Brookline and the Battles of Lexington and Concord

April 18–19, 1775

Brookline, Massachusetts was one of the towns that mobilized its militia forces in response to the Lexington Alarm. The Brookline Militia engaged the British at the Battle of Menotomy and then joined the American forces that followed them to Boston.

Lexington and Concord, 1775, Brookline Militia

The Minuteman statue at Concord. Image Source: National Park Service.

Brookline Militia and the Battles of Lexington and Concord

The following account of the Brookline Militia and its role in the Battles of Lexington and Concord is taken from History of the Town of Brookline, Massachusetts, written by John Curtis Gould and published in 1933.

Please note that we have made minor text corrections and edits to the text, but have not changed the meaning. Spacing, section headings, and notes have been added to help readers scan and understand the text.

Facts About Brookline and the Battles of Lexington and Concord

  1. Brookline is southwest of Boston, Massachusetts. Today, it is a suburb in the Boston metropolitan area. It is about 9 miles southeast of Arlington, which is where the Battle of Menotomy was fought.
  2. On the night of April 18, William Dawes raised the alarm in Brookline, during his ride to Lexington.
  3. General Thomas Gage ordered General Hugh Percy to lead reinforcements to support Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, who led the expedition to Concord.
  4. 10-year-old Harrison Gray Otis was an eyewitness to the start of Percy’s march to Lexington.
  5. After Percy’s men left Boston, they crossed the “Great Bridge” over the Charles River.
  6. Three companies from Brookline responded to the Lexington Alarm. They were under the command of Colonel Thomas Aspinwall, Major Isaac Gardner, and Captain Thomas White.
  7. Captain Thomas White’s company engaged the British during the Battle of Menotomy, and the others likely did as well.
  8. Major Isaac Gardner was a Justice of the Peace and was killed by British troops at Watson’s Corner in Cambridge, just outside of Menotomy. A British newspaper correspondent claimed Isaac Gardner was mistakenly shot by a British soldier, but an American newspaper refuted the claim.
  9. Isaac Gardner was the only Harvard graduate killed during the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
  10. Brookline resident Dr. Eliphalet Downer was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a British soldier. Downer seized the soldier’s bayonet and proceeded to kill him with it.

Brookline, the Lexington Alarm, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord

The British Expedition to Concord

On the night of April 18, 1775, eight hundred British grenadiers embarked in boats from the foot of the Common at Charles Street. They landed on Phip’s farm, now East Cambridge, and marched through Cambridge to Lexington and Concord. 

Before daylight of the nineteenth, General Thomas Gage had received messages from Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, commanding the expedition, that the country was aroused and that reinforcements were urgently needed. This took place while Paul Revere rode to Lexington and Concord, and William Dawes went to Roxbury and Brookline, and thence by the present Harvard Street to Cambridge.

AHC Note — Paul Revere did not ride to Concord. Revere’s Midnight Ride ended when he was apprehended and arrested by British troops while he was on his way to Concord with William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott. Dawes and Prescott escaped and Prescott warned Concord.

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1775, Painting, Kendrick
This 1900 painting by Charles Kendrick depicts Paul Revere warning people during his Midnight Ride. Image Source: American Antiquarian Society.

General Hugh Percy and British Reinforcements

A detachment was immediately ordered out under the command of Lord Percy, consisting of three regiments of infantry, two divisions of marines, and two pieces of field artillery. These troops rendezvoused near King’s Chapel, in that part of the present Tremont Street which was then called “Long Acre.” The infantry was promptly on hand but orders were confused and the marines were not ready to march until about nine o’clock.

Harrison Gray Otis

Harrison Gray Otis, then a schoolboy in Boston, has described the scene in these words:

“On the 19th April 1775, I went to school for the last time. In the morning, about seven o’clock, Percy’s brigade was drawn up, extending from Scollay’s buildings, through Tremont Street, and nearly to the bottom of the Mall, preparing to take up their march to Lexington. A corporal came up to me as I was going to school and turned me off to pass down Court Street, which I did and came up School Street to the schoolhouse. It may well be imagined what great agitation prevailed, — the British line being drawn up a few yards from the school-house door.”

AHC Note — Harrison Gray Otis was 10 years old at the time. He went on to become a businessman, lawyer, and politician. He was related to Mercy Otis Warren and James Otis Jr. and was a prominent member of the Federalist Party.

Percy’s Route Through Roxbury and Cambridge

The reinforcements marched south through what is now Washington Street to Roxbury, up the hill by the Roxbury Meeting House to the right, where the Paul Dudley Parting Stone was then and is now.

AHC Note — Paul Dudley (1675–1751) was a Chief Justice in Massachusetts. He established a series of stones that were used as markers to guide travelers along the roads.

Here the northerly face of the stone directed to Cambridge and Watertown by way of the highway across Stony Brook and over the hill (now Parker Hill) into and through Punch Bowl Village — then a part of Roxbury and now the approach to the village section of Brookline.

The old Punch Bowl Tavern which gave the name to the locality stood on the right-hand side of the street where the Village Square transfer station in Brookline now is. In front stood the signpost with the swinging sign showing a punch bowl and lemon tree. 

Large trees shaded its hospitable entrance and just below was the tavern pump, while, where the railroad bridge now is, the road crossed the brook where the horses and cattle could get their refreshment, while their owners were enjoying theirs in the tavern tap room. 

Leaving Brookline the troops took the “Road to Cambridge” as it is designated on all the old maps. It was not named Harvard Street in Brookline until 1841 when the name was given to the road from the Baptist Meeting House towards Cambridge. There were no cross streets in that day and the column kept on its straightaway march to the causeway and “great bridge” across the Charles River at the place where Soldiers Field now welcomes the multitudes of spectators to the mimic battles of the gridironed stadium.

A Remarkable Scene to Witness

Can any of you picture to yourselves that scarlet-coated army marching along that road — a road winding along through the meadows and uplands and shaded by beautiful overhanging trees — the houses of farmers at widely scattered intervals, and yet a road much traveled between Boston, the surrounding towns, and the Colleges at Cambridge? 

Can you see on that old road the usual traveller on horseback, alone or with company, — perhaps with his wife or some member of his family on the pillion behind, with an occasional chaise or an infrequent coach or chariot with some colonial or ecclesiastical dignitary?

Can you imagine the scene — can you appreciate what must have been the feelings of families along the road as they watched the infantry marching by, the marines, the artillery — a scarlet-coated army of 1,200 soldiers, with flags flying, music playing — with baggage train and supplies — the officers no doubt laughing and joking among themselves, and the men in the ranks acting as if they were all out on a practice parade? 

Indeed, it seems as if the commanding officers could not have realized the seriousness of the occasion — otherwise, the boats would have been brought back from Cambridge to the Common and the long march would have been avoided, to say nothing of the saving of most valuable time.

Percy Crosses the Great Bridge in Cambridge

Leaving behind the Gardner House the troops followed the road towards the Colleges until they came to the causeway across the meadows and the river spanned by the “Great Bridge.” The Selectmen of Cambridge had thought to make the “Great Bridge” impassable. Those who carried out the orders were inexperienced in war and although they removed the floor boards they did not destroy or carefully conceal them, but piled them not far away on the Cambridge side. 

Percy’s soldiers crossed on the stringers of the bridge and relaid the flooring sufficiently for the troops and artillery to cross without serious delay. 

The Old Men of Menotomy

The baggage train, however, was so much delayed that it became separated from the main body and was cut off and captured in Menotomy (now Arlington).

AHC Note — The men who ambushed British wagons are known as the “Old Men of Menotomy.”

Lexington and Concord, Old Men of Menotomy, HMDB
This marker indicates where the Old Men of Menotomy attacked the British. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

Heath Orders the Planks on the Great Bridge Removed

General William Heath of Roxbury was one of the generals who were authorized to take command of the Minutemen when they should be ordered out. On his way to the scene of action after receiving the alarm, he ordered the planks to be again removed from the bridge, barricades to be erected, and the retreat of the British to be prevented should they return by the same route.

AHC Note — The Watertown Militia carried out Heath’s orders to remove the planks.

Brookline Militia Respond to the Lexington Alarm

Meanwhile, the men of Brookline had responded to the alarm, and three companies had assembled in front of the church on the Sherburne Road. Two were organized then and there, one of which was commanded by Colonel Thomas Aspinwall and the other by Isaac Gardner, who held no military title. The third was a regularly organized and drilled company of ninety-four men, led by Captain Thomas White. They remained under arms for more than three weeks after the day of Lexington and Concord.

AHC Note — Brookline’s militia commanders were Colonel Thomas Aspinwall, Major Isaac Gardner, and Captain Thomas White. Although this account says Gardner had no title, official records indicate his rank was Major.

Adhering to the maxim that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, the militiamen set out across country in the direction of Lexington, but did not encounter the British at North Cambridge until the King’s troops had commenced to move toward Boston. Then they took part in that harassing fire from the shelter of trees, buildings, and stone walls, that gave the English soldiers their first experience of what we now call sniping.

AHC Note — The route taken by the Brookline Militia took them between Watertertown and Cambridge, west of Boston.

American Militia Marching, Illustration
This illustration depicts Massachusetts Minutemen responding to the Lexington Alarm. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Isaac Gardner Killed at Watson’s Corner

According to family tradition, Isaac Gardner had taken leave of his wife and daughter that day in a manner that seemed fraught with premonition. With some men of his company, he took shelter behind some empty casks at what was known as Watson’s Corner, and was so intent on the approach of the main body of the British down the road that he failed to notice the appearance of their flank guard behind him. 

AHC Note — Watson’s Corner is an intersection in Cambridge. At the time, it was part of an area known as “Watson’s Plain.” It was just outside of Menotomy. Also, in the original text, Isaac Gardner is referred to as “Squire” Gardner. We have used his actual name to avoid confusion.

In the encounter which followed, he was killed, the only Harvard graduate among the patriots to die that day. Near him at the time was his eldest son, later General Isaac S. Gardner, who was then a lad of seventeen, serving as a fifer with Captain Thomas White’s company. 

When the remains, pierced by a dozen wounds of bullet and bayonet, were brought back to Brookline the second night after, this son was the only member of the family to view them before their secret burial. Secrecy was observed, lest Brookline patriots be inspired to unwise demonstrations against the British because of their great love for the squire, and because of the general grief and resentment which his death had occasioned.

A significant controversy arose over Isaac Gardner, and flourished for some time. Unable to believe that one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace could have participated in open revolt under arms, an English newspaper correspondent stated:

“This unfortunate Gentleman was not in arms, but returning to his family from a long journey, and lodged at Lexington the night preceding the action; early in the morning of which fatal day he set out for home, and on the road, being unarmed, he was barbarously shot in cold blood, by a Scotch grenadier of the King’s own regiment, though he begged for mercy and declared solemnly he had taken no part in that days disturbance. He has left a widow and large family of young children, who, it is hoped his most gracious Majesty will provide for.”

This account, however, did not go uncontroverted, for a reply to it appeared in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser of July 4, 1775, in these terms:

“Isaac Gardner, one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, was not killed as he was peaceably riding along, but was killed in the very act of attacking the King’s troops.

The rebels in their own accounts, confess this, and confute Mr. Potatoe Head’s falsehoods. Their account, dated the 24th of April, says that Isaac Gardner took 9 prisoners, that 12 soldiers deserted to him, and that his ambush proved fatal to Lord Percy and another general officer, who were killed the first fire. This is a clear refutation of Mr. Potatoe Head’s lying paragraph.”

William Aspinwall and Eliphalet Downer

Two other incidents of the day relate to Dr. William Aspinwall, brother of Captain Thomas Aspinwall, and to Dr. Eliphalet Downer. 

Dr. Aspinwall was notably alert and energetic against the enemy. When he observed a body of men under Captain Gridley awaiting the British at a point where he felt certain they would not pass, he sought to persuade that officer to move down toward the road to Charlestown, but without success. Then the doctor saw the British take the turn, shouted his discovery to the militiamen, leaped over a wall, and off in pursuit, nearly half of the company with him.

Dr. Aspinwall was blind in one eye and aimed from his left shoulder, but with commendable precision. It is related of him that he considered the marksmanship on both sides so faulty that he preferred to reload his gun while he stood on the side of a tree exposed to the enemy, rather than risk being shot by some member of his own party. He and the men who followed him harassed the retreating British until dusk overtook them near Charlestown.

Dr. Downer, called by General Heath an “active, enterprising man,” engaged in more than one hand-to-hand conflict during the day. His closest escape from death came when he offered medical aid to a wounded British soldier who rolled over, gun in hand, and threatened, “Damn yer, I’ll dress yer wound for yer!” Providentially a companion of the doctor shot the other as he was taking aim.

Aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord

When, at the close of day, the enemy had been pursued into Charlestown, the patriots who had fought that day, more as individuals than as soldiery under orders, made their way home, each in his own fashion. The British had been shown that there was a limit beyond which Massachusetts men would not permit what they regarded as infringement of their rights.

Doolittle Engraving, April 19, Battle of Lexington, Plate 1
This engraving by Amos Doolittle was made in 1775 and depicts the British Redcoats firing on the Massachusetts militia on Lexington Common. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

General Hugh Percy’s Key Decision

No one can tell what the result might have been had Lord Percy attempted to return by way of the Great Bridge barricaded as it was, and defended by men from the towns to the south of the Charles River. Suppose he had attempted to lead those tired soldiers, many of whom had already marched thirty miles, for another eight or nine miles, his column hampered by the wounded in carts or any kind of a vehicle which he had seized for their transportation, then that causeway across the meadows, that narrow bridge across the Charles River, would have witnessed a struggle as fierce as any of those about which history tells us.

AHC Note — When Percy led his men out to reinforce Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, he took the road out of Boston that passed through Roxbury. He likely intended to return by the same route but realized it was defended by the Massachusetts Militia, so he decided to turn north and march to Charlestown. This decision led him through Somerville and Prospect Hill, where his men were attacked, but allowed him to reach Charlestown Neck and the safety of Bunker Hill.

I wish it were possible today to show on the moving picture screen, first the view of the Anderson Bridge filled with thousands and thousands on their way to or from a holiday event at the Stadium, and follow it with a reproduction of how it must have looked on that warm spring morning in 1775, a narrow street and a narrower bridge filled with that long drawn out line of soldiers and baggage train, the whole covering the road, causeway, and bridge, probably from what is now Cambridge Street, Allston, to Harvard Square in Cambridge.

Siege of Boston

The day of Lexington and Concord made it plain that a stand had been taken from which there could be no retreat. To hold the position might be difficult. There would almost certainly be moves by the British toward retaliation and punishment, against which steps must be taken.

Accordingly, an order of April 21, 1775, directed “that the two hogsheads of powder in the possession of Mr. Pigion be lodged with John Goddard, at Brookline, for the use of the American troops,” and a few days later a mortar and ordnance stores were delivered into Mr. Goddard’s care.

Brookline Fort on Sewall’s Point

The fort on Sewall’s Point, sometimes called the Brookline Fort, stood near the present Cottage Farm station. It mounted six guns and had quarters for a strong garrison (two companies were stationed there on June 16, 1775) who, with the soldiers of Fort Washington on the Cambridge side of the river, shared the task of excluding British ships from the upstream reaches.

This fortification was erected under the direction of Colonel Rufus Putnam, and soon after Lexington was assigned to General John Thomas’s division of the Revolutionary Army at Roxbury. 

The Brookline Fort was under fire only once during the war, when an attack was made which General Heath records in his Memoirs under the date of July 31, 1775: 

“A little before one o’clock, a.m., a British floating-battery came up the river within 300 yards of Sewall’s Point and fired a number of shot at the American works, on both sides of the river.”

Colonel Samuel Gerrish

Colonel Samuel Gerrish, in command at the time, was severely criticized for his failure to reply to the British attack. His behavior at Bunker Hill was also questioned, and in his account of that battle Richard Frothingham quotes Swett as saying:

“He was stationed at Sewall’s Point, which was fortified; in a few weeks a floating-battery made an attack on the place, which he did not attempt to repel, observing, ‘The rascals can do us no harm, and it would be a mere waste of powder to fire at them with our four pounders.’ It was evening, the lights were extinguished, and all the British balls flew wide of the fort. For his conduct on this occasion, and at Bunker Hill, he was arrested immediately, tried, found guilty of ‘conduct unworthy an officer,’ and cashiered. This was August 19, 1775. It was thought by the judge-advocate of the court that he was treated far too severely.”

Documenting April 18–19, 1775

The events that took place on April 18 and 19, 1775 include some of the most historic — and legendary — moments in American History. Many of the details about the events are found in the letters and depositions written at the time and have been used by many historians as the basis for articles and books about the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

However, what is often lost are interesting details that can be found in the histories of the towns that responded to the Midnight Riders and the Lexington Alarm. Militia forces from approximately 27 towns, including Brookline, fought the British from Lexington to Concord, and then from Concord back to Boston. Many of those men stayed there and participated in the Siege of Boston.

Although these local histories are sometimes embellished and border on folklore, they still provide valuable insight into the pride towns felt over standing up against the British forces who fired on the King’s subjects at Lexington and Concord.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Brookline and the Battles of Lexington and Concord
  • Date April 18–19, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Brookline, Brookline Militia, Brookline Minutemen, Lexington Alarm, Concord Fight, Battles of Lexington and Concord
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 24, 2024

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