On the afternoon of April 19, 1775 as Lieutenant Colonel Smith’s force of Regulars reached Lexington common where they had killed eight men and wounded ten others earlier that morning, things were not going in their favor. Minute and militia companies from all over the countryside swarmed the column on their return back to Boston, shooting at them from behind walls, barns, houses, and trees. The Regulars were low on ammunition and had lost a number of men killed and wounded.
Then Lord Percy arrived with his fresh relief force, a brigade of around one thousand men. As Reverend William Gordon described “But a little on this side Lexington Meeting-House where they were met by the Brigade, with cannon, under Lord Percy, the scene changed. The inhabitants had quitted their houses in general upon the road, leaving almost everything behind them, and thinking themselves well off in escaping with their lives. The soldiers burnt in Lexington three houses, one barn, and two shops, one of which joined to the house and a mill-house adjoining to the barn; other houses and buildings were attempted to be burnt, and narrowly escaped.” Things would get worse as both sides took out years of frustration on each other.
Primary sources record that the Regulars began shooting at doors and windows of every home along the route back to Boston. This was aimed at stopping the Provincials from inflicting casualties on the retreating army. In some cases the British set fire to homes along the way. At Buckman’s Tavern in Lexington, Smith’s forces began to meet up with Percy’s, and at least one musket shot struck the building. On March 13, 2020, we were able to examine the original front door displayed in the tavern just feet away from where it was originally hung. While this was part of a larger study that will be assembled and published at a later date, the anniversary of the event is a good chance to share a small piece of the much broader study.
The door was first inspected to verify its age and authenticity. It fits all of the construction methods for a door of the third quarter of the 18th century. The bullet hole is located close to the bottom edge of the door and measures approximately .70 in diameter. The exterior side of the door shows a fairly round entrance hole and an open path through the door at a very noticeable horizontal angle, but a fairly level vertical angle. The exit side is typical of others that we have documented in that as it passed through the door it blew out wood fragments from the inside panel leaving a splintered surface around the exit hole. Following the trajectory of the ball we could see where it would have likely impacted interior architectural elements but interior wall paneling in that location has been replaced since April 19, 1775, thus no secondary impact evidence could be located.
Using a ballistics rod and a compass, we were able to determine approximately where outside the tavern the shooter was standing when he fired. The tavern sits upon a noticeable rise that slopes towards Massachusetts Avenue. Looking at the grade changes outside the structure and combining that with the low impact point on the door and the nearly horizontal patch the bullet traveled through the door, we can surmise that it was likely fired fairly close to the tavern at the bottom of the slope in front. The trajectory matches what a soldier firing a musket from the natural firing position at this lower ground elevation could accomplish. This would more than likely make this strike from the Regulars return to Boston and Percy’s arrival and not earlier in the day. From this point on, the fighting would get heavier and more destructive to property as well as human life.
There are many other ball strikes from April 19 to be shared along with all of the data, but that will be saved for the much larger study. Stay tuned!
-Joel Bohy and Christopher Fox
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.