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Early Conflicts and Colonial Actions: 1774–1776

Early Battles of the American Revolution

Tension Grows in Massachusetts

In 1773–74 tensions rose between American colonists and Britain, sparking acts of civil disobedience by the colonists and punitive actions by the British.

King George III and the British Parliament were furious about the Boston Tea Party of 1773, an event in which trunks filled with tea were dumped into Massachusetts Bay to protest the import taxes levied upon it. The culprits were a group of colonial rebels who opposed British parliamentary rule, known as the Sons of Liberty. As punishment, the British government imposed the Coercive Acts of 1774. The Coercive Acts, called the Intolerable Acts by many colonists, outlined four harsh punishments. One of these was called the Massachusetts Government Act, which established a British military government in lieu of the Massachusetts legislature that had been in effect since 1691. These new laws only fueled colonial unrest. General Thomas Gage, the commander of all British troops in the colonies from 1763 to 1774, suspected the colonists were revving up for war. He ordered his troops to begin seizing supplies of weapons and gunpowder stocked by colonists in the summer of 1774.

Although they were surprised by the raids at first, the colonists soon figured out how to use them to their advantage. Organizations such as the Sons of Liberty, which often had insider information about the British army's movements, would tell the local Committee of Correspondence about the next raid. The committee would then dispatch a messenger to the town in question to warn local allies, who would prepare for the arrival of the British army. Colonial women also played a prominent role in the rebellion. The Daughters of Liberty, much like the Sons of Liberty, was an organization of colonial women formed in response to British taxation on the colonies. However, rather than participating in riots and protests like the Sons of Liberty, the Daughters of Liberty organized boycotts and began manufacturing goods at home to end colonial reliance on British goods.

Paul Revere's Warning

In April 1775 three members of the Sons of Liberty alerted patriots near Boston about the impending arrival of the British army.

In April 1775 the rebels learned of a British plan to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Both men were part of the Sons of Liberty and members of the illegal Massachusetts legislative body formed the previous summer. On April 18 Paul Revere, a silversmith and messenger for the rebel cause, was instructed to ride to Lexington and warn Adams and Hancock the British were coming. He was then to ride to nearby Concord, where it was suspected the British were going to raid another stockpile of weapons.

No one was sure if the British would be arriving over land or by crossing the Charles River. Revere stationed a friend in the tower of Christ Church as a lookout. The man lit two lanterns when he saw the British were coming "by sea." Revere set off for Lexington around 11:00 p.m. He arrived an hour later and alerted Adams and Hancock about the impending danger. Revere was then joined by William Dawes, a substitute messenger who could still deliver the message if Revere were to be captured. They rode on toward Concord, where they met another Son of Liberty, Dr. Samuel Prescott. The three men were soon caught by a British patrol. Revere was held for questioning, but Dawes and Prescott escaped. Historical accounts of what happened next are unclear, but it is generally agreed Prescott was the only rider to make it to Concord to deliver the warning.
Paul Revere is often given sole credit for his warning about the British army, though he was joined by William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott. Revere's fame stems from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called "Paul Revere's Ride."
Credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Paul Revere's ride, April 19, 1775." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1777 - 1890.

Lexington and Concord

The first gunshots of the American Revolution were exchanged in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1775.

Thanks to Paul Revere and William Dawes, news about the impending maneuvers of the British army spread from town to town in the early morning hours of April 19, 1775. Sons of Liberty Samuel Adams and John Hancock had escaped Lexington after the two messengers' warnings, but many colonists took the alert as a rallying cry. Two months earlier, British Parliament had declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. This meant British soldiers—known as redcoats because of their bright red uniforms—were given permission to shoot suspected rebels on sight. Fearing the worst, colonial volunteer soldiers began preparing for the arrival of British troops.

Seventy-seven minutemen were waiting for the 700 British soldiers who entered Lexington just after dawn on April 19, 1775. A tense standoff was broken by a single gunshot, which later became known as "the shot heard 'round the world" that started the American Revolution. It is unclear which side shot first, but both sides began firing in response. Greatly outnumbered by the British troops, within minutes 10 minutemen had died, and 9 more were injured.

British forces marched to Concord to complete their mission of seizing stockpiled weapons and ammunition. Heeding the warning from Dr. Samuel Prescott, colonial rebels had moved or destroyed the targeted supplies early that morning. When the British arrived, only a cannon, some musket balls, and a few sacks of flour were left. As the British army ransacked the remaining weaponry, approximately 400 colonists confronted a group of redcoats stationed at Concord's North Bridge. The redcoats retreated.

American Victories

Despite the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, neither the British nor the American colonists were ready to sever the ties between Britain and the 13 colonies.

On their 18-mile march back to Boston, the British soldiers were overtaken by 1,000 minutemen ready to fight. British commanders called for more troops, but even the additional 1,100 soldiers couldn't quell the colonial uprising. A bloody battle ensued. At the end of the day, the British suffered 273 casualties, soldiers or civilians severely wounded or killed in battle. The colonists suffered fewer than 100 casualties. Although Lexington and Concord, the two battles that started the American Revolution, are generally considered to be British military victories, they greatly boosted the morale of the American patriots.

War between Great Britain and its American colonies had begun, but it hadn't yet become a war for independence. Most American colonists still liked being part of Great Britain and supported the monarchy. Their major problem was with British Parliament's governance of the colonies, which they felt was unfair. King George III was furious about the American armed uprising and was ready to treat the colonies as an enemy force, but his subjects at home were worried. Between imports of raw materials and exports of finished products, the colonies played a major role in Britain's economy. Losing them would be a huge blow to British commoners.

Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill, which actually took place on Breed's Hill in 1775, was a win for the British army but proved the Continental Army had a chance of winning the war.

The British army made it back to Boston after the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Even though the day's battles were over, hundreds of Massachusetts minutemen continued to heed the call for arms put forth the night before. They formed a human wall around the city, effectively surrounding the British army. Other northeastern colonies also sent their militias to join the fray. Within a week, over 16,000 patriots were stationed outside Boston to prevent the 6,500 British soldiers inside the city from leaving. Back then Boston was nearly an island. Only a thin strip of land connected it to the mainland. This made it easy for the patriots to keep the redcoats in one place.

The Siege of Boston went uncontested for two months until mid-June 1775 but would ultimately last 11 months. American soldiers, who now all fell under the umbrella of the Continental Army, heard rumors that General Thomas Gage was going to move soldiers to a hill called Dorchester Heights. Its position would give the British a good vantage point from which to start firing on the Americans. The colonists decided to move their own troops into the hills just outside of Boston to the north and south. On June 16, 1775, they mistakenly marched past Bunker Hill and hunkered down on Breed's Hill. This, plus a mislabeled British map, is why the battle is commonly known as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The next morning 2,300 British soldiers crossed the Charles River and began charging up Breed's Hill. The Americans, though untrained and ill-equipped compared to the professional British soldiers, managed to hold their own for the first part of the battle. But their ammunition didn't last long, and they began fighting hand to hand against the redcoats armed with bayonets, sharp, swordlike weapons mounted on the end of Revolutionary-era guns. After two hours of combat, the British suffered 1,054 casualties to the Americans' 450. The British technically won the battle because they "took" Breed's Hill, but their ranks were so depleted they knew they couldn't take Dorchester Heights. They retreated to Boston, where they stayed until March 1776.

George Washington, the new commander of the Continental Army who would become president, arrived shortly after the battle. He established a chain of command, or hierarchy of officers, to maintain order within the ranks and communicate and enforce battle strategy. Even in defeat, the patriots were energized. Although they lacked organization and experience, they had a chance of besting the British army in a long-term war.

The Siege of Boston, 1775

A British map of the Boston area reversed the names of two hills. As a result, the battle fought on Breed's Hill became known as the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Credit: Page, Thomas Hyde, Sir, 1746-1821/Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division