The 1775 Battle of Bloody Angle was a defining moment in the Revolutionary War. It was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War and is often called the battle that got America’s attention.
In 1775, two opposing armies meet at Bloody Angle in an engagement that was the bloodiest of the war between the colonies and Great Britain. This is the story of how the Battle of Bloody Angle unfolded.
On July 11, 1775, British forces were busy besieging the American rebels at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and they were getting there a lot faster than they thought they would. Not too far from the battlefield, American militia were planning a surprise attack on the British troops. But the soldiers were prepared, and they also had a support force that was poised to ambush the Americans.
The “Lexington Minuteman,” created by Henry Hudson Kitson and unveiled in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1900, honors all militiamen who fired the “shots heard round the world.” (Daderot)
During the late winter and early spring of 1775, the relationship between Great Britain and the American colony of Massachusetts Bay deteriorated dramatically. The commander of British forces in North America, Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, got orders from London on April 14 to disarm colonial militias and arrest rebel leaders. The Massachusetts militia was collecting guns and supplies in Concord, 16 miles west of Boston, according to British intelligence. Gage sent a task force to Concord on April 18 to capture and destroy the military stores “with the utmost speed and secrecy.”
Lt. Col. Francis Smith, commander of the 10th Regiment of Foot, was entrusted with the Concord mission by Gage. Rather of allocating the job to entire regiments, Gage formed a task force, assembling light infantry and grenadier companies from his commanding regiments as well as the 1st Battalion of Royal Marines. More than 700 men were assigned to the 21 companies. Smith’s second-in-command was Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn. Between them and the 21 companies, there was no intermediary command. Only elite personnel were used in Gage’s unconventional task force, indicating the mission’s seriousness.
The British regulars were led by Francis Smith to and from Lexington and Concord. (National Army Museum, United Kingdom)
A British infantry regiment in 1775 consisted of one grenadier company, one light infantry company, and eight battalion companies. The elite forces were the grenadiers and light infantry. The grenadiers were described as “the tallest and stoutest warriors, accordingly the first upon all attacks” by the London Encyclopedia of the time. These shock warriors were deployed to break through barriers and perform other heavy tasks. Grenadiers fought on the regiment’s right side. Light infantry served as flankers, protecting the formation’s left flank.
The Model 1756 long land design “Brown Bess” musket was carried by British troops in colonial North America. The smoothbore fired a.69-caliber ball with a maximum effective range of roughly 100 yards. The Redcoats on their way to Concord were given 36 rounds of ammunition in Boston, which was the standard load for a British infantryman at the time. On the march, they would not be resupplied. The Redcoats also had bayonets, which gave them a significant advantage against the Patriot militia in close combat.
All able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 were compelled by Massachusetts law to join their local militias. Several of their officers had previously served in British operations against the French and Indians. The colonial government also pressed each town to assemble a third of its militia into “minutemen” companies, which were mostly made up of younger men who were given additional training and pledged to respond quickly in an emergency. However, the majority of the Patriots who would engage the British as they fled Concord were regular militiamen. Furthermore, most militiamen fought with their own muskets, shot, and powder, despite the fact that towns purchased arms and ammunition. Only a few people had bayonets.
Locally crafted hunting and military designs, commercial arms purchased from private makers, firearms drawn from provincial arsenals, confiscated Loyalist arms, state purchases of spare guns from civilians, surplus arms from European dealers, and muskets issued in North America by the British during previous conflicts were among the militia weapons.
On April 19, 1775, immediately after sunrise on Lexington Green, Captain John Parker’s 77 militiamen were the first to attack the British. (U.S. National Guard/Don Troiani)
On April 18, the Patriots learnt of Smith’s expedition to Concord and dispatched dispatch riders (including the famous Paul Revere) to warn nearby townships that the British were on their way. Militiamen from all around the region, including Concord, began gathering in their hometowns. On April 19, around 2 a.m., the Redcoats began advancing west from Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston proper. By 5 a.m., the column had arrived at Lexington, some 7 miles from Concord, when they engaged the local militia in a skirmish, pouring the first blood of the American Revolutionary War.
Around 7 a.m., the British landed in Concord. The militia evacuated to the outskirts when the Redcoats marched into town. The stockpiled military supplies were then seized by detachments of soldiers deployed by Smith. He dispatched a party of soldiers 2 miles north of town to seek Colonel James Barrett’s militia commander’s farm. Following a search of the town, British troops shattered and set fire to many artillery carriages. Militiamen from Concord, Acton, Lincoln, Bedford, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Groton, Littleton, Stow, and Westford—a total of 500 men—confronted Redcoats manning the North Bridge over the Concord River near Barrett’s property, enraged by the sight of smoke rising from the middle of town. As the Patriots neared, the British unleashed a volley. In an action remembered as the “shot heard round the world,” the militiamen returned fire, killing several Redcoats and wounded many more. The British withdrew to Concord, bloodied.
Capt. Isaac Davis’ company of militiamen from Acton clashes with troops from the 4th (King’s Own) Foot at Concord’s North Bridge in the conflict known as the “shot heard round the world.” (U.S. National Guard/Domenick D’Andrea)
The Redcoats stayed in Concord for several hours after the battle at North Bridge. They demolished a stash of confiscated military supplies, reorganized their dispersed soldiers, and arranged for the transportation of their injured. Smith didn’t seem to be in a hurry. That would prove to be a blunder, as militiamen disseminated the message and converged on Concord as the British lingered.
After a five-hour pause at Concord, the British force finally resumed their return journey to Boston around noon. Smith took the precaution of stationing 80 to 100 flankers on a ridge to the left, or north, of Bay Road, the outbound path, at the start of the march. The main column marched unmolested for approximately a mile to Meriam’s Corner, a local landmark. Bedford Road came down from the north to meet Bay Road at that point. Bay Road crossed Mill Brook just past the crossing. Although it is now simply a trickle, in 1775 it was a raging torrent that required a bridge to cross. The ridge ended just shy of Bedford Road, therefore Smith ordered the flankers to rejoin the main group to cross Mill Brook as the Redcoats approached the bridge.
Smith didn’t seem to be in a hurry. That would prove to be a blunder, as militiamen disseminated the message and converged on Concord as the British lingered.
Patriot militia began converging at Meriam’s Corner around the time the British began crossing the bridge. New companies arrived from Reading, Billerica, and Bedford in the north. The militiamen who had battled at North Bridge marched north of Concord through open meadow known as the Great Meadow. Patriots took up positions surrounding Nathan Meriam’s home and outbuildings, within 100 yards of Bay Road, as Smith’s flankers rejoined the main column. Six small militia companies from Sudbury stood across open fields south of the road, keeping a respectful distance from the British.
The rear guard turned and fired a wild volley to chase off approaching militia as the last of the British men crossed Mill Brook. That was all the Patriots needed as an excuse. They fired a salvo at the retreating Redcoats from both sides of Bay Road. Two British soldiers were killed and numerous more were injured when the smoke cleared. A chronicle of that fatal day said, “Up to this point, the balance of the day might have passed without incident.” “The few minutes of activity at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge could have been written off as part of a chronicle with no conclusion or long-term implications. This, however, was not to be the case…. There would be no turning back from this volley.”
Militiamen tracked the British force’s retreat east on Bay Road, sniping at the Redcoats from both sides of the road. Smith redeployed his flankers after crossing Mill Brook, which helped deter the Patriots from drawing too closely, and inflicted casualties on the militia. The British column reached Brooks Hill (also known as Hardy’s Hill) less than a mile after passing through Meriam’s Corner, where militiamen had lined the road. The Patriots were able to lay down precise fire on the Redcoats from close range thanks to the wooded terrain and buildings on the Brooks farm and at Brooks Tavern. The British were able to push through the storm of musket fire with the support of their flankers, but the worst was still to come.
Patriot militiamen confront British troops retiring east from Concord toward the Bloody Curve in a contemporaneous illustration. (Granger/Sarin Images)
Woburn is a small community located 4 miles northeast of Lexington. A lone horseman rode through at 1 a.m. on April 19 to warn officials that the British were advancing out of Boston, and the Woburn Militia promptly began assembling. “The town turned out extraordinary,” said local commander Maj. Loammi Baldwin, “and we went toward Lexington.” Baldwin and three companies of Woburn Militia, totaling around 250 men, marched through dirt roads and across farmland. Despite hearing “a terrific shooting” from Lexington, the Woburn men were too late to take a stand on the green with their neighbors. When they arrived, they were furious to discover “eight or ten dead.”
Baldwin sent his forces to Concord to pursue the British. They stopped for a drink of water at Tanner’s Brook, a brook that cuts over Bay Road about 4 miles west of Lexington. They were about to go on when they heard combat on Brooks Hill and saw approaching Redcoats. According to Baldwin’s recollection, the Woburn Militia “then decided to scatter and make advantage of the trees and walls for defense and attack.” They dashed uphill to a sharp northeasterly bend on Bay Road, where they took up positions in an apple orchard above the road.
The Bloody Angle, a half-mile of Bay Road between the two bends, provided ideal cover and shelter for an ambush.
The British line of march descended into Tanner’s Brook’s small ravine from Brooks Hill. The road climbed for another 100 yards before reaching the first of two turns to the left, or northeast. The road ascended steeply beyond the first bend before leveling off as it approached the second bend. The broad meadow to the left, or west, side of the road was sprinkled with huge trees. To the right of the first bend was an apple orchard, and to the left of the second was a woodlot with younger trees. The Bloody Angle, a half-mile of Bay Road between the two bends, provided ideal cover and shelter for an ambush.
The Patriots converged on the stretch of Bay Road between the bends ahead of the Redcoats, taking advantage of their familiarity with the terrain and surrounding roads. The British had the advantage of inside lines before reaching the Bloody Angle, forcing the Patriots to travel farther and faster to keep up with the Redcoat column. Following the battle at Brooks Hill, some militiamen crossed across to Bay Road beyond the first bend, allowing them to reach the wooded pasture ahead of the Redcoats—a classic example of the employment of interior lines. Other militiamen who had battled at Meriam’s Corner marched cross-country across the Great Fields before mounting a forested ridge to reach Bay Road and take up fire positions near the second bend. From behind, a third troop of Patriots pursued the Redcoats. Despite common belief that each man fought on his own, the militia really moved as companies, each under the leadership of its commander. “The rebels were working together with lethal efficiency,” historian Walter Borneman observed, “far from being a disorderly rabble.” The British were going to march through a half-mile firestorm.
The British mission planned for 700 British regulars to march 16 miles west from Boston to Lexington and Concord, looking for Patriot military caches. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
The Redcoats marched quickly down the east face of Brooks Hill after passing through the ambush. It was 1:30 p.m. at the time.
Militiamen from Westford, Stow, and Groton harassed the rear of the column after arriving from their homes west of Concord. The restricted terrain led Smith to recall his flankers to cross Tanner’s Brook at the bottom of the hill, where the Lincoln Bridge bridged the stream. After passing across Lincoln Bridge, the exhausted Redcoats struggled 100 yards uphill to the first bend. The light company of the 10th Foot, led by Capt. Lawrence Parsons, was in the lead. Parsons was the only one of his company’s officers that was unharmed. As they approached the bend, the British were met by a hail of musket fire from Woburn militiamen hiding behind stone walls and in the apple orchard. The Woburn men dashed into the adjacent woodlot after firing to keep the British column under fire.
Patriots across the road took their turn when the Woburn Militia began fire on the British column’s right flank. Militiamen from Reading, Redford, Chelmsford, Billerica, and others who had engaged the enemy at Brooks Hill shot on the tired Redcoats from behind enormous trees in the forested pasture. To push back the Patriots, Smith dispatched flankers, but they were not as successful in confronting militiamen sheltering behind big trees as they had been in the more open area near Concord. The trees provided good cover, and as the flankers got closer to the hidden militiamen, they became better targets.
The Redcoats arrived in Bloody Angle as a well-organized military force and left as a bloody mob. The fact that the British officers and soldiers survived at all is a credit to their determination and professionalism.
The Redcoats battling at the Bloody Angle were up against a number of obstacles. The Patriots, for starters, outnumbered them by more than 2-to-1. As they ran out of ammo, the British decision to give each man with the basic load of 36 rounds of shot and not plan for resupply began to backfire. The Patriots would overwhelm Smith’s force if he permitted the column to stop and confront the militia. The British didn’t even have time to attend to casualties, so they abandoned wounded companions on the side of the road. Because the majority of the officers were killed or wounded, the British sergeants took command and kept the column moving forward. Their condition was rapidly deteriorating. The British began to break at that moment, halfway between the two bends.
The Redcoats sped uphill to the second bend, where militiamen from Concord and other towns awaited their arrival. The Patriots fired a volley as the British approached the bend on the run. From the woodlot across the road, the Woburn Militia continued to fire on them. Despite being slowed by these violent attacks, the column continued on its way. The Redcoats then got a break.
The terrain, which had been a source of frustration for the British all day, had suddenly turned into an ally. A hundred yards after the second bend, Bay Road crested a hill and began a half-mile gradual descent. Running downhill must have appeared like a godsend to the exhausted Redcoats. The roadside landscape was also in their favor, since it grew overgrown and marshy at the second bend, slowing Patriot pursuit. Running had saved the British lives, despite the fact that it was hard. They had survived the Bloody Angle, though they were still in danger, and had a few minutes to recuperate before the Patriots reformed and renewed their onslaught.
The tranquility of today’s Bloody Curve belies the bloodshed that occurred along this stretch of road in April 1775. (From the National Park Service).
The Redcoats arrived in Bloody Angle as a well-organized military force and left as a bloody mob. The fact that the British officers and soldiers survived at all is a credit to their determination and professionalism. The entire column may have been annihilated or captured if they had been less steadfast. During the action at Bloody Angle, eight Redcoats perished outright, 30 more got wounds of varied severity, and an unknown number went missing or were taken. During the retreat from Concord to Boston, the figures reflect roughly 15% of all British casualties. Five of the Redcoats killed at Bloody Angle were buried in a small cemetery in Lincoln the day after the conflict. Other British victims are still buried along Bay Road.
The Patriots did not come out of the game unharmed. At the Bloody Angle, three Massachusetts militiamen were killed: Jonathan Wilson of Bedford, Nathaniel Wyman of Billerica, and Daniel Thompson of Woburn. The majority of the Patriot casualties were caused by Redcoat flankers. Militia casualties, on the other hand, were unexpectedly low when compared to their rivals’ losses.
The Patriot groups swiftly regrouped and renewed their attacks on the besieged column, thus the British survivors of the Bloody Angle were not out of the woods. They would never have made it back to Boston if Smith’s command had not received reinforcements at Lexington in the form of 1,000 troops and two cannons under the command of Brig. Gen. Hugh Percy. As it was, militias from across eastern Massachusetts assembled along the British escape path, turning their withdrawal into a lengthy, terrible battle. The British eventually made it to Boston, but not before the Massachusetts militia unleashed its fury at the Bloody Angle.
Douglas L. Gifford, a historian and retired Army officer, specializing in American military history. He recommends Walter R. Borneman’s American Spring: Lexington Concord and the Road to Revolution, David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, and George C. Daughan’s Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World for further reading.
This article was published in Military History in September 2023. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Facebook for more updates.
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