We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part III: The Battle of Concord

Over the holidays, I was able to visit Boston again. Since I’ve been working on this series, this time, Melissa and I ventured to Concord. We started with a nice lunch and then went over to the Old North Bridge.

Terrain

To borrow from Julius Ceasar, Concord est omnes divisa in tres partes. Though Concord was a small farming village, the Concord River and the Assabet River that flows into it, divide the town into three separate parts. To get from the main part of town to either north or western parts of Concord, you need to cross the Concord River using either the Old North Bridge or the South Bridge. Thus, if you wish to occupy the entire town, your troops will have great difficulty supporting each other. On the other hand, if you only want to occupy the center of town, you could post small contingents at each bridge and be able to send your main force to reinforce whichever gets threatened.

The west end of the Old North Bridge is on a flood plain and is dominated by a ridgeline directly north of the bridge. A battery on that ridge, supported by infantry would easily prevent any passage over the bridge. The range of the smooth bore musket would not cover the bridge, but with the flat and perhaps marshy ground leading up to a steep slope, no sensible officer would launch an attack over the bridge and at such a battery. That open ground was reportedly flooded at the time, keeping any advance to only the road. Without any artillery, it would still be a formidable position.

The Goal

As noted previously, this expedition was intended to seize weapon caches that colonist had gathered. Within Boston itself, General Gage had negotiated with town leaders to collect all personal firearms in lieu of some kind of forced confiscation. Out in the countryside, it wouldn’t be so simple. Not only had the colonists brought existing weapons to Concord (including cannons stolen from the Boston garrison!), but they had also started manufacturing firearms there as well. The British were aware of these preparations due to both loyalists and spies. They even had lists of what ought to be found where.

Interestingly, down in Virginia, the colonial Governor was able to quickly and quietly secure the weapons gathered in Williamsburg and blame it on concerns about a fictional slave revolt being planned.

Narrative

Having engaged in that brief exchange of fire that was the Battle of Lexington, British troops marched west to their goal. Colonial minutemen had been gathering at Concord for hours, due to the rapid spread of the alarm. Initially, they began to march on Lexington, but turned back once they learned that the British column outnumbered them.  The 250 militiamen turned and marched back to Concord, about 500 yards ahead of the 700 regulars. I was almost like leading a parade back into the village, drums rolling. The militia retired to the highest point in town, 289-foot high Punkatasset Hill, from which you might even see all the way to Boston.

LTC Smith divided his troops in order to seize the various weapons caches. He sent CPT Mundy Pole to the South Bridge with the grenadier company from the 10th Regiment. CPT Lawrence Parsons of the 10th Regiment was sent with 7 light infantry companies (about 100 men, reportedly) to both secure the Old North Bridge and raid colonial Colonel Barrett’s farm to seize cannon there. Parsons left half his force under the command of CPT Walter Laurie to guard that bridge and took 4 companies the 2 miles to the weapons cache.

Anyone in these regiments with less than 13 years of service would have likely never seen combat, since their last action would have been in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in the colonies), so Laurie may have been an inexperienced officer. He may even have allowed his troops at the bridge to seek food and drink at nearby houses. Nonetheless, he did post two of his companies on the high ground that directly overlooked the bridge.

Meanwhile, the grenadiers in the main force began searching in the main part of town for the hidden weapons, munitions and food. This included digging up 3 large cannons (24-pounders) and smashing their trunnions, rendering them unusable. When setting fire to a few gun carriages, they ended up setting the town’s meeting house on fire. Fortunately for the people of Concord, the troops did assist in putting out the fire.

CPT Laurie sent back for reinforcements as the militia swelled, perhaps over 400 men for his 3 small companies of light infantry. The militia was overlooking the Old North Bridge from that commanding height we noted above. Before any help could arrive, Colonel Barrett’s men began to advance on the bridge. The two companies posted on the hill fell back to the bridge, then Laurie pulled his entire command back beyond the bridge. One of his officers began pulling up planks from the bridge to prevent the militia from following them. The militiamen advanced in column up the road toward the bridge, with Major John Buttrick shouting for the regulars to stop destroying the bridge.

CPT Laurie ordered his men into a curious formation – forming for “street firing” – of basically matching the militia’s column with his own column. The wisdom of which was questioned by at least one officer,a Lieutenant Sutherland, who ordered flankers out from the rear of the formation. Like most officers assigned that day, he was unknown to most of the men, and only a couple of men followed his counter-order.

A shot rang out, and this time there is certainty from depositions taken from men on both sides afterwards that it came from the Army’s ranks. It was likely a warning shot fired by a panicked, exhausted British soldier from the 43rd, according to Laurie’s letter to his commander after the fight. Two other regulars then fired immediately after that, shots splashing in the river, and then the narrow group up front, possibly thinking the order to fire had been given, fired a ragged volley before Laurie could stop them. – from Wikipedia on the North Bridge

The exchange of fire that followed left a few men dead and wounded on each side, but lead to the rapid retreat of Laurie’s command. In their retreat, they were met by the reinforcing grenadier company Smith had sent, but all of them fell back on the main force together.

The British command did not take this incident as a sign to depart from Concord rapidly. CPT Parsons and his troops marched back to the bridge when they heard the firing, marching through the battlefield and past the militia, which had crossed the bridge but not advanced much beyond that.

Analysis

As this is mainly a review of the failure of the British command in the seizure of a weapons cache, we will analyze their performance.

Underestimating the enemy

I think that in each encounter during this mission, the British command underestimated the enemy. At Lexington, they had underestimated the defiance of the colonists, but at Concord, they grossly underestimated the numbers that might turn out to oppose them. As the numbers swelled, CPT Laurie seems to be the only one who recognized a problem, but even his response didn’t particularly help.

LTC Smith gathered his men, but then spent hours before setting out on his return trip. He did not take the fight at the Old North Bridge as a signal that the militia would attack the regulars. I cannot puzzle out why, given that fight, that he didn’t send a strong force to the bridge to ensure the safe return of CPT Parsons and his other four companies. Perhaps the fact that these companies passed the ‘scene of the crime’ without harassment fed Smith’s confidence that no serious fight could be expected. He and his men would pay the price for this miscalculation over the next several hours.

Dividing his forces

Since Smith knew that the weapons were dispersed, he divided his command to secure them. I would say that he did so in the interest of time, but his failure to depart quickly after being blooded acts as counter-point to that concept. Sending companies to secure each bridge seems prudent, but his underestimation of opposition numbers meant that he didn’t send sufficient force to hold those bridges. His main party proved too far away to support CPT Laurie and, when he did send reinforcements, he only sent a single company anyway.

Worse yet, CPT Parsons’ command was nearly cut off with the retreat of troops from the Old North Bridge. Imagine, Smith’s command was a fraction of the forces in Boston; the Old North Bridge force was a small fraction of that; Parsons’ companies were the isolated tip of the spear. Later in the day, let alone later in the war, all of his men would have been killed or captured due to Smith’s command decisions.

Control of troops

At Concord, as at Lexington, the ad hoc nature of the officer selection (and the inclusion of a variety of supernumerary officers along for the excitement) meant that neither the officers nor the men were familiar with each other. At the Old North Bridge, the contradiction of orders issued by a Captain and a Lieutenant was especially confusing to the men, as the officers were unfamiliar to them. It surely helped create the disarray that led to the accidental or, at least, undisciplined shot and the ragged volley that followed. The responding fire from the militiamen resulted in the fatal wounding of an officer, wounding of some sergeants and compounded the confusion. It would be interesting to find out how the retreat unfolded and what effect the reinforcing column had on the cohesion of those troops.

Rules of engagement

The final point to bring up in regards to Concord is one that concerns our troops in afield today. What are the rules of engagement?

It becomes apparent in reviewing this escapade that no rules of engagement had been formally discussed among the officers, let alone written down. Assuredly, no one communicated any rules that had been formulated to the troops.

The action at the Old North Bridge is symptomatic of this problem. CPT Laurie didn’t know how to handle the advancing armed militia, and one of his officers actually followed the orders of the militia’s Major – stopping the destruction of the bridge to protect their position. Then, CPT Parsons’ troops marched right past a few dead regulars, with everyone apparently uncertain what should be done.

Overall

From the instant I started looking at the Battles of Lexington and Concord from the British perspective, I was struck by the number of mistakes made. I do wonder how much of my compounding analysis is due to a preconceived notion, but I think the preponderance of evidence is that the failure was a failure of command. I will continue to investigate, as I am still a novice in this arena.

Of note on our visit

During our visit, we stopped in Reverend Emerson’s house, now known as the Old Manse. Concord’s minister, William Emerson, preached in favor of resistance to Parliament’s oppression of the colonists and remained faithful to the revolution until his war-time death from dysentery. On April the 19th, Reverend Emerson encouraged the gathering militia to attack once the British column entered Concord, remaining nearby to witness the fight. His grandson is the Emerson most of us think of, author Ralph Waldo Emerson. The important part of that visit was that I got a recommendation on a book about the fight at Concord. While I’m not sure there is a book that deals specifically with the tactics of the short fight (and the effect of terrain on those tactics!), but Robert Gross’ The Minutemen and Their World does a marvelous job of introducing all the Concord-based participants. It details their pasts, their motivations, their financial and social positions, as well as the eventual fate of each.

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