-disciplined and obedient to the orders of John Parker. When he ordered his men to disperse but keep their arms, they began to walk away from the Green.

    2. The Americans were hopelessly outnumbered by the Regulars. They recognized that to start a firefight would be suicide considering the number, some 800, of enemy against their mere 77 or so men. Any American in the tavern would reach the same conclusion and would not put his friends at such risk.

    3. The hallmark of the Americans, as demonstrated at the North Bridge, was marksmanship. The Americans were thoroughly skilled riflemen. Had an American fired first, a British soldier would have been seriously wounded or killed. That none was, and the few shots that the Americans did get off while under attack by the rushing British troops were ineffective, tells me that they did not fire until under the duress of the British attack.

    • One thing that can be considered in regards to the misfire is that it may not have been a misfire at all. As only a theory and considering misfires are not uncommon with flintlocks, I submit a colonist may have intentionally only primed the pan without loading the rifle. When he touched off the powder in the pan while aiming at the regulars, it may have been an act of intimidation or possibly, he was attempting to get the regulars to open fire giving the colonists a reason to return fire.

      • Your comment made me think of the “Boston Massacre”, where the colonists goaded the British into firing… I never thought of that sort of intentional instigation in this case, by a lone wolf no doubt if so, but possible I suppose.

        • The point is moot.
          There was no way to differentiate between an intentional flash of the pan or a misfire. Under the code of conduct of that time an aimed “flash of the pan” would have been considered an attempt to kill. Since the piece was pointed at a British officer (Sutherland) and the pan flashed, the British would have been justified in retaliation had they chosen to do so. It was an act of war or an attempted murder, not equivalent to the snow/rock-balls and verbal gibes at the “Boston Massacre”.

          • I was referring to the first shot at the Green, but the REAL first shot was that flash in the pan east of the Green, and you are absolutely right, that when we consider that, the true first shot, yes, the Americans fired first.

  • Thanks for cluing me in to the other British accounts.

    The one I was familiar with was Lieut. Col. Smith’s, in which, like the others, he mentions someone sniping at them on the way there: “…on the road, a country man from behind a wall had snapped his piece at Lieutenants Adair and Sutherland, but it flashed and did not go off.”

    Ever since I read that last year, I’ve wondered if he might’ve been the first to fire, since he was obviously already antagonistic enough towards the Regulars to open fire, and he would’ve felt stupid and angry at himself for missing the shot. So he would’ve hurried ahead to the Green, to make another attempt from behind another stone wall.

    It also makes sense that as soon as the militia were ordered to disperse, he would’ve taken his chance and fired, knowing he was safe behind the wall and could make a quick escape.

    It seems from these accounts there was much more firing going on before that, both as signals and misfires, but I still wonder about who that was and what brought him to that road on that fateful day.

    • Thanks for reading! I wish we could find out who that guy was, and what his motivations were! Maybe the evidence is still out there, buried in some forgotten diary or letter.

  • Bob,

    While I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong, I’m not sure I understand your argument.

    1.) ‘Well-disciplined’ is a subjective term when it comes to militia. ‘Well-disciplined’ compared to who? Not compared to British Regulars, I’d think. Maybe compared to other militia. Also Regulars on the field that day, if I’m not mistaken, were veterans. It is my understanding that Parker’s militia were not. Also, being a trained militia does not mean that individuals cannot also be skittish.

    2.) Being hopelessly outnumbered doesn’t ipso facto stop people from making rash or impetuous decisions. We’d all prefer to think of Parker and his men as resolute, sharp-witted, and sturdy men. And maybe a lot of them were. But people are people and, during the rush of adrenaline flowing from facing off with someone you see as an enemy or instigator, mistakes are made, people don’t always listen carefully to orders, they misinterpret movement–undoubtedly it is a wash of sensation. And it is no less likely that a green militiamen fired a round accidentally, given the circumstances, than a regular purposefully taking advantage of a situation.

    3.) The notion that Americans were skilled marksmen has, to my knowledge, been disproven. Given the LARGE amount of militia engaged that day, the amount of ammunition expended on both sides, and the relatively low body count compared to the size of the forces involved, it is a mistake to attach that number to marksmanship. The first volley from the militia only resulted in one British wounded. If anything, Parker’s militia alone proved incapable of delivering a critical hit! On the other hand, the light infantry facing them was much more accurate.

    Let’s break this down. Assuming that every casualty inflicted during the battles at Lexington and Concord were the results of musket and rifle fire (they weren’t, as anyone familiar with the unfolding of events on April 19th, 1775 will tell you, some casualties were caused by bayonets and bladed weapons–but for the sake of argument…), just 15 out of every 100 rounds fired from the colonial militia (numbers unknown, but said to be around 70 at Lexington and around 1000 by the end of the engagement at Concord) found their target (inflicting about 15% casualties on the British; about 270). Of the British forces (numbering about 1800 regulars), they did slightly worse; less than 1 out of every 10 shots fired struck a colonial militiaman, which amounted to about 90 casualties (apologies if any of these numbers are wrong, going by estimates I’ve read and memory). So in actuality, you give the accuracy of Parker’s militia and the Americans in general too much credit. The discrepancy between British regulars and the militia that day were negligible.

    • First, thank you for reading. I knew (and hoped) this article would bring forth some dialogue on the subject.

      Being in the US military myself, I cannot ignore that team mentality, and also a “good guys” vs. “bad guys” mentality, I am persuaded to feel, perhaps somewhat derived from my K-12 education, which leads me to want to say the British fired first. Maybe others are persuaded by the same. After all, any reader here is likely enamored by the RevWar as I am, and if that reader is an American, they are prone to strong feelings of patriotism. But my pro-American bias aside, I feel the evidence and motive is against the Americans in this case. And I’ve tried very hard to approach all of the gaps in knowledge, or controversies as this one, with science and fact, putting aside my otherwise pro-American bias.

      Given I am as interested in this subject as every other JAR reader, I’m happy to hear any counterargument. After all, there are many gaps in our knowledge. But I think the evidence I laid out in the main article is pretty substantial, and even if some points can be successfully refuted, all of the others must also be fully addressed in order to provide a satisfactory counterargument of the events. For instance, it is not enough to argue and give support that the British fired first without also arguing that the British reports were false about their record of Lexington, even though they were honest about Concord’s North Bridge (where the British admit they fired first). Likewise, we cannot omit the evidence that one American did indeed attempt to fire on Pitcairn’s lead scouts, though his gun misfired (flashed in the pan). And most importantly: we cannot ignore that the British conscripts really didn’t care much emotionally about what was at stake: though the Americans passionately did… discipline was most likely broken down by these sways of passion. If both sides were equally disciplined, the passionate Americans were most likely to fire without orders. Given the lack of pure facts, this reality of human nature must be addressed.

      So, while I think poking holes in a few points is not sufficient for a full counterargument, let me reply to each of Mr. Newton’s points in turn:

      1.) I find myself in agreement with Mr. Verenna’s reply here. The Americans were well-disciplined as compared to whom? Certainly, George Washington would not agree that the militia (and that quick and ready arm of the militia, the minutemen) were well disciplined. Now, there were some veterans on both sides (British and American). But there were a lot of young guys too, especially in the case of the British common foot soldier. However, Parker told his men to disperse, yet some remained. Is that discipline? If they were indeed all dispersing before the shots began, the Americans should have all been shot in their backs, no? Unless they were not all dispersing… There are of course gaps in our knowledge, hence the controversy. But remember that not all of those present with guns were on the Green. Many of the 16-60 year-olds had guns, and were gathering all around, quite possibly including the guy that attempted to fire on the British as they entered Lexington. He, at least, had no discipline. What of the other armed spectators? It’s harder to argue that the Americans were so disciplined, I think.

      2) The Americans were NOT outnumbered by the British, of at least not by much. Remember the number of armed spectators, of which we cannot ascertain the quantity. On the British side: I’ve done careful analysis of troops and companies. The British column was approximately 700 rank and file plus 66 officers. However, Pitcairn had only the 6 lead infantry companies. The average that day was about 32 men each, so 192 British soldiers plus officers and scouts, say 200 in round terms, on Lexington Green for the first shots. It is highly likely that the total armed Americans was near this same number, if not more. Maybe the British indeed outnumbered the Americans, but if so, they did not hopelessly outnumber them. Both sides were really close in number.

      3) I think Mr. Verenna says it perfectly. I also recall that the Americans had a concerted effort to kill Pitcairn later that day, yet failed. Also, the American guns were more likely the ones least cared for, and thus more likely to misfire or shoot inaccurately.

      Regardless, I appreciate all of the feedback and dialogue. Keep it coming!

      I have written this response in haste… I hope I have adequately proofread it, but if not, my apologies.

  • It may be just semantics, but wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say “an American” fired first, rather than “the Americans”? The plural might imply this was a deliberate, collective act by the militia on the orders of their commander, when it was most likely a militiaman’s independent initiative or an accident that prompted his fire.

    Thanks for the insightful analysis.

    • Derek, I’m with you on this. I was merely saying that, since the evidence is (unfortunately) circumstantial, it isn’t impossible that Bob might be right. I certainly believe it to be improbable. I think it is more than likely an American colonist fired the first shot. The preceding events over the past several months indicate, to me, a tension thread that was waiting to be plucked. It was really just a matter of time. Frankly, with what happened in 1774, they were already in an extralegal position and by compiling the store of weapons and military goods at Concord, they were sending a message to Gage. So I don’t think it is beyond the scope of the day that an American plucked at that thread a bit too hard just to watch it snap. But that’s just my humble opinion.

      • Hi Sir,

        I know you are 😉

        If it seemed like my reply was to you, it wasn’t intentional. I just hit reply to yours to follow up with your reply to Mr. Newton… intending to follow along on the thread. You may notice that there is a “reply” by each message, so my message falls under yours because I hit that “reply” instead of the box at the very bottom… if that isn’t confusing? I think I confused myself.

        And I agree, Bob could very well be right. We’ll never know for sure. It just seems like there’s more evidence against the Americans than for. If this were a legal battle, I’m not sure if we’d have evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt, one way or the other. (But maybe a lawyer can chime in.)

        • Derek,

          As a retired federal and state prosecutor (35 years in law enforcement as a police officer and prosecutor, legal advisor to foreign governments, blah, blah, blah), I can confidently tell you that there is definitely a lack of evidence that would prove beyond a reasonable doubt (in a criminal court) or by a preponderance (51% in a civil court) to win the case. Of course, there is enough evidence to show something happened, but that would get you, at the most, a hung jury, which is the equivalent of nothing.

          In short, don’t waste your time going to court on this one! An interesting intellectual exercise for sure, but that is about it.

    • I had the same thought as Matt Phillips. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of war is that a state or nation takes action against another state, nation, or community as a whole rather than separating out individuals. Neither side on 19 Apr 1775 was singling out just the members of the rival side who had fired their guns; they were shooting at everyone carrying a gun.

      • After I wrote that “Indeed, you are correct” to Matt Phillips, I too began to think further on it, but refrained from another reply… until now: after further reflection, I agree with J. L. Bell. While of course one man fired first at Lexington, as at Concord’s North Bridge, they were representatives of a side. Hence, I think it remains accurate that the AmericanS fired first at Lexington, and the BritISH (rather than one Brit) fired first at Concord.

  • It is interesting to ponder how the day’s events would have unfolded had that first American’s shot not been a mere flash in the pan, but actually wounded or killed a man before the British reached the Green – especially if it had brought down Major Pitcairn himself.

    A precipitous British retreat? Or a far bloodier day on Lexington Green?

    • It could be the stuff of a good historical fiction… a “What if…” Probably a lot of good “What if’s…” for the Rev War in fact… someone could write a whole series.

  • From my studies and investigations, the British Regulars were mostly Irish conscripts and were on their first deployment. The regulars did not have the word “AIM” in their fire command. After the exchange at the North Bridge, almost half of the British officers were dead or wounded, I surmise that if the colonials had fired first at Lexington, the Regulars would have suffered more than a scratched leg and a grazed horse.

    • I would be interested to know what information lead you to believe that the British soldiers in Boston were mostly Irish conscripts. Conscription was not legal in Great Britain during this era, and although some of the British regiments in Boston had previously served in Ireland, there were very few British regiments – anywhere – with more than about 15% Irish soldiers in their ranks; the vast majority of men in the British regiments were from England (half to two-thirds in most regiments) with the balance made up primarily of Scots and Irish. This is very easy to verify through inspection returns, muster rolls and pension data.
      For details on the extensive instruction that British soldiers received on aiming, see this article:
      The word of command was “present”, but the description of it describes aiming. It also bears noting that the Americans were, at this time, largely using the same manuals of arms that the British were using.

      • And Don’s awesome article only gives a few examples. There are many examples of the British aiming and practicing. Later in 1775, the British had more gunpowder and so more practice than the Americans.

      • Don H. can certainly comment further on this. Many folks are confused–if they know at all–about the “establishment” of British regiments. I think most/all of the regiments in North America were on the Irish Establishment which might lead some to think the men came from Ireland.

    • Aim wasn’t used at all; but ‘present’ was, which was the same thing as ‘aim’. This is a myth that is dealt with here in JAR. Take a look! 🙂

    • “After the exchange at North Bridge, almost half of the British officers were dead or wounded”? What’s the basis of that count? No British officers were killed at the North Bridge in Concord. There were three companies there with captains and lieutenants, plus some volunteers from other companies, so how many were wounded?

  • I’m certain that I don’t know who fired first, but I do know a couple of important things about those British soldiers. Referring to things said in the comments, not the article, the British soldiers at Lexington were:
    – not young
    – not conscripts
    I’ve done extensive work with British muster rolls, pension records and other documents related to British soldiers; I can say with confidence that only 10% or so of the British soldiers in Boston were under the age of 25. About 75% were between the ages of 25 and 40. The majority enlisted between the ages of 20 and 25. In the light infantry companies – soldiers selected for their skill and agility – the average age trended a few years younger than for the whole, but was nonetheless in the late 20s or early 30s.
    As for experience, in a typical regiment in Boston about 60% of the soldiers had between 5 and 15 years in the army. The light infantry and grenadiers who marched out to Lexington and Concord were selected specifically based on skill and experience, and no man was allowed to be in these companies until he had a least a year in the army. There were factors that affected British discipline early in the war, but basic military experience was not one of them.
    As for conscripts, there were none. It was not legal to conscript men into the British army during this era. It was an all volunteer force, into which men enlisted as a career (hence the many years of experience for most of the soldiers). Conscripting, or pressing, men into the army under very specific circumstances was legalized for a brief period in the middle of the war, but was soon repealed because it yielded very bad results.
    For details on all of these things, see my book “British Soldiers, American War” (sorry for the advertisement, but that’s where you’ll find the best information on the subject of individual soldiers in the British army).

  • Useful article and insightful comments. Thank you. Casualty count points to effectiveness. British: one wounded soldier, one wounded horse. Colonial militia: eight dead and uncounted wounded. Nathaniel Philbrick’s book on Bunker or Breed’s Hill points to competing political positions in a time where a revolution is not yet in motion–these are colonists unhappy with an army occupying a city, and this expedition is attempting to assert power beyond the port of Boston. As Philbrick points out, both sides had elements trying for reconciliation, both sides had elements trying to provoke a resolution by force of arms.

    A separate issue is how we think about Lexington & Concord today. Virtually everything we as a nation know is driven by what is in school textbooks. School textbooks are unlikely to dwell on drunken militia, on muskets which are not aimed well enough to hit British soldiers. Textbooks are unlikely to mention that later in the day, colonial snipers got shot in the back by quiet flankers on the edges of the British retreating column. Textbooks are unlikely to comment on militia from northern towns calmly watching the British retreat without engaging. We like the image of the bright red uniform making such a target for the sharpshooting farmer hiding behind a fence of tree. This picture from textbooks is not supported by the historical evidence. Yet the event forces us to think about what happened that day.
    Daniel Mitchel

  • There are two types of discipline to look at here. In the 18th century, discipline most often refers to a manual of arms–as in a “Plan of Discipline”–by which soldiers and militia learned how to load and fire and to move as a body. In this sense, many militia companies possessed a reasonable amount of discipline having undergone some degree of training.

    The second type of discipline, however, is of a different nature. In this sense, soldiers have to possess an amount of spiritual discipline which will induce them to put their training into action when there is lead in the air. Studying or practicing a plan of discipline on the drill field may prepare a foundation for this second type of discipline but only combat will give it to a unit. Here’s where the militia showed itself lacking at Lexington–some men probably never formed, some remained on the field against orders (seems courageous but disobeying orders shows a lack of discipline), nobody had the steadiness to inflict any casualties on the British. Even the melee on the British retreat did not show any discipline by the Americans. They did not directly confront the British and any time the regulars charged the Americans fell back rather than stand up to them. It would be a long time before the Americans showed this form of discipline on the battlefield.

    • I think you make a good point: the way the day developed, it was more like a moving American mob hoarding the British escape, rather than anything disciplined. I’m not sure even the Americans that marched on Concord’s North Bridge were terribly disciplined. Sure, they marched in column nicely, but is that discipline or just foolishly bravery, or stubbornness? Whatever you call those that marched on Concord’s North Bridge, they certainly helped kick off the war.

      • “…certainly helped kick off the war.” It sounds like you are saying that was a bad thing. The Americans who fired on the Regulars at the North Bridge did so in self-defense. ‘Twas the Regulars who kicked off the war.

        As to discipline, note further that those same Americans who fought the British troops at the North Bridge later peacefully allowed the British column that was returning from Barrett’s farm to march back into town with no challenge.

        • When I wrote “…certainly helped kick off the war”, the key word I should have emphasized is “helped”. Both sides contributed. I didn’t mean to imply it was a bad thing… I didn’t mean to imply anything really. The kick off of the war was inevitable, given all that had happened leading up to April 19. But to say the Regulars kicked of the war depends on what you consider as the point that kicked off the war. If we simply stick to the open combat that began on 19 April, then obviously, I am arguing in the article above that the Americans kicked off the war at Lexington, in terms of initiating violence at least. But you could easily argue that the events of 19 April began when the British crossed the Charles. It all gets murky when stating who started what… both sides contributed.

          I don’t want to branch this discussion off in the direction of what happened at Concord. So let me say only this: it is often hard to deal in absolutes here. Yes, the Regulars fired first at Concord. The Americans fired in return in self defense, yes. But did the Regulars fire first, also in self defense? I’d say, yes. Remember, whatever happened at Lexington, the British BELIEVED the Americans fired first. So when the large force of Americans decided to march across the bridge, against the few British companies there (the British were outnumbered), the Regulars very much believed they were in danger. (Reminds me of the Boston Massacre.) This is the problem of the whole thing: this battle was waiting for one move too far from either side before it erupted. Both sides did little things that ratcheted up the tension until the breaking point. That is usually the case in the onset of most wars.

  • Very interesting story. Being an attorney, I feel compelled to point out that eyewitness testimony is not circumstantial evidence. It is direct evidence. The problem here is one of multiple eyewitnesses telling different stories. Personally, I believe the first shot came from the Patriot side. Perhaps one of the original nine in a final act of instigation. 🙂

    I hope so! It just seems so very Sam Adams.

  • As a historian and editor with decades of experience trying to evaluate conflicting evidence in sources, I will try to address some of your methodology and conclusions. As you note in the comments, your title has marketing value, but while you believe an American fired first, the issue remains open for debate. As you observe in the text, the American affidavits collected after the event had a propaganda purpose, and in an historical analysis, this must be considered in evaluating those documents. But rather than making such an evaluative analysis of what they say, you appear to too easily simply offer a generic rejection of the potential validity of each of those American accounts. You state that in “each case they claim the British fired first. Thus, we know that the American depositions immediately after the battle are heavily biased”—yes, there was a propaganda intent to demonstrate that the troops fired first, and there are other points that they will leave out. But whatever the biased perspective, in the end, they may all be saying the British fired first because, quite simply, that is indeed what they saw and heard.

    In his own analysis, the experienced historian David Hackett Fisher speaks of the statements made later by Paul Revere, who was nearby. Fisher writes, “suddenly he heard a shot ring out behind him. It sounded like a pistol, but he could not be sure, and he could not be sure, and he did not see where it came from or who fired it, He looked again and saw a cloud of white smoke in front of the Regulars. Revere could no longer see the American militia” from his position (1994. p. 191). Fisher went on to say of captured British lieutenant, Edward Gould, “Gould, like Revere, was an honest man and a careful observer. He later testified, ‘Which party fired first I cannot exactly say, as our troops rushed on shouting and huzzaing’” (p. 193). Fisher’s evaluation of Gould’s credibility contrasts with your more generic rejection of what Gould wrote as being “unreliable” as “captured British officer Lt. Edward Gould was compelled (quite possibly under duress) to give a deposition to the Americans.”

    The 1825 accounts have their own biased intent, to demonstrate that the Lexington men had in fact engaged in forcible resistance (responding to a statement made at Concord in 1824). From these, you highlight Munroe’s statement that when he was “parading the men when I retreated,” someone fired from Buckman’s Tavern, suggesting that this “only helps to corroborate the original British claims” found in Sutherland’s statement, that initially there had been three shots from the tavern to which the troops had not responded. But how does such a much later shot from Buckman corroborate the statement that much earlier three shots had been fired from the tavern?

    A number of the 1824-25 accounts now give details on the first shot heard, some of which reinforce Revere’s earlier impressions:
    “The commander rode up….He then said ‘Fire!’ and he fired his own pistol, and the other officers soon fired…” (Elijah Sanderson).
    “Pitcairn then advanced, and, after a moment’s conversation with Col. Smith, he advanced with his troops, and, finding we did not disperse, they being within four rods of us, he brought his sword down with great force, and said to his men, ‘Fire, damn you, fire!’ The front platoon, consisting of eight or nine, then fired…” (William Munroe).
    “Col. Smith ordered his troops to fire. This order not being obeyed, he then said to them, ‘G—d damn you, fire!’ The front platoon then discharged their pieces, and, another order being given to fire, there was a general discharge from the front ranks” (John Munroe).
    “The commanding officer advanced within a few rods of us, and exclaimed, ‘Disperse, you damned rebels! you dogs, run! — Rush on my boys!’ and fired his pistol. The fire from their front ranks soon followed” (Ebenezer Munroe).
    These accounts vary somewhat, and we know that Colonel Smith was not on the scene, so those identifying a particular officer are confused in their identifications. They suggest that an officer provoked the first fire, and two in fact say that an officer fired the first shot with his pistol. Did they mishear an order not to fire as “Fire!”?—if so, maybe some of the British soldiers did the same. But perhaps more notably, some thought—like Revere earlier—that the first shot was from a pistol, fired by one of the officers.

    Fisher further observes, “Thomas Fessenden [in one of the 1775 accounts] testified that as Pitcairn rode to the front, a second officer ‘about two rods behind him, fired a pistol.’ The minister Jonas Clarke in a later account] also thought that ‘the second of these officers fired a pistol towards the militia as they were dispersing.’ It might have been the excitable Major Mitchell, or possibly Lieutenant Sutherland” (p. 194). Noting that “there is a distinct possibility that Sutherland fired the first shot,” Fisher notes how Sutherland’s accounts, “differ from those of other officers. He tended to be more hostile to the Americans, more distinctly assertive that the Americans fired the first shots at Lexington [including those three shots from the tavern that no one else reports hearing, and no one responded to on the field!], and also Concord where no other British officer concurred with him, more manipulative of facts, more defensive about the British conduct, and more self-serving” (p. 402, n. 36).

    The three British accounts given here vary in their descriptions of the first shots, with Sutherland offering details others did not hear or see. The Americans also vary in their details, but with multiple American accounts stating that the first shot was fired being a pistol shot fired by one of the officers, the conclusion that the British officers’ accounts were more “honest” than the American accounts must be questioned. If Sutherland himself is one of the contenders for firing the first shot—for potentially having the strongest motive for covering up the truth—does it seem viable to not examine those statements far more closely before concluding, “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)”?

    • Revere’s depositions, transcribed:
      1) http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=97&img_step=1&mode=transcript#page1
      2) http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=98&img_step=1&mode=transcript#page1
      3) http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=99&img_step=1&mode=transcript#page1

      #1 and corrected copy #2 was written soon after the battle:

      In #1:
      “when the ministeral Troops appeard in Sight, behind
      the Meeting house. They made a short halt. When one Gun was fired, I saw the smoake
      in the front of them, they imeaditly gave a shout rann a few pace & then fired.
      I could distinguish first iregular firing and then platoons. At this time, I could not
      see our Militia, for they were covered by a house at the bottom of the Road.”

      In #2:
      “the Minesteral Troops appeared in sight,
      behinde the Meeting House; they made a short halt. When
      one gun was fired, I heard the report, turned my head, and saw
      the smoake in front of the Troops, they imeaditly gave a great
      shout, ran a few paces, and then the whole fired. I could first
      distinguish Iregular fireing, which I supposed was the advance
      Guard, and then platoons: at this time I could not see our
      Militia, for they were covered from me, by a house at the
      bottom of the Street, and further saith not.”

      In #3 (written years later!):
      “while we were giting the Trunk,
      we saw the British very near, upon a full March.
      We hurried to wards Mr. Clark’s House. In our way,
      we passed through the Militia. There were about 50.
      When we had got about 100 Yards from the meeting-House the British Troops
      appeard on both Sides of the Meeting-House. In their
      In their Front was an Officer on Horse back. They made a
      Short Halt; when I saw, & heard, a Gun fired, which appeared
      to be a Pistol. Then I could distinguish two Guns, & then
      a Continual roar of Musquetry; When we made off with the Trunk.”

      In the most reliable earlier dispositions, Revere says nothing about a pistol, he says this only in the last, written circa 1798. At any rate, Revere only saw smoke. He did not see the first shot. Moreover, he could not see the American line (by his own admission), and thus likely could not see many along the periphery, such as any potential assailant hopping a hedge wall or near the tavern.

      Because of these uncertainties, Revere is not a great source for unraveling this mystery either.

  • Excellent discussion here. By coincidence, just this morning I began James Thacher’s Military Journal and discovered the passage below. There’s no identification of who the reports came from, but they do echo the accounts mentioned above about huzzahs and pistol shots.

    “Authenticated accounts are now received of the battle at Lexington…. Having arrived at Lexington, six miles short of Concord, they were met by a company of militia, of about one hundred men, who, having taken the alarm, began to assemble from different towns before daylight. They were assembled near the church, about sunrise; when the British advanced in quick march to within a few rods, Major Pitcairn called out, “Disperse, you Rebels! throw down your arms and disperse.” Their small number would not admit of opposition, and while they were dispersing, the regulars huzzaed, and immediately one or two pistols were fired by the officers, and four or five muskets by the soldiers; then a pretty general discharge from the whole party followed, by which eight of our people were killed and seven wounded.”

  • Isn’t it a rather big assumption to think that the bias in 1825 would be any less than that in 1775? After all in 1825 the militia men who were present at Lexington would have a strong incentive to preserve the memory of their actions as fighters against oppression and tyranny.

    Even though St. William Munroe’s testimony changed in it’s details (by adding more detail), the basics are still the same, which is that the British fired first and that the militia didn’t fire at the British until after they had been fired upon. It seems to me to be a pretty big leap to go from “His story has a few extra details” to “His story has changed a little bit so therefore it supports the British side of events”

    You also say that none of the depositions taken explicitly admit to the militia firing at Lexington Green. I rather think that the testimony of Elijah Sanderson. qualifies as an explicit admission “‘Damn them, we will have them,’ and immediately the Regulars shouted aloud, Run and fired upon the Lexington Company, which did not fire a Gun before the Regulars Discharged on them”

    Simon Winship’s testimony states “that there was no Discharge of arms on either side, till the word fire was given, by the said Officer as above.”

    Also Benjamin Tidd and Joseph Abbot testified that they saw a British officer fire a pistol first: “Soon after, the regulars fired, first, a few guns, which we took to be pistols from some of the Regulars who were mounted on Horses, and then the said Regulars fired a Volley or two before any guns were fired by the Lexington Company;”

    Levi Mead and Levi Harrington also testify to seeing an officer fire a pistol. “we saw a Large body of Regular Troops marching up towards the Lexington Company, and some of the Regulars, on Horses, whom we took to be officers, Fired a Pistol or two on the Lexington Company, which were then dispersing:”

    I’m not sure why all the accounts from the Americans can be so easily dismissed as being biased, yet the same standard can’t be held for the British accounts. The American accounts are varied enough (and yet at the same time consistent enough in their details) that it makes it hard for me to believe that all of them were bad eyewitnesses who were completely unreliable.

    And why is there a need to speculate about the state of any possible inebriation? If there had been even a hint of drunkenness with the militia that day the opposition papers would have seized on that–and they didn’t. This despite the fact that we know that at other times militia were drunk.

    • By the way, nice job pulling out those statements from 1775 that quietly suggest there was, indeed a “return” of fire. Phinney could have used you in 1824-25 when they began the Lexington-Concord feud on this issue!

  • We need to be careful about bias; also I don’t think that “honesty” plays a role in these accounts. Revere may have been honest but his portrayal of the Boston Massacre was pretty lopsided and dishonest. We need to keep in mind that both sides had cause to claim the other fired first. That is part of the problem with the eyewitness testimony.

  • I have long felt that the first shot could not have come from either of the two units that were lined up, facing each other. If it had come from either side — the militia, or the Regulars — then the eyewitness accounts would have been clearer about that. Those two lines of men were the focus of everyone’s attention, and a shot fired by either group would have been just too obvious.

    Given that assumption, we are left with the peripheral theories: that the first shot came from somewhere on the sidelines, where no one was watching. Derek’s theory that it came from the vicinity of the Buckman Tavern is one likely possibility. Other possibilities are that it was an accidental shot from a poorly-maintained gun (likely a militiaman’s old musket); or maybe a pistol shot, possibly by a British officer; or perhaps it was the shot that killed Asahel Porter, taken captive earlier by the Regulars’ advance party, and felled near the meetinghouse.

    I once heard someone — if I recall correctly, it was David Hackett Fischer — say that a mentally-disturbed young man had been seen with a gun, shortly before the firing broke out, in the vicinity of the tavern.

    All of these theories make more sense to me, personally, than any claim that either “the Americans” or “the Redcoats” fired first as their two lines faced each other on the green.

  • One question that comes to mind is, during the initial stages of the melee at least, whether any friendly fire resulted in injury or death? Not fully appreciating where the players were situated, I wonder if there is a possibility of a shooter(s) located behind the rebel line who might have let loose one of the first shots and accidently shot a friend in the back by mistake? Yet another reason to blame the Brits if that was the case. Crazy things happen in situations like these.
    Don’t you just love unsolvable conspiracies? Yet another reason why you could never get a decision in a court of law concluding one way or the other.

  • Regarding the misfire by someone aiming at the Brit column before the action on the Green–it is also possible that the man did not have a charge in his firelock but, rather, only primed the pan. This might have been by accident thinking he had a charge in the barrel (people did store loaded but not primed firelocks) or it might have been intentional–the flash in the pan sending a message to the Brit soldiers that live fire might be possible.

  • I think we can agree that none of Parker’s men formed on the green first – but there were clearly lots of other army Americans on the periphery, and it’s certainly reasonable for a gun to have gone off accidentally, whether due to someone checking their flint and priming or due to the age of the weapon.
    It’s also unlikely that any of the British soldiers fired first. Although there were few combat veterans, they were all soldiers with several years of experience, conditioned to handling loaded weapons and to disciplinary action if disobedient; in an army where you could get fifty lashes for stealing your comrade’s shirt, imagine the consequences of starting a war (that’s meant to be a facetious remark). On the other hand, it’s easy to image an officer firing a pistol into the air, or having one go off accidentally while being brandished.
    There’s another British eyewitness not mentioned here – Captain William Souter, commander of the light infantry company of the British Marines, one of the companies that was on the green. In a private letter that “We march’d all night without molestation, & about daylight in marching thro’ a village called Lexington, the van comp’y of the light troops was staggered by seeing a flash of a pan from a man with arms, & soon after a report & whistling of two balls fired on it”. This account correlates with the other British accounts in reporting an individual flashing a pan, and an apparent shot or two, before the British even formed on Lexington green. This passage is published in Vincent J. R. Kehoe, “The British Story of the Battle of Lexington and Concord” (Somis, CA: privately printed, 2000); if I read the footnote correctly, a transcript of the letter is in the Allen French Library at Minuteman National Historical Park.

  • I have been enjoying this wonderful discussion. I myself have always assumed that an American bystander (neither the British regulars/ officers nor the Americans drawn up on the green) fired the first shot. I have read all the conflicting statements over the years and still come to this conclusion. Why? Because I’ve been a teacher of adolescents for 30 years and my experience with young males is that in a situation of great tension, there will inevitably be one who can’t resist taking the provocative action. Especially if he can do so safely from hiding… and even more especially if there is alcohol anywhere in the story.

    • Another thing that is important to remember is that the British were constantly being harassed by locals. They were also apparently under orders not to carry their weapons when off duty, and when on duty were told not to have their weapons loaded even if fired upon. Some precautionary means were taken to protect the troops, like the arresting of any colonist practicing any sort of military discipline, aggressively or not. But apparently brawls and fights were commonplace. And the stress seems to have been a great deal more than many could bear–desertion in Boston seems to have been a problem for British Regulars. During all this, the British marched along the countryside time and again out of Boston and not once did they fire any shots at civilians, not even after the way the locals were treating them. And as one officer put it, the lack of any action on the part of the British made the locals “very insolent”.

      This is valuable information; it suggests that (a) the British were facing a very stressful situation and probably felt very vulnerable; (b) but also that the Colonists were active in tugging that string of war–they weren’t merely tolerating the British, but provoking them constantly.

      This leads me to believe, along with other details above discussed, that Derek is correct. That the American forces provoked a response, either by firing a musket in the direction of the advancing British column on April 19th, or that someone (an American, either a spectator or one of Parker’s men) misfired a musket that snapped that tension and caused the British to retaliate. And even if it had not been an American, as Derek points out the British sources all confirm that they certainly believed it to have been. And given the stress they were under, the earlier provocations by colonists, and the alarmed state of the countryside, it isn’t necessarily far-fetched.

      (source: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/shots/describe.html)

    • Amen to that, in so many instances the imbibing of ardent spirits went hand in hand with martial duties. And compounding the problem was the early morning hours when all this broke loose and the fact that many had been awake a lot of the night. I know that several men had been marching from Groton since the prior evening and were probably ready for fight when they reached Lexington.

      I find the following quote made by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress enlightening as to its own assessments of the quality of their young men as it apologized to Washington when he came face to face with the realities of the situation in July 1775:

      We wish you may have found such regularity and discipline already established in the army, as may be agreeable to your expectations. The hurry with which it was necessarily collected, and the many disadvantages, arising from a suspension of government, under which we have raised and endeavored to regulate the forces of this colony, have rendered it a work of time; … the general character of the soldiers who compose the army … the greatest part of them have not been before in service; and although naturally brave, and of good understanding, yet, for want of experience in military life, have but little knowledge of divers things most essential to the preservation of health and even life. The youth of the army are not possessed of the absolute necessity of cleanliness in their dress and lodging, continual exercise, and strict temperance, to preserve them from diseases frequently prevailing in camps, especially among those, who, from their childhood, have been used to a laborious life.

      The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 438-439.

  • I’ll try to comment on a variety of the posts and questions raised within this single post rather than individually.

    Thatcher’s Journal:
    Interesting how he copied that into his Journal, Steve. The account he is quoting appeared in the April 25, 1775, issue of the Essex Gazette (Salem) and then it was picked up in the May 3, 1775, issue of the Massachusetts Spy, published at Worcester by Isaiah Thomas (the first issue of MA Spy to come out after April 19 and after Thomas managed to secretly get his press out of Boston). Other papers also picked up the account. Interestingly, if it first came out on April 25, that also was the same day the depositions were taken, so this account of huzzahs and officers discharging their pistols would be based on sources other than—and predating—those better-known depositions.

    Revere being “honest”:
    I also do not find the connotations of that word to be ones that particularly work well in this context, but Derek Beck had applied it to the British accounts he referenced, and I found it interesting that in his book, Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fisher applied it to Gould (referenced as “unreliable” Beck). The contrasting evaluations of the same source seemed notable. Fisher’s reference to Gould also had the similar characterization of Revere as honest—as I typed, I considered leaving Revere out as he was not part of the point on which I was focused (Gould), but left it in to be true to Fisher’s context. I do not know if Fisher might want to reconsider the choice of words, but I would also tend to take issue with calling it “that particular assumption”–Fisher had conducted an extensive study of Revere, and on balance, this was certainly part of his evaluation of Revere’s core character. During this period, Revere was a gold and silversmith, an engraver, and even a maker of artificial dentures. He had an entrepreneurial spirit, along with his devotion to ‘the cause.’ The iconic image of the Boston Massacre was drawn by Henry Pelham and engraved by Revere from that drawing, and sold by Revere. It is dramatic, highly commercial, and decidedly inaccurate. It was, I suppose, the Hollywood version of the day, and it had great propaganda value. Revere had himself drawn the most accurate representation what happened (used in the trials), but it lacked visual appeal and is little known. One might say, on one hand, that in his own drawing he demonstrated “honesty”; on the other hand, his own drawing makes clear that he well knew that the Pelham image he engraved and profited off of was not accurate.

    Inebriation and individuals present:
    During the night, when Revere and then Dawes brought news from Boston, Parker’s company had been called out when it appeared that nothing was eminent, they were dismissed, told to come out if they heard the drum. Many went home, others stayed at the tavern. With news that the troops were about half a mile away, the drum sounded. Those at the tavern would be the first to come out—that was why they remained there. They would also be the first to parade on the Common/Green as others arrived, they would join them. Some men who turned out were short on powder, and other equipment, and they had been sent to the Meeting House, where the town stock was stored. At one point, one present on the Common counted 38 (not including those then at the M. H.), while general estimates are that there were 60-70 lined up when the British arrived, with some others still caught inside the M. H. There were other people, generally considered to be unarmed—any arms being taken by those with Parker—standing at different locations around the Common, including at Buckman’s Tavern. Militia men, responding to the drum but coming from further away, would have continued to arrive after the troops were there, certainly with arms, and standing off the Common. Fisher also raised the issue of potential inebriation as an issue that could have played into the first shot fired, but they remained in the tavern so they could respond quickly and be on the Common, or possibly some could still be lingering in the Meeting House. If a militia man was indeed too drunk to leave the tavern, with an apparent shortage of arms, it seems likely that someone else would have borrowed his.

    Flash in pan:
    A more detailed accounting of this incident was given by prisoner James Marr of the Fourth Regiment to Rev. William Gordon. Gordon described their conversation, “They were met by three men on horseback, before they got to the meeting-house a good way; an officer bid them stop; to which it was answered, you had better turn back, for you shall not enter this Town; when the said persons rode back again, and at some distance one of them offered to fire, but the piece flashed in the pan without going off. I asked Marr if he could tell if the piece was designed at the soldiers, or to give an alarm? He could not say which.”

    Captain Soutar:
    Souter actually was not among those who formed on the Common. The 4th and 10th Light Infantries had been ahead of the others, and they were positioned on the Common; Soutar’s Marine Company appears to have been the next in order, but they had been marching well back, and Pitcairn would direct them to take the road towards Concord along the south side of the Common, rather than following Adair to the right and onto the Common itself. Soutar’s description of the skirmish underestimates the number of Parker’s men, while he only speaks of firing coming from the British side when the skirmish begins “the Light Company push’d forward & saw a dozen or eighteen Men drawn up with Arms, the Light Companies on hearing a Shout from the leading Company, immediately formed & a fire was given on their running off which killed most of them.”

    Layout and killed:
    The Lexington Common/Green was triangular in shape, with roads forming each side. The Meeting House stood near the east corner, with the British troops approaching from the east, towards the Meeting House. If they took the road to the left of the Meeting House, they would be on the road to Concord, which runs along the south side of the Common. Adair, however, led the first two companies to the right of the Meeting House, towards where Parker and his men were positioned. Buckman’s Tavern is on the north side of that road, about opposite the Meeting House, so they marched between the Meeting House and the tavern, then onto the Common, forming behind the Meeting House. Buckman was now to their right, across the road from their position and essentially behind them. When Soutar’s Company came up and took the road to the left of the Meeting House, those still caught in the Meeting House were clearly in a very precarious position. Parker’s men were lined up towards the back of the Common, near the north/northwest corner, facing the position assumed by the British troops. The road that Buckman was on was to their left, but they were well away from Buckman. For the most part, I would surmise that the wall/hedge area referred to in the accounts would have been along that road. Logistically, however, it would not make sense that the wall/hedge references would be near Buckman—Buckman and the wall/hedge were not the same; they would have to pass to the position held by the British troops if they were to run to Buckman. The cross road behind Parker’s men continued to the north to Rev. Jonas Clarke’s house, where Sam Adams and John Hancock had been staying the previous night—so Parker’s position, while not on the road itself, tended to protect the route to Clarke’s, but the road to Concord was open.

    Of the eight killed, two were still in the position where Parker’s Company had lined up on the Common. One, Asahel Porter, had earlier been captured on the road and been brought along by the British troops. He ran, trying to escape, towards the Meeting House area. Amos Lock stated in an 1824 deposition that he came later upon the scene, “coming up towards the easterly side of the common, where, under the cover of a wall, about twenty rods from the common, where the British then were, we found Asahel Porter, of Woburn, shot through the body.” The remaining five had dispersed from their position with Parker. One was running backwards, towards his own house, when he was shot. Others may know better, but my best guess would be that the other four had more likely been running towards—or possibly had reached—the referenced hedge/wall area that was most likely towards their left (Sutherland, “instantly some of the villains who got over a hedge fired at us which our men for the first time returned”; Pitcairn, “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….Upon this, without any order or regularity, the Light Infantry began a scattered fire, and continued in that situation for some little time”).

    Could some have been hit by friendly fire? Well, yes, if those who had reached the hedge/wall were firing out while others were running in their direction. Note, however, that while there has been speculation that some person off to the side fired the first precipitating shot, that conflicts with these British accounts. Sutherland spoke of three shots earlier (from Buckman), and Soutar (who was much further back) spoke of two shots, but if these occurred and were not alarm firings somewhere, there was no British response to those shots. Both Sutherland and Pitcairn attribute the shots that precipitated the British fire as coming from some of Parker’s dispersing men, after they “got over”/”jumped over” the hedge/wall. Lister, on the other hand—“when they gave us a fire then run of[f] to get behind a wall”— more dubiously has Parker’s men firing before running off to the greater safety of the wall. But again, in each of these British accounts—whether before or after they reached the hedge/wall—the first precipitating shots are specifically identified as coming from some of Parker’s men who had formed on the Common, and not from some mysterious person standing off to the side.

  • I’m enjoying the conversation here. The only down side: the number of replies is now so many, it is no longer possible to reply to them all. But I don’t have my notes available at the moment either, so I’ll just reply on a few quick thoughts here:

    Why I dismissed Gould’s statement (the long version): Lt. Gould’s statement is “perhaps” true: that is, he may have said what he genuinely believed: “which party fired first, I cannot exactly say”. However, he gave this deposition as a prisoner of what was, in his mind (and technically accurate), an extralegal armed band of rebels operating outside of the law. We can perhaps believe that many of the senior people that interacted with him, such as perhaps Dr. Warren, treated him well. But was every American, including those guarding him, so kind? It’s pretty easy to imagine some young soldier harassing him when others were not looking. So, I find it very reasonable to think that Gould believed he was in danger to some degree. He saw colleagues shot and killed that day, after all. And, prior to April 19, Gould never expected the Americans to rise up with arms and send the flower of the British Army running. After April 19, Gould was re-evaluating his understanding of the Americans. Human nature what it is: put yourself in his situation: you are in the Army, and angry locals rise up and swarm and shoot at you all the way back to Boston, and capture you… would you not be a little fearful of how it’s all going to end? So when those same armed individuals asked, and perhaps demanded, that Gould give a statement as to who fired first, assuming Gould was indeed an honest man but also fearful for his safety, is it not likely that a middle of the road answer was the solution he chose? Regardless of Fischer’s assessment of Gould, the situation under which Gould was deposed makes me question the reliability of his statement. Maybe it’s honest. Maybe it’s not. Maybe he’s playing the middle of the road out of some survivor instinct. The extenuating circumstances of the way in which the evidence was gathered casts a great shadow on the reliability of that same evidence, hence I dismiss it as unreliable.

    Thoughts on the early American 1775 depositions: my chief concern of those early depositions: many of the blanket statements are signed and testified by upwards of a dozen men. When a single statement is recorded and signed by 12 men, then who, exactly, gave those words as written? Worse, some depositions have almost the same words as other depositions, with just tweaks of those same words. Certainly, these multi-signed deposition statements are not the same as an individual eyewitness testimonies, because there is an obvious “group think” at work here in the multi-signed depositions. It would have been far more useful, and reliable, to have depositions individually given by people deposed privately. But given they are one statement attested to by many, they must have some degree of group think at work, but how much we cannot know. In my mind at least, the group depositions reinforces the idea that propaganda was the chief aim, rather than recording history. And we cannot be sure if the words of those depositions were crafted carefully by someone other than who attested to them. All we do know is that the words were not dictated by all of the signatories, but by some number less than the signatories, if by the signatories at all.

    • Even if you put aside those depositions with two or more signatures because of reservations about “group think,” you still have individual depositions given by Elijah Sanderson, by Thomas Price Willard, by Simon Winship, by John Parker, by John Robbins, by Timothy Smith, by William Draper, and by Thomas Fessenden. These individuals were in different positions with different views. Do they say the same thing, as if coaxed in their wording? Just look at those occasions where they each repeat words they say they heard from one or more British officers: Sanderson says he heard “damn them, we will have them”; Willard, “Lay down your arms, damn you; why don‘t you lay down your arms?”; Winship, “fire” in a loud voice; Robbins, “Throw down your arms, ye villains, ye rebels” and “Fire, by God, fire”; Draper, “Fire! fire! damn you, fire!”; and Fessenden, “Disperse you rebels, immediately” and again, “disperse, you rebels.” Are they simply mimicking what they are told to say, or speaking in their own voices. Yes, there is a propaganda intent. Those taking the depositions are focused—and certainly focusing them—on the first shots, and what transpired up to those shots. True, there is nothing about the wall or hedge, because in their accountings, the first shots already had been fired.

      Gould and the others never would have believed the Americans would have risen up in arms? Were they immune to the tensions in Boston? Review what happened earlier that year at the Salem Bridge, and the extensive turnout of militia after the troops went out to the Powder Magazine in Charlestown (now Somerville) on September 1, 1774, confiscating the powder and later two cannons. Gould, of course, was wounded at the Concord Bridge, so he had not witnessed the events you reference that came later that day. I am unaware of his seeing Warren, but James Reed of Woburn provides an accounting in his 1824 deposition (in Phinney) of how prisoners from both Lexington and Concord (evidently including Gould) were taken to Reed’s house and later to other houses.

      Yes, Gould is indeed a prisoner. That colors what he says, and in the end one may dismiss it. But it is the broad strokes with which you dismiss all of the American depositions and all other accounts except for Sutherland, Lister, and Pitcairn that I challenged. Kehoe (even as he focused only on the British accounts), Fisher, Galvin, French, Tourtellot, Murdock, Hudson, Coburn—they all approach these varied and biased sources in a very different way. Through the methodology you applied and the and conclusions you drew from that approach, the three likewise biased accountings of Sutherland, Lister, and Pitcairn ended up as your only “honest” accounts, thereby predetermining the conclusion that the Americans fired first as accounts to the contrary have been rather broadly dismissed for one reason or another. Having not even presented to the reader, for example, the other side’s case—which suggests that a British officer fired the first shot—the reader is likewise deprived of critical information that must at minimum be applied in examining and assessing the potential extent of Sutherland’s bias, and the case for his veracity.

      I know I am sounding critical, but as I mentioned earlier, I edit books and others have had plenty of “red ink” from me. To quote Rick Wiggin from the preface of his recent book, Embattled Farmers: Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1775-1783, “Jack MacLean, in particular, deserves special recognition. No one knows Lincoln history better, and no one is a more competent and careful researcher. In editing my manuscript and assisting with illustrations, he tirelessly kept me on my toes, questioning my interpretations, challenging me to dig deeper into the historical record, and in many cases prompting me to rewrite whole sections of the manuscript. If the additional expenditure of time was sometimes frustrating, the result is a vastly superior product.” Critiques are difficult, but I really am trying to be constructive.

      • I did a comparative analysis of the quotes you provided, John. [Click here for the analysis.]

        There is a lot of contradictions here. The closest in form are Robbins’ and WIllards’ testimony. But these aren’t commands to fire, but for those in opposition to throw down/lay down their arms. I find that interesting. I also think these are the most trustworthy. The ones with the most diversity are the indirect commands (those not directed to the Americans) to fire. It seems these are the most contradictory and therefore, in my humble opinion, the least trustworthy. But see for yourself; I’ve color-coded it so you can see which words are more repeated than others, and by whom.

        • Yes, history would be easier without contradictions! So, starting to get some evaluation of the conflicting evidence, but it is way too early in the process to be concluding what may be more or less reliable. We know that there is a propaganda intent that colors the accounts and certainly it seems likely that it colored what they were specifically asked to speak to, but to my initial point, in just looking at these words that appeared in quotes (OK, I added the quotes around ‘fire’ on Winship), we see that they were not just repeating a rote repetition of a prepared version. There are, as well, the series of multi-person depositions; interestingly, none of them have quoted commands attributed to the British officers—on this point alone, we see that there are internal differences between the individual statements and the group statements. These quotes are all part of a larger statement by that person, and you want to evaluate the rest of what that person said—obviously comparing it as a whole with other accounts—to gain an added sense of his observation powers. Where was he located, and how should that be taken into account. Winship had been captured, and he was in the midst of the British troops, seemingly hearing what they might hear. Willard was off the Common, in Daniel Harrington’s house, behind Parker’s men; likely the furthest away of those quoted, some added questions can be applied to what he would have been able to hear, particularly later on as events escalate. Robbins tells us he was in the front ranks of Parker’s Company. Sanderson had earlier been captured by an advanced patrol—held with Revere, and later released along with Revere. Accordingly, Sanderson is now among those still unarmed, standing off to the side and not on the Common, but still evidently close enough to those dispersing that he says that “though a spectator I narrowly escaped with my life.” His position gives him a different angle on what took place; does his situation give him a greater capacity to be a better observer of what happened than many of the others?; does it mean that he was further away, and less likely to hear some commands, but perhaps more likely to hear an officer closer to his position whom others did not hear? Indeed, on the British side, Sutherland tells us that several officers were shouting commands, so with these deponents in different locations, one person may be remembering a command given by one officer, while another is remembering the words of a different officer. The analysis process begins, comparisons with British statements are made…and in the end, sometimes there are questions the historian thinks he can answer or at least offer a well-informed educated guess, and sometimes you end up concluding that you just do not know, but you analyze and present (hopefully with reasonable clarity) what available evidence you have found and relied upon, advancing historical inquiry and scholarship.

          • There really are so many avenues one could pursue on this. As an attorney, I am drawn towards looking at the underlying credibility of a witness and which involves considering myriad factors.

            Concerning the deponents in this incident, what are their ages, degree of sophistication (i.e., education), perspective on the event (two witnesses to the same car accident will not infrequently provide varying, irreconcilable accounts of the same thing), bias, sobriety, etc.

            It is also interesting to see that they made sworn statements, usually with the words “The above named —- personally appeared, and after being duly cautioned to declare the whole truth, made solemn oath to the truth of the above deposition, by him subscribed” or something close to it. These were done several times before not one, but three justices of the peace. And just who were these judges? What bias did they have? Are they the kinds of people that would “lean” or coerce unsophisticated affiants?

            And would a God-fearing country boy make a false declaration? Would he actually lie before three judges? Lots of things to consider.

          • The justices would have been appointed by the Committees of Inspection–if Mass is anything like PA in 1775. But remember that bias was everywhere and peer pressure was also a strong motivating factor in what was reported. Especially when both sides are trying to establish legal precident for the days events. I can actually (facetiously) imagine the magistrates influencing the discussion to incite confusion to specifically muddy the water.

          • Right, more of the important evaluative questions a historian wants to ask.

            As noted by the Notary Public, all of the Justices of the Peace participating in the depositions were”His majesty’s Justices for the County of Middlesex.” Among these J.P.’s hearing the depositions (mostly at Concord on April 23 and at Lexington on April 25), a name quickly familiar to me and a quite interesting participant in that role is the prosperous Duncan Ingraham of Concord (he only took depositions on the 23rd, so the only Lexington one he took part in was Willard).. Concord historian D. Michael Ryan has an online description of Ingraham that I suspect will surprise you, “Wealthy merchant, former slave trader and militia captain, Duncan Ingraham moved to town in 1772. Also refusing to sign political resolves or covenants, he was labeled a Tory and after entertaining British officers at his home, was harassed to the point of having a sheep’s head tied to his chaise. Eventually he would side with his neighbors, speak of the independence of ‘his’ country and be an original member of the Concord Social Circle” (http://www.concordma.com/magazine/augsept99/tories.html).

            As for the age of the deponents, those I am more familiar with–those from Lincoln (Joseph Abbott, an observer at Lexington, and a number of individuals at Concord)–certainly skew very much towards the older people present. That could well be a conscious decision, but if you think about it, it also makes a great deal of sense logistically. On the 23rd and 25th, a high percentage of the younger participants are still in Cambridge or thereabout as part of the ongoing military presence.

  • Obviously late to this discussion, I would add that most of the 12 men providing depositions were members of Parker’s militia, who certainly identified with that unit as they stood ground on the Green or began to disperse as ordered. As with most depositions taken of military members then and now, they almost certainly responded as to the activities of their unit since their sole responsibility on that day lay in the adherance to their officer’s orders. When responding, paraphrased, that “we” didn’t fire first, they are almost certainly responding to the activity of the group to which they belonged. The statements provided by Parker’s militia are best read as asserting that the militia on the green or dispersing as ordered received British fire without provocation. Their statements do not evidence activity by others outside of that unit, and are not asserting activities of other Whig or rebel on the wings (behind the wall, hedge, M.H. or Buckmans).

    The declarents, and particularly the magistrates taking these statements, would have been familiar with John Adams’ defense of the Redcoats in the “Boston Massacre” trial, based upon a similar if not the same argument – that the soldiers were only responsible for the deliberate actions of their own unit. After proving that the soldiers did not fire into the crowd as a result of their own officer’s order, Adams succsessfully asserted that a member of the crowd had given the command, which the soldiers responded to, in belief of their duty to their officer. The soldiers were acquitted by what could best be described as a hostile jury.

  • I had long meant to come back to this, but life circumstances intervened, and with the number of lengthy comments, the workload to reply became greater than my available time.

    But I very much appreciate all of the dialogue. As a final comment, as stated in my essay above, “We can never have proof beyond a shadow of a doubt either way.” My essay is but a working theory, and the evidence is far from concrete, but supports, though does not prove, the theory. In the end, we’ll never know for certain.

  • Hello,

    Interesting website. You have clearly researched this well. I do re-enactment of the American Revolution here in Britain and are a member of the Light Company, 23rd Regiment of Foot.

    I had a relation who was in the 5th Regiment of Foot in 1774-1775, a Captain Francis Marsden, he was wounded at Bunker Hill and later died in 1780 due to said wound(s) after living in a “lingering state”. I understand the 5th was also at Lexington. Have you come across him at all in your research?

    Many thanks

    Ben Fletcher
    Bristol, Britain

  • Hello Ben,
    That name seems familiar, and I have seen lists of individuals in charge of particular units, but I did not concentrate on him, and so unfortunately have nothing to share with you. I did look in several documents I have for that name though, but my search gave zero results.I’m glad you enjoyed my article though, and wish you the best of luck!

  • Hello,

    Thank you, not had much luck finding out about him. Heard he was Captain of the Grenadiers in the start of 1775 and he was at a court martial in 1774 in Boston. Would love to find out more of him.


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