Most Americans imagine that infantry combat in the Revolutionary War did not compare in ferocity to that of later wars: There were no machine guns, no hand grenades, no automatic rifles, no flame throwers and no suicidal fanatics. The British and Americans spoke the same language, and they were “cousins,” after all, so it must have been a gentlemanly war, right?
‘By the time the British column began its march back to Boston, more than 1,000 militiamen had taken up positions along the winding road to avenge the deaths in Lexington. What followed was a bloody running fight’
Wrong. Consider the war’s first battle—now largely forgotten—which was fought in the Massachusetts village of Menotomy (present-day Arlington). The main road between Boston and Lexington ran through Menotomy, and at dawn on April 19, 1775, the British marched through on their way to the confrontation on Lexington Green that touched off the American Revolution; their light infantrymen, in a foul mood after a sleepless night, had gunned down more than a dozen militiamen. The Americans had assembled at sunup on the Lexington Green as far from the road as possible. They had not been looking to start a war. They had assembled to show the British they did not appreciate the armed intrusion into the countryside—a message they and other militias had sent several times since tea tax protesters dumped several hundred thousand dollars worth of tea into Boston Harbor in late 1773. The British had responded by closing the port and occupying the city with 4,000 soldiers.
News of the shootings on Lexington Green sparked fury among the thousands of American militiamen who had been drilling for the previous year, forming an embryonic army. The 700 British regulars had marched on from Lexington to Concord, their original destination, where they searched in vain for a reported cache of gunpowder and weapons. Again encountering several hundred armed American militiamen, the Redcoats fought a skirmish at the famous North Bridge, where, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (erroneously) claimed, the Americans fired “the shot heard round the world.”
By the time the British column began its march back to Boston, more than 1,000 militiamen had taken up positions along the winding road to avenge the deaths in Lexington. What followed was a bloody running fight, a kind of serial ambush that surprised and bedeviled the British, hardened the rebellious Americans’ resolve and spawned the legend that the Continentals fought “unfairly” like Indians, hitting and running and sniping from concealed positions.
Indeed, at several points American ambushes killed more than a few Redcoats. By the time the British reached Lexington, they were low on ammunition and out of food and water. Demoralized, they were considering surrender when the boom of cannon scattered their swarm of attackers.
In the hills east of Lexington Green, more than 1,000 reinforcements appeared, led by Brig. Gen. Hugh Percy, one of the best generals in the British army. Word of the Lexington contingent’s troubles had reached Boston, and General Thomas Gage had sent Percy’s men to rescue them. Percy gave the survivors of the march from Concord a half hour to eat, drink and rest, while he planned their return march to Boston.
West of Lexington, the Americans were also regrouping. They finally had a general—a portly, baldheaded farmer named William Heath. With him was a far more important and more magnetic figure, Dr. Joseph Warren, Sam Adams’ right-hand man in Boston. Warren had rushed into the countryside the moment he heard about the bloodshed in Lexington. “They have begun it,” he told a friend. “That either party can do; and we’ll end it—that only one can do.”
At Lexington, Heath found four complete regiments and four others at half strength. Though he had never been in a battle, he had long been fascinated by military matters and had read widely on the subject. He decided that, without artillery, it would be folly to attack the British in a frontal assault. Instead, he advised the colonels and majors of the regiments to circle around the British and attack them as they retreated down the road to Boston. He ordered his subordinates to take over every empty house on or near the road and convert it into a fortress.
With the same cool competence he had displayed in rescuing the 700 retreaters from Concord, Lord Percy planned his withdrawal to Boston. At the head of the column, where he expected little trouble, he placed the worn out retreaters and their portly commander, Lt. Col. Francis Smith, who had taken a ball to the thigh and was riding in a chaise. The elite Royal Welsh Fusiliers would man the rearguard. Percy ordered two other regiments, the 47th and the King’s Own, to sweep the flanks of the column with three companies each. He positioned his artillery just ahead of the fusiliers to deliver blasts of grapeshot as necessary.
The road to Boston sloped down to the village of Menotomy. A crossroads town, it was a logical gathering place for arriving minutemen and militia from eastern Middlesex County and southern Essex County. They had been pouring into the village for hours. In addition to Heath’s men, no fewer than 34 fresh companies, each numbering some 150 men and all carrying full ammunition pouches, were waiting for Percy in the mile-long stretch of houses between the base of the hill, called the Foot of the Rocks, and Spy Pond. They had taken up positions in and around the deserted houses and barns and behind the stone walls that enclosed nearby pastures.
Typical of the new arrivals was the minuteman company from Danvers, led by 26-year-old Lieutenant Gideon Foster. He and his men had reached Menotomy—a 16-mile march—in just four hours. Foster positioned his men along a stone wall flanking a hillside orchard, alongside minutemen from Lynn, Needham and Dedham. Some of Foster’s company took cover behind a wall at the Jason Russell house.
Fifty-nine-year-old Russell joined them, determined to defend his home. An elderly neighbor, Ammi Cutter—who earlier had helped capture several British supply wagons and a wounded lieutenant—tried to persuade Russell to flee. Russell shook his head. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” he said. Cutter, too, stayed to defend the town.
Russell, Cutter, Foster’s men and almost every other man waiting for the British trained their eyes on the Lexington road. None had fought the British earlier in the day, and none knew the British were anticipating an ambush, with 100 to 150 men sweeping the fields on both sides of the road. One veteran of the French and Indian War warned Foster about possible flankers but was ignored. Foster and his men wanted to be close to the road to get a decent shot at the retreating column.
The British were also ready for snipers in deserted houses. As they entered Menotomy and musket fire erupted from the first houses, Percy ordered Lt. Col. Smith’s troops to split into squads and attack every building with the bayonet. “The soldiers were…enraged at suffering from an unseen enemy,” Mackenzie wrote. Rage on both sides thus ensured these encounters would be savage.
Russell and the Danvers men under Foster were among the first to incur the British wrath. The flanking parties of the King’s Own Regiment suddenly appeared, pinning the Danvers men between them and the road, now crowded with British troops. Those who did not die at their walls ran for the Russell house, joined by men from Lynn and Needham. Two bullets struck and killed Russell in his doorway. Twenty-one-year-old Perley Putnam of Danvers also fell dead just outside the house. The aged Cutter dove behind a pile of logs and miraculously escaped a hail of Redcoat bullets.
The fiercest fighting took place inside the Russell house. Daniel Townsend and Timothy Monroe were trapped on the first floor. “Townsend,” said Monroe, “leaped through the end window, carrying sash and all with him.” Flankers waiting in the yard shot him dead. Monroe followed, and a musket ball tore into his leg. He staggered to his feet and fled as bullets hummed around him from both the flankers and British regulars in the column. Later he reportedly counted 32 holes in his hat and clothes.
Others were not so lucky. Eleven militiamen, including seven from Danvers, died during hand-to-hand fighting in the Russell house. The struggle raged from cellar to attic, the odds heavily in favor of the British trained in use of the bayonet. Foster claimed that three or four of his men surrendered only to be “butchered with savage barbarity.” Supporting his allegation was 19-year-old Dennis Wallis, who said he surrendered in the yard and then bolted when he realized he was about to be killed. He was hit by several bullets but survived. In most houses, the British gave no quarter. “All that we found in the houses were put to death,” stated Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own.
On the north side of the road the British encountered 80-year-old Samuel Whittemore. A onetime captain in the Royal Dragoons, Whittemore had a musket, two pistols and a saber. He was crouched behind a stone wall behind Cooper’s Tavern at the junction of the road to Medford when flankers from the 47th Regiment came upon him. Whittemore killed one with his musket and emptied both pistols at the rest, killing or wounding at least one more soldier before being shot in the face. Militiamen around him fled as enraged British soldiers bayoneted Whittemore 13 times. Incredibly, he survived to live another 18 years.
When the British burst into the home of Deacon Joseph Adams, they found Mrs. Adams in bed, holding her newborn and flanked by her daughters, aged 20 and 14. Nine-year-old Joel Adams peered from under the bed.
“Why don’t you come out here?” asked one of the soldiers.
“You’ll kill me,” the boy replied.
“No, we won’t,” the soldier said.
The boy came out and watched the soldiers prowl through the house, stealing silver and jewelry. They then ordered the family out of the house, broke up some chairs in the parlor and set them ablaze. The moment they left, the children doused the flames with a pot of their father’s homebrewed beer.
The savage street fight continued, as British regulars looted and burned houses. More than one British soldier died when he lingered to see what else he could steal and was caught by minutemen as the British moved on. Each side grew more and more infuriated—the British because, in Mackenzie’s words, they “had very few opportunities of getting good shots at the rebels”; the Americans by the sight of their own casualties and the rampant plundering and destruction.
Several British officers were distressed by the thievery and later mentioned it in their letters and diaries. Barker called the plundering “shameful” and said some soldiers “hardly thought of anything else; what was worse, they were encouraged by some officers.”
At the same time, men on both sides exhibited remarkable courage. Lord Percy saw Americans advance “within 10 yards to fire at me and other officers, though they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant.”
Muskets roared all along the mile-long British column as Menotomy erupted into a melee involving as many as 5,500 men. The brawl spilled from the road into fields, orchards and farm buildings. Shouts of American defiance mingled with the battle cries of charging British flankers. The colonel of the rearguard fusiliers staggered as a bullet ripped into his thigh, while his frantic men—having suffered some 30 casualties and exhausted their ammunition—cried for help from the flankers. The Royal Artillerymen responded, working their guns to repeatedly break large concentrations of militiamen into smaller groups. If a whole militia company could have gotten close enough to deliver a massed volley, the carnage and ensuing panic might have broken the British column.
Massachusetts learned the realities of war in the Battle of Menotomy. Most of the Patriots who died on April 19 fell in and around the once-peaceful houses and barns. The air was thick with the smell of gunpowder, and men’s faces and hands were black with it. Wounded men cried out in agony, and everywhere houses evinced smashed windows, wrecked doors and bullet-riddled walls. The neat, quiet village through which Smith and his column of regulars had earlier marched in the predawn darkness had become a charnel house.
As his column emerged from Menotomy, Percy ordered the Royal Marines to replace the Welsh Fusiliers as the rearguard. Their casualties—more than 50 dead and wounded—testify that Warren and Heath maintained ferocious pressure on the retreating British. The going grew easier for Percy’s men up front, as his flankers forced the minutemen to fire from such a distance that one American officer termed it “useless and trifling.”
Ahead of Percy, as the British entered Cambridge, Heath made a final attempt to trap the column. At Watson’s Corner, Major Isaac Gardner waited with a squad of men behind a roadside stack of dry water casks. It was their first fighting of the day, and like the men at Menotomy they had not foreseen the British flankers. Trapped by a bayonet charge from the rear, Gardner and two members of the Cambridge militia were killed.
Beyond Watson’s Corner, Percy saw the rest of Gardner’s regiment blocking the road. The Americans hoped to force the British to return to Boston the way they had come—across the Charles River. Heath had ordered the Watertown militia to tear up the planks of the bridge and build a barricade on the Brighton side, hoping to pin the British against the river.
But Percy had anticipated the rebels’ action. Moreover, he understood the other reason the Americans were blocking the road ahead of him: It led to the Charlestown peninsula, across the harbor from Boston, on a route five miles shorter than the march back through Roxbury. Once on the peninsula, Percy would have the benefit of high ground on Bunker Hill, while British boats could ferry reinforcements and ammunition across the harbor to him. Percy ordered his two cannon to the head of the column and opened fire. The Americans fled as Percy resumed his march, letting his flanking parties deal with the rebels as they attacked “in the same straggling manner the rest had done before.”
Ahead loomed Prospect Hill, atop which several companies of minutemen and militia stood ready to swarm down on the British. Again Percy brought his cannon into play and sent his 47th Regiment up the hill. The Americans fired a few rounds and then retreated—all but 65-year-old James Miller, whose house sat just downslope. Saying he was “too old to run,” Miller stood his ground, firing steadily at the oncoming British until cut down.
As evening came on, British flankers continued to search and loot every house along the road. By this time, noted Barker of the King’s Own, the men were “so wild…there was no keeping them in any order.”
The rest of the British column was in excellent order, however, moving toward Bunker Hill. The Americans no longer had a hope of annihilating the British column or preventing it from reaching safety.
As the head of Percy’s column crossed Charlestown Neck and skirted the village, a stream of frightened civilians headed in the opposite direction. Near the ferry landing, 14-year-old Edward Barber peered from his house as the regulars passed. By this time, the British considered anyone moving inside a house a sniper. A regular killed the boy with a single shot. His 12 brothers and sisters ran screaming into the streets, intensifying the panic in Charlestown.
As the British column ascended Bunker Hill, some of the town’s selectmen hurried to Percy and swore that no one in Charlestown intended to fight the British. Earlier in the day, British commander Gage had sent a message from Boston warning that if anyone in Charlestown was seen with a gun, there would be “disagreeable consequences.” Backing up that threat, the 70-gun HMS Somerset anchored just off the ferry landing and trained its cannon on the town. Percy told the selectmen to clear the streets of people and produce food and drink for his tired soldiers. On the other side of Charlestown Neck, Heath issued orders “to halt and give over the pursuit, as any further attempt upon the enemy in that position would have been futile.” Aboard Somerset the sailors stood with guns primed. A handful of American muskets barked in the darkness, then fell silent.
The Battle of Menotomy was over. The war was on.
A 50th anniversary edition of Thomas Fleming’s first book, Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill, is due out in June from American History Press.