The Revolutionary War: Does It Really Matter Who Fired the First Shot?

Immortalized by Emerson’s poem, the “shot heard round the world” that started the Revolutionary War is a tale of American conflict and defiance.

Jan 16, 2022By Stefan Pajovic, PhD in Literature and English Language
shot heard round world battle lexington revolutionary war
The First Fight for Independence, Lexington Common, April 19, 1775 by William Barnes Wollen, 1910, via National Army Museum, London

 

When the British forces left their Boston barracks in the early morning of April 19th, 1775, the Revolutionary War still hadn’t begun. These troops were on a covert mission to reach Concord, a town 27 kilometers west of Boston, to seize the colonist militia’s arms. However, the word had gotten out of the redcoats’ expedition. Some sources claim that the wife of General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, leaked the info to the rebels. As a result, three riders, one of whom was the legendary Paul Revere, were sent to warn the countryside of the approaching army. The popular phrase “The British are coming” wasn’t yelled from horseback but rather whispered to Minutemen who could be trusted. The “shot heard round the world” was looming in the air that spring morning.

 

British Troops March Into the Revolutionary War

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Battle of Bunker Hill by Moran E. Percy, c. 1909, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

In order to reach Concord, the British troops had to pass Lexington, where a group of minutemen assembled during the morning. Captain John Parker led them as they poured into the village common to meet the British. It must be noted that they did not block the road to Concord per se. Nevertheless, they stood by the roadside fully armed in an act of defiance against the most powerful military force in the world at the time.

 

The events that ensued weren’t heroic nor romantic but rather confusing. Namely, Major John Pitcairn, who was in charge of the British troops, turned to Lexington Common and ordered the rebels to put down their weapons. This was precisely what John Parker had in mind and ordered his men to disperse. Neither party wanted a gunfight, but the commotion and shouting that followed led to one of the rifles going off. The British forces instinctively responded with a volley, even though they weren’t ordered to do so.

 

The Mystery of the “Shot Heard Round The World” In the Revolutionary War

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The Minute Man statue by Daniel Chester French, 1875, via Minute Man National Historical Park, Concord

 

Historians agree that the disorderly conduct of the British regulars was the spark that ignited the conflict. As far as the mystery of the actual first shot, there have been many theories over the years. Both sides claim that none of them discharged their rifles, with some folks suggesting that a colonial bystander fired the shot from the direction of the tavern. Indeed, there was a crowd of onlookers that day, as few expected the British expedition to turn into a bloody skirmish that resulted in the Revolutionary War.

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The Battles of Lexington and Concord

north bridge concord don troiani
North Bridge, Concord by Don Troiani, c. 2019, via Don Troiani Gallery official site

 

Back in the day, civilians were far less involved in armed conflict than they are today. The Battle of Gettysburg, fought in 1863 during the American Civil War, is a great example of this. With more than 45,000 soldiers dead or wounded during the three days of battle, there was only a single recorded civilian death: a housewife was making bread in her kitchen when a stray bullet passed through the window, taking her life.

 

The end result of the skirmish at Lexington Green was a single wounded British soldier and eight dead and ten wounded on the American side. Parker’s men ran away from the provisional battlefield, their commander dying on the doorstep of his home, fatally wounded by a British musket ball. The British pushed towards Concord to seize the colonists’ weapons only to find themselves fighting for their own lives.

 

As individual companies or regulars were searching for weapons, they were attacked by militiamen at North Bridge. The regulars, outnumbered 4 to 1, pulled back into town to join the rest of the British forces. Even though they had received reinforcements, the retreat was hellish for the regulars, as patriots laid ambushes along the way. One of the best depictions of this event can be seen in Roland Emmerich’s 2000 movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson. As a result, more than 70 soldiers were killed and more than double that number wounded. By the time they had reached their barracks, the American Revolutionary War had already begun.

 

The Importance of Taking A Stand

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Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Compared to larger battles of the Revolutionary War, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill or the Battle of Trenton, what transpired on Lexington Common that fateful April morning was nothing more than a minor skirmish. In this sense, the battle was a huge loss for the American forces but ideologically speaking, John Parker and his men were moral victors. As the Great Seal of the United States reads today (E Pluribus Unum), out of many stepped out one (group of patriots) and altered the course of history.

 

As mentioned earlier, neither John on the rebels’ side nor the eponymous British major wanted a gunfight on that day. British forces had regularly conducted raids across the countryside, often failing to find any armament, and had to return to Boston empty-handed. However, up until then, the colonists were playing a game of hide-and-seek, as they didn’t want their weapons to be found, so they constantly changed the location of their arsenal, avoiding face-to-face contact with the British.

 

The Long Retreat

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Battle of Lexington by Cornelius Tiebout, c. 1790, via Library of Congres, Washington DC

 

Parker, a French and Indian War veteran, wanted merely to brandish the colonists’ weapons as an act of defiance that was more symbolic than practical. However, things don’t always go as planned during tense situations, which was a good thing on that April morning in Massachusetts when the Revolutionary War haphazardly started.

 

Although their commander had passed away earlier that day, Parker’s militiamen regrouped and were able to attack the retreating British, thus proving their determination to stand their ground and fight. Speaking of the retreat, by the time the British troops reached their barracks in Boston and Charlestown to the north, the Revolutionary War was in full swing, as some 15,000 armed colonists surrounded the British the following morning.

 

Immortalizing “The Shot Heard Round the World”

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USS Lexington on Corpus Christi Bay by unknown, n.d., via USS Lexington Corpus Christi Bay, Texas

 

Although the Battles of Lexington and Concord were important in their own right as the onset of the American Revolutionary War, they became famous after Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the “Concord Hymn” in 1837. He was one of the greatest American philosophers of the 19th century, an ardent abolitionist, and a transcendentalist. The poem was actually composed for the dedication of the Obelisk in Concord, Massachusetts that still stands there today, commemorating the Battle of Concord.

 

Around the same period, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which dealt with the same event. As years went by and schoolchildren across the newly-formed United States of America memorized these chants, so did the patriotic sentiment rise. Emerson helped introduce Lexington and Concord into American folklore, leaving a lasting legacy. For instance, in World War II, the US Navy had a carrier called the USS Lexington (CV-16). Today, the ship is docked at Corpus Christi, Texas, serving as a museum ever since it was decommissioned in 1991.

 

It must be noted that the “shot heard round the world” that started the Revolutionary War doesn’t refer to the famous shot fired in Lexington, as many falsely believe. The poem’s opening line, “By the rude bridge that arched the flood,” is a clear reference to the exchange of fire at North Bridge in Concord. However, the two battles are often categorized as a single military engagement, so it’s not a huge mistake to link the “Concord Hymn” to the events that occurred at Lexington Green.

 

Farmers’ Uprisings?

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The Boston Tea Party: Destruction of the Tea in Boston Harbor, December 16, 1773 by John Andrew, 1856, via Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (CT)

 

If we go back to the first stanza of the “Concord Hymn”, we see that Emerson calls American patriots “farmers:”

 

“Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.”

 

Such a stance corresponds to what his contemporary, the American poet Walt Whitman, considered to be the essence of the American people. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his famous 1860 poem “I Hear America Singing:”

 

“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown…”

 

For Whitman, mundane professions such as a carpenter and a shoemaker are the essence of the American nation. Similarly, Emerson used the simple American farmer as the perfect metaphor for the common folk that resisted a powerful foe. It is ironic that this “enemy” was their motherland which wanted to impose import tariffs and tax them without giving anything in return. From Thomas Paine’s political pamphlet Common Sense to the Boston Tea Party, all of these events contributed to the patriotic sentiment growing among common Americans. After all, the Age of Enlightenment had been sweeping across the Old World for a century. For this reason, the 1700s are often referred to as the “long” century.

 

The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Revolutionary War

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Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, 1826, via the Capitol, Washington DC

 

Estimates show that only a third of the population in the colonies at the time the “shot heard round the world” went off were in favor of the revolution. In fact, many Americans were royalists; they wanted a monarchy in the New World instead of the republic that the Sons of Liberty argued and battled for during the Revolutionary War. This makes the feat of George Washington’s men that much greater. Lexington Green was the chronotope of the colonists’ defiance, as they literally stood their ground and nothing more. By the time the British forces arrived, the die was cast in the heart and minds of patriots, so it matters little who fired the actual first shot. What matters is the fact that those men stood and stood for something!



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By Stefan PajovicPhD in Literature and English LanguageAn independent post-doc researcher from Serbia, Stefan regularly takes part in scientific conferences and publishes academic papers. His areas of interest include Anglophone literature, as well as cultural studies. He actively promotes science by holding workshops and lectures. In his free time, he likes to swim and travel his home country.