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Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution
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When we reflect on our nation’s history, the American Revolution can feel almost like a foregone conclusion. In reality, the first weeks and months of 1775 were very tenuous, and a fractured and ragtag group of colonial militias had to coalesce rapidly to have even the slimmest chance of toppling the mighty British Army.
American Spring follows a fledgling nation from Paul Revere’s little-known ride of December 1774 and the first shots fired on Lexington Green through the catastrophic Battle of Bunker Hill, culminating with a Virginian named George Washington taking command of colonial forces on July 3, 1775.
Focusing on the colorful heroes John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry, and the ordinary Americans caught up in the revolution, Walter R. Borneman uses newly available sources and research to tell the story of how a decade of discontent erupted into an armed rebellion that forged our nation.
Table of Contents
A Preview of MacArthur at War
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LIST OF MAPS
Chapter 1. British North America, 1775, here
Chapter 1. Boston and Vicinity, 1775, here
Chapter 5. Salem and the Route of Colonel Leslie's Raid, here
Chapter 9. Routes to Concord, here
Chapter 10. Lexington Green, here
Chapter 11. Concord and North Bridge, here
Chapter 13. Battle Road, here
Chapter 18. Attack on Fort Ticonderoga, here
Chapter 20. Battles of Grape and Noddle's Islands, here
Chapter 23. Battle of Bunker Hill, here
Present!" Red-coated British regulars in precise formation level their muskets across the expanse of green grass. Fifty yards to their front, colonials in dark homespun wait with a mixture of trepidation and resolve. How has it come to this? Several late arrivals, muskets in hand, run, panting, to join the ragged line of locals. As they do so, a shrill command fills the morning air from behind the Redcoat ranks. "Fire!" A thundering retort rings out. The line of leveled muskets disappears in a cloud of white smoke, and the smell of gunpowder quickly wafts across the field.
Among the local militia, several men are down, blood oozing from their garments. Others are moving toward the shelter of adjacent buildings and a nearby stand of trees. But most of the militiamen stand their ground and dare to return fire—a cacophony of sporadic shots that crisscross the field in front of them. Into this void, the British regulars move forward at the quickstep with glistening bayonets fixed. In seconds, they will sweep the militiamen before them.
Then, from the crowd of spectators gathered around, come the sounds of cameras clicking and a chorus of oohs and aahs. And it is over. The regulars halt their advance, and a cheer goes up from both sides. The "wounded" effortlessly rise to their feet. Hats and caps are doffed on both sides, and handshakes all around are the order of the day.
ON THE THIRD MONDAY OF every April, the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts celebrate. Around the towns of Lexington and Concord and in between, along what is called Battle Road, the sounds of fifes and drums and the rattle of reenactors' muskets fill the spring air. Individuals in period costumes tell stories, march in military formations, and pose for photographs. Tour buses line the routes to Lexington Green and Concord's North Bridge, and parking spots of any size are highly prized for miles in every direction. Down the road in Boston, the annual marathon is under way. The Patriots are a football team, Samuel Adams is a beer, and John Hancock is an insurance company.
The celebration is Patriots' Day, and who now would not be a patriot? The outcome of what began in earnest that long-ago morning on Lexington Green seems preordained and inevitable. But in the spring of 1775, the central issue—blind obedience to Great Britain, no matter how oppressive its rule, versus independence and the freedom to form a more representative government—was very much in doubt and the opposing sides not yet irrevocably defined. Who were the rebels? Who were the loyalists? Who were those caught in the middle? Liberty and independence were noble concepts, but how far across the populace would their bounty be spread?
Boston and the surrounding villages and towns of Massachusetts had long been flash points in relations between Great Britain and its North American colonies. New England's hardy lifestyle, both on sea and on land, had put a stubborn streak of independent thought into its inhabitants. Given the abundance of trade flowing in and out of Boston Harbor, taxes, duties, and royal decrees tended to fall more onerously here and be met with stiff opposition. But while events in the spring of 1775 focused on Boston and its environs, the fundamental questions vexing its inhabitants—loyalty or rebellion, servitude or freedom—were no less trying to residents in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia, on the streets of Williamsburg, Virginia, or on the wharves at Charleston, South Carolina.
In history's shorthand, and from an American viewpoint, the Redcoats were the bad guys and the "embattled farmers" of Ralph Waldo Emerson's epic poem the good guys. But it was hardly that simple. There were neighbors on opposite sides, and, surprising to some, there was significant support in Great Britain for colonists' rights. Some who had liberal political leanings supported the colonists, feeling that the rights they cherished should apply to all Englishmen—at least those who were white and male. Others in England supported the colonists because they wanted to preserve the lucrative trade between the ports of the British Isles and North America.
Whether one had loyalist or rebel leanings or was intractably resolved toward one side or the other, the first six months of 1775 were a critical transition period—a spring of uncertainty, a spring of change, a spring of hope. Only in retrospect—after a long seven years that would come to be filled with names such as Saratoga, Valley Forge, and Yorktown—could it be said that this six-month period was truly an American spring. But after the spring of 1775, there was no question that both sides would fight fiercely to achieve or defeat the goal of independence from Great Britain.
The spring of 1775 was filled with a rush of decisive events that ultimately brought a war no one had planned to fight. Yet men and women on both sides determined to do so before compromising their beliefs in either the prerogative of king and Parliament or representative government. None knew how the conflict would play out. After Lexington and Concord, it brought horror to both sides. After Bunker Hill, the only certainty was that this battle had turned the struggle into a deadly confrontation between confirmed adversaries.
It is particularly powerful and insightful to return to the original affidavits, correspondence, and remembrances of the participants in these events and see history from their perspective—before two centuries of interpretation clouded their words. It is equally interesting to explore the roles of women, American loyalists, and African Americans, who were given little notice in many earlier histories. As sweeping as the cries for liberty and equality sounded to some, not all were to be the beneficiaries. This narrative strives to provide an immediacy to these events through the words of the participants, show that there were far more kinds of people involved than white males in three-cornered hats, and mark the spring of 1775 as one of the most decisive periods in American history. The conflict could have gone either way, and that we would be celebrating Patriots' Day generations hence was not a certainty.
Today, amid the cacophony of Patriots' Day sights and sounds, there is—if one listens closely—a background quiet that filters down to the present. Some of the buildings that stood more than 240 years ago still stand about Lexington Green, throughout Concord, and along Battle Road. The steeple of the Old North Church looks out across the Charles River to the granite spire honoring those who fought on the slopes around Bunker Hill. One can walk past Parker's Revenge, Merriam's Corner, and the spot where a messenger named Paul Revere was captured. But look deeper. Who were those who once walked these same streets, endured great anxiety and hardship, and ultimately made a choice? Who were those at risk in the spring of 1775?
It seams we have troublesome times a Coming for there is a great Disturbance a Broad in the earth & they say it is tea that caused it.
—Diary of Jemima Condict, October 1774
New Year's Day 1775
Throughout Great Britain's thirteen American colonies, New Year's Day 1775 dawned with grave feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Relations with the colonies' mother country had grown increasingly strained over the last decade—too many taxes; Crown troops quartered in colonists' homes; intransigence at every turn when some measure of compromise might have better served both sides. And no matter which side one was on, there was an uncomfortable feeling of sitting on a powder keg and watching a fiery fuse burn ever shorter.
The thirteen colonies stretched more than one thousand miles along the Atlantic Seaboard from Georgia northward to Massachusetts, which still claimed Maine as its own. The many ranges of the Appalachian Mountains generally marked the colonies' western boundaries, although a few frontier outposts had long been established beyond the mountains. The first complete census of these provinces would not be taken until 1790, but in 1775, the population was an estimated 2.5 million. About a fifth of them were enslaved.
The white population was descended largely from ancestors in the British Isles—England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales—though a Dutch population remained from the days when New York was New Amsterdam, Germans were concentrated in Pennsylvania, and French Huguenots resided in parts of Virginia and the Carolinas. Most slaves traced their roots to Africa or the West Indies, but particularly in New England, some came from subjugated Native American tribes. The bulk of the slave population worked in agriculture in the middle and southern colonies, but it was common to find both field and domestic slaves owned by upper-income families throughout New England and in metropolitan areas such as New York City and Philadelphia.
These urban areas were definitely the exception, as the colonies were largely agrarian and the countryside was filled with small villages, hamlets, and farms. The principal towns were Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with a booming population of thirty-five thousand inhabitants; New York City, New York (at the time including only Manhattan Island), with twenty-five thousand; and Charleston, South Carolina, supporting about twelve thousand. New Haven (Connecticut), Newport (Rhode Island), and Baltimore (Maryland) were smaller but growing in both size and influence. Boston's population in 1775 has been estimated at sixteen thousand, but increasing friction between British regulars stationed in the city and its inhabitants had contributed to a steady exodus of its citizenry as many fled the town for the countryside.1
While there was a great measure of self-sufficiency among local farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers, the colonies were also a vital part of the trading network of the greater British Empire. New England shipwrights built oceangoing sailing ships from fine stands of hardwood forests. Southern planters shipped rice and tobacco to Europe. A ready supply of sugar, often in liquid form as molasses, went from the West Indies to New England or Europe, where it was distilled into rum. Textiles and manufactured goods were transported back across the Atlantic to North America or Africa. The shipment of slaves from the latter formed another leg of these trading triangles.
London merchants who sold finished goods to the North American colonies were among those profiting the most from this trading network. Despite a certain degree of self-sufficiency, many colonists—particularly in urban areas—were grateful for their ability to purchase these finished goods from colonial importers who were only too glad to make their own profits on the transactions.
On the surface, these trading relationships were mutually beneficial, but they also raised issues of import duties and consumer taxation. While the causes of the revolution were many and could trace their roots back at least a decade, it was the importation and taxation of tea—and the stiff reaction of some colonials to it—that had escalated emotions throughout 1774—until this New Year's Day, when Boston was effectively an armed camp garrisoned by British regulars.
Boston in 1775—long before massive landfills in the surrounding waters expanded its girth—lay like a craggy lobster. Its two "claws," Barton's Point and Hudson's Point, reached north into the Charles River toward Charlestown. The "body" of the lobster itself was crowned by Beacon Hill, below which the broad Common occupied the westward edge along the Charles River, while the Long Wharf and numerous shorter wharves encircled Boston Harbor on the seaward, or eastern, side. Only the thin causeway at Boston Neck connected the "tail" of the lobster to the mainland. The causeway led south past the town gate to higher ground at Roxbury and Dorchester Heights. This irregular landform didn't lend itself to a rigid grid of wide avenues but rather a helter-skelter of narrow dirt streets and alleys that jogged every which way off a main thoroughfare of cobblestones running northward from Boston Neck.
The week between Christmas and New Year's in Boston saw the landing of the latest contingent of British troops, about six hundred Royal Marines commanded by Major John Pitcairn. They arrived aboard several men-of-war that dropped anchor in Boston Harbor and showed no sign of leaving. The marines were billeted in barracks in the north part of town within easy sight of the steeple of the Old North Church and the heights of Bunker Hill across the river to the north.
Boston definitely felt like an occupied town, but not all was tense between Bostonians and this garrison of British troops. Four days before New Year's, on a wild and stormy afternoon, "a seafaring Lad" fell from a wharf in Boston Harbor and appeared to be drowning. A British regular from the Tenth Regiment of Foot jumped in to rescue him. "The Lad," according to press reports, "was saved," but the soldier himself drowned in the attempt.2
But even British regulars could not ensure holiday tranquillity in Boston. Shortly before midnight on the day after Christmas, "some well-bred Gentlemen took the Liberty of breaking my Windows in a most spirited Manner," one John Troutbeck reported sarcastically in an advertisement in the Boston Gazette and Country Journal's January 2 issue. "If any Person will be pleased to inform me of the Place of their Residence, (if they have any,) that I may make them a proper Acknowledgement for this publick Mark of their Civility, he shall be intitled to a Reward of Ten Dollars."3
The same newspaper contained an announcement of a one-dollar reward for information regarding a separate incident:
"Any Person that will give information to the Printers of an old Negro Fellow named Caesar, who went away some Time since, and is suppos'd to be strolling about in some of the neighbouring Towns, walks lame and talks much about being free, shall receive the above Reward. Had on when he went away a blue Jacket."4
The Boston News-Letter reported other tragedies of daily colonial life. An obituary mentioned the death of a Mrs. Silence Thwing, who succumbed at a sprightly ninety-three but who was recorded only as the "Relict of the late Mr. Wm. Thwing." A person named Jeremiah Ballard was much less fortunate. He died at the age of eighteen, the victim of an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound. His weapon discharged while he was climbing over a fence.5
In Milton, south of Boston, "the Wife of Mr. Ebenezer Houghton"—her given name, in the manner of the time, was considered of secondary importance—was drawing a pail of water from a well when "she accidentally slipt into the Well, Head first, and was drowned." No mention was made of her husband's whereabouts at the time. Farther south, in Rochester, Asa Richer also met his end. He "was fixing a Ramrod into the Pipes of a loaded Gun, when it accidentally went off, and the Contents entered his Bowels; of which Wound he expired in about Half an Hour."6
Among these grim clippings there was evidence—despite the then-current political turmoil—of just how close many in the colonies still felt to their mother country. In addition to regular reports on London politics, economics, and entertainment, a number of colonial newspapers, including the January 2 issue of the Boston Evening-Post, published a complete list of newly elected members to the House of Commons. Of the 558 members, about one hundred were freshmen. Time would tell whether these new members would carry enough weight—or inclination—to reverse the punitive legislative measures invoked by the last session against the American colonies.7
Parliament's edicts weighed heavily on the man who was charged with enforcing them in the colonies: General Thomas Gage, longtime commander in chief of British forces in North America and, since May 1774, governor of the errant province of Massachusetts. In that capacity, Gage had moved his headquarters from New York to the increasingly tense confines of Boston. The question on many minds was what Gage thought personally about Parliament's heavy hand and whether he might have some sympathy for the frustrations of his constituency. Among those believed to have a persuasive influence on his thinking was his American-born wife, the former Margaret Kemble of New Jersey.
One Bostonian who cared not a whit for what General Gage or Parliament thought was John Hancock, who entered the New Year his usual cocky self. Hancock had taken over his uncle's shipping business as a young man and grown to become one of Boston's wealthiest and most influential merchants. There were more than a few whispers that he routinely found ways to circumvent onerous customs duties, but if nothing else, the practice made for loyal and appreciative customers. His partner in intrigue against the British Crown, Samuel Adams, had chaired a town meeting at Faneuil Hall on December 30 to craft a reply to a stern missive from General Gage. Politics and business aside, Hancock was looking forward to a year that would see his wedding to the spirited Dorothy Quincy.
John Andrews, a Boston merchant of only slightly less standing than Hancock, was also looking ahead. To his brother-in-law, William Barrell, a merchant in Philadelphia, Andrews extended his New Year's wishes "that we may have a less troublesome year than the last." Andrews had many economic reasons to preserve relations with Great Britain, but he nonetheless hoped "Great Britain may see her error in distressing the Colonies, and restore to them their just rights and liberties; that we may once more see that harmony prevail which formerly us'd to subsist between them."8
In Plymouth, thirty-five miles south of Boston, Mercy Otis Warren, a housewife, mother, and clandestine author, was putting the finishing touches on her latest political satire. Her anonymous writings had already attracted a following, and this effort, The Group, was a harsh condemnation of the role of mandamus councilors—those appointed by the king to carry out royal laws. Men who held such offices, Warren editorialized, had succumbed to royal bribes at the price of liberty. But Warren's writings also had a strong secondary theme. In a culture and time that accorded women and family life a decidedly subservient role to men and their public lives, Warren compared the oppressed marital status of women with Parliament's suppression of the assumed rights of male colonists.9
At the other extreme from Mercy Warren's feminist viewpoints were those of a twenty-year-old New Jersey woman named Jemima Condict. Her diary musings were mostly concerned with biblical texts from church services and a hope chest that her father was in the process of procuring, despite Jemima's pensiveness about the eventual marriage such an acquisition foreshadowed. But even in rural New Jersey, the prospect of war was not far from her daily thoughts. If people would quarrel about such a trifling thing as tea, Jemima asked in her diary, "What must we expect But war & I think or at least fear it will be so."10
War was certainly a possibility. In Dedham, just south of Boston, the martial spirit was judged so high that a militia company of more than fifty, "several of whom [were] above 70 Years of Age," organized and elected a slate of officers. Most other small towns either had already formed or were in the process of forming similar local units. The British regulars who would oppose them were judged by some to be well-trained troops, but few had as yet been tested in battle. On this New Year's Day, one British officer complained that there was "Nothing remarkable but the drunkenness among the Soldiers, which is now got to a very great pitch; owing to the cheapness of the liquor, a Man may get drunk for a Copper or two."11
Attorney John Adams was at home in Braintree, a dozen miles south of Boston, with his wife, Abigail, and their brood of four children, which included seven-year-old John Quincy. Adams's frequently extensive diary was silent on the occasion of New Year's for just that reason: he was home—not traveling, as he had done that fall to Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress, or making his rounds for various legal matters. His time with fellow delegates in Philadelphia had hardened his resolve to speak out strongly—not that he had been quiet to date—against what he judged to be increasingly heavy-handed British oppression. Indeed, it is likely that Adams was already making notes for a series of letters he would soon publish in the Boston Gazette in opposition to letters from a Tory supporter who signed himself "Massachusettensis."12
On the outskirts of the village of Lexington, some dozen miles west of Boston, Prince Estabrook, a black slave of about forty years of age, went about his chores as usual. He was owned by Benjamin Estabrook, who farmed substantial acreage and operated a gristmill on Vine Brook Road just east of the village green. Prince was a Lexington native who had been born as Estabrook family property and inherited by Benjamin from his father. Prince and Benjamin were at opposite ends of the social spectrum, but there is at least circumstantial evidence that, being about the same age, they shared bonds of friendship that went beyond their master-servant relationship. Perhaps because Benjamin was occupied with his businesses, a family of eight children, and service in a variety of town government roles, he encouraged Prince to join the local militia. Prince had been routinely drilling with the Lexington company for almost two years.13
BOSTON AND MASSACHUSETTS, WHILE THE focal point of British punishment and colonial resolve, were certainly not alone in their unease. Bostonians read in their New Year's newspapers that the colony of Maryland had taken similar steps to train and arm local militiamen because "a well regulated militia… is the natural strength and only stable security of a free government." The Maryland legislature went on to say, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that creating such a force on its own would "release our mother country from any expence in our protection and defence [and] will obviate the pretence of a necessity for taxing us on that account." Consequently, it was recommended that all Maryland inhabitants between sixteen and fifty years of age "form themselves into companies of 68 men… and use their utmost endeavours to make themselves masters of the military exercise."14
There was plenty of intrigue in New York, too. On January 2, the publishers of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury teased readers by announcing, "In our next Paper, the Public may possibly be entertained with some little Account of a certain Spy that has lately made his Appearance in this City, and of whom all Gentlemen are requested to be on their Guard."15
Tempers were particularly high in New York because the customs collector, Andrew Elliot, had come under verbal attack from locals for confiscating certain firearms that had been legally imported into the province from Great Britain. Elliot nonetheless seized them and secured them aboard a British man-of-war in the harbor. On December 27, Elliot received an unsigned letter that characterized his actions as an arbitrary step by which "you have declared yourself an inveterate enemy to the liberties of North-America" and advised him that the weapons' rightful owners would soon demand their return. "Do not slight this admonition or treat it as a vain menace," the unsigned threat continued. Elliot would find no protection against "our just revenge, which will be soon done."16
In Virginia, a planter and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses named George Washington spent New Year's at Mount Vernon with his wife, Martha, and an assortment of relatives. His mind was occupied by the political turmoil, but in part this was because such events had had a major impact on his business operations. A week later, Washington wrote a testy letter to a trade representative, complaining about a delay that "was never done before!" in unloading a cargo of herring from the brigantine Farmer in Jamaica. The ship sat dockside for six weeks before it could be loaded with Washington's rum for the return journey, an expense in port that Washington was being asked to assume. He was also miffed that "the Sugar and other Articles" he had ordered had not yet arrived and that under the nonimportation measures recently enacted by the First Continental Congress he would be "obliged to return them if they arrive in Virginia after the first day of next Month."17
But Washington was also busy giving instructions for work to be done farther west, on lands he had acquired that the British Crown now said belonged to others. "I am resolved," he wrote an overseer, "if no unforeseen accident happens to prevent it, to have my people at work upon my lands on the Ohio, by the last day of March."18
Praise for American Spring:
"Likely to be one of the enduring accounts of the opening of the American Revolution.... Loaded with intriguing details, sort of historical nonpareil candies sprinkled throughout the account.... A pleasing marriage of scholarly research and approachable language."—David Shribman, Boston Globe
- "Walter Borneman has written an engaging and illuminating account of some of the most critical weeks in American history. Here is how it all began." -- Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
- "Borneman delivers a gripping, almost moment-by-moment account of the nasty exchanges and bloody retreat of British troops followed by hundreds and then thousands of militia who camped around Boston and laid siege.... A first-rate contribution."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Praise for The Admirals:
"Superbly reported... Historian Walter R. Borneman tackles the essential question of military leadership: What makes some men, but not others, able to motivate a fighting force into battle?" -- Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
- "Engagingly written and deeply researched... Mr. Borneman makes it easy to understand the complex series of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers at Leyte Gulf...which is not always the case with accounts of the battle." -- Andrew Roberts, Wall Street Journal
- "The first book to deal with the four [admirals] together, focusing on their intertwined lives, friendships, and rivalries.... Very well-crafted." -- John Lehman, Washington Post
- "A riveting introduction to the only four men in American history to have been promoted to the five-star rank of Admiral of the Fleet in recognition of their extraordinary feats." -- The History Channel
- "An epic group portrait of Nimitz, Halsey, Leahey, and King. Not since the heyday of Samuel Eliot Morison has a historian painted such a fine portrait of the five-star admirals who helped America beat Japan during the Second World War. Highly recommended!" -- Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University and author of The Wilderness Warrior
- "They were completely different in temperament and personality, but the U.S. Navy's four five-star admirals in World War II shared a sense of vision, devotion, and courage. Walter Borneman has written a rousing tale of victory at sea." -- Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers
- "This is Walter Borneman at his best. The portrait of the forgotten admiral, Leahy, is worth the whole book. But there's scarcely a page where a reader won't learn something unexpected, and occasionally shocking." -- Thomas Fleming, author of Time and Tide
- On Sale
- May 6, 2014
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Little, Brown and Company