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 23, 2009

One Last Look at Lexington and Concord for the Month

Folks interested in military strategy and tactics might enjoy Graphic Firing Table’s long article on what went wrong for the British military in the Battle of Lexington and Concord. There’s more than a little modern military jargon in the article, but the conclusions are crystal clear:

Once he was informed that the security of the mission and, particularly, the objective, had been compromised, [Gen. Thomas] Gage should have known that sending 700 troops unsupported by cavalry or artillery into a hostile country meant that, at the very least, the operation had little or no chance of success at that point. Gage should have either reinforced [Lt. Col. Francis] Smith massively or recalled him.
That critical moment was on the evening of 18 Apr 1775, when Col. Percy told Gage that he’d overheard Bostonians discussing the mission and its goal: “the cannon at Concord.” This account was first published in England in 1794, so it seems quite reliable.

Why did Gage proceed? I can think of three reasons:
  • Bureaucratic and individual inertia. Smith (shown above) and his troops were already moving out, crossing the Charles River from the base of Boston Common. It would have been a pain and an embarrassment to pull those men back.
  • Pressure from above. Gage had received orders from London four days before, telling him to do something about the political resistance. The government ministers were obviously becoming impatient. So Gage was deciding among the options for action, not deciding whether to take action or not.
  • Hope that everything could still work out. Gage had ordered the guard on Boston Neck not to let anyone out of town. He also had twenty officers patrolling the road to Concord on horseback, stopping messengers. He might have thought that, even though people in Boston had guessed the purpose of the mission, he could bottle up that knowledge in town.
And those precautions almost worked. Paul Revere arranged for a signal from the Old North Church to his fellow Whigs in Charlestown, but their rider never made it through Cambridge, probably stopped by those mounted officers. Revere and William Dawes, Jr., each got out of Boston and carried the news west, but another patrol stopped them before they reached Concord.

But that wasn’t enough. Gage needed nearly complete secrecy. The provincial resistance needed only one man to get through. And the Boston messengers—especially Revere—were telling many people about the approaching soldiers, so militia companies were gathering even as Smith’s column marched west. And before those officers stopped Revere and Dawes, they had shared their news with Dr. Samuel Prescott, who outrode the patrols and brought the warning to Concord.

Furthermore, the very measures that Gage took to preserve his secret—sending out those mounted officers—actually attracted attention and raised suspicions. Richard Devens of Charlestown knew that something was up even before Revere made it across the river; he warned the silversmith about those horseback patrols. When Revere and Dawes arrived in Lexington, they found militiamen on alert and riders already sent toward Concord, again because people had seen those officers come through. Gage’s hopes for secrecy were never realistic.


Robert S. Paul said...

As a fan of alternate history, this makes me wonder what may have happened had Gage recalled the troops.

Of course, it's likely the war would have started anyway, since it was a powderkeg just waiting for that spark.

Still, fun to ponder.

J. L. Bell said...

If Gage had halted the mission before any troops reached Lexington, then that day would probably be no more remembered than the confrontations at Portsmouth in Dec 1774 and Salem in Feb 1775.

But Gage surely would have felt pressure to do something else, and perhaps that action would have set off the war.

Perhaps the most effective thing Gage could have done would have been to arrest Dr. Joseph Warren before the march. Would the Patriot intelligence and alarm system have been able to function without him? Not at first, at least, judging by how Revere deferred to him on 18 April.

Quite possibly craftsmen like Revere would then have deferred to the next highest-ranking genteel activist, who seems to have been Dr. Benjamin Church—already secretly working for Gage.

Peregrine White said...

All of your points are well-taken. I have always thought that the point of no return was about 4:30 AM somewhere in the Arlington/Menotomy area. When one of the Lexington riders approached the troops and warned of a massing of militia in Lexington. At that point, the information essentially confirmed what Revere had said a few hours earlier when captured. The troops were ordered to load their muskets and, in my opinion, a violent confrontation was destined.

Of course, the other side of this "what if" discussion is what might have happened if there were enough boats for the troops crossing the Charles. If they had left on time, with enough boats, they would have been in Lexington at perhaps 3 AM in the morning. Would there have been a confrontation? Would there have been fighting in Concord without the massacre in Lexington?

J. L. Bell said...

The immediate cause of the first shooting in Concord was the militia massed above the North Bridge seeing smoke rising from the town, and marching down toward the three companies at that bridge. But the locals’ response to that smoke might have been exacerbated by what they had heard about Lexington hours before.

It’s also possible that the sudden, unexpected appearance of the troops might have made some militiamen more antsy than they were. At both Lexington and Concord, the companies had hours to stand around and talk about what to do if and when British troops arrived, and at Concord more hours to talk about what to do now that they had. Attacking wasn’t a hasty, unconsidered decision, at least for most men.

Mr. Bill said...

I wonder if Gage would have water-boarded Dr.Warren and discovered the whole nefarious plot of the "Rebels"?

J. L. Bell said...

We’ve learned that “water-boarding” and other torture doesn’t cough up reliable information, so that wouldn’t have worked.

Gage actually had a very good idea of what the Patriots were up to. Dr. Benjamin Church and other spies were providing him with information. And many of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s activities and policies were public.

Gage’s main challenges were convincing his superiors in London of how dire the situation was, and figuring out how he could do anything about it with the limited resources he had in Boston.