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Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill: The American Revolution Begins

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  • 0:05 Intelligence and…
  • 1:16 The Shot Heard 'Round…
  • 4:37 Fort Ticonderoga
  • 6:07 The Second Continental…
  • 7:10 The Battle of Bunker Hill
  • 8:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Following the Boston Tea Party, Massachusetts was placed under the command of the British army. Rumors of a rebellion led to an attempted raid on the militia's arsenal. The events that followed at Lexington and Concord touched off the American Revolution.

Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence

As a result of the Boston Tea Party, Britain had punished Boston by issuing the Coercive Acts, which included closing Boston Harbor and instating military rule throughout Massachusetts. General Thomas Gage, the former commander of British forces in North America, was sent back as the royal governor of the colony. Gage was the right man for the job: he'd spent a lot of time in the colonies, he had fought alongside George Washington in the French and Indian War and he knew a lot about the people and places in America. He was in charge to prevent a rebellion, and he paid attention to his network of intelligence. So when he got wind of a planned revolt in the countryside around Boston, he was ordered to carry out a top-secret plan to destroy the weapons that the Massachusetts militia was stockpiling in a little town called Concord and then arrest the men who seemed to be the biggest troublemakers: Sam Adams and John Hancock.

But Gage didn't know that the Americans had their own intelligence network (possibly including Gage's own wife, who was an American) thanks to the Committees of Safety, which directed the colonial militias. They found out about Gage's planned raid, and the events that followed have been dubbed by historians as the so-called 'shot heard 'round the world' because they mark the start of the American Revolution.

The Shot Heard 'Round the World

The militia in Concord had moved the weapons to safety long before the date of the raid. So on April 19, 1775, the colonists couldn't be absolutely sure that the British would go to Concord, and if they did, how they would get there and how many troops there would be. They planned a secret method of communicating the information once it was available. If the army was leaving Boston over land, the Patriots would light one lamp in the bell tower of the Old North Church. If the British were taking boats across the river, they would light two lamps. Several trusted members of the Committees of Correspondence were designated to race ahead and start spreading the word.

The militia warned citizens of British invasion by lighting lamps in the Old North Church bell tower
Old North Tower Lamps

On the night of the 19th, two lanterns appeared in the bell tower for a moment. The army was on the move, and they were in the water. The riders first warned Adams and Hancock, who were hiding in Lexington, that the army was approaching. Several more riders were dispatched to spread the word throughout the surrounding towns and villages that the British were coming. Thousands of men headed to Concord. In the village of Lexington, about 70 local men and teenagers assembled in the village commons to slow the advance of a thousand deadly British regulars while a few hundred onlookers watched from the outskirts. Their captain told them 'Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.'

The army reached them just before dawn. Accounts vary widely, but most historians believe the army did slow down out of caution and to convince the Lexington militia to disperse. When a British guard surrounded the colonists, someone fired a shot - quite possibly one of the spectators - starting six years of open warfare between loosely organized colonial militias and the best-trained imperial army in the world. Within minutes, a volley of gunfire and a bayonet charge left eight Americans dead and ten more wounded. The British army reassembled and continued their march.

Contrary to folklore, Paul Revere did not warn Concord that the British were coming that night. Revere was arrested by a British patrol after leaving Lexington. But another rider had escaped and alerted Concord by 2:30 in the morning. The men surrendered the town and fled to the outlying hills, reinforced by several thousand militiamen from all over the colony. Beginning about eight in the morning, the British arrived and politely searched from house to house in vain for the relocated supplies. They uncovered a few heavy cannons buried in a farm, which they destroyed, and their commander began to suspect that they were being ambushed.

The Battle of Concord marked the beginning of the fighting between the British and colonists
Concord Battle Picture

The British regulars tried to intimidate the militia and hold a strategic bridge to prevent them from unifying. But American knowledge of the land and a significant manpower advantage allowed the militia to inflict hundreds of casualties on the British troops. Their hasty and disorganized retreat to Boston was even worse. They took heavy fire from militia hidden in trees, behind fences and along the roads, suffering many more casualties, including all but one of their officers, before they were rescued by a reinforcement of another thousand British soldiers from Boston. The American tactics were considered savage by the British, but they were effective. The Americans followed the British back to their headquarters and laid siege to their own city. This restricted the enemy's movements as well as their supply and communication lines over land. Clearly, the battles at Lexington and Concord were a victory for the colonists.

Fort Ticonderoga

Over the next few weeks, 15,000 men from across New England began to assemble around Boston. Their leaders began to consider their next move. They knew that General Gage wouldn't let himself stay pinned down in Boston for long; they had to act. That's when two different people brought attention to the run-down Fort Ticonderoga, acquired by the British during the French and Indian War. A Massachusetts spy knew it housed several cannons and other weapons, and a wealthy merchant named Benedict Arnold knew it was barely guarded by 48 recuperating soldiers. The Americans needed that arsenal and also believed it was a strategic position to hold, since it was along the main route from Canada to Boston and could help prevent a rear attack.

Weapons acquired at Fort Ticonderoga were later used to drive the British out of Boston
Fort Ticonderoga Picture

Benedict Arnold was granted a colonel's commission after personally paying to supply the militia and led a secret attack against the fort. En route, Arnold learned that another man, Ethan Allen, was also on his way to capture the fort. Reluctantly, the two men worked together, and, under Arnold's command, were able to surprise the commander at Ticonderoga. Before dawn on May 10, 1775, the fort and its armory were taken without firing a shot. Arnold was encouraged to push the American army farther into Canada, but an attempted invasion of Quebec was a humiliating defeat. Later that winter, in one of the most amazing feats of military logistics, Henry Knox moved 60 tons of weapons from Ticonderoga to Boston through forests, swamps and frozen rivers - mostly by horse, ox and hand.

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