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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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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, finishing with the retreat back to Boston in Part IV.




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