Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Red Letter Dates

The hours from tonight through tomorrow morning mark the 237th anniversary of Paul Revere’s “midnight ride” and the battles that ensued. It is one of the most significant anniversaries in American history -- perhaps the most significant, because it can be argued that if not for the events that took place on April 18th and 19th, 1775, the United States might never have come to be.

Tensions between American colonists and their British rulers were running high in those days, and while this was true in all of the colonies that would become our first 13 states, it was especially true in Massachusetts. Britain had effectively shut Boston off from the world by blockading its port and quartering large numbers of soldiers within the city.

It was believed that Britain would invade the colony en masse, so residents in surrounding towns had been stockpiling munitions to defend themselves. The British targeted Lexington because revolutionaries John Hancock and Samuel Adams were thought to be there. They targeted Concord, the next town west of Lexington, because it was rumored to have a huge stash of munitions (which they wanted to confiscate) and because it had hosted the Provincial Congress.

When British forces were detected sneaking from Boston under cover of darkness on April 18th, Paul Revere and William Dawes mounted their horses and galloped into the countryside to warn their fellow citizens. Revere departed from Charlestown, across the Charles River from Boston proper, while Dawes left directly from the city. Revere’s route was the shortest to Lexington and Concord, and thus he was the first to warn their occupants of what was coming.

The next morning, Lexington’s village green was the site of the first skirmish between the British forces known as redcoats and the citizen militia known as minutemen. The latter took the worst of it, with eight dead and ten wounded compared to just a single wounded redcoat.

The British then marched on to their primary goal of Concord. After arriving and crossing the North Bridge, nearly half of them went about securing the bridge while the rest searched for weapons. When wooden cannon mounts were found, they were set afire and before long the flames engulfed a church.

Positioned on Punkatasset Hill some 300 yards from the bridge, Concord’s minutemen had been joined by minutemen from neighboring towns, giving them a numerical advantage the redcoats did not anticipate. When they saw the rising smoke, they believed their homes were being destroyed and responded by advancing. Seeing them approach in such numbers, the redcoats retreated back across the bridge. A shot soon rang out, though no one knows who fired it, and within minutes a full-blown battle had transpired in which half the British officers were wounded.

Disoriented, the redcoats fled back toward Boston. Along the way, they fell under fire from minutemen who had arrived from elsewhere and were hiding behind fences and walls. By the time they returned to the city, they had sustained more than 200 casualties.

It was an indisputable defeat for the world’s most powerful military, delivered by ordinary people seeking simply to defend themselves against royal oppression. The example set by those people ignited the fuse of the American Revolution in such a way that it would not be extinguished. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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