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 25, 2021

Ens. DeBerniere’s Last Trip to Concord

Ens. Henry DeBerniere went back to Concord on the British army expedition of 18-19 April.

Indeed, DeBerniere probably served as a close advisor to the mission’s commander, Lt. Col. Francis Smith (shown here). The young officer had been to the town the previous month, had learned about the cannon at James Barrett’s farm, and was in Smith’s own 10th Regiment.

After the column reached central Concord, DeBerniere led Capt. Lawrence Parsons of the 10th Regiment with “six light-companies” farther across the North Bridge to Barrett’s. The ensign wrote afterward, “we did not find so much as we expected, but what there was we destroyed.”

The serious action, DeBerniere came to learn, was back at the bridge, where Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie of the 43rd, whom he called “Capt. Lowry,” and three companies “were attacked by about 1500 rebels.” (As usual, people tended to overestimate the enemy’s numbers.)

In that fight, “three officers were wounded and one killed” along with three soldiers DeBerniere didn’t name. He counted Lt. Edward Hull of the 43rd as “killed.” In fact, Hull was merely wounded at the bridge but wounded again while riding in a carriage to Boston. He finally died in provincial custody on 2 May, which suggests that DeBerniere wrote his account at least two weeks after the battle.

During that exchange of fire at the bridge, Parsons, DeBerniere, and those six companies were still up at Barrett’s farm, searching. The ensign wrote of the local militia:
they let Capt. Parsons with his three companies return, and never attacked us; they had taken up some of the planks of the bridge, but we got over; had they destroyed it we were most certainly all lost; however, we joined the main body.
Actually, Laurie’s men had taken up planks of the bridge. But it’s true that those provincial companies didn’t try to cut off the search party, waiting until all the British forces had left the center of Concord before attacking. (Parsons reported that at least one of the soldiers killed at the bridge was “scalped,” but DeBerniere said nothing about that.)

Elsewhere in Concord, Ens. DeBerniere noted, that “Capt. [Mundy] Pole of 10th regiment…knock’d the trunnions off three iron 24 pound cannon and burnt their carriages.” These guns were the only provincial artillery left in Concord, possibly because they belonged to the town and possibly because they were just too darn big to move.

DeBerniere’s report continued with a description of the British withdrawal under fire; “there could not be less than 5000…rebels,” he now guessed.
we at first kept our order and returned their fire as hot as we received it, but when we arrived within a mile of Lexington, our ammunition began to fail, and the light companies were so fatigued with flanking they were scarce able to act [as flankers], and a great number of wounded scarce able to get forward, made a great confusion;

Col. Smith (our commanding-officer) had received a wound through his leg, a number of officers were also wounded so that we began to run rather than retreat in order—the whole behaved with amazing bravery, but little order; we attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose, the confusion increased rather than lessened:

At last, after we got through [into] Lexington, the officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die: Upon this they began to form under a very heavy fire
Finally Col. Percy arrived with fresh troops and two field-pieces. That changed the balance of power, and the regulars resumed withdrawing east in more orderly fashion. But there was heavy fighting in Menotomy:
out of these houses they kept a very heavy fire, but our troops broke into them and killed vast numbers; the soldiers shewed great bravery in this place, forceing houses from whence came a heavy fire, and killing great numbers of the rebels.
Around seven o’clock, DeBerniere wrote, the army column reached Charlestown. There the soldiers “took possession of a hill that commanded the town,” the soon-to-be-famous Bunker’s Hill. The town’s selectmen, who were strong Whigs but didn’t want their homes consumed by fire and sword, sent a message to Col. Percy saying
if he would not attack the town, they would take care that the troops should not be molested, and also they would do all in their power for to get us across the ferry;

the Somerset man of war lay there at that time, and all her boats were employed first in getting over the wounded, and after them the rest of the troops; the piquets of 10th regiment, and some more troops, were sent over to Charlestown that night to keep every thing quiet, and returned next day.
Thus ended Ens. DeBerniere’s third and last journey into the Massachusetts countryside.

COMING UP: DeBerniere’s papers.


Charles Bahne said...

Alternative History Universe Question of the Day:

How would events of April 18-19 have been different if Col. Smith, guided by Ensign De Berniere, had taken De Berniere's originally preferred route to Concord? That is, if Daniel Bliss hadn't shown De Berniere the alternate route back, through Lexington?

Lots of variables there: The Redcoats would have avoided Lexington and Menotomy; and they would have been far away from the house where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying. And of course, Revere and Dawes were sent out primarily to warn Hancock and Adams, not to alert the countryside. Plus there are differences in geography and topography; I suspect the route through Weston was less populated.

We can only speculate!

Mike said...

Longfellow's poem would have a different ring to it, and we'd all be struggling to remember the name of that one guy who got captured.