Fusiliers

Fusiliers by Mark Urban Read Free Book Online

Book: Fusiliers by Mark Urban Read Free Book Online
Authors: Mark Urban
Tags: History, American War of Independance
officer, ‘and the moment they had fired they lay down out of sight until they had loaded again.’ Marching through the hail of whizzing, cracking balls at Merriam’s Corner, a few men fell but the column pressed on.
    The light infantry, running along the hilltops and engaging the rebels behind their cover, were soon nearly spent. ‘We at first kept our order and returned their fire as hot as we received it, but when we arrived within a mile of Lexington, our ammunition began to fail,’ wrote one officer, ‘and the light companies were so fatigued with flanking they were scarcely able to act.’
    A dread realisation spread through Colonel Smith’s force. If they fired and used most of their cartridges and exhausted themselves in the first mile or two of their journey, how could they possibly make it the fifteen further miles back to Boston? They felt they were beyond salvation. ‘We had been flattered ever since the morning with expectations of the British brigade coming out, but at this time had given up all hopes of it, as it was so late,’ wrote one of Smith’s force.
    Panic was running through the light infantry: ‘We began to run rather than retreat in order’, wrote one British subaltern, another confessing it was a ‘critical situation’. Reaching Lexington Green once more, several officers from the light battalion got ahead of their men and formed a little line, preparing to confront them. The captains and lieutenants turned about to face the redcoats running towards them,‘and presented their bayonets and told the men that if they advanced they should die’. Even this desperate expedient did not restore the order of a properly formed line, although it checked the headlong rush of Pitcairn’s mob. At this moment of despair, deliverance appeared on the ridge just beyond Lexington.
    For on the high ground leading elements of Percy’s brigade, marching out from Boston, had finally appeared.
    Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd described the practised ease with which ‘we were ordered to form the line, which was immediately done by extending on each side of the road’. But the New England landscape of meadows, fences and trees was no parade ground, and Mackenzie soon noted, ‘by reason of the stone walls and other obstacles, [the line] was not formed in so regular a manner as it should have been’.
    Percy himself was under no illusions about what he saw unfolding around Lexington, as soldiers from Smith’s column fled up the road towards him. Late he may have been, but, as Percy would write to his father, the duke, ‘I had the happiness, however, of saving them from inevitable destruction.’ It was about 2.30 p.m.
    Some of the exhausted light infantry and grenadiers dropped to the ground gasping for breath, others glugged water from their canteens or looked to the reinforcements to refill their empty cartridge pouches. While Smith’s men were brought back into some kind of order, the chorus of muskets or sporting guns carried by the minutemen and militia companies resumed once more, the enemy was swarming around them. Some casualties from the fighting at Lexington had been brought on commandeered wagons or horses, but several had been left behind.
    The Fusiliers, formed according to the regulation, presented their muskets and fired some big, ripping, volleys into the undergrowth, trying to nail their skulking enemy. ‘Our men threw away their fire very inconsiderately,’ thought Mackenzie, ‘and without being certain of its effect.’ Whatever training these soldiers had received, it had been in levelling and firing their weapons on the words of command, not choosing their moment against fleeting targets. Most of them, furthermore, had not been in action before.
    In the European mode of warfare one line of infantry gave fire to another at close range, sometimes as little as forty or fifty yards, much like ships pummelling one another with broadsides. At Lexington, theenemy were not so

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