Battles of Lexington and Concord — James Thacher Journal

April 21, 1775

James Thacher was a doctor who kept a journal that documented his experiences during the American Revolution and American Revolutionary War. This journal entry reveals what he knew about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, two days after they took place, and provides insight into the origins of the term “Yankee.”

Lexington and Concord, James Thacher Journal

This illustration depicts James Thacher (Wikimedia). The background image of the Battle of Lexington was painted by Howard Pyle in 1989 (Google Arts & Culture).

Lexington, Concord, and Yankee Doodle

The following journal entry has been expanded with section headings to help readers scan and comprehend the text.

James Thacher Visits Colonel James Otis Sr.

April 21st — Intelligence is now received that the British regulars have marched out of Boston, and actually commenced hostilities against our people at Lexington. For the purpose of ascertaining the particular facts, I have been desired to wait on Colonel Otis, at his mansion in this town. 

Otis Receives a Letter About the Battles of Lexington and Concord

It was in the evening, when I found this dignified patriot in his easy-chair, with several of his neighbors listening with agitated spirits to some account of this first most awful tragedy. The good old gentleman had received a letter containing a statement of some particulars, and with manifest trepidation he said to this effect: 

“The British troops marched to Lexington and Concord last Wednesday, the 19th instant, for the purpose of destroying some of our military stores; our militia collected and met them at Lexington; the regulars soon commenced firing on them; our people returned the fire; a smart skirmish ensued, and several men were killed on both sides. The British were compelled to retreat, in some confusion, to Boston; and our people pursued and harassed them.

War has Arrived in America

The fearful day has arrived! a civil war has actually commenced in our land. We must be prepared for the worst, and may God preserve and protect our country.”

This tragical event seems to have electrified all classes of people; the brave are fired with manly resentment, the timid overwhelmed in despair; the patriotic whigs sorrowing over public calamities, while the tories indulge the secret hope, that the friends of liberty are about to receive their chastisement. 

The sword is now unsheathed, and our friends are slaughtered by our cruel enemies; expresses are hastening from town to town, in all directions through the country, spreading the melancholy tidings and inspiriting and rousing the people To Arms! To Arms! 

The Alarm in New England

The people of New England have taken the alarm, and their hearts are animated even to enthusiasm. There is an enthusiasm in religion, in politics, in military achievements, and in gallantry and love, and why not an enthusiasm in the love of country? No species of enthusiasm surely can be more laudable, or more honorable. Never was a cause more just, more sacred than ours; we are commanded to defend the rich inheritance bequeathed to us by our virtuous ancestors; and it is our bounden duty to transmit it uncontaminated to posterity; we must fight valiantly therefore, for our lives and property, for our holy religion, for our honor, and for our dearest friends. 

We are not born to be slaves, and are resolved to live and die free; appealing to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe for the justice of our cause, and relying on his Almighty arm for protection and support. 

The Minutemen

A certain number of active men, in every town, have formed themselves into military companies, under the name of minute-men; they are daily practising the manual exercise, and are held in constant readiness to march against the enemy at a moment’s warning. We await with trembling expectation the issue of every hour.

Note: See Origins of the Massachusetts Minutemen.

Battle of Lexington

Authenticated accounts are now received of the battle at Lexington. On Tuesday evening, 18th instant, General Gage despatched, with as much secrecy as possible, a detachment consisting of eight or nine hundred regulars, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, for the purpose of destroying some military stores which our people had deposited at Concord, about eighteen miles from Boston.

Having arrived at Lexington, six miles short of Concord, they were met by a company of militia, of about one hundred men, who, having taken the alarm, began to assemble from different towns before daylight. 

They were assembled near the church, about sunrise; when the British advanced in quick march to within a few rods, Major Pitcairn called out, “Disperse, you Rebels! throw down your arms and disperse.” 

The British Fired First

Their small number would not admit of opposition, and while they were dispersing, the regulars huzzaed, and immediately one or two pistols were fired by the officers, and four or five muskets by the soldiers; when a pretty general discharge from the whole party followed, by which eight of our people were killed and seven wounded

The Battle of Concord

The British now renewed their march to Concord, where they destroyed a few articles of stores and sixty barrels of flour. Here they were met by about one hundred and fifty militia-men, on whom they fired, and killed two and wounded others. 

The British Return to Lexington

Our militia and minute-men were now collecting in considerable numbers, and being justly enraged they made a bold and furious attack on the enemy, and drove them in quick march to Lexington. 

Gage Sends Reinforcements

General Gage having received intelligence of the critical situation of his troops, immediately ordered out Lord Percy, with a large reinforcement, with two field pieces. He marched over the neck through Roxbury, his music playing by way of contempt and derision the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” This timely reinforcement joined the party under command of Colonel Smith at Lexington, which formed a force of about eighteen hundred men.

The Battle from Lexington to Boston

They soon deemed it prudent to commence their march to Boston, the provincial militia and minute-men, continually increasing in numbers, pursued and flanked them with the hope of cutting off their retreat. A constant skirmishing ensued; the provincials concealed themselves behind stone walls, and with a sure aim thinned their enemies’ ranks, and occasioned among them great confusion. On their side, they could only keep up a scattering fire, without effect, frequently firing over the stone walls, when there was not a man to be seen behind them. The great object of the British, was to effect a safe retreat to Boston; but, to avenge themselves, they burnt and plundered houses, destroyed property, and actually murdered several innocent unarmed persons.

British Casualties

The situation of the king’s forces was, during the day, extremely hazardous; and it is considered wonderful that any of them escaped. Worn down and almost exhausted with fatigue, and their ammunition nearly expended, they had become nearly defenceless when they reached Charlestown, in the evening, after a loss of two hundred and seventy-three men, killed, wounded and prisoners. 

American Casualties

The loss on the side of the Provincials is eighty-eight in the whole. 

Yankee Courage

The British officers have received a specimen of Yankee courage, which they have hitherto affected to hold in the most sovereign contempt; they have ascertained, by fatal experience, that the people of New England will bid defiance to their veteran regulars, and fight courageously in defence of their rights. 

Origin of the Word “Yankee”

It is truly said to be matter of astonishment and chagrin, that after all their glorying, their veteran troops have been compelled to flee before a comparatively small number of undisciplined Yankees. The origin of this term, so frequently employed by way of reproach to the New England people, is said to be as follows: 

A farmer, by name Jonathan Hastings, of Cambridge, about the year 1713, used it as a cant — favorite word — to express excellency when applied to anything; as a Yankee good horse, Yankee cider, &c., meaning an excellent horse and excellent cider. 

The students at college, having frequent intercourse with Mr. Hastings, and hearing him employ the term on all occasions, adopted it themselves, and gave him the name of Yankee Jonathan; this soon became a cant word among the collegians to express a weak, simple, awkward person, and from college it was carried and circulated through the country, till, from its currency in New England, it was at length taken up and unjustly applied to the New Englanders in common, as a term of reproach. It was in consequence of this that a particular song, called “Yankee Doodle,” was composed in derision of those scornfully called Yankees.

Five Important Points

  1. James Thacher’s account begins by documenting his visit to Colonel James Otis Sr., the father of James Otis Jr., who famously argued against the Writs of Assistance
  2. During the visit, Colonel Otis read a letter he received about the outbreak of hostilities on April 19, 1775, with the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Concord.
  3. Thacher believes Americans are “resolved to live and die free; appealing to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe for the justice of our cause, and relying on his Almighty arm for protection and support.”
  4. Based on what he has heard, Thacher believes the British fired first at Lexington and the Americans drove them out of Concord and pushed them back to Lexington.
  5. Thacher provides a summary of the British march back to Boston and the American attacks, including Parker’s Revenge and the Battle of Menotomy, which led to the beginning of the Siege of Boston.

History of the Nickname “Yankee”

  • Thacher says that British reinforcements, led by General Hugh Percy, marched out of Boston while his drummers and fifers played “Yankee Doodle.”
  • The term “Yankee” was used by the British to make fun of people living in New England.
  • Thacher says Jonathan Hastings of Cambridge used “Yankee” as a synonym for “excellent,” and provides some examples of how it was used, e.g., “a Yankee horse.”
  • College students used the word to make fun of Hastings, who was a simple farmer.
  • The word evolved to mean a person was “simple and awkward.”

Who was James Thacher?

  • James Thacher was a doctor, living in Barnstable, Massachusetts, when the Battles of Lexington and Concord took place.
  • Following the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), he volunteered to join the Continental Army.
  • Colonel Otis wrote a letter of introduction for him.
  • Thacher presented the letter to James Warren.
  • Warren was a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and was married to Mercy Otis Warren, the daughter of Colonel Otis and sister of James Otis Jr.
  • Thacher was interviewed and given a position as a surgeon’s mate in the army.
  • Following the Siege of Boston, he went to New York with General George Washington and the Continental Army.
  • Thacher served in Rhode Island and New Jersey and was with the Continental Army at Yorktown when British forces surrendered.
  • Following the war, he settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he worked as a doctor.
  • In 1823, Thacher’s journal was published as Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War.

Citation Information

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

  • Article Title Battles of Lexington and Concord — James Thacher Journal
  • Date April 21, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Battles of Lexington and Concord, James Thacher, Yankee Doodle
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 7, 2024

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