Where the shot came from, no one knows to this day. Americans swore they heard a pistol first, suggesting one of the British officers, but the British swore they saw smoke from several fired shots as the militia jumped over the hedge wall, while still other British saw smoke pour out the Meeting House. Undoubtedly, one or more Americans did indeed fire shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern. But whether these shots were the first to ring out that day is unknown. One can only speculate, based on the discrepant, sometimes fallacious, and often biased and exaggerated evidence, but there is a strong case that the Americans fired first, and that the first shots came from the Meeting House or hedge wall. Why the shot rang out is another question altogether. Perhaps, amid the confusion, someone had lost his cool. Equally plausible, some zealot had deliberately wished to begin a war. 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. For the younger men, theirs was inherited from their fathers. 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. Whoever fired that first shot, and whether an accident or of malicious intent, it did not matter: the war was now on.
- The British accounts of the battle, including private diaries, either say the Americans fired first or that the affair was too quick to be sure (generally referring to the hedge wall or behind Buckman Tavern).
- British accounts of the next skirmish of the day, at Concord’s North Bridge, admit the British fired first. So the British accounts of the second skirmish suggest they gave honest reports, thus why would they all intentionally lie about the Skirmish of Lexington? Even official reports to the British commander-in-chief admit British fault at Concord, yet why would they lie in such official reports about Lexington? We can reasonably believe that the British reports are at least not intentional lies.
- Regardless of whether the Americans fired first, we must also note that every British accounts of the Skirmish of Lexington gives that the Americans fired at some point during the skirmish.
- In contrast, the majority of the various American depositions2 taken days after the battle, deposition intended to prove the British fired first, depositions sent to England for publication in American-friendly newspapers, claim the Americans never fired at all. This despite the British reports that claim Maj. Pitcairn’s horse was grazed by two shots, and a casualty report that one musketball slammed into the leg of a private soldier named “Johnson” of the 10th, possibly Thomas Johnston.
- 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.
- If we were not yet convinced, we have several depositions of 1825,3 at the 50th anniversary, which admit that the Americans did fire shots in the skirmish. Now we must take any evidence from fifty years after the fact, from the memories of old veterans, with a grain of salt. But such an important detail, that the Americans did in fact fire on the British, is not something that fades with age. As an example, William Munroe, who fought at the battle, reported in 1825 that American shots did ring out from the Meeting House, though he denies these happened before the British fired first. He also mentions those from the tavern. Thus, Munroe admits fifty years after the fact that the Americans fired into the British, and in doing so, proves that the 1775 depositions are false in their claim that the Americans did not fire at all.
Side note: I suspect some zealous New Englanders may think me an Anglophile for trying to give an honest presentation of the events above. I am no Anglophile, merely a lover of truth. I think this is well evidenced by my considerable former service to the US Air Force, and my ongoing service to the US Air Force Reserve. We have moved beyond the years immediately after the Revolution where our history books were thick with an unreasonably biased American perspective. As in all wars, the Americans misstepped at times, and the British did too. I of course think that on the grander questions of the Revolution, the British were unquestionably in the wrong.
- There is little credible evidence to support former claims that the British officers ordered their men to fire.
- 1775 American Depositions, in Peter Force’s American Archives series 4 in 6v. (Washington, DC: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1837–1846) 4:2:486–501. (British depositions and field reports cited throughout the notes of Chapter 5 of my forthcoming 1775.)
- Late American Depositions, 1825, in Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle at Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th April, 1775 (Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825) 31 ff.
- 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? Were they so disciplined?
- Force 4:2:500–01.
- Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary (Apr 19), in A British Fusilier in Revolutionary Boston, ed. Allen French (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1926) 62 ff.