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


How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part IV: General Gage

Certainly the most important person in any counter-insurgency operation is the commander. In 1775, General Thomas Gage commanded all British troops in the colonies as well as serving as the Governor of the Massachusetts colony, giving him both the military and civilian leadership roles. Was he suited to the task? Did his actions increase or decrease the likelihood of success?

Thomas Gage was the second son in a noble family and attended a “public school”, the Westminster School, in London, rubbing elbows with other future leaders. Being a younger son, he had to find his own way in the world, and such connections would serve him well.

Military Career

He joined the Army as an ensign, then purchased a Lieutenant’s commission. He rose in rank over the years, serving in the War of Austrian Succession and the Second Jacobite Rising. He spent at least some of his time on staff, and was popular among the officer corps despite neither drinking nor gambling. While he did make some good political connections, it wasn’t enough to win him a seat in Parliament and he came to the colonies as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 44th Regiment of Foot in 1755.

There’s a mixed bag in the evaluation of his performance in Braddock’s expedition to capture Fort Duquesne in the French and Indian War. Gage led a 300-man advance group that fell back on Braddock’s main column after reeling from meeting the enemy. This apparently disorganized the entire 1300-man force and, while Braddock rallied his troops several times before he fell mortally wounded, led to terrific losses. One source gives Gage credit for maneuvering the artillery into action,the aftermath did not go well for him. Gage not only failed to get permanent command of his regiment on the death of his Colonel, but one officer also charged him with poor field tactics and blamed Gage for the defeat. On the other hand, a colonist accompanying the expedition as a volunteer officer, George Washington, thought enough of Gage to request a recommendation letter from him in 1758.

Gage served in a few aborted campaigns and then set about recruiting a light infantry regiment. Regular officers realized that the tactics employed by the French, the Indians and the colonial Rangers had some merit, but they felt that the Rangers were too highly paid and too undisciplined. While this may have also been an effort to gain a Colonelcy, it does represent some flexibility of mind and willingness to innovate. On the other hand, it also points out his disdain for colonial troops, which would come back to haunt him.

When General Abercrombie led his 16,000 men north to seize Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga), Gage’s light regiment (the 80th Regiment of Light-Armed Foot) served as skirmishers along with the Rangers leading the doomed attack. The British were soundly defeated by about a quarter of their number that was firmly entrenched, due to the uncoordinated nature of the assault and the General’s poor tactical decision to make a frontal assault without artillery preparation.

The following year, mostly through his brother’s political maneuverings, he received a promotion to Brigadier General. Sent to Oswego to begin a campaign into Canada, Gage chose not to advance against uncertain odds. In 1760, rather than being given the honor of leading the vanguard, he commanded the rear guard of General Amherst’s army. Nonetheless, the likeable Gage was appointed Governor, serving ably despite distrusting the French colonists.

Advanced again to Major General, he also was appointed as Colonel of the 22nd Regiment of Foot through more help from his enterprising older brother. Interestingly, the 22nd wasn’t in the colonies again until 1775, which couldn’t have given him much ability to manage his regiment.

General Amherst left him in charge of British troops in the colonies while he returned to England on a leave of absence that became permanent, allowing Gage to be appointed to the position rather than just serving as a temporary replacement. Having proven himself in Quebec, his able administration in this position is not surprising. In 1771, he would be promoted to Lieutenant General.

During this time, he ordered the arrest a Major Robert Rogers, who commanded Rogers’ Rangers that he’d had such disdain for the indiscipline of back during Braddock’s expedition. The charges of treasonous connections with the French was backed by flimsy evidence and Rogers was acquitted.

So, we’ve seen him rise in rank despite participating in disastrous military expeditions by means of political maneuverings. He’s demonstrated ambition and some adaptability, but also shown his disdain for colonial troops and that he had a vindictive side.

Governance through punitive measures

That vindictive side and disdain for the colonists really shows through when we examine his actions as an administrator between the end of the French and Indian War and the beginning of the American Revolution.

During the French and Indian War, as Americans know it, or the Seven Years War as it is more commonly known, the British chose to take the offensive in North America, since they were outnumbered in Europe. Due to the costs of the war, the British needed to raise taxes. Since much of the cost was due to fighting in the colonies, the burden would also fall on the colonists. That wasn’t something Gage could control, but he certainly noticed the dissatisfaction and unrest it generated.

With combat action on the frontiers having died down with the end of the war and the unrest in response to the Stamp Act, Gage began pulling his troops back into the cities. He sent two regiments to Boston, including the 29th Regiment, which had a record of indiscipline and had come into conflict with civilians in Quebec. When coupled with the Quartering Act in 1765 (leading to the 3rd Amendment to our Constitution), the ingredients for an incident were all in place. In 1770, the tensions came to a head, resulting in the Boston Massacre. Thus began the road to violent rebellion.

While Gage was in England on leave, unrest continued to rise. He left in June and by December, Bostonians had had enough.

When resistance turned violent at the Boston Tea Party (1773), Gage was instrumental in shaping Parliament’s retaliatory Intolerable (Coercive) Acts (1774), by which the port of Boston was closed until the destroyed tea should be paid for. He was largely responsible for inclusion of the inflammatory provision for quartering of soldiers in private homes and of the Massachusetts Government Act, by which colonial democratic institutions were superseded by a British military government.

Since he worried about unrest, he brought troops into the cities. Whether by chance or conscious decision, a regiment that he knew was likely to tangle with civilians was placed where the unrest was the worst. The initial Quartering Act required the lodging of troops in inns, stables and barns, but the 1774 provisions extended that to private homes, further infuriating colonists. Further fanning the flames, Gage consolidated his troops from around North America into Boston. Thus, demand for housing for his troops spiked and unrest grew.

Suitability and Actions

So, Gage’s experience in combat was mostly in failed expeditions, with poor higher leadership and questions about his own tactical abilities. He was more than willing to use connections to gain advantage, so one has to wonder about whether he could have advanced in rank without them. As an administrator, he demonstrated good management, but also some vindictiveness. As such, one might have thought in the mid-1760s that he’d be a fine manager for the colonies, but that it was a good thing there was no longer a shooting war for him to carry out.

His actions when he encountered unrest indicate that such an evaluation wasn’t accurate. He mis-read the colonists, thinking a show of force would quench the flames. It did not. His actions fed the fire and pushed more colonists on the road to rebellion.

In summary, the man in charge of counter-insurgency in the colonies in 1775 was neither an understanding administrator who could smooth over grievances, nor was he a reputable warrior with a history of success. He was a political General with disdain for the locals and a tendency to make exactly the wrong choices. Is it any wonder that such leadership could generate the failure of an expedition to Concord?

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