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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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“He was governed by his wife”

According to Paul Revere’s Ride, by David Hackett Fischer, the marriage of Gen. Thomas and Margaret Gage didn’t survive the start of the Revolutionary War:

Before this fatal day, Gage had been devoted to his beautiful and caring wife. But after the Regulars returned from Concord, he ordered her away from him. Margaret was packed aboard a ship called Charming Nancy and sent to Britain, while the General remained in America for another long and painful year.
That estrangement, the book states, is a major part of the “circumstantial evidence [which] strongly suggests” that Margaret Gage leaked word to Dr. Joseph Warren about the march to Concord.

It’s a dramatic theory: Margaret torn between two loyalties, the general betrayed by his closest companion, even the possibility of an extramarital affair between the military wife and the widowed physician. Later authors have seized on the idea as fact, tossing aside the little doubt that Fischer preserved. Old North Church even developed a lesson plan about Margaret Gage’s dilemma.

I thought the theory was very intriguing when I first read Paul Revere’s Ride. After studying the book’s argument more intently, however, I think it overstates the case, misstating some evidence and tilting the rest in favor of that thesis.

For example, the book states, “In 1775, she [Margaret Gage] told a gentleman that ‘she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen.’” That quote comes from former governor Thomas Hutchinson’s diary for 27 July 1775, when he was in London:
Mr Keene called: complains of Gage: says his lady has said she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen. I doubted it. He said he did not, but did not chuse to be quoted for it.
Keene was a member of Parliament in London; he couldn’t have had any contact with Margaret Gage in 1775, and was passing on secondhand information at best. Fischer doesn’t mention Hutchinson’s doubt.

Paul Revere’s Ride states, “The well-informed Roxbury clergyman William Gordon wrote that Dr. Warren’s spy was ‘a daughter of liberty unequally yoked in the point of politics.’” Actually, as I discussed back here, that was Gordon’s description of a woman who told Samuel Adams about the British plans “a few days” before 18 April.

Page 95 quotes the diary of the Rev. Jeremy Belknap about Warren consulting “the person who had been retained, and got intelligence of their whole design.” However, a footnote on page 387 dismisses a detail from that same diary entry which points away from Margaret Gage, arguing that Belknap’s information “was merely a rumor he heard in the American camp six months later.”

It’s true that Charles Stedman’s 1794 history of the war describes how Col. Percy warned Gage that he’d heard Bostonians discussing the goal of the march (“the cannon at Concord”), and how “The general said that his confidence had been betrayed, for that he had communicated his design to one person only besides his lordship.”

It’s also true that Maj. James Wemyss later criticized his commander this way:
Lient.-General Gage, a commander-in-chief of moderate abilities, but altogether deficient in military knowledge. Timid and undecided in every emergency, he was very unfit to command, at a time of resistance and approaching rebellion to the mother country. He was governed by his wife, a handsome American; her brothers and relatives held all the staff appointments in the army, and were with less abilities, as weak characters as himself.
But I haven’t read any British officers accusing Margaret Gage of choosing America over Britain, as opposed to hoping there wouldn’t be bloodshed. And if Gen. Gage had told his top-secret plans only to his wife, that means he hadn’t told his confidential secretary, Samuel Kemble; his intelligence manager, Maj. Stephen Kemble; his second-in-command, Gen. Frederick Haldimand; or any other military or political colleagues—rather extraordinary for an eighteenth-century gentleman.

Margaret Gage may well have felt torn between supporting her husband’s military mission and wishing to spare the country where she had grown up. However, unlike the character from Shakespeare she quoted after the Battle of Bunker Hill, she wasn’t torn between her family of birth and her husband—they were on the same side. Indeed, we might wonder why historians suspect Margaret Gage’s loyalties but not those of her two brothers on Gage’s staff, who were in the same situation as she.

Finally, there’s the evidence of the Gages’ marriage.

TOMORROW: “he ordered her away from him”?


EJWitek said...

Another voice joins me! I also have had serious doubts about the consensus of historians that Mrs Gage was Warren's informant on that fateful day. From a counterintelligence viewpoint, the most significant facts are that neither Warren nor Mrs Gage had a way of contacting each other that day without a compromise of their relationship,if they had one, and the fact that Warren's intelligence was faulty, which it would not have been had Mrs Gage been the source.
I detail my views in a January 12 2011 posting on my blog, www.drbenjaminchurchjr.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that Mark Felt had been identified as Warren's informer. Or am I thinking of something else?

Are there an written accounts of events where Margaret Gage and Joseph Warren met? A ball or maybe Gage's inauguration as governor?

Also, I think it is funny that Samuel Kemble would later be succeeded in a position as Deputy Adjutant General by the infamous Major Andre.

-greg aimo

J. L. Bell said...

Your comment that “Warren’s intelligence was faulty” gets to an issue I’ve been wrestling with. We know that Gage’s orders were all focused on the cannon and other supplies at Concord.

But Dawes and Revere were entirely focused on Hancock and Adams at Lexington. And according to Gordon, so was the woman who sent a warning to Samuel Adams—but Adams claimed to have deduced the expedition must have been meant for Concord. And yet on 19 Apr 1775 itself, he didn’t seem so confident about that.

A short time after the march, people with 20-20 hindsight might have recalled themselves brilliantly deducing that the army was aiming for Concord. But shortly after that the historiography set in that the troops were after Hancock and Adams, so people with later hindsight might have included that detail in their stories.

Finally, there’s the possibility that the men Percy overheard on the Common had no secret knowledge of Gage’s plan, but did know about the cannon at Concord (which was also a secret, but less so), and made a logical guess about the expedition.

Anonymous said...


Very cleverly worded EJWitek..."another voice joins me" do you follow humblebrag?


J. L. Bell said...

Here’s a quick link to Edward J. Witek’s article on these questions.

EJWitek said...

What has always bothered me the most about Warren's intelligence was that it is reported that Warren contacted his high level informant and did it rather quickly after being informed of the British troop movements. I just don't see how in a Boston, teeming with activity and mutual suspicion, he did that in such a short time. I don't see how he could have personally done so since he had to be known to almost everybody in Boston;and, no one ever come forward identifying him/herself as that informant or providing even a remote clue as to whom it may have been.
Do we know even for certain that Warren had a high level informant? I know this is blasphemy but we only have Warren's word for that. Could he have exaggerated the level of a source he did have? Any high level source in Gage's office had to know of Gage's opposition to arresting the Patriot leaders and how counterproductive that would be. Could Warren have manufactured a source to insure that the importance of the mission he sent the couriers on was appreciated? This is all speculation, I know, But I just don't think that the case against Mrs Gage adds or stands up. There's a lot more specualtion in the thesis that she was than she wasn't.

J. L. Bell said...

Warren didn’t survive long enough to leave his own account of how he got word of the British march. So all we have are other people’s statements, some recorded well after the fact.

The Rev. Jeremy Belknap recorded a story of what appears to be a paid informant in late 1775, without explaining the provenance of that story.

Paul Revere said nothing about other informants in 1798. In the mid-1800s family lore started to surface; I plan to discuss some of that soon.

Historians took all those sources and tried to recreate Warren’s activities on 18 Apr 1775, and I think that’s where Fischer’s description of Warren checking with a high-level informant comes from. But I don’t know if Warren himself ever made such a claim.