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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part II: Pitcairn and Adair

We’ve mentioned a number of the British commanders and linked to some biographical information, but it may be useful to learn a bit more in-depth about the two Marine officers who played such significant roles in the Battle of Lexington.

Major John Pitcairn

Major Pitcairn was 52 years old at the time, so, no spring chicken. When Pitcairn had joined the Marines in 1746, they were still a part of the Army, though they did serve on Navy ships. He fought in the French and Indian Wars as a Captain, so he may have served between 8 and 17 years as a Lieutenant. Then he served at least 8 years as a Captain before his promotion to Major had come in 1771.

Unlike the British Army at the time, in which officers purchased their commissions, advancement in the Marines was purely by seniority. Since the Admiralty had determined that field grade commissions in the Marines had been largely honorary, no Marine officer was promoted to Colonel until 1771. This neatly coincides with Pitcairn’s promotion to Major, so his stalled advancement was greatly helped by that change.
When he arrived in Boston in 1774 to command the Marines, the situation was not exactly what we would imagine when we think of “Royal Marines”:

In Boston, he found that the marines he was to command were lacking adequate supplies, clothing and were an ill-disciplined lot. Drunkenness, fueled by the potent and cheap rum available in Boston, was so bad that Pitcairn took to living in the barracks with his men to keep them from drinking rum and wrote directly to the First Lord of the Admiralty describing the problem. He even blamed the rum for deaths in his regiment. Pitcairn enforced harsh discipline and marched his regiment hard and often on Boston Common. This toughening-up up proved invaluable to his marines on the long and bloody retreat from Concord.

— From Edward Witek‘s post on Pitcairn at Lexington

On the other hand, I might hear some arguments from those who have commanded Marines in garrison that, under poor leadership, that is exactly what a garrison can devolve to regardless of lineage.From the initial designation of Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot in 1664 until the disbanding of what had grown to 10 regiments of Marines in 1748, the size and organization of Marine units within the Army seems to have varied widely. While we always think of the elite Royal Marines today, they hadn’t been awarded that designation by King George III until 1802.

In 1755, the Marine Corps expanded to 50 permanent companies, each of which belonged to one of the Grand Divisions – Chatham, Portsmouth or Plymouth. Interestingly, the Marines companies in Boston were from all three Grand Divisions. My impression is that their nominal roots in a particular Grand Division had little affect on whether they were familiar with each other, as they would not often be formed into battalions anyway. Since that hadn’t occurred in the Americas since 1759 at Quebec, it is likely that few of the officers, NCOs and certainly none of the privates had ever “seen the elephant”.

Pitcairn would not survive the war, dying in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Lieutenant Jesse Adair

Adair is characterized in some of the passages that I’ve read as a young, impetuously aggressive officer. One would imagine that in a Marine Lieutenant from an Irish family with a strong military heritage. However, Adair was not a young officer. He was somewhere between 35 and 44 years of age at the time, though he certainly was aggressive. He may also have served in the French and Indian Wars with Pitcairn. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Adair would be noted , not only for his courage in surmounting the colonist’s defenses, but also as the “Eldest Lieutenant”. (That makes his promotion with the seniority system not indicative of any particular merit.)

There is also a story of Lieutenant Adair as not quite the sharpest officer during the 1776 evacuation of Boston as he was dispatched along Boston Neck to impede any pursuit.

Lieutenant Adair of the Marines, an acting engineer, was ordered to strew crow-feet in front of the lines to impeded the march of the enemy, as it was supposed they should attack our rear. Being an Irishman, he began scattering the crowfeet about from the gate towards the enemy, and, of course, had to walk over them on his return, which detained him so long that he was nearly taken prisoner.

Though it may simply have been an ethnic joke at the Irishman’s expense.

Adair did survive the war, rising to command of the 45th Company of Marines, “but was not the sort of officer who flourished in peace. In 1785, Captain Adair was ‘reduced’, and disappeared from the Marine List.” (Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer, p282.)

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

On the night of 18 April 1775, the British occupying Boston set out to seize a weapon’s cache at Concord, Massachusetts. On my visit to Boston over the weekend, I was reminded of some of the ingredients of this disaster.

General Thomas Gage had been appointed military governor of Massachusetts in 1774, but his 3000 troops affected little outside of their garrison in Boston. As such, when he was ordered to seize the rebellious colonists weapons and arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, his troops had to set out from Boston to do so.

In order to retain the element of surprise, no one was told in advance of the expedition. It has been speculated that General Gage’s wife, who reportedly sympathized with the colonists, let word slip that the operation was going to take place. Regardless of whether that is true or not, the mustering of 700 soldiers at 9pm and preparations for marching would certainly have alerted the citizenry. So, the element of surprise was lost immediately and Paul Revere and William Dawes departed by separate routes to warn Adams and Hancock.

The British had sent out mounted patrols in advance to intercept just such couriers. Unfortunately, since such a patrol was so unusual, it served to alarm the locals and prompt rebel leaders to start rallying the militia anyway.

When choosing the composition of the force to march rapidly to seize the weapons and the leaders, Gage chose to draw each regiment’s light infantry company for speed and their grenadier company to serve as the shock troops. On the surface, this sounds like it might be a good strategy. The light infantry companies were made of soldiers used to moving fast, often serving as skirmishers and tended to be among the better trained and motivated troops in a regiment. The grenadier companies were also an elite company within a regiment, being composed of the larger soldiers, who by designation would have carried grenades and been chosen for their physical prowess. Each of the companies deployed with a lieutenant normally assigned to that company, however, the captains assigned were not necessarily familiar with the troops. Similarly, Marine Major John Pitcairn, who would lead the vanguard of the expedition, had never commanded the light infantry companies as a unit. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Bernard would have had the same circumstances with the grenadiers he commanded. Thus, the company-grade leadership was not familiar with the men, nor did they know their officers.

Gage also chose his most senior regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, to lead the expedition. Smith was regarded as cautious and methodical – a cool and courageous leader, but one with little imagination. Smith had not, of course, ever commanded the light infantry and grenadier companies as a separate unit, nor had the particular collection of company officers serving under him. It is entirely possible that in a garrison that included 13 regiments, he might not have even known all of his officers on the march. Perhaps not the best choice for a rapid expedition into a restive countryside.

I’ve been able to read the orders and reports of the British officers, which is critical to understanding what happened. The first thing that strikes me is the woeful inaccuracy in reporting the number of troops opposing the British forces, starting with a grand underestimation of their possible numbers and continuing with exaggeration of the number first encountered. For example, Major Pitcairn received reports from the vanguard of the light infantry companies advancing on Lexington that 500 militiamen were drawn up on the Green to oppose them. When Pitcairn arrived at the front of the column, he remembers some 200 militiamen filing off the Green when fighting erupted. There were approximately 80 men in the Lexington militia.

To return to the mustering of the troops in Boston, we head to Boston Common, where the troops headed when ordered at 9pm. By 10pm, the troops were assembled, but LTC Smith was late in arriving. While long-service professionals are well aware that any army is a “hurry-up-and-wait” operation, this could not have sat well with the men, who had likely been in formation early in the day, conducted their normal duties all day long and expected a normal night of garrison duties with a comfortable night’s sleep when surprised with these orders.

Unlike the extensive plans for loading and unloading that we know of for the amphibious operations in World War II, there was apparently no such plan for this operation. Similarly, they failed to obtain appropriate boats for the transport of the troops and they traveled on barges which were so tightly loaded that the men had to stand for the crossing. Not only that, but when arriving on the opposite shore, they had to debark in waist-deep water. Massachusetts in mid-April does not feature warm evenings or delightfully sunny days. So, troops who’d but awake since first light were cold, wet annoyed and still awake on the banks of the River Charles nearly 20 hours later at 2am.

An hour into the march, Smith dispatched Pitcairn with six of the light infantry companies to move more rapidly than the main column. An hour later, he sent back for reinforcements, realizing that his slow progress had cost him the element of surprise.

As they approached Lexington, Pitcairn was traveling at the rear of his advance party when he received the exaggerated report of 500 militiamen. He moved rapidly to the front to take charge of the situation.

When the British arrived on Lexington Green, Marine Lieutenant Jesse Adair was posted at the front of the column, likely due to Pitcairn’s familiarity with the Marine officer and trust in his judgement. Captain John Parker had his militia in formation off to the right side of the Green, so that they were not blocking the march of the regulars, but could make a show of force. Adair, seeing the militia drawn up off to his right, worried about the flanking position if the column were to continue forward on its march to Concord. The 80 militia men were in perfect position to rake the British column if they attempted simply to march past them to Concord. As such, Adair lead his troops forward, attempting to scare off the militia, his men reportedly shouted “Huzzah” to terrify the armed farmers, merchants and tradesmen.

Pitcairn arrived at the confusing situation, taking half of the companies off to the left along the road to Concord. Amongst great confusion and much shouting, a British officer demanded that the colonials disarm and disperse. The lack of familiarity and trust between officers and men played a role in the continuing confusion. These light infantry had just marched about fifteen miles from Boston, cold, wet and tired on the trail, annoyed at their officers and frustrated that the rabble in front of them did not simply disperse. On each side, officers had implored their men not to fire, but a gun fired and in the ensuing confusion, the angered light infantrymen opened fire on the slowly dispersing but not disarmed militia.

The horror that is battle took place in front of many civilians, including women and children who had gathered to watch the militia mustering. After all, the stand off, even if not involving violence, was sure to provide more excitement than anyone in Lexington had seen in most of their lives. A simple stalemate in which both sides had simply gone their own ways would assuredly have led to tales told in tavern and around town for decades. These civilians likely helped swell Pitcairn’s professional estimate of the number of militia, who may well have already begun to disperse by the time his attention was focused.

The resulting carnage was far worse than a tense stalemate and certainly has been told of for a few centuries now.

The officers struggled to get the men under control, calling for them to cease fire, but the damage had been done. A bayonet charge by the troops led to the death of Captain Parker’s cousin Jonas and six others were killed. Prince Estabrook, an African-American slave serving in the militia, was among those wounded, as was Johnathan Harrington, whose wound was fatal, raising the death toll to eight.

Colonel Smith rode forward to the sound of the guns, ordered a drummer to beat “Assembly” and restored order when the rest of the column arrived.

In Part II, we will meet a few officers, then examine the Battle at Concord in Part III, and continue by examining the commanding General, Thomas Gage in Part IV.

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