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 15, 2009

“Several Men killed and wounded, by the Rebels”

As I described yesterday, the online archive of the London Gazette allows us to read the British government’s official line on the conflict in America. Here is Gen. Thomas Gage’s official report on the Battle of Lexington and Concord, as it was published in the Gazette on 10 June 1775, the same day that report finally reached London.
The phrase “a large Quantity of Military Stores” seems deliberately vague, especially in light of the next paragraph’s claim that the soldiers “effected the Purpose for which they were sent.” Gage had detailed intelligence about what the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s agents had hidden out at Col. James Barrett’s farm in Concord. But the British troops failed to find most of that ordnance—which Gage never mentioned.

The next paragraph mixes up the sequence of actions. Lt. Col. Francis Smith didn’t dispatch companies to secure the bridges beyond central Concord until after his column had passed through Lexington and exchanged fire there. Despite that confusion, the general’s main point is clear: at both Lexington and at the North Bridge in Concord, the rebels attacked first.
In describing the troops’ withdrawal from Concord, the most difficult part of the mission, Gage minimized the damage they suffered, and blamed the enemy for atrocious tactics.
The “scalping” actually referred to a single incident: a Concord cabinetmaker named Ammi White (1754-1820) hatcheted a wounded British soldier soon after the shooting near the North Bridge. As the three companies who had searched Barrett’s farm marched past that man’s body, they interpreted his bloody head wound as a scalping, and the rumor grew.

For at least a couple of generations, people in Concord were so ashamed of this action that they tried to deny it ever happened. As D. Michael Ryan wrote in an article about the incident, at various times American authors blamed an enslaved black man, claimed that a half-witted boy had wielded the hatchet, and said that White had acted to put the soldier out of his misery. Even people who acknowledged the incident chose not to name White, who lived in Concord for years after 1775, regretting his impetuous violence.

Gage continued to give his London superiors the best possible picture of his situation in Massachusetts.
The actual number of militia casualties was less than a hundred, and thus less than half what the British suffered.

Gage finished by praising the officers he’d sent out that day. Had he cast blame on any of them, there might have been a considerable backlash against him for planning the mission in the first place.
Gage went on to report 65 men killed, 180 wounded, and 27 missing, broken out by their various units. That count was basically accurate, though some of the wounded men later died, bringing the British dead to more than 70.


Robert S. Paul said...

This is pretty awesome and very enlightening. Naturally, the British press listed it as a British victory.

J. L. Bell said...

The British government press repeated Gage’s claim of a victory. But there were also printers opposed to the government in power, or skeptical of it, and they carried a range of reports from America, including the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s dispatch about the army committing atrocities and the provincial militia winning.

A rudimentary sense of the value of a free press had become part of British-American values by this period, so we can often see both sides of a debate in the papers. (Alas, I don’t know of a more comprehensive British newspaper database easily accessible from this side the water.)

Anonymous said...

Sticking up for Gage, I'll point out generals often minimize casualty figures or exaggerate enemy casualties. It was a common belief among British colonials were scalping.

As for Gage's complaints of colonists using skirmishing tactics, Gage can blame himself for sending cannon for support.
Until artillery arrived the militia were generally fighting in formations. Once the artillery arrived it was suicidal. Formed militia tried to contest the way in Cambridge but were quickly scattered by artillery.