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Presentation U.S. History Primary Source Timeline

First Shots of War, 1775

For some months, people in the colonies had been gathering arms and powder and had been training to fight the British, if necessary, at a moment's notice. The Continental Congress had approved of preparations for defensive fighting, in case the British made an aggressive move. But General Thomas Gage, commander of British troops in Boston, had been cautious. He thought his army too small to act without reinforcements. On the other hand, his officers disdained the colonists as fighters, thinking they would flee with any show of British force.

A Map of 100 miles round Boston, 1775
The American Revolution and Its Era, 1750-1789

Gage received orders to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, rumored to be near Lexington. When Gage heard that the colonists had stockpiled guns and powder in Concord, he decided to act. On the night of April 18, 1775, he dispatched nearly 1,000 troops from Boston. He hoped to catch the colonists by surprise and thus to avoid bloodshed. But all British activities were carefully watched by the patriots, and William Dawes and Paul Revere rode out to warn people in the countryside that the British were coming.

When British regulars (known as redcoats because of their uniform jackets) arrived at Lexington the next morning, they found several dozen minutemen waiting for them on the town's common. Someone fired--no one knows who fired first--and eight minutemen were killed and another dozen or so were wounded. Then the British marched on Concord and destroyed what was left of the store of guns and powder, most of which had been hastily removed by the patriots. During the redcoats' entire march back to Boston, minutemen harrassed them, firing from behind fences, houses, trees, and rocks. By the end of the day, the redcoats suffered three times more casualties than had the colonists.

Whatever the truth of who fired the first shot, the patriots were first to get their version of the events out to the American public. The effect was to rally hundreds, if not thousands, of colonists to the rebellion. When the Second Continental Congress met three weeks later--the meeting had been scheduled since October--it agreed to support Massachusetts in the conflict. Even so, many representatives disagreed among themselves about the purpose of the fighting.

At one end of the continuum of opinion were such men as Sam and John Adams of Massachusetts and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia who already favored independence. At the other end of that continuum were such men as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania who hoped for a quick settlement and reconciliation with Great Britain. Most delegates, like most colonists, were moderates with opinions somewhere in the middle of that continuum. Over the next year of conflict, bungling British policy-makers tried to recruit Indians, slaves, and foreign mercenaries, they blockaded colonial ports, and they rejected allefforts at conciliation. These actions pushed more and more colonists to favor independence.

For additional documents related to these topics, search using such key words as General Thomas Gage, Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph, minutemen, specific dates such as April 18, 1775, and the terms found in the documents. Another strategy is to browse relevant collections by date.