A Defining Moment: April 1775

Tensions ran high in America in April 1775.  The previous year King George III had appointed General Thomas Gage, a veteran of the French and Indian War, to serve as both royal governor of Massachusetts and commander-in-chief of all British forces in America.  Gage had arrived in Boston in May 1774 and on June 1 implemented the Port Act, the harshest of Parliament’s Intolerable Acts. Passed in response to the Boston Tea Party, this act closed the port of Boston.  When Gage ordered the capital be moved from Boston to Salem, the General Assembly defiantly met in Salem and organized as an extralegal Provincial Congress to govern the colony outside of Boston.  Over the ensuing months, the Provincial Congress procured military supplies, and local militias drilled.  General Gage responded by issuing indictments against the colonists for treason, then pardoning all but Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

Meanwhile in Virginia, county committees and associations persuaded reluctant colonists to comply with non-importation and non-consumption agreements, while disorganized militias prepared for action.  Once-fashionable gentry took to wearing garments made from plain or homespun cloth, and shirts emblazoned with “Liberty or Death” were a common sight.

Lexington

18th-century French engraving of the conflict at Lexington, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

On the evening of April 18-19, 1775, General Gage ordered troops to march on Concord to capture stores of arms and gunpowder.  Warned by riders Paul Revere and William Dawes, Samuel Adams and John Hancock fled Lexington, a village on the road to Concord.  Here on the town green at dawn some 700 British troops met 77 militiamen under the command of Captain John Parker.  Heavily outnumbered, the militiamen had just received the order to disperse when a shot was fired.  No one knows who fired this first shot of the Revolution.  Other shots followed, and when the smoke cleared, eight militiamen were dead and nine wounded.  One British soldier was wounded.  The British continued to Concord where a confrontation on the North Bridge resulted in more casualties and a British retreat.  Discovering that most of the arms they sought had been relocated, the troops headed back to Boston.  Along the 18-mile return march, as many as 3,500 militiamen – or “minutemen” – descended on the area and fired constantly on the British, inflicting significant damage.

In an unrelated Virginia incident on the night of April 20-21, Governor Dunmore ordered royal marines to secure guns and powder stored in the public magazine at Williamsburg before they could fall into rebel hands.  The marines only removed 20 kegs of power before being discovered, but this set off a period of alarm.  The Williamsburg independent company marched on the Governor’s Palace, and Dunmore claimed he was safekeeping the stores to avoid a slave insurrection.  While no one was fooled, local leaders, anxious to avoid violence, calmed the townspeople.  This incident might have come to nothing if news of Lexington and Concord had not arrived on April 29.  The two incidents seemed too coincidental, and militia companies from several surrounding counties marched toward Williamsburg, one led by Patrick Henry.  Fighting in Virginia was averted when the governor agreed to pay for the powder, but less than two months later he fled Williamsburg never to return.

The April 1775 events in both colonies swept away any doubt that each side was willing to fight and kill to protect what they thought was right.  In June 1775 the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army and appointed George Washington its commander-in-chief.

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