The Foxhole View
Where Military History Touches the Second Amendment
Concord Bridge — Where Patriots Stood Up to the Might of the British Empire
By Don Hirst
More than a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the opening shots of what became the Revolutionary War were fired by groups of hastily assembled part-time soldiers. History knows those militiamen — citizen-soldiers — as Minute Men, and their stand in the face of the mighty British army sparked the birth of a nation.
That fight also underscored the importance of the people’s right to keep and bear arms, a right guaranteed years later when the Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights that became part of the U.S. Constitution.
Trouble had been brewing before 1775. The 1773 Boston Tea Party that saw thinly disguised Patriots dump English tea into Boston Harbor to protest unjust taxes on that mainstay beverage led to ever-increasing tensions. When the British Parliament tried to crack down on the Massachusetts colony’s colonial government, the colonials resisted.
“The colonial assembly responded by forming an illegal Patriot provisional government known as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress,” according to Wikipedia, “and calling for local militias to train for possible hostilities. The rebel government exercised effective control of the colony outside of British-controlled Boston. In response, the British government in February 1775 declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.”
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress, in late March 1775, said that if British forces under the command of Gen. Thomas Gage or other military commanders marched out of Boston, it should be opposed. Local military forces should be assembled to carry this out, according to the book Lexington and Concord by Arthur B. Tourtellot.
Gage was instructed to take steps to disarm the local militias. On April 18, 1775, Gage put those orders in motion, telling British units to seize and destroy supplies and weapons stored near Concord. But word of that move reached the rebels and mounted messengers, most notably Paul Revere, sped to spread the word that British forces were on the march.
“In addition to other express riders delivering messages, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a trumpet were used for rapid communication from town to town, notifying the rebels in dozens of eastern Massachusetts villages that they should muster their militias because over 500 regulars were leaving Boston,” according to Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. “This system was so effective that people in towns 25 miles from Boston were aware of the army’s movements while they were still unloading boats in Cambridge.”
Various historical accounts credit this early warning with giving the Patriots enough time to assemble the necessary forces to engage the British. Militiamen gathered at Lexington and at Concord, prepared to resist if necessary.
First to feel the advancing British forces was the town of Lexington. Militia Capt. John Parker said these famous words before the fight: “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Just before dawn on April 19, 1775, the first shots were fired. According to the Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army, this was — despite being labeled a battle — “a minor brush or skirmish.”
Minor or not, there were Patriot casualties — eight colonists killed and another 10 wounded. One of the wounded, Prince Easterbrook, was a black slave who was serving with the militia, according to The Negro in the American Revolution by Benjamin Quarles.
After some confusion, the British forces continued to move toward Concord. Author Tourtellot noted in his book that regular British forces numbered about 700 or so and initially just 250 colonial militia marched out of Concord to meet them. Prudently, the small force of militiamen reversed course and finally took up positions across the North Bridge on a hilltop about a mile north of Concord.
While the British divided their forces and searched for weapons and supplies in the town, the number of colonial militia continued to grow as more men arrived on the scene. The British burned the carriages of several heavy cannon and tossed various supplies — including food and more than 500 pounds of musket balls — into a pond. The balls and a significant amount of other supplies later were recovered.
By now, more than 400 colonial militiamen had arrived and one commander — Col. James Barrett — decided to order his men to move back toward the town. With the British forces divided, less than 100 soldiers were facing the colonials. The British moved back across the North Bridge and there was significant confusion as they attempted to retreat.
Tensions were high and, inevitably, a shot rang out. Others followed. At this point, one colonial officer, according to Tourtellot’s book, yelled out a command: “Fire, for God’s sake, fellow soldiers, fire!” They did — and with gusto.
Nearly 60 years later, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous Concord Hymn summed it up this way:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
According to Tourtellot, those regular British soldiers at the bridge were “trapped in a situation where they were both outnumbered and outmaneuvered.” Without effective leadership, with little or no combat experience and terrified by their overwhelming opposition, their spirits broke. So they abandoned their wounded and fled to the safety of the approaching grenadier companies coming from the town’s center, isolating other British units in the process.
Thus began a rout that ended with the British troops retreating to Boston. Of course, many years of bitter struggle followed before the colonial forces were victorious and our nation came into being. The major fruits of that victory included the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. Its Second Amendment enshrined the right of free citizens to keep and bear arms to stand ready to defend our homes and families, if needed – just as they did on a long-ago April morning at Lexington and Concord.