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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Thursday, April 19, 2007

What Were Gen. Gage's Troops Looking For?

As I discussed yesterday, in early 1775 the government in London instructed Gen. Thomas Gage to arrest the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in order to stamp out the rebellion against royal authority in New England. And it looks like someone sent those Patriots leaders a warning about those orders.

But why did Gen. Gage actually send troops to Lexington and Concord? What were those soldiers looking for, 232 years ago today?

Two versions of Gage’s orders for the march on 18-19 April 1775 have survived. In General Gage’s Informers, novelist and historian Allen French suggested these were first and final drafts. The final draft, which appears here, starts:

Having received intelligence, that a quantity of Ammunition, Provisions, Artillery, Tents and small Arms, have been collected at Concord, for the Avowed Purpose of raising and supporting a Rebellion against His Majesty, you will March with a Corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry, put under your Command, with the utmost expedition and Secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and distroy all Artillery, Ammunition, Provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all Military Stores whatever. But you will take care that the Soldiers do not plunder the Inhabitants, or hurt private property.

You have a Draught of Concord, on which is marked the Houses, Barns, &c, which contain the above military Stores. You will order a Trunion to be knocked off each Gun, but if its found impracticable on any, they must be spiked, and the Carriages destroyed. The Powder and flower must be shook out of the Barrels into the River, the Tents burnt, Pork or Beef destroyed in the best way you can devise. And the Men may put Balls of lead in their pockets, throwing them by degrees into Ponds, Ditches &c., but no Quantity together, so that they may be recovered afterwards. If you meet any Brass Artillery, you will order their muzzles to be beat in so as to render them useless.
The other draft offers even more detail about where the troops should search for weapons in Concord, information which might have been rendered out of date before Gage wrote his final orders, so he left it out.

Neither draft makes any mention of arresting leaders of the Provincial Congress; these documents were entirely focused on military ordnance in Concord. Furthermore, Gage’s intelligence files, now at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library, show the information he gathered was also focused on weapons around the province, particularly artillery, but not about the locations of Patriot politicians. In September 1774, December 1774, and February 1775, the general had sent troops to Cambridge, Portsmouth, and Salem to secure weapons. He never, as I noted yesterday, arrested any Whig leaders, even those he could get to in Boston.

Despite that documentary record, however, some American authors continue to write that Gage had two objectives for the April march: destroying military stores in Concord, and capturing John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington. (Here are some examples.) It might have made sense in the 1800s to assume the British commander wanted to arrest Hancock and Adams. After all, the column did come close to the parsonage in Lexington where those men had been staying.

But now we have evidence in Gage’s own handwriting about just what he wanted. And all along American historians knew that British officers and soldiers never moved from Lexington green toward that parsonage on the morning of 19 April 1775, even after they had routed the local militia. The column marched through Lexington simply because it was on their way to Concord, not because they were looking for anyone.

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