In the spring of 1775, General Gage was told that the Americans had for a long time been secretly carrying to some place outside of Boston stores of gunpowder, guns, muskets and bullets, that there might be a supply whenever they were needed. He also learned that, in every town and village about Boston, companies were being formed for military drill. These men called themselves "Minute-men," because, as they said, they would be ready to enter battle against the British any time at a minute's notice.
Gage began to watch these signs of fight on the part of the colonists. Into all the towns about he sent spies to learn all they could about these military stores and these minute-men. Soon he learned that it was in the old town of Concord that the colonists were storing their ammunition.
"We will start out some dark night and capture those stores," said Gage.
"We will watch the British soldiers," said the Americans, "and see that they do not start off in the night to capture our stores."
"The colonists will be asleep," said General Gage, "and, if we are quiet, they will know nothing of our departure."
"We will keep our eyes on you, General Gage," said the colonists, "night and day; for we suspect you would like to steal our ammunition."
But as General Gage did not hear the colonists say these words, and had not yet learned that the colonists were fully as sharp as his own soldiers, he knew not that sentinels were pacing back and forth all night long, watching him; and that messengers were standing ready with their strong horses to ride out into the outlying towns with the alarm, if the British troops were seen to show any signs of marching.
At last, on the evening of April 18, 1775, one of these sentinels heard sounds and saw a stirring among these soldiers. Soon he saw them creep quietly down to the water and hurry into boats. There was no doubt now that the British were planning to cross the Charles River and set out for Concord.
In twenty minutes, two mounted horsemen were galloping away to rouse the farmers in all the towns around and warn them to be up and ready for fight. One of these messengers was Paul Revere; and as our own poet Longfellow has told the story of his ride in a way that all readers, little ones and big ones, like to hear, I think that instead of trying to tell it to you myself, I better write you the story of "Paul Revere's Ride" just as Longfellow himself told it.
In the little town of Lexington, a hundred brave minute-men awaited the coming of the British army. Of course there was no hope that a hundred farmer-soldiers could drive back the large army, but they were ready to do what they could.
Up came the red-coats with Major Pitcairn at their head. "Disperse, ye rebels," cried the major; "disperse! throw down your arms and disperse!" But the brave minute-men stood their ground. They neither threw down their arms nor did they disperse. Then one of the British officers, angry that they should dare defy him, discharged his pistol into the little band.
Now the minute-men, who had been told not to fire until they were fired upon, promptly returned fire, wounding three of the British soldiers. This was answered by a fierce volley from the British, and when the army passed on, they left eight brave farmer-soldiers dead upon the green.
Then, on the troops marched straight to Concord, their band playing Yankee Doodle—a song which had been composed by them to deride the colonists.
"Play Yankee Doodle, you old lobster backs," cried some boys from behind a fence; "but look out, Lord Percy, that you don't play "Chevy Chase" when you come back."
Now, as it happens that "Chevy Chase," was an old song of a battle in which this very Lord Percy's ancestors had figured, and had been defeated, you can imagine the young officer didn't enjoy the boy's joke very well; especially when some of his fellow-officers, who could appreciate a good joke even if they couldn't appreciate the courage of the colonists, joined in the laugh against him.
On reaching Concord, the troops took possession of the ammunition, rolled a hundred barrels of flour into the river, and started on, intending to cross the bridge at Concord. But there they found the brave minute-men mustered on the bridge, a hundred and fifty strong.
Statue to the Concord Minute Men
Immediately the command to fire was given, and two of the minute-men fell dead. Now there blazed back a volley from the little band, which compelled the British troops to fall back. From that moment the colonists had the best of the British troops.
Another volley, and away went the red-coats in full retreat back towards Lexington, the minute-men in full pursuit. On, on, the red-coats ran, while from every house and barn, from behind every fence and bush, rang the quick snap of muskets, shooting down the red-coats at every step. On, on, they ran, panting for breath (their tongues, so an English historian says, hanging out of their mouths), until they came into Lexington again.
Here they were met by Lord Percy's troops. These troops formed a hollow square about them; and they, breathless and exhausted, sank upon the ground, too breathless even to tell what had happened. Lord Percy's troops thus closed about them, and led them, when they had gained strength enough to march again, back to Boston. But all the way they were pursued and shot at on all sides by the colonists concealed by the roadside, until they were glad indeed, at sunset, to get back under the protection of the guns of the British man-of-war.