Waving Flag

On 19 April 1775,
British and American soldiers exchanged fire in the Massachusetts
towns of Lexington and Concord, setting off the American Revolution.

This three part series explores the early days of the war from a Cambridge perspective.


Part I: Setting the Stage: Cambridge Before the War

Part II: Sounding the Warning: 18-19 April 1775

Part III: Retreat: Deadly Skirmishes in North Cambridge




Part I: Setting the Stage: Cambridge Before the War

In the mid-18th century, Cambridge was only a village. About 800 people lived within the present city limits, most of them near Harvard Square. One span, the Great Bridge, crossed the Charles River at the site of today’s Anderson Bridge (at the foot of John F. Kennedy Street). The eight-mile trip to Boston, via Brookline and Roxbury, occupied the better part of a day. An alternate route through Charlestown involved "the inconvenience of crossing a large Ferry."

What set Cambridge apart was Harvard College, one of only a dozen such institutions in British America. As the oldest and most prestigious, the "college at Cambridge" attracted students throughout the colonies.

The majority of the town’s residents were descendants of the early Puritan settlers. They worked as farmers, artisans, or tradespeople, worshiped in the Congregational church, and relied on local resources for their livelihoods. Many would fight for independence from British rule.

A much smaller group of wealthy families, many of whom were related by blood and marriage, lived on sizeable estates in the village and along today’s Brattle Street and Elmwood Avenue. Some also owned sugar plantations in Jamaica and Antigua in the Caribbean. A contemporary observer wrote: "Seven families had here farms, gardens, and magnificent houses, and not far off plantations of fruit. . . . Never had I chanced on such an agreeable situation." These families were all members of the Anglican parish of Christ Church (Zero Garden Street), and in the coming conflict would support the Crown. Adversaries labeled them Tories or loyalists.

Cambridge families of all political persuasions owned slaves, but most were held by the wealthy Tories. They worked as household servants, farm hands, gardeners, and craftsmen. An unknown number of free black citizens also lived in Cambridge.

Cambridge voters spoke out at an early date against the taxes imposed by the British Parliament. Beginning in 1765, the Town Meeting recorded its opposition to the Stamp, Townshend, and Tea acts. At least two Cambridge residents, John Hicks and Joshua Wyeth, participated in the destruction of 46 tons of tea in Boston Harbor on 16 December 1773—a protest later called the Boston Tea Party. As punishment, Parliament enacted a new series of acts, including the Regulatory Act, which abolished most elected governments in Massachusetts and replaced them with officials appointed by the king. Three Cambridge loyalists, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Oliver (who lived at Elmwood, 33 Elmwood Avenue) and Judges Samuel Danforth and Joseph Lee (of 159 Brattle Street, now home of the Cambridge Historical Society) were named to the Mandamus Council created by this act.

A conflict over gunpowder stored in the Provincial Powder House (still standing near Tufts University in Somerville) heightened tensions. The province and its towns were to share the powder, but the towns had removed their allotments. When William Brattle, a Cambridge loyalist, so informed the British commander, General Thomas Gage, the British became concerned that patriot elements might seize the provincial powder as well. On 1 September 1774, British soldiers removed 250 half barrels of powder from the Powder House. One detachment marched to Cambridge and carried off two small cannons.

The next day, thousands of citizens gathered on Cambridge Common and in Harvard Square to protest both the seizure of the gunpowder and the appointments of their neighbors to the Mandamus Council. A chance appearance by Benjamin Hallowell, one of the most hated customs officials in Massachusetts, resulted in shots being fired into the air; rumors began to circulate that war had broken out in Cambridge. That night, citizens demanded that Lt. Gov. Oliver resign from the council. He obeyed, noting: "My House at Cambridge being surrounded by about Four Thousand People in Compliance with their Commands I sign my Name." Over the next seven months, almost all the Cambridge loyalists left their homes and sought shelter in Boston.



Part II: Sounding the Warning: 18-19 April 1775

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town tonight,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Though every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."
. . .
Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street,
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed to the tower of the church,
Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead, . . .
. . . suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.
. . .
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere . . .
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns!

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Paul’s Revere’s Ride"
   from Tales of the Wayside Inn (Boston, 1863)

As April 1775 approached, rumors abounded in eastern Massachusetts: the British army’s next target would be the gunpowder and supplies stored in Concord; John Hancock and Samuel Adams, the patriot leaders who were staying in Lexington, would be arrested. By Tuesday, 18 April, the British were ready to act. After nightfall, the two lanterns burning in the belfry of Boston’s Old North Church alerted Paul Revere and other watchers that the British soldiers (called "redcoats" or "regulars") would advance by water. Two men rode out of Boston that night to alert Hancock and Adams in Lexington: Paul Revere and William Dawes, who had an hour’s march on Revere. (1)

Revere followed a long route through Somerville and Medford. Dawes took the eight-mile land route, leaving Boston by Roxbury Neck (safely passing through the British sentries posted there) (2), entering Cambridge over the Great Bridge (at the site of today’s Anderson Bridge), and riding along the present J.F.K. Street and Massachusetts Avenue toward Menotomy (Arlington). (3)

Later that night, the regulars rowed from Boston Common across the Charles River to present East Cambridge, landing near today’s Second Street. Due to a shortage of boats, it took about two hours for all the troops to cross. About 2:00 a.m., the redcoats finally began to march down today’s Gore Street into Somerville. They re-entered Cambridge at Beech Street and took the Great Road (Massachusetts Avenue) to Lexington. At 5:00 a.m., the first shots of the Revolutionary War were exchanged on Lexington Green. A second engagement took place four hours later at Concord’s North Bridge.

That morning, 1,000 British reinforcements under Lord Percy had left Boston following the land route used by William Dawes a few hours earlier. On reaching the Great Bridge, they discovered that the residents of Cambridge (4) had removed its planks to prevent their crossing. The thrifty citizens, however, had merely stacked the boards on the Cambridge bank of the river; the troops replaced them easily and continued through town unmolested. At Lexington, Percy’s detachment encountered the retreating British.

Word of the fighting at Lexington and Concord spread quickly, and the Cambridge militia responded promptly.



  1. William Dawes, Jr., was a member of an old family—the first William Dawes had arrived in America about 1635—that was actively involved in Boston society. His father, William, Sr., was a gold- and silversmith and may have been acquainted with Paul Revere, who was also a silversmith. In the 1760s and 1770s, Dawes became involved in radical political activity, including participating in political meetings in Faneuil Hall and the Old South Meeting House. The Cambridge Historical Commission has more information about Dawes and his ride, including Paul Revere’s Three Accounts of His Famous Ride (Massachusetts Historical Society, 2000); A Bicentennial History of the Midnight Ride of April 18-19, 1775 of William Dawes, First Rider for the Revolution, compiled by C. Burr Dawes (a descendant).

  2. Historic maps at the Commission show the British fortifications along the Neck.

  3. Dawes’ ride is commemorated in a small memorial, installed for the Bicentennial, at the southeastern end of Cambridge Common. A marker reads: "Passed this place, rode at the gallop at midnight April 18-19, 1775, William Dawes, first rider to alert the Minute Men that the British are marching to Lexington and Concord." A galloping trail of horseshoes runs down the center of the pedestrian sidewalk, laid in red bricks, that crosses the base of the triangle. The design of the shoes and their layout were the subject of painstaking research. The shoe was chosen from sketches, provided by Colonial Williamsburg, of horseshoes worn in the 1700s. A Sturbridge Village blacksmith forged an iron shoe, a plaster mold was made, and 25 bronze horseshoes were cast by the McGann Bronze Co. Then came the knotty question—how far apart should the hoofprints be spaced? An architect working on the memorial had a daughter who liked to ride horses. On a wintry day in the country, she rode her horse over a carefully smoothed stretch of dirt road at a Dawes-like gallop. The strides were measured and the bronze horseshoes laid out accordingly.

    Four history stations at the site provide information about the history of Cambridge from settlement to the 20th century.

  4. Some sources say that Dawes carried orders from Dr. Joseph Warren to the Cambridge militia, directing the militia to remove the planks.



Part III: Retreat: Deadly Skirmishes in North Cambridge

Word of the fighting at Lexington and Concord spread quickly. Some of the Cambridge militia marched toward Lexington; others readied an ambush at Harvard Square to await the redcoats’ return. One resident of Cambridge, Hannah Winthrop (1), described the scene in a letter to a friend.

Not knowing what the event would be at Cambridge at the return of these bloody ruffians, and seeing another brigade dispatched to the assistance of the former, looking with the ferocity of barbarians, it seemed necessary to retire to some place of safety till the calamity was passed. . . We were directed to a place called Fresh Pond, about a mile from the town, but what a distressed house did we find it, filled with women whose husbands had gone forth to meet the assailants, seventy or eighty of these, with numbers of infant children, weeping and agonizing for the fate of their husbands.

Toward sunset the fatigued regulars returned to Cambridge in full retreat. At Watson’s Corner (2) (the present intersection of Rindge and Massachusetts avenues) Cambridge patriots lay in wait behind a pile of barrels at, but were surprised by flanking redcoats. John Hicks (3) and Moses Richardson of Cambridge and Isaac Gardner of Brookline were killed, as was William Marcy, a "simple-minded youth" who thought he was watching a parade. A marker at 2158 Massachusetts Avenue commemorates the skirmish.

Down the street, at Cooper’s Tavern (4), the redcoats turned off the main road onto the present Beech Street. They avoided the ambush in Harvard Square, but several British soldiers died in a second skirmish near the corner of Beech and Elm streets. The remaining British troops retreated to Charlestown.

With the fighting on April 19, 1775, the War for Independence had truly begun. That night, the provincial Committee of Safety, the overseers of colonial civil defense, met in the home of Jonathan Hastings (5), on Cambridge Common. General Artemas Ward was chosen as the first commander-in-chief of the New England militias and selected Hastings’ house as his headquarters.

Within days, more than 20,000 armed men from all over New England had gathered in Cambridge. The Tories’ vacant estates, the empty Christ Church, and even Harvard’s brick buildings (6) all served as barracks, officers’ quarters, and hospitals. Soldiers camped on Cambridge Common in tents and other makeshift shelters. By order of the Committee of Safety, Harvard College canceled classes on May 1. More than 1,600 troops were quartered in the college buildings. (7) The New England men gathering on Cambridge Common––a rowdy and unkempt crew––would become the core of George Washington’s new American army.

The information in this series has been excerpted from "Washington Takes Command: Cambridge During the American Revolution," by Charles Bahne and the Map Committee of the Historic Cambridge Collaborative.  This publication is available for only $1.00 (includes shipping) at the Historical Commission and Historical Society.  Follow the link at the bottom of this page for more information on this map publication.


  1. Hannah Winthrop wrote extensively to her friend, Mercy Otis Warren, describing life in Cambridge during the Revolution. John Winthrop, Hannah’s husband, was a professor of mathematics at Harvard College and a great-great-grandson of the John Winthrop who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The family lived at 93 Mt. Auburn Street.
  2. Watson’s Corner was named for the farmer Abraham Watson. He was a member of Cambridge’s Committee of Correspondence and a delegate to the Provincial Congress in 1774. His house was originally at 2140 Massachusetts Avenue; it was moved to 181-183 Sherman Street in 1847.
  3. Hicks, who lived at 64 South Street, at Holyoke Street, was known to have participated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773. His house was moved to 64 J.F.K. Street in 1928. Hicks’ widow, Elizabeth, later lived with her daughter, also a widow, at 98 Winthrop Street
  4. Lord Percy and his men had stopped here for refreshment on their march to Lexington that morning.
  5. Jonathan Hastings was the college steward. His house, now demolished, was off Cambridge Street, next to the underpass, near Littauer Center.
  6. In 1775 Harvard College comprised five buildings: Massachusetts Hall (1718); Stoughton Hall (1699; demo. 1791); Harvard Hall (1764); Hollis Hall (1762); and Holden Chapel (1742). Massachusetts and Hollis halls each housed 640 soldiers; Stoughton Hall sheltered 240; and Holden Chapel, 160. Half a ton of lead from Harvard Hall’s roof was melted down for bullets.
  7. Classes resumed in Concord in October; the students did not return to Cambridge until June 1776.

The End

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