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Battles between British troops and colonial militiamen in Lexington and Concord in April 1775 kicked off the armed conflict, and by the following summer, the rebels were conducting a full-scale war for their independence

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Literally "initiated", that is, "started off".

It's idiomatic, the metaphor being the "kick-off" of a football ("soccer") match. "Kick off" is when the team who won the toss are first to "kick" (that is, to prod with a boot) the ball into play.

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