The Minute Man stands ever at the ready, musket in hand, poised to defend his rights. Behind him flaps the American flag, a summary of all he fought and died for in the American Revolution. It is here at the triangular-shaped Battle Green in Lexington, Massachusetts, that our nation’s fight for independence began.
Who Fired First?
On the morning of April 19, 1775, 77 militia under the leadership of Captain John Parker defiantly faced 700 red-coated British Regulars under the command of Major John Pitcairn on Lexington Common (later renamed Lexington Battle Green).
Each town in what was known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had a volunteer militia company, comprised of men age 16-60. In 1774, the Provincial Congress, led by John Hancock, recommended every town form “minute companies” that would be ready to march at a moment’s notice. The term Minute Men was often used interchangeably with militia.
Capt. Parker did not intend to fight, according to historians, but to only make a display of patriotic resolve. He famously declared, “Stand your ground, don’t fire unless fired upon, but if there means to be a war, let it begin here.”
At Maj. Pitcairn’s orders to disperse, the Minute Men slowly obeyed. Then a shot rang out, followed by a fusillade as the British soldiers, ignoring commands to stop, began firing at the fleeing Minute Men. When the battle was done, eight of them lay dead, 10 were wounded. Nobody ever determined who actually fired that first shot, but it triggered a war that would last more than eight years, and cost over 45,000 people their lives.
300 Years of History
Originally settled in 1642, Lexington, just 14 miles Northwest of Boston, was incorporated in 1713. Proud of their role in the Revolutionary War, the town has preserved much of its heritage through the restoration and maintenance of sites and original 18th Century historic homes that witnessed the battle and hosted such famous patriots as John Hancock and Samuel Adams; some are open to the public on a seasonal basis. Battle Green itself is a National Historic Landmark.
Each year in April, a living history event emerges at 5:45AM on Patriot’s Day. The Lexington Minute Men Company and British Tenth Regiment of Foot reenact the battle in great detail, thrilling large crowds. Each Minute Man in the company is required to research and portray one of the original militia members in order to preserve the memory of those who answered that long-ago morning’s call to arms. The first known re-enactment took place on April 19, 1822.
The American flag flies over Battle Green 24 hours a day by an Act of Congress. Completed on July 4, 1799, America’s oldest war memorial is also there, where seven of the eight Minute Men who died are buried. Interestingly, this is not their original resting site. They were first buried in the common grave at Ye Olde Burying Ground, and exhumed and reburied in 1835. The names of the men who took part in the battle are inscribed on the rear of the monument. Those killed have a star engraved beside their name; those wounded, a small heart.
A special monument is dedicated to Prince Estabrook, the first African-American solider to fight in the Revolution. Wounded in the battle, the 35-year-old slave served in the militia, and later served in the Continental Army for much of the war. He died at age 90 in 1830, a free man, as slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783.
The Minute Man Statue is a (relatively) new addition to the historic site. Erected in 1900, and sculpted by Henry Hudson Kitson, it is said to be a likeness of Captain Parker. Facing the direction from with the British Regulars approached, it stands on what was originally a drinking fountain for horses. Parker’s musket is on display in the Senate Chamber at the Massachusetts State House.
In 2025, Lexington will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Battle. The nearby Lexington Visitors Center is a must-stop place. It offers a wealth of historic information and guided tours (www.tourlexington.us).
Today, what was once largely open farmland is dotted with houses is a bustling community of tree-lined streets, shops and homes. Yet as you stand looking up at the stern gaze of Capt. Parker’s statue, you can glimpse the determination of purpose which would lead people to fight for a Constitution in which “all men are created equal,” and lay the foundation for the United State of America.