CHAPTER XIII. THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE BEGUN

LEXINGTON, 1775. - When the second Continental Congress met (May 10, 1775), the mother country and her colonies had come to blows.

The people of Massachusetts, fearing that this might happen, had begun to collect and hide arms, cannon, and powder. General Gage, the royal governor of Massachusetts and commander of the British troops in Boston, was told that military supplies were concealed at Concord, a town some twenty miles from Boston (map, p. 168). Now it happened that in April, 1775, two active patriots, Samuel Adams [1] and John Hancock, were at Lexington, a town on the road from Boston to Concord. Gage determined to strike a double blow at the patriots by sending troops to arrest Adams and Hancock and destroy the military stores. On the evening of April 18, accordingly, eight hundred regulars left Boston as quietly as possible. Gage hoped to keep the expedition a secret, but the patriots in Boston, suspecting where the troops were going, sent off Paul Revere [2] and William Dawes to ride by different routes to Lexington, rousing the countryside as they went. As the British advanced, alarm bells, signal guns, and lights in the villages gave proof that their secret was out.

The sun was rising as the first of the British, under Major Pitcairn, entered Lexington and saw drawn up across the village green some fifty minutemen [3] under Captain John Parker. "Disperse, ye villains," cried Pitcairn; "ye rebels, disperse!" Not a man moved, whereupon the order to fire was given; the troops hesitated to obey; Pitcairn fired his pistol, and a moment later a volley from the British killed or wounded sixteen minutemen. [4] Parker then gave the order to retire.

THE CONCORD FIGHT. - From Lexington the British went on to Concord, set the courthouse on fire, spiked some cannon, cut down the liberty pole, and destroyed some flour. Meantime the minutemen, having assembled beyond the village, came toward the North Bridge, and the British who were guarding it fell back. Shots were exchanged, and six minutemen were killed. [5] But the Americans crossed the bridge, drove back the British, and then dispersed.

About noon the British started for Boston, with hundreds of minutemen, who had come from all quarters, hanging on their flanks and rear, pouring in a galling fire from behind trees and stone fences and every bit of rising ground. The retreat became a flight, and the flight would have become a rout had not reinforcements met them near Lexington. Protected by this force, the defeated British entered Boston by sundown. By morning the hills from Charlestown to Roxbury were black with minutemen, and Boston was in a state of siege.

When the Green Mountain Boys heard of the fight, they took arms, and under Ethan Allen [6] surprised and captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain (map, p. 168).

THE SECOND CONTINENTAL CONGRESS. - On the day that Fort Ticonderoga was captured (May 10, 1775), the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia. It had been created, not to govern the colonies, nor to conduct a war, but merely to consult concerning the public welfare, and advise what the colonies should do. But war had begun, Congress was forced to become a governing body, and after a month's delay it adopted the band of patriots gathered about Boston, made it the Continental army, and appointed George Washington (then a delegate to Congress from Virginia) commander in chief.

Washington accepted the trust, and left Philadelphia June 21, but had not gone twenty miles when he was met by news of the battle of Bunker Hill.

BUNKER HILL, JUNE 17,1775. - Since the fight at Lexington and Concord in April, troops under General Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and General Burgoyne had arrived at Boston and raised the number there to ten thousand. Gage now felt strong enough to seize the hills near Boston, lest the Americans should occupy them and command the town. Learning of this, the patriots determined to forestall him, and on the night of June 16 twelve hundred men under Prescott were sent to fortify Bunker Hill in Charlestown. Prescott thought best to go beyond Bunker Hill, and during the night threw up a rude intrenchment on Breeds Hill instead.

To allow batteries to be planted there would never do, so Gage dispatched Howe with nearly three thousand regulars to drive away the Americans and hold the hill. Coming over from Boston in boats, the British landed and marched up the hill till thirty yards from the works, when a deadly volley mowed down the front rank and sent the rest down the hill in disorder.

A little time elapsed before the regulars were seen again ascending, only to be met by a series of volleys at short range. The British fought stubbornly, but were once more forced to retreat, leaving the hillside covered with dead and wounded. Their loss was dreadful, but Howe could not bear to give up the fight, and a third time the British were led up the hill. The powder of the Americans was spent, and the fight was hand to hand with stones, butts of muskets, anything that would serve as a weapon, till the bayonet charges of the British forced the Americans to retreat. [7]

WASHINGTON IN COMMAND. - Two weeks later Washington reached Cambridge and took formal command of the army. For eight months he kept the British shut up in Boston, while he gathered guns, powder, and cannon, and trained the men.

To the Continental army mean time came troops from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and of course from the four New England colonies, commanded by men who were destined to rise to high positions during the war. There was Daniel Morgan of Virginia, with a splendid band of sharpshooters, and Israel Putnam of Connecticut, John Stark and John Sullivan of New Hampshire, Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, Henry Knox of Boston, Horatio Gates of Virginia, and Benedict Arnold and Charles Lee who later turned traitors.