Armed Conflict Begins

Lexington and Concord

A British attempt to seize military stores in Lexington and Concord led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.

Learning Objectives

Describe the opening sequence of battles in the Revolutionary War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • British General Thomas Gage, the military governor and commander-in-chief in North America, received instructions to disarm the colonial rebels who had supposedly hidden weapons in Concord and to imprison the rebellion’s leaders.
  • The campaign’s military conflicts started with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, in which colonial militias turned out to resist the British attempt to seize military stores and leaders in Concord, Massachusetts.
  • The entire British expedition suffered significant casualties during a running battle back to Boston against an ever-growing number of colonial minutemen.
  • The Revolutionary War had begun, and the colonial militia army continued to grow as surrounding colonies sent men and supplies.

Key Terms

  • minutemen: Members of teams of select men from the American colonial partisan militia during the American Revolutionary War.
  • Thomas Gage: A British general, best known for his many years of service in North America, including his role as military commander in the early days of the American Revolution.

Background

Tensions continued to rise throughout the colonies, and especially in New England, after the Boston Tea Party and the meeting of the First Continental Congress. In an effort to restore law and order in Boston, the British dispatched General Thomas Gage to the New England seaport. He arrived in Boston in May of 1774, accompanied by several regiments of British troops, as the new royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts. As in 1768, the British again occupied the town. Massachusetts delegates met in a provincial Congress and published the Suffolk Resolves, which officially rejected the Coercive Acts and called for the raising of colonial militias to take military action if needed. The Suffolk Resolves signaled the overthrow of the royal government in Massachusetts.

Both the British and the rebels in New England began to prepare for conflict by turning their attention to supplies of weapons and gunpowder. General Gage stationed 3,500 troops in Boston, and from there he ordered periodic raids on towns where guns and gunpowder were stockpiled, hoping to impose law and order by seizing them. As Boston became the headquarters of British military operations, many residents fled the city.

Gage’s actions led to the formation of local rebel militias that were able to mobilize in a minute’s time. These minutemen, many of whom were veterans of the French and Indian War, played an important role in the war for independence. In one instance, General Gage seized munitions in Cambridge and Charlestown, but when he arrived to do the same in Salem, his troops were met by a large crowd of minutemen and had to leave empty-handed. In New Hampshire, minutemen took over Fort William and Mary and confiscated weapons and cannons there. Throughout late 1774 and into 1775, tensions in New England continued to mount as the region readied for war.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord

The Battles of Lexington and Concord are generally considered the start of the American Revolution. British General Thomas Gage, the military governor and commander-in-chief, received instructions on April 14, 1775, from Secretary of State William Legge, to disarm the rebels and imprison the rebellion’s leaders. General Gage knew that a powder magazine was stored in Concord, Massachusetts, and he ordered troops to seize these munitions. Instructions from London called for the arrest of rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

On the night of April 18, 1775, General Gage sent 700 men to seize munitions stored by the colonial militia at Concord. Hoping for secrecy, his troops left Boston under cover of darkness, but riders from Boston let the militias know of the British plans. (Paul Revere was one of these riders, but the British captured him and he never finished his ride. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow memorialized Revere in his 1860 poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” incorrectly implying that he made it all the way to Concord.) When the British troops entered Lexington on the morning of April 19, they found about 80 minutemen formed up on the village common. Shots were exchanged, eight minutemen were killed, the outnumbered colonial militia dispersed, and the British moved on to Concord.

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Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride: A depiction of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

At Concord, the troops searched for military supplies but found relatively little as the colonists, having received warnings that such an expedition might happen, had taken steps to hide many of the supplies. During the search, there was a confrontation at the North Bridge. A small company of British troops fired on a much larger column of colonial militia, which returned fire and eventually routed those troops; the British troops returned to the village center and rejoined the other troops there. By the time the British soldiers began to retreat to Boston, several thousand militiamen had gathered along the road. A running fight ensued, and the British detachment suffered heavily before reaching Charlestown.

Over 4,000 militiamen took part in these skirmishes with British soldiers. Seventy-three British soldiers and 49 patriots died during the British retreat to Boston. The famous confrontation is the basis for Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” (1836), which begins with the description of the “shot heard round the world.” Although propagandists on both sides pointed fingers, it remains unclear who fired that shot.

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The Battle of Lexington: Engraving of the Battle of Lexington in 1775.

Aftermath

The following morning, Gage awoke to find Boston besieged by a huge colonial militia army numbering 20,000, which had marched from all around New England. The Revolutionary War had begun, and the militia army continued to grow as surrounding colonies sent men and supplies. The Continental Congress would adopt and sponsor these men into the beginnings of the Continental Army. Even now, after open warfare had started, Gage still refused to impose martial law in Boston. He persuaded the town’s selectmen to surrender all private weapons in return for promising that any inhabitant could leave town.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill, though technically a loss for the Continental Army, signified the relative strength of the colonial forces.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the significance of the Battle of Bunker Hill for the future course of the Revolutionary War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775, mostly on and around Breed’s Hill during the Siege of Boston in the early days of the American Revolutionary War.
  • The battle is named after the adjacent Bunker Hill, which was the original objective of both colonial and British troops.
  • While the result was a victory for the British, they suffered heavy losses—over 200 were killed and 800 wounded. Meanwhile, colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in good order having suffered few casualties.
  • The battle resulted in an immediate but modest gain for Britain, as it did not significantly change the state of the siege, while the cost to the British army was high.

Key Terms

  • William Prescott: An American colonel in the Revolutionary War who commanded the rebel forces in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
  • Siege of Boston: The opening phase of the American Revolutionary War, in which New England militiamen—who later became part of the Continental Army—surrounded the town in Massachusetts to prevent movement by the British Army garrisoned within.
  • pitched battle: A hostile engagement involving sustained, full-scale fighting between opposing forces in close combat.

Overview

The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775, following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. By this time, Parliament had declared Massachusetts in a state of rebellion. The Battle of Bunker Hill took place mostly on and around Breed’s Hill during the Siege of Boston early in the American Revolutionary War. The battle is named after the adjacent Bunker Hill, which was the original objective of both colonial and British troops.

The Battle

On June 13, 1775, the leaders of the colonial forces besieging British-occupied Boston learned that the British generals were planning to send troops out from the city to the surrounding unoccupied hills. In response to this intelligence, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. They constructed an earthen redoubt on Breed’s Hill and built lightly fortified lines across most of the Charlestown Peninsula.

When the British were alerted to the presence of the new position the next day, they mounted an attack against them. After two assaults on the colonial lines, the colonial lines ran out of ammunition and the British finally captured the positions on the third assault. The colonial forces retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill, suffering their most significant losses on Bunker Hill itself.

While the result was a victory for the British, they suffered heavy losses—over 200 were killed and 800 wounded. The battle is seen as an example of a Pyrrhic victory because the immediate gain (the capture of Bunker Hill) was modest and did not significantly change the state of the siege, while the cost (the loss of nearly a third of the deployed British forces) was high. Meanwhile, colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in good order having suffered few casualties. Furthermore, the battle demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces were willing and able to stand up to regular army troops in a pitched battle.

British Doubt and the Dismissal of Gage

When news of the battle spread through the colonies, it was reported as a colonial loss as the ground had been taken by the enemy and significant casualties were incurred. George Washington, who was on his way to Boston as the new commander of the Continental Army, received news of the battle while in New York City. The report, which included casualty figures that were somewhat inaccurate, gave Washington hope that his army might prevail in the conflict.

The Massachusetts Committee of Safety, seeking to repeat the sort of propaganda victory it won following the battles at Lexington and Concord, commissioned a report of the battle to send to England. Their report, however, did not reach England before British Lieutenant General Gage’s official account arrived on July 20. The casualty counts alarmed the military establishment in England and forced many to rethink their views of colonial military capability. King George’s attitude toward the colonies hardened, and the news may have contributed to his rejection of the Continental Congress’ Olive Branch Petition, the last substantive political attempt at reconciliation. This hardening of the British position in return led to a strengthening of previously weak colonial support for outright rebellion and independence, especially in the formerly uncertain southern colonies.

Gage’s report had a more direct effect on his own career. His dismissal from office was decided just three days after his report was received, although General Howe did not replace him until October of 1775. Gage wrote another report to the British Cabinet in which he repeated earlier warnings that “a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people” that would require “the hiring of foreign troops.”

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The Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumball: This painting illustrates the death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Fort Ticonderoga

The capture of Fort Ticonderoga allowed colonial forces to transport much-needed artillery to Boston and eventually break Britain’s year-long siege.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the significance of the capture of Fort Ticonderoga

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The capture of Fort Ticonderoga occurred in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War and marked an important victory for colonial forces.
  • A small force of Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold, overcame a small British garrison at the fort and looted the personal belongings of the garrison.
  • Cannons and other armaments from the fort were transported to Boston where they were used to fortify the colonial position at Dorchester Heights and break the year-long Siege of Boston.

Key Terms

  • Green Mountain Boys: A militia organization first established in the late 1760s in the territory between the British provinces of New York and New Hampshire, known as the New Hampshire Grants (which later became the state of Vermont).
  • Benedict Arnold: A general during the American Revolutionary War who originally fought for the American Continental Army but later defected to the British Army.
  • noble train of artillery: An expedition led by Continental Army Colonel Henry Knox to transport heavy weaponry that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga to the Continental Army camps outside Boston, Massachusetts, during the winter of 1775–1776.
  • Ethan Allen: A farmer, businessman, land speculator, philosopher, writer, American Revolutionary War patriot, and politician; he is best known as one of the founders of the state of Vermont and for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga early in the American Revolutionary War.

Overview

The capture of Fort Ticonderoga occurred in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War when a small force of Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold, overcame a small British garrison at the fort and looted the personal belongings of the garrison. Cannons and other armaments from the fort were transported to Boston and used to fortify Dorchester Heights, breaking the standoff at the Siege of Boston. After seizing Ticonderoga, a small detachment captured the nearby Fort Crown Point on May 11. Seven days later, Arnold and 50 men boldly raided Fort Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River in southern Quebec, seizing military supplies, cannons, and the largest military vessel on Lake Champlain.

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Map of Boston, 1775: Detail of a 1775 map of Boston, with Dorchester Heights at the bottom right: “A plan of the town and harbour of Boston and the country adjacent with the road from Boston to Concord, shewing the place of the late engagement between the King’s troops & the provincials, together with the several encampments of both armies in & about Boston. Taken from an actual survey. Humbly inscribed to Richd. Whitworth by J. De Costa; C. Hall, sc.”

The Capture of Fort Ticonderoga

Background

In 1775, Fort Ticonderoga’s location did not appear to be as strategically important as it had been in the French and Indian War, when the French famously defended it against a much larger British force in the 1758 Battle of Carillon. After the 1763 Treaty of Paris, in which the French ceded their North American territories to the British, the fort was no longer on the frontier of two great empires, guarding the principal waterway between them. The French had destroyed the powder magazine when they abandoned the fort, and the fort had fallen further into disrepair since then. In 1775, it was garrisoned by only a small detachment of the 26th Regiment of Foot, consisting of two officers and 46 men, many of whom had limited duties because of disability or illness.

After the war began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the British General Thomas Gage realized the fort would require fortification; simultaneously, several colonists had the idea of capturing the fort. Benedict Arnold had frequently traveled through the area around the fort and was familiar with its condition, manning, and armaments. En route to Boston following news of the events of April 19, Arnold mentioned the fort and its condition to members of Silas Deane’s militia. Ethan Allen and other patriots in the disputed New Hampshire Grants territory also recognized the fort’s value, as it played a role in the dispute over that area between New York and New Hampshire. On May 3, Arnold was given a colonel’s commission by the Massachusetts Committee and authorized to command a “secret mission” to capture the fort.

Colonial Forces Assemble

Arnold departed immediately after receiving his instructions and reached the border between Massachusetts and the Grants, where he learned of the recruitment efforts of the Connecticut Committee and that Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were already on their way north. Riding quickly northward, Arnold intercepted Allen in time to join a war council, where he made a case to lead the expedition based on his formal authorization to act from the Massachusetts Committee.

On May 9, the men assembled at Hand’s Cove and were ready to cross the lake to Ticonderoga. As dawn approached, Allen and Arnold became fearful of losing the element of surprise, so they decided to attack with the men at hand rather than wait for reinforcements. The only sentry on duty at the south gate fled his post after his musket misfired, and the Americans rushed into the fort. The patriots then roused the small number of sleeping troops at gunpoint and began confiscating their weapons. No one was killed in the assault. Eventually, as many as 400 men arrived at the fort, which they plundered for liquor and other provisions.

Noble Train of Artillery and the Fortification of Dorchester

In July of 1775, the fort was used as the staging ground for the invasion of Quebec that was launched in late August. Around the same time, General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army since June 15, identified that one of the significant problems of the army was a lack of heavy weaponry, which made offensive operations virtually impossible. Washington eventually chose the young Henry Knox to transport heavy weaponry that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga to the Continental Army camps outside of Boston. In an expedition that became known as the “noble train of artillery,” Knox went to Ticonderoga in November of 1775, and, over the course of three winter months, moved 60 tons of cannons and other armaments by boat, horse and ox-drawn sledges, and manpower. This “noble train” traveled along poor-quality roads, across two semi-frozen rivers, and through the forests and swamps of the lightly inhabited Berkshires to the Boston area.

General Washington used the Fort Ticonderoga cannons to fortify Dorchester and force the evacuation of the British from Boston. Washington positioned these cannons on the hills overlooking both the fortified positions of the British and Boston Harbor, where the British supply ships were anchored. The British could not return fire on the colonial positions because they could not elevate their cannons. They soon realized that they were in an untenable position and had to withdraw from Boston. On March 17, 1776, the British evacuated their troops to Halifax, Nova Scotia, ending the nearly year-long siege.

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Ethan Allen at Fort Ticonderoga: An 1875 print by John Steeple Davis giving an idealized and inaccurate depiction of Ethan Allen demanding the fort’s surrender.