American Militia in the Revolution: Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Part three of a series on militia in the American Revolution. Go here and here to read the previous posts in the series. On the eve of the Revolution the 13 colonies had no Army but they were not defenseless. Their militias constituted a military force of uncertain power but they had a history as old as their colonies and they allowed the colonists to assume that as a last resort they would not be helpless against the British Army. General Thomas Gage, the commander of the British garrison in Boston and the military governor of Massachusetts, viewed the militia as a constant threat to his forces, and it was his sending of a detachment of 700 troops to seize the militia arsenal at Concord that precipitated the American Revolution.
The battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 demonstrated both the strengths and the weaknesses of the American militia system. The initial clash at Lexington involved a standard militia unit of 77 men, not a picked minute man company. The militia was under the command of Captain John Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Parker was in ill-health, suffering from tuberculosis, and some accounts indicate he was difficult to hear. 77 men of course stood no chance against 700 British regulars, and Parker seemed to regard his militia as making a political statement rather than actually attempting to stop the British. Shots were exchange, who fired first is unknown. The British swiftly brushed aside the fleeing militia and continued their march on Concord. So far, so ineffective, as far as the American militia was concerned.
But the British did not simply have to deal with one company of militia at Lexington. The entire country around Boston was up in arms, the word of the British foray spread by Paul Revere, William Dawes and other messengers, and the militia companies were assembling and marching to fight, convinced after the news of Lexington filtered out that the long-expected war had begun.
By the time the British reached Concord some 250 militia had assembled. Realizing that he was outnumbered by the British, Colonel James Barret withdrew from Concord across the North Bridge and posted his men on a hill a mile north of the village where they could keep an eye on the Redcoats and were joined by reinforcing militia.
Smoke began rising from Concord as the British troops destroyed munitions. The militia became restive asking their officers if they were to stand idle while Concord was burned to the ground by the “lobsterbacks”. (Fire had spread to the Concord meetinghouse, but the British had joined in the bucket brigade that put out the fire.) Seeing only approximately 95 British soldiers, Colonel Barret order his men to advance with muskets loaded, but not to fire unless fired upon.
As the militia advanced the British fired upon them and the militia fired back. The heavily outnumbered British fled to a reinforcing column of Grenadiers coming from the center of two. The Americans were astonished by all this, most of the men still surprised that an actual war had started. Most of them withdrew back to the hill while others ran home, a real war being more than they had bargained for.
Now the British began their long retreat to Boston, their march shadowed on each side by enraged American militia who constantly, from concealment,peppered the British column with shots. Eventually some 3800 American militia would participate in the bloody harassment of the British as they desperately continued their march. Probably none of the 700 British would have made it back to Boston but for a reinforcing column of 1000 regulars which awaited them at Lexington. The combined force of approximately 1700 men then marched back to Boston still under heavy harassing fire. By the end of the day some 73 regulars had been killed, 174 wounded and 53 missing. The American casualties numbered 49 dead, 39 wounded and 5 missing. If there had existed a central command capable of directing all of the militia units involved, it is doubtful if the British would have been able to escape. However, each unit of the militia, virtually each member of each militia unit, was left to conduct the fight as they saw fit. Even so the results of the day had been absolutely stunning with the British retreating from a militia which they had hitherto widely mocked. No one could doubt after that red April day that the war had well and truly begun.
By the next morning a militia army of some 15,000 men lay siege to Boston. It was an army with no uniforms, few supplies or munitions, and only the shakiest of chains of command, but it existed and it kept the British bottled up in Boston. Fortunately for the colonists, the British were content to hold up in Boston while they awaited reinforcements.
On June 14, 1775 the Second Continental Congress, which convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, authorized the creation of the Continental Army, the first American regular army. On June 15, 1775 Congress appointed Colonel George Washington of Virginia as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Before Washington took command the militia of New England fought a major battle with the British. Fearing that the British planned to advance from Boston to seize the hills surrounding the town, the Americans seized Bunker and Breed’s Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula and fortified Breed’s Hill.
The American move demonstrated that the militia were very much amateurs when it came to war. With their control of the sea, and with the failure of the Americans to fortify the neck of the Charlestown Peninsula, the British could have simply landed troops on the neck and easily bagged all the Americans on Breed’s Hill. However, the British, with vast contempt for the fighting prowess of their militia opponents, did not do this.
Instead General Howe, newly arrived from Britain led three charges against the militia on Breed’s Hill, the first two of which were bloodily repulsed. Amateurs they were, but the American militia were more than willing to fight, especially if they could do so from a fortified position. The third attack succeeded, due to the Americans running out of ammunition, disarray in their supplies and munitions being the curse of the militia gathered around Boston.
The Battle of Bunker Hill, so it is misnamed, although a technical American defeat was a very important American victory in its consequences. It was a shot in the arm to American morale, and well it should have been. Raw American militia had stood and faced two charges from the cream of the Royal Army and only retreated due to lack of ammunition. In exchange for 450 American casualties, of which 140 were killed, the Americans inflicted 1,054 casualties, including 226 dead, against some of the best troops in the British Army and the Royal Marines.
Perhaps the most important casualty of the battle from the American standpoint was the confidence of the British commander General William Howe. Howe never got over the number of men that he lost at Bunker Hill, a fact which was displayed by the extreme caution he showed in command of British troops in the key campaigns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1776-1777. With more daring and speed, Howe, on several occasions, might have captured or destroyed Washington’s entire force, but the memory of Bunker Hill kept Howe slow and cautious.
In the next post on American militia in the Revolution, we will look at the activities of the militia in the rest of the colonies in 1775, and how the militia aided in the maintenance of American political authority from the outset of the Revolution.