Thursday, January 5, 2012

Where Did the Shot Heard Round the World Happen?

Engraving of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, circa 1775
The Shot Heard Round the World occurred on April 19, 1775 after British troops, searching for ammunition stockpiles in Lexington and Concord, engaged in a brief battle with local minutemen on the North Bridge in Concord.

Over the years the exact location of the Shot Heard Round the World has gotten muddled. Many writers and historians have attributed it to the first shot fired at the Battle of Lexington, which occurred earlier in the day and was the first official battle of the Revolution. Yet the phrase itself “Shot Heard Round the World” comes from a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem about the Battle of Concord titled Concord Hymn:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard 'round the world”

According to the book “Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past,” many historians and writers deliberately attributed the Shot Heard Round the World to the Battle of Lexington because that battle, which consisted of 700 British soldiers firing upon just 70 minuteman, better fit the image they wanted to promote of the large bullying British army being defeated by a small defiant army. In the Battle of Concord, the British soldiers had split up into groups and only 90-95 British soldiers were on hand to fight the 400 minutemen near the bridge.

The British were not defeated at the battle of Lexington though and it is not even clear who fired the first shot of the battle, the British soldiers or the minutemen. One of the few witnesses to the battle, Paul Revere, who had warned the minutemen of the British advancement on his midnight ride, was present when the British soldiers arrived yet did not see who fired the first shot, as he wrote in his personal account of that day:

I heard the report [of the gun], turned my head, and saw the smoke in front of the British troops, they immediately gave a great shout, ran a few paces, and then the whole fired. I could first distinguish irregular firing, which I suppose was the advance guard, and then platoons. At the time I could not see our Militia, for they were covered from me, by a house at the bottom of the street.”
Illustration of the Battle of Lexington
When the smoke cleared, eight minutemen and one British soldier lay dead. Both sides accused each other of firing the first shot, according to the book “Primary Source Accounts of the Revolutionary War.” One British soldier, William Sutherland, gave his account of the events:

I heard Major Pitcairn's voice call out. 'Soldiers, don't fire, keep your ranks, form and surround them.' Instantly some of the villains [the colonists] who got over the hedge fired at us which our men for the first time returned...”

Yet, minuteman Sylvanus Wood described Major Pitcairn's actions differently, stating he:

...swung his sword, and said, 'Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, or you are all dead men – fire!' Some guns were fired by the British at us from the first platoon, but no person was killed or hurt, being probably charged only with gunpowder...The company immediately dispersed; and while the company was dispersing and leaping over the wall, the second platoon of the British fired, and killed some of our men. There was not a gun fired by any of Captain Parker's company, within my knowledge.”

Since both sides give contradicting accounts, it will probably never be known who fired the first shot. After the battle of Lexington was over, the British marched on to Concord where they were finally thwarted by minuteman on North Bridge. Outnumbered, the British retreated back to Boston, taking heavy gunfire from snipers and suffering many casualties along the way.
Illustration of the Battle of Lexington

Primary Source Accounts of the Revolutionary War”; James M. Deem; 2006

Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past”; Ray Raphael; 2004 

The Library of Congress: Today in History: April 19

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