Tuesday, January 31, 2017
LEXINGTON, CONCORD AND BUNKER HILL
(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 4)
Lexington Green, April 19, 1775. To this day no one really knows for sure who fired the very first "shot heard 'round the world."
When the American Revolution burst into open warfare on April 19, 1775, there had previously been some uneasy confrontations between armed soldiers and patriots that had ended without bloodshed. Both the British Army and the American Militia commanders were understandably hesitant to fire the first shot that would spark an actual shooting war.
The skirmish at Lexington Green began as another face-off, with both sides hoping a mere show of force and determination would prove sufficient. American Captain John Parker placed the 77 militiamen of his company in parade ground formation on Lexington Green, in the open but blocking the road to Concord. History credits him with the orders, “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” The British advance guard, consisting of companies of light infantry and marines totaling around 240 men, arrived in town. The commanding officer, Major John Pitcairn, rode forward on his horse with sword drawn and ordered the militia to disperse.
Captain Parker actually did order his men to disperse and go home, but he had tuberculosis and his command voice did not carry well in the confusion. Exactly who fired the first shot is still debated today. Both sides blamed the other; the shot may have even come from the crowd of as many as a hundred on-lookers who had gathered. No matter who fired the shot, under such tense conditions it triggered an apparently unordered volley from the front rank of British soldiers, soon followed by a bayonet charge. With eight men killed and ten wounded, the surviving militia fled the field.
After getting the soldiers and marines back into ranks and under control, the British then proceeded to the main objective, Concord, where they intended to seize and destroy military stores reportedly gathered there by the rebels. Around 250 local militia had gathered in Concord but, seeing the British main column out-numbered them by 3-to-1, their commander Colonel James Barrett prudently withdrew across the North Bridge to a ridge where he could observe the area. The British searched Concord and found some old dismounted cannon barrels, but the bulk of the American supplies had already been removed. Seven companies crossed the North Bridge and searched James Barrett’s farm; one company was left to secure the bridge and two others were positioned nearby. The whole time Minutemen and militia from Concord, Lincoln, Acton and Bedford continued to arrive, quickly swelling Barrett’s ranks to over 400 men.
Aware of the gunfire at Lexington and seeing smoke rising from Concord, Colonel Barrett formed up his men with orders not to fire unless fired upon and marched in them in column back down towards the North Bridge. The three British light infantry companies, in total just under a hundred men under the command of an inexperienced young captain named Walter Laurie, gathered together and fell back across the bridge. As the Yankee militia approached the bridge, a British soldier fired without orders, which in turn triggered a ragged volley from the first rank which killed two and wounded four American militia.
Near the head of the militia column, Major John Buttrick of Concord yelled, “Fire, for God's sake, fellow soldiers, fire!” The opposing sides were only fifty yards apart as the first few ranks of militia opened fire on the tightly packed British formation. The American musketry knocked down half of the eight British officers and NCOs present, and killed three and wounded nine enlisted men. Momentarily leaderless, the remaining British infantry broke and ran back towards Concord. The militiamen, stunned by their own success, milled indecisively for a bit, then backed off and took up defensive positions behind a stone wall and on a hilltop.
Now neither side fired a shot as the four British light infantry companies returned from Barrett’s Farm and were met by two companies of grenadiers coming from Concord. The British returned to that town where the entire column re-consolidated and began its return march towards Boston at noon. All the while, more militia poured in from the surrounding communities and countryside.
Militia tactics included "skulking" and swarming all along the road back to Boston.
The actual “battle” was essentially one long, running ambush…a British officer later noted they were surrounded by a “dispersed though adhering” ring of irregulars that moved with them…and the Yankees’ actions were remarkably similar to the “swarming” technique used by some modern-day insurgents. Using the so-called “skulking” tactics of the Indians in hiding behind stone walls, trees, and buildings, they were able to pour musket fire at the column of British regulars on the road while exposing little of themselves as targets for return fire.
As British Lieutenant John Barker saw the action: “We were fired on from all sides, but mostly from the rear, where people had hid themselves in houses till we passed and then fired. The country was an amazing strong one, full of hills, woods, stone walls, etc., which the rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with people who kept an incessant fire upon us, as we did too upon them, but not with the same advantage, for they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them. In this way, we marched…miles, their numbers increasing from all parts, while our was reducing by deaths, wounds, and fatigue; and we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it’s impossible to conceive; our ammunition was likely near expended.”
The dispersed British light infantry flankers constantly strove to drive the rebels back from the main column with ball and bayonet, and inflicted the lion’s share of American casualties, but the traditional European volley fire from the main column itself proved ineffective. An American militiaman recalled, “…they faced about suddenly and fired a volley of musketry upon us. They overshot; and no one to my knowledge was injured by the fire. The fire was immediately returned by the Americans, and two British soldiers fell dead at a little distance from each other in the road near the brook.” One British officer assessed that the ineffectiveness of the regulars’ volley fire only served to encourage the rebels. “This [fire] gave the rebels more confidence as they soon found that notwithstanding there was so much, they suffered but little from it.”
By the end of the battle, a thousand-man British relief column with two pieces of artillery rushed out from Boston to bring in the battered remnants of the original Lexington column, which had suffered the most casualties and was almost out of ammunition. Without these reinforcements, they might have been decimated entirely. As it was, the British reported losses of 73 men killed, 174 wounded, and 53 missing (with a high percentage of the casualties being officers) while the Americans lost 49 men killed, 39 wounded, and 5 missing.
Beginning with Christopher Ward’s 1952 War of the Revolution, in which he stated that, “only one bullet out of 300 found it mark,” it became popular for historians to belittle the “myth” of American marksmanship at Concord and pronounce the militia to be terrible shots. Even assuming Ward’s numbers are correct, as we saw in Part 1, in traditional European battles of the period it was a rule of thumb that a man’s body weight in lead had to be fired for every casualty inflicted, with French and Prussian generals estimating that anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 musket balls needing to be fired for every man hit. Viewed in such light, the militia’s shooting on April 19th doesn’t look bad at all.
Even French concluded: “Nor need it be supposed that there was criticism of the provincial fire at the time. Measured by the European standard of those days, it was above the average, and there was not a veteran in that flight who complained that the American fire was not sufficiently hot. Lieutenant Carter called it a ‘heavy and well-directed fire.’ Mackenzie, Barker, De Berniere, held it in respect. Percy wrote of the ‘incessant fire, which like a moving circle surrounded & fold us wherever we went.’ By every standard of those days, the American fire was formidable. Certainly no one who experienced it asked to have it bettered. It was the preparation for the fire of Bunker Hill, which for deadliness exceeded anything previously known in warfare.”
After Concord, a stalemate ensued as the British forces dug in around Boston while the American forces surrounded the town and did likewise. Almost two months passed before the Americans made the next move, occupying and digging in on Breed’s Hill (rather than the intended objective of Bunker Hill) under cover of darkness on the night of June 16, 1775.
The British reacted aggressively to push the Americans from the hill before they could become solidly entrenched, but it was late afternoon on June 17th before the first assault actually went in. There were in total some three thousand regulars, including the more elite light infantry and grenadier companies as assault troops, led by General William Howe himself. These professional soldiers exuded confidence and were certain that the Colonial “untrained rabble” could never stand against British regulars.
A force of 1,200 American militiamen from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island awaited entrenched atop Breed’s Hill. They were nominaly under the overall command of Massachusetts Colonel William Prescott, but in practice the entire American chain of command was rather muddled. Fortunately unknown to the British, the Americans were also suffering from a severe army-wide shortage of gunpowder; some Colonial troops were issued only fifteen rounds worth of powder and shot before the battle. Conversely, British soldiers were issued 36 paper-wrapped cartridges for the day, and even that total would grow quickly as the war progressed. Despite their shortcomings, the militiamen dug in and waited.
Popular legend attributed Colonel William Prescott with the instructions, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes."
To the surprise of many, the “untrained rabble” of the Colonial militia stood their ground against the well-trained professional soldiers. Legend has it that either Israel Putnam or William Prescott gave the famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Individual veterans recalled, probably more realistically, orders that included: “Fire low.” “Aim at their waistbands.” “Pick off the commanders.” “Aim at the handsome coats.” On the left flank, colorful Colonel John Stark, whose later toast of “Live Free or Die” would one day become New Hampshire’s state motto, was said to have driven in a stake roughly 120 feet (40 yards) in front of his line, then turned to his militiamen and said, “There! Don’t a man fire till the Redcoats come up to that stake. If he does, I’ll knock him down.”
A few premature shots were discharged by nervous individuals, but for the most part the American militia hunkered down and waited until the lines of British infantry were at such close range that even musket fire would be accurate. From behind cover and resting their muskets, they took deliberate aim and delivered devastating close-range blasts of small arms fire that inflicted heavy casualties and broke up the first two British assaults.
The action was described by one of the British officers who took part:
“Our men advanced with great confidence, expecting an easy victory…
“As we approached, an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines. It seemed a continual sheet of fire for near thirty minutes. Our Light Infantry were served up in companies against the grass fence without being able to penetrate. Indeed, how could we penetrate? Most of our Grenadiers and Light Infantry, the moment of presenting themselves lost three-fourths and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight and nine men a company left, some only three, four and five.
“On the left, Pigot was staggered and actually retreated.”
Howard Pyle's iconic 1879 Battle of Bunker Hill has some inaccuracies (British infantry had adopted a two-rank open-order formation in North America prior to the end of the French & Indian Wars) but portrays well the discipline and bravery of the regulars...and the cost.
New Hampshire Captain Henry Dearborn, who would one day retire as a major general after the War of 1812, commanded a small militia company on Breed’s Hill. He later wrote:
“Every platoon officer was engaged in discharging his own musket, and left his men to fire as they pleased, but never without a sure aim at some particular object, which was more destructive than any mode which could have been adopted with troops who were not inured to discipline, and never had been in battle, but were still familiar with the use of arms, from boyhood, and each having his peculiar manner of loading and firing, which had been practised upon for years, with the same gun ; any attempt to control them by uniformity and system, would have rendered their fires infinitely less fatal to the enemy.”
“Our men were intent on cutting down every officer they could distinguish in the British line. When any of them discovered one he would instantly exclaim, ‘there,’ ‘see that officer,’ ‘let us have a shot at him,’ when two or three would fire at the same moment ; and as our soldiers were excellent marksmen and rested their muskets over the fence, they were sure of their object.”
Dearborn also noted the ineffectiveness of the British volley fire. “The fire of the enemy was so badly directed, I should presume that forty-nine balls out of fifty passed from one to six feet over our heads, for I noticed an apple-tree, some paces in the rear, which had scarcely a ball in it from the ground as high as a man's head, while the trunk and branches above were literally cut to pieces.”
The third assault by the British finally carried the day as the Americans atop Breed’s Hill fired their last few shots and ran out of ammunition. As the British infantry broke into the trenches with fixed bayonets, the defenders, very few of whom had bayonets of their own, finally broke and fled from the breastworks. On the American left, the two hundred New Hampshire militiamen under Colonel Stark, who had been the last American reinforcements to arrive just prior to the battle, conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that allowed the remainder of the colonials to escape intact. Even British General John Burgoyne grudgingly admitted the retreat was, “…no flight; it was even conducted with bravery and military skill.”
The British took the hill and won the battle, but it was an extremely costly and Pyrrhic victory, the single most costly battle of the war in terms of British casualties. General Sir Henry Clinton, who had gathered up scattered British survivors and the walking wounded to personally lead the third, final assault, confided in his journal the battle was, “A dear brought victory, another such would have ruined us.”
Even though armed almost entirely with the same smoothbore muskets as their opponents, the militia’s close-range fire had been accurate and devastating. Once more a very high proportion of officers, 81 in all, had been singled out and shot down, with 19 of them killed and 62 wounded. Total British casualties exceeded a thousand, more than a third of the attacking force; 226 killed and 828 wounded. The Americans lost a total of around 450 casualties including 140 killed, 280 wounded, and 30 captured, with most of these casualties inflicted during the retreat.
Even with muskets, marksmanship had made the difference and one has to wonder what the fate of the third assault might have been if the patriots had not been so woefully short on ammunition.