Just before the Skirmish of Lexington, which marked the first shots of the Revolution at dawn on April 19, 1775, there was another little known attack, perhaps the first, real blow of the Revolution.
As the British expeditionary force made its way westward, toward Concord via Lexington, Paul Revere and other midnight riders were already rousing the countryside militia companies ahead. Upon seeing the countryside astir and fearful of trouble ahead, the British expeditionary commander, Lt. Col. Francis Smith, ordered his deputy, Marine Maj. John Pitcairn, to detach the lead six light infantry companies and double time ahead to secure the way. Pitcairn split off from the main column somewhere around Menotomy (modern Arlington), ahead of Lexington, and he took with him several volunteers, scouts, and Tory guides. One of those was volunteer Lt. William Sutherland, a battalion officer of the 38th Regiment of Foot. (The main battalion companies of the 38th were not participants in the expeditionary force, but Sutherland wanted to give some service nevertheless.)
In those pre-dawn hours, Pitcairn’s six lead light infantry encountered several colonists along their path as they drove toward Concord via Lexington, though it is somewhat difficult to reconcile which encounter is what based on the various British and American depositions. After several such encounters, whereby many of these colonists were forced to march with the British in the rear of the column, Lt. Sutherland decided to ride ahead (he was one of the few mounted officers) rode up ahead of the light infantry about a half mile and took a trail to his left to scout the situation.
In the dim light, he could make out several bands of militia in arms, marching over a hill towards Concord. In Sutherland’s own words:
I rode to the left about half a Mile… saw a vast number of the Country Militia going over the Hill with their Arms to Lexington & mett one of them in the Teeth whom I obliged to give up his Firelock & Bayonet, which I believe he would not have done so easily but from Mr. Adair’s coming up.
(“Mr. Adair” was Lt. Jesse Adair of the Marines, also serving that day as an advanced scout.)
“mett one of them in the Teeth”: Did Sutherland punch this colonist in the face?
“whom I obliged to give up his Firelock & Bayonet”: Was there some brief struggle between the two, as Sutherland wrestled the American’s musket from him?
Was this the first blow of the American Revolution on April Nineteenth?
These are fun questions to ask, but like so many of the details of that day, we may never know.
Strangely, unlike other colonists encountered that morning, this militiaman, perhaps it was Benjamin Wellington, was released on the promise he returned home. However, Wellington would do no such thing, and instead took a circuitous route back to Lexington Green to warn the militia there (he would arrive only in the nick of time, and the Lexington Militia Company would have little warning before the British arrived in Lexington center.)
- Lt. William Sutherland to Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, Apr 27, 1775 in Allen French’s General Gage’s Informers (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1932) 42 ff., continues on 58 ff., continues again on 85 ff., concludes on 111 ff., original in Gage MSS, Clements Library.
- Harold Murdock’s Late News of the Excursion and Ravages of the King’s Troops On the nineteenth of APRIL, 1775… (Cambridge: Press at Harvard College for the Club of Odd Volumes, 1927) 16 note.
- Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle at Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th April, 1775 (Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825) 19.
No one ever knew who shot the first shot only the guy that shot it and me and god knew who shot it.
You may have the first land blow properly, since Richard Derby persuaded Col. Leslie to leave Salem without any fisticuffs or shots. But perhaps the first actual gunfire and damage encounter was at sea. OnJune 10, 1772, Rhode Island’s John Brown, Abraham Whipple, and several other Sons of Liberty stole up on the British customs cruiser Gaspee aground off Newport. Boarding in the dark they retook the mail and their previously confiscated rum, shot Lt. Duddington, RN, in the leg, threw him into one of their boats, set fire to Gaspee, and returned to Providence. All in a night’s work: both a shot, physical harm and extensive property damage to the destroyed Gaspee. But not quite a clash of arms…