It’s a mystery that history has never solved. Who fired the shot heard ’round the world, the shot credited with igniting the Revolutionary War.
History records the war began on April 19, 1775. A small group of seventy-seven American militia came face to face with a column of seven hundred British Regulars on the town green in Lexington, MA. They had marched into Lexington to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock. (Unbeknownst to the British, Adams and Hancock had left Lexington)
The American militia group was under the command of Colonel John Parker, the British commanded by Major of Marines John Pitcairn. Either Major Pitcairn or another British officer approached the militia and yelled, “Throw down your arms! Ye scoundrels, ye rebels!” (Well, something of that sort)
Colonel Parker ordered his men to disperse. He had no desire for violence being that Adams and Hancock had left Lexington. As the militia broke ranks, someone fired.
Who fired that shot?
Following the battle, Colonel Parker, under oath, maintained he ordered his men not to shoot, but to disperse. As they followed his order, the British fired. Major Pitcairn, likewise under oath, stated he ordered his men to hold ranks, but not to fire. Once the shot fired, the American militia fired on the British.
Other American witnesses reported the British showed a lack of discipline that barred the British officers from restraining their troops. Pitcairn’s testimony gave credence to that allegation.
On that day, the British escorted a prisoner taken while they marched from Boston. Asahel Porter took the opportunity and attempted an escape, so it was possible British directed the shot at him. Asahel Porter was a causality on that day.
Other British reports stated the shot came from beyond the Lexington Green. Perhaps a shooter was hiding in a building or behind a stone wall. The British light infantry troops followed the shots with a bayonet charge, prepared to enter buildings before leaders could restore order.
So, did the British fire? Did the militia fire? Was a shot fired from the grassy knoll—oops, I mean—from beyond the town green? Did the British fire at an escaping prisoner?
Was this another magic bullet moment fired from nowhere by no one?
When the smoke cleared, eight American militia lay dead and nine wounded, with only one British injured.
Many say it’s best there’s no record of who fired that shot. Rumblings of war had begun long before that spring morning in 1775.
History will never solve the mystery of who fired “the shot heard ’round the world”. But it started the revolution that won America its independence.
“When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen; and we shall most sincerely rejoice with you in that happy hour when the establishment of American Liberty, upon the most firm and solid foundations, shall enable us to return to our Private Stations in the bosom of a free, peaceful and happy Country.”
—George Washington to New York Legislature, June 26, 1775
For a technical clarification, the shot fired in Lexington occurred in one of the first battles of the Revolutionary War. However, the phrase “Shot Heard Round the World” comes from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson titled, Concord Hymn. This poem references the Battle of Concord, which took place later in the day of April 19, 1775, where American Minutemen defeated the British on the North Bridge. Huzzah!
Overtime, historians attributed the phrase to the shot fired in Lexington.