J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

What Did the British Officers Inquire About?

My deliberately iconoclastic posting about the likelihood that the Battle of Lexington and Concord would have happened much the same way even without all of Paul Revere’s activity on 18-19 Apr 1775 prompted some interesting replies.

One was from Jay Fitzgerald at Hub Blog, who seemed to think that the posting was directed at Longfellow’s poem rather than nonfiction histories of the battle. While that poem created or perpetuated some popular misconceptions about Revere, no history reader takes it as accurate, and its myths are easily dismissed. Fitzgerald appears to want to celebrate the semi-fictional Revere for “capturing the public's imagination,” but celebrations are a matter of heritage, not history.

More thoughtfully, Garden Keeper wrote a long comment that began:

I know that you have written several times about the "myth" that the British troops were after John Hancock and Samuel Adams. I would respectfully differ on whether it is a "myth". I cannot find the citation right now, but I believe that General Gage received orders from London in the days before April 17th. Those orders, along other things, directed him to arrest the provincial leaders. As the British communication system was notably less secure than our own Belichick system, it is doubtless that these orders were known by Warren and others.

Further, while you have noted that Gage's written orders said nothing about the capture of Hancock and Adams, Gage also sent 20 officers on horseback into Middlesex County to thwart the Revere and the other riders. As Hackett Fischer notes, "In particular, [the patrols] inquired about the whereabouts of John Hancock and Samuel Adams."

So while the written orders suggest otherwise, there was good reason to fear that the expedition to Concord might have ancillary targets. Written orders, after all, have some limits. Gage also ordered that property not be damaged which didn't prevent the burning of some Lexington homes.
Yes, the orders that Gen. Thomas Gage received from London in early April 1775 recommended that he arrest the Massachusetts resistance leaders as the first step in restoring order. The Boston Whigs almost certainly knew about those orders. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper got out of town. Elbridge Gerry, Azor Orne, and Jeremiah Lee were so afraid of being captured that they spent hours hiding in a field. And as soon as he knew the army was marching west, Dr. Joseph Warren sent William Dawes and Revere out to Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams.

However, we have Gen. Gage’s actual orders for the march to Concord, we have his intelligence files (in the Clements Libary), and we have reports from several of the British officers on that march. None of those sources show any interest in locating Hancock and Adams. No American description of what happened in Lexington on the morning of 19 April shows the army making any move to find or chase those two men.

So what evidence is left that the British were seeking Hancock and Adams? On page 132 of Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer quotes Elijah Sanderson as saying of British officers, “They particularly inquired where Hancock and Adams were.” These words come from a long deposition Sanderson gave in 1824, published in Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington.

Sanderson was also one of the three men who signed the deposition I quoted yesterday. And in that testimony, given less than a week after the night they were describing, he and his comrades said the officers “enquired about the Magazine at Concord, whether any Guards were posted there, and whether the bridges were up.” Those details fit exactly with what Gage wrote in his orders, including the fact that the troops would have to cross bridges to get to some weapons. The 1775 deposition said nothing about Hancock and Adams, and Sanderson’s 1824 deposition said nothing about the arms at Concord. I think that nearly half a century of American writers’ emphasis on Hancock and Adams had colored Sanderson’s memory.

None of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s other 1775 depositions mentioned Hancock or Adams, either. Capt. John Parker of Lexington recalled hearing that “Regular Troops were on their March from Boston in order to take the Province Stores at Concord.” The two depositions signed by many of Parker’s men together both mentioned how “Regulars were marching from Boston towards Concord, with intent (as it was supposed) to take the Stores, belonging to the Colony, in that town.” The Provincial Congress’s report described “an apparent Design to take or destroy the military and other stores, provided for the Defence of this Colony, and deposited at Concord.” All those statements came after the actual battle, and thus were based on knowledge of what the British troops had and hadn’t done.

Did the Provincial Congress have evidence that the army had sought Hancock and Adams, but suppressed it, thinking it would play better to tell the world that it was amassing “military and other stores” to use against the king’s troops? It’s hard to see why the body would do that. Why not portray the British march as an attempt to kidnap two popular gentlemen? (Some newspapers ran with that story anyway.)

As for “the burning of some Lexington homes,” that happened, but only after the British column had returned through the town and met its reinforcements. By that point in the afternoon, the battle was on, the regulars had suffered their worst losses, and battlefield commanders were taking actions on their own authority. It’s clear that Gage’s aim for the mission was to destroy the Concord weaponry with minimal collateral damage.

TOMORROW: The big question of what mattered on 19 Apr 1775.

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