Today in history, on April 18, 1775, the British military began to plan an expedition to seize the gunpowder store in Concord, Massachusetts.
Encouraging patriot riders to alert locals to approach of British soldiers, the decision was a watershed moment in the struggle for American independence, and led to the first armed confrontation between the British crown and militia from colonial Massachusetts.
On the morning of April 18, Royal Governor Thomas Gage ordered a mounted patrol to find and imprison Samuel Adams and John Hancock, the two most influential patriot leaders in Boston. The two men had been deemed the only two unworthy of amnesty, and newspapers in London declared they would be hung if caught. By that time, however, both men had fled Boston and taken refuge in a Lexington home owned by one of Hancock’s relatives. In addition, he commanded 700 soldiers to seize gunpowder stores in Concord, 20 miles west of Boston.
Hoping to avoid a campaign of individual disarmament, Gage hoped to repeat the successes of his seizure of the Somerville Powder House the year prior, where the governor’s forces removed gunpowder from a similar store in Somerville. The result of that incident was the Powder Alarm, a concerted plan of mobilization as the result of a false rumor that American blood had been shed at the hands of the British.
Though the rumor proved to be untrue, the incident laid the groundwork for future mobilization of militia in Massachusetts, and served as a test run in the event that the redcoats were to be confronted.
The attempt to seize the gunpowder in Concord spurred various patriot riders, such as Paul Revere, to warn the local communities that the Britain were en route, and encourage their militia forces to mobilize for defense. In doing so, they emulated the quick response that was seen during the Powder Alarm. The event became known as the “midnight ride,” and its success allowed patriot locals to remove gunpowder from traditional storage locations such that the Britain could not seize them.
Contrary to the oft-repeated claim that Revere shouted “the British are coming,” he actually warned patriots that “the regulars are coming out.”
There were as many as 40 riders, each taking a different route to alert patriots throughout Middlesex County. During the ride, three of the patriot riders – including Revere – were arrested and detained by the British Army. After being threatened by gunpoint, Revere advised against approaching Lexington, making clear that hostile militia forces were mustering there. Nonetheless, the riders were brought near Lexington, where the opening gunshots rang out.
When forced to answer, Revere admitted the shots were a signal to “alarm the country,” and the Lexington town bell began to ring. Now panicked, the British soldiers decided against moving closer to Lexington. Instead, they seized Revere’s horse, released the three captured riders, and moved toward Boston to alert their superiors. If not for the timing, Revere may never have gone free. As the opening gunshots of the Battle of Lexington rang out, Revere helped Hancock and his family escape.
A breaking point in the schism between the crown and the colonies, the forthcoming Battles of Lexington and Concord encouraged a concerted response from Britain’s North American colonies. In large part, these circumstances led to the formation of the Second Continental Congress, a convention of delegates from the colonies tasked with responding to the crisis.