Start of the Revolution: Who Shot First? — The Americans!

Paul Revere’s Ride, April 18, 1775, mural painting by Robert Reid in the Hale House, Boston (Digital ID: 112560, courtesy of New York Public Library.)

Through the night of April 18, 1775, a British column marched westward from Boston, their objective to raid a Yankee store of weapons hidden in the nearby town of Concord. But unbeknownst to the column, William Dawes and Paul Revere rode out ahead, alarming the countryside along the way, sent by forgotten Revolutionary War hero Dr. Joseph Warren.

At about dawn on this day 236 years ago (April 19, 1775), the British reached Lexington, a town about two-thirds the way to Concord. There they found the local militia company waiting for them, all armed and formed on the central Lexington Green. Considering it a challenge, at least the first and second companies of the British column rushed onto the Green, instead of taking the road beside it, only to taunt the Americans. Some reports say the Americans immediately began to disperse, but some Yankees doggedly remained. Both sides shouted at one another, while officers on both sides tried to keep their men in check. And then… a shot rang out! An unordered and scattered British volley rang out in response, and almost simultaneously, some of the Yankees fired in return.1 More scattered shots were fired until the officers on both sides gained control. The Battle (really a skirmish) of Lexington left 8 Americans dead, another 9 wounded, with the British suffering just one man wounded in the leg, plus a British horse slightly wounded in two places. This skirmish was the start of what would be a very bloody day, and it marked the start of the American Revolution. But the details of the battle have always been unclear. Who fired the first shot? No conclusive evidence exists, and each side blames the other. But there is circumstantial evidence, and it leads us to believe the Americans shot first!

An excerpt from Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book, 1775:

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 Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775 (Plate I) by Amos Doolittle, c. 1775. (Digital ID: 54426, courtesy of New York Public Library.)

The circumstantial evidence against the Americans, that they fired the first shot:

  • 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.

What does all of this mean? The original 1775 American depositions are known to contain falsehoods, at least with regard to the Americans not firing. They did fire, as they later admitted, and the British suffered one soldier and one horse wounded. Such a glaring falsehood casts a great tarnish on the American depositions, and must make us doubt the rest of the American claims. In contrast, the British accounts seem to generally accept their role in the day’s affairs, and yet all British reports admit either that it was unclear who fired first, or that the Americans fired first.

So who fired first? We cannot know. Circumstantial evidence is not proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. We can only guess, and my guess is that the Americans fired first, from either the hedge wall or from behind Buckman Tavern. The Americans had the most to lose by admitting they had fired first, such as support from other colonies or the British people. The Americans also felt the greatest degree of trepidation and pent up frustration, which would suggest they were more likely to fire without orders. In contrast, the young British soldiers were rather disciplined (and so not likely to fire without orders),4 and quite detached from the political debate (and so did not care much about the grander principles of the Revolution as the Yankees did). But we cannot know. Mine is just a theory, and unless new evidence surfaces, my theory will remain just that.

Perhaps we should leave it as two British officers wrote it. Captured British officer Lt. Edward Gould gave (perhaps under duress): “which party fired first, I cannot exactly say”.5 The second account in Lt. Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary gives: “Shots were immediately fired; but from which side could not be ascertained, each party imputing it to the other.” 6

UPDATED

This article has been expanded upon and clarified in my article at Journal of the American Revolution

Click To Read It!


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.

  1. There is little credible evidence to support former claims that the British officers ordered their men to fire.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. Force 4:2:500–01.
  6. Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary (Apr 19), in A British Fusilier in Revolutionary Boston, ed. Allen French (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1926) 62 ff.
 Derek
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About Derek W. Beck

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18 Responses to Start of the Revolution: Who Shot First? — The Americans!

  1. Pingback: From a Rare Old Print | Boston 1775

  2. Adam D says:

    This is a subject which I wrote about at length earlier this year, and I find myself mostly in agreement with you.

    I think you’re right that statements made by the participants may be in error for a variety of reasons, and despite the very strong claims made by some Americans, the evidence that a British officer deliberately ordered his men to fire is quite thin.

    I agree with you also that the first shot could have been deliberately fired by one of the American militiamen or an accidental discharge.

    One point on which we seem to disagree is this:

    “Undoubtedly, one or more Americans did indeed fire shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern.”

    My impression is that British accounts are quite inconsistent in describing how the firing began. Pitcairn mentioned the meeting house and a wall, Sutherland referred to Buckman’s tavern and a hedge, and Ensign Lister’s account implies the first shot was fired by Americans who were out in the open (“they gave us a fire then ran off to get behind a wall”).

    Given these strange inconsistencies (different British officers heard the first shot come from their left, their right, and their front), and the inconsistencies in the accounts by American spectators, I think it’s plausible that the first shot was fired away from Lexington Green. British officers recorded that shots were repeatedly heard in the countryside on their march towards Lexington. They took these shots to be a signal for the militia to assemble. Perhaps one of these shots was heard echoing around the green, and each party assumed it came from the other side. If this shot (or shots) was fired at a distance, the sound would have been somewhat muffled, and that might explain why Pitcairn and Sutherland thought the shots came from buildings or walls and why a handful of Americans thought it came from an officer’s pistol.

    Yet another possibility is that the Americans spectators were right that the first shot came from a British officer’s pistol, even if the British did not intend to open hostilities. Perhaps one of the mounted British officers fired a pistol in the air so as to goad the militia into dispersing, but in so doing he inadvertently triggered a volley by the regulars. Presumably this officer would have been behind Pitcairn, Sutherland, and the others, and none of the British were looking in his direction.

    Anyways, food for thought.

    • Derek Beck says:

      I thank you Adam for your always thoughtful comments to my blog. What I meant by the line, “Undoubtedly, one or more Americans did indeed fire shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern.” was that undoubtedly at some point shots came from those locations, as even Munroe admitted in 1825. I did not mean to suggest the first shot undoubtedly came from one of those spots, or both.

      Your theory on a signal gun is a good one, and something I had not considered, though I do write about other signal gun incidents prior to this skirmish. As for another British officer: apparently the only other mounted British there were the patrol sent out the night before, the men under Maj. Mitchell who had earlier that morning arrested and detained Paul Revere. It is possible one of them could have fired, but they had no command there, and they would have certainly been out of order to try to make such an overt action as firing a gun to gain control.

      But as you say, food for thought. Unfortunately, we can only guess.

      • Derek Beck says:

        Hi Adam, I recast the sentence that you interpreted differently than I intended, as I had poorly cast the original thought into two sentences. (You quoted only the first sentence, and thus the first part of my thought… my error, as it is my job to communicate more effectively.) The original thought, now recast as one solid sentence, is “Undoubtedly, one or more Americans indeed fired shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern, but whether any of these were the first shot, or simply shots fired in response to the first, is unknown.” Thank you for your note here, as I truly desire accuracy and clarity in the work 1775!

  3. Adam D says:

    Very interesting. You make a good point that these officers would have been out of order if they had fired a pistol at this point for any cause. I had Lieutenant Adair in mind when I made the comment about an officer possibly firing a pistol, but I didn’t name him as it’s unclear, to the best of my knowledge, as to whether any of the mounted officers that captured Revere was also on hand.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Adair was apparently on foot by Lexington, though he had for a time commandeered a chaise and was later on a horse, perhaps the one from the chaise. Those that had captured Revere met up with Pitcairn’s column somewhere east of Lexington Green, as reported by Sutherland.

  4. Pingback: The First Shots on 19 April 1775 | Boston 1775

  5. Adam D says:

    Thanks for clarifying regarding Adair et al.

    I saw J. L. Bell’s comment at Boston 1775: “I doubt anyone would have shot off an alarm signal so close to the Lexington green as to make the soldiers there think they were being shot at. The whole town was already alarmed, after all.”

    He is of course correct that it would make little sense for someone to fire off an alarm gun on the edge of Lexington Green with Parker’s men already assembled and the British closing in. But of course gun shots can also sound quite distinct at much greater distances, men throughout the area were still assembling at this time, and the knowledge that the British had reached Lexington was not yet widespread. This scenario is of course mere speculation, but I think it remains plausible.

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  7. Janet Uhlar says:

    Who shot first at Lexington–great mystery for so long. Keep two things in mind: the First Continental Congress agreed on support from the sister colonies IF the British were the aggressors. Paul Revere–member of the secretive Long Room Club, the ‘think tank’ of the American Revolution if you will, was on the green fetching Hancock’s trunk. After he accomplished this task, he would see Sam Adams and John Hancock, members to the next Congress. Question: is it possible that Revere, as active as he was in the inner circles of the patriot movement, failed to watch what was happening on the green? Certainly hard for me to believe. Was Hncock’s trunk really that important that he would be so consumed with moving it away that he would not witness, and report to Adams and Hancock, and later to Joseph Warren, what happened–in great detail? We can only guess at who fired the first shot in Lexington. My guess is that the Americans did.
    Janet Uhlar
    Author of:
    Liberty’s Martyr: The Story of Dr. Joseph Warren
    Freedom’s Cost: The Story of General Nathanael Greene
    Sceenplay: Liberty’s Martyr

    • Derek Beck says:

      Thanks for your reply. Interesting thoughts and questions you pose. I too think it unlikely that Revere did not see some interesting details, even if he failed to report them in his deposition. Perhaps, as you suggest, he omitted those facts because the Americans indeed fired first!

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  9. Bill Poole says:

    Thank you for your research and commentary. I wonder if perhaps you might have overstated that the 1775 depositions “claim the Americans never fired at all.” In reading the 1775 depositions given by those who took part in or witnessed the event, one finds similar wording repeated in the majority of them, such as ” The said Regulars fired a volley or two before any gun was fired by the Lexington Company,” “Not a gun was fired by any person in our Company … before they fired on us,” “the Regulars fired on the Company before a gun was fired by any of our Company on them.” “immediately they fired before any of Captain Parker’s Company fired.” The continued use of the word “before” might suggest that they did know that guns were fired by the militia, and would not make any explicit statement that “they did not fire at all.”

    • Derek Beck says:

      You may indeed be correct sir, I should re-read them to be sure. But certainly some of those depositions suggest they never fired at all, clearly preposterous. This blog post was a simplified version of what might have otherwise been a long post, so I didn’t specify which depositions said what, but again, I think you might be right, re-reading my post now, a year later. Perhaps I did overstate that, or generalize too much. Thanks for commenting! and for reading!

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