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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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How Much Did Boston's Patriots Know About Gen. Gage's Orders?

Two hundred thirty-two years ago tonight, British troops in Boston were preparing to cross the Charles River, the first leg of their mission to Concord. William Dawes, Jr., was already riding toward Lexington with a warning for Patriot leaders about that march.

But even before that night, Boston’s Whigs knew that Gen. Thomas Gage (shown here, in a portrait by Copley) was about to take serious action. They just didn’t know what action he was about to take. In fact, they may have had a better idea of what the general’s superiors in London had ordered him to do than of what he was actually planning for himself.

On 12 Apr 1775, the Falcon arrived with orders for Gen. Gage from his government superiors in London. Two days later, the Nautilus brought another copy of those orders. In those papers the Earl of Dartmouth, as Secretary of State, told Gage:

The first & essential step to be taken toward re-establishing government, would be to arrest the principal actors and abettors in the Provincial Congress (whose proceedings appear in every light to acts of treason and rebellion).
Gage had earlier warned that such arrests could bring on armed rebellion. Dartmouth, believing the opposition was “a rude rabble, without plan, without concert, and without conduct,” insisted that removing their leaders would quash the uprising.

But Gage didn’t arrest any political leader before the war broke out (and had no good opportunity to do so afterward, either). Years later, he explained his situation to the historian George Chalmers this way:
On the arrival of two vessels at Marblehead, on the 8th of April, 1775, an unusual hurry and commotion was perceived among the disaffected. It being on a Sunday morning, Dr. Cooper, a notorious rebel, was officiating in his meeting-house, and, on notice given him, pretended sudden sickness, went home, and sent to another clergyman to do his duty in the evening. He, with every other chief of the faction, left Boston before night, and never returned to it.

The cause, at the time unknown, was discovered on the 14th of said month, when a vessel arrived with Government dispatches, which contained directions to seize the persons of certain notorious rebels. It was too late. They had received timely notice of their danger, and were fled.
I think Gage was wrong on the details, and perhaps too eager to portray himself as powerless to carry out his orders, but I think he was accurate on the basic fact: the Boston Patriots had some warning about what the London government had decided.

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper did suddenly leave Boston, on 10 April. In his diary he described “having received Several Menaces and Insults, particularly at Mrs. Davis[’s tavern?] having a scurrilous Song offered me by an Officer,” and seems to have planned to return for “my dear Child, all my [silver] Plate, Books and Furniture.” But he didn’t. Furthermore, his brother William, the longtime town clerk and another firm Whig, joined him in Weston before the 18th.

Other leaders seem to have made up their minds even before those putative ships at Marblehead. Writing from the Provincial Congress meeting in Concord on the 7th, James Warren said:
The Inhabitants of Boston are on the move. H. and A. go no more into that Garrison, the female Connections of the first come out early this morning and measures are taken relative to those of the last.
Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Hancock’s aunt and fiancée stayed in the parsonage at Lexington rather than revisit occupied Boston. However, Adams didn’t get his wife and family out of town before the war began.

On the night of 16 April, Massachusetts Spy printer Isaiah Thomas slipped out of town with the help of blacksmith Timothy Bigelow, a leader of the resistance at Worcester. (Printer Benjamin Edes also escaped from town with some printing equipment, but he seems to have departed after the war began.)

That’s not to say that Boston had no Patriot leaders left on 18 April 1775, but their ranks were certainly thin. James Bowdoin was home sick, and probably too well born and too old to either get involved in the dirty work of rebellion or to be arrested if he had been. Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., was also in town—but since he was spying for Gage, the general had no reason to arrest him. Paul Revere and other politically active mechanics were everywhere, but they still seem to have been deferring to genteel leaders.

So at this moment the Patriot cause really rested on the shoulders of Dr. Joseph Warren. He gathered the decisive intelligence about the army’s march. He sent Dawes off to Lexington and told Revere to send his signal from Old North Church. And he stayed in Boston until after the troops had marched. Jacob Rogers of Charlestown would write of 19 April:
About ten in the morning I met Doctor Warren riding hastily out of town, and asked him if the news was true of the men’s being killed at Lexington; he assured me it was. I replied I was very glad our people had not fired first, as it would have given the king’s troops a handle to execute their project of desolation. He rode on.
So two mysteries about the start of the Revolutionary War that intrigue me are:
  • Who was sending the Boston Patriots accurate intelligence about the British government’s plans? Sympathizers in London had leaked documents to the Americans for years, but this seems to have been a particular warning.
  • If Gen. Gage had arrested Dr. Warren as Lord Dartmouth had told him to, and used Dr. Church to bottle up the remaining Patriots in Boston, could the march to Concord have succeeded?


Robert S. Paul said...

Jacob Rogers said the British fired first. Was that because that's what he believed had to have happened? I thought we didn't actually know who fired first.

J. L. Bell said...

In 1775 New Englanders seem to have believed, almost to a man, that the British fired first.

It took a century or so before American historians seemed to be willing to factor in British sources, who almost to a man blamed a provincial—though probably not one of the militiamen lined up on Lexington green—for the first shot.

The consensus these days seems to be that no one can be sure where the first shot came from. Each side felt the other was being more aggressive. That produced so much tension and resentment that any shot, even one not aimed at the opposite side, would have been interpreted as an attack.

Jaime said...

Okay, first, I LOVE your blog. It came up in a totally unrelated google search for something else, but I am so glad it did. My all time favorite period of history is Boston in 1774-75. I did my undergrad research thesis in it, and can't get enough of it.

To suggest a possible answer to your question of "Who was sending the Boston Patriots accurate intelligence about the British government’s plans?"

I'm sure you must be familiar with David Hackett Fischer's _Paul Revere's Ride_ In there, he suggests that it was Margaret Gage who leaked the information regarding the planned movement of Regulars to Concord (and to comment on your other post about Gage's objectives, I agree totally...his motives were not to arrest Hancock and Adams, but to secure the powder, etc., in an attempt to prevent a war, not start one. Of course, *they* didn't know that. He was just a bad judge of colonial American character...well, I digress). All evidence is circumstantial, but it seems that she and one of his officers were the only ones he told of his plans. After Lexington and Concord, their marriage fell apart and he shipped her off to London. It has also been circumstantially suggested that she was the one who told Dr. Warren what her husband's plans were, as it was known that he had a British informant so high up that he refused to tell anyone who it was, and took the name of that person with him to the grave.

I don't know if we'll ever know. Speaking of general intelligence, there were so many underground networks in Boston, I'm sure there were many creative ways of finding out information. Speaking specifically of Gage's plan to march to Concord...given that he kept those plans so tightly under wraps, it had to have been someone close to him who betrayed him.

Great blog! I look forward to exploring it in depth over the coming days.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I know the theory about Margaret Gage being one of Dr. Joseph Warren's informants about the Concord march. The evidence pointing to her seems strong, but not decisive. At the same time, there seem to have been plenty of other leaks out of army headquarters, or at least accurate surmises.

Because David H. Fischer and others have explored that question so well, I don't have much to add. So I chose to focus this entry on the orders Gage received rather than those he gave. According to him, the Boston Patriots knew about his orders from London even before he'd received them! Now that's a bad leak.