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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Monday, April 11, 2011

“Which is the side that I must go withal?”

Thomas Gage, British army officer and younger son of a baronet, and Margaret Kemble, daughter of a wealthy New Jersey merchant, married in 1758. He was in North America to fight in the French and Indian War.

In the course of that conflict, Thomas rose to the rank of general, and afterward became the commander-in-chief of all British army forces on the continent. Over fifteen years Margaret had six children (at least—those six survived to adulthood).

Gen. Gage was on his first trip back to England in early 1774 when news of the Boston Tea Party reached London, and was summoned to court to share his expertise on America. For years he had sent letters recommending how to change colonial laws or constitutions to make life easier for the army. George III and his ministers liked what Gage told them and offered him the post of royal governor of Massachusetts. The general promised that he’d bring the obstreperous province to order.

The new governor arrived in May 1774, accompanied by the first of many regiments to be stationed in town. Among his top aides were Maj. Stephen Kemble, a deputy adjutant-general, and Samuel Kemble, confidential secretary; they were Margaret’s brothers. Some of the Gage children were also in Boston, but the oldest appear to have been at boarding schools in England.

On 26 February and then 18 Apr 1775, Gage sent troops out from Boston to search for the defiant Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s artillery and supplies. The provincial forces responded by besieging Boston. On 17 June the two armies fought over the heights of Charlestown, with the British securing the high ground of Bunker Hill in a Pyrrhic victory.

On 1 November, one of Margaret Gage’s friends wrote to her from Perth Amboy (in a letter opened by the British post office seeking intelligence and preserved in government records):

I recollect with horror the bloody scene at Charlestown. Poor Jennet [Montgomery]! I have been told that she charged [Richard] Montgomery to avoid, at any rate, being taken prisoner. A cord, I suppose, she apprehended would finish his exploits. What a dreadful apprehension for a wife; let either side conquer, what heartfelt woe must it occasion! This puts me in mind of a conversation you and I had the day after that dreadful one, when you thought the lines so expressive:
The Sun’s o’ercast with blood; fair day, adieu!
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both; each army hath a hand,
And in their rage,—I having hold of both,—
They whirl asunder, and dismember me.
And again:
Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose,
Assured loss, before the match be played.
Those are lines from Shakespeare’s King John, spoken by Lady Blanch as she feels torn between her husband and her family on opposite sides of a war. Evidently Margaret Gage also felt torn between the royal forces her husband led and the American colonists.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The letter from Mrs. Gage's friend shows that both women (I am assuming the correspondent is a woman) were acutely aware of the horrors of civil war. However, an earlier passage in the letter is also very revealing. The writer says "I have heard some good news, which is that [Patriot General] Montgomery is with his whole army cut to pieces or taken by Genl Carleton [i.e. British General Guy Carleton]. God grant it be true! and yet I shudder...". Mrs. Gage's friend is very firmly on the loyalist side - even if she does feel sorry for Montgomery's widow. More significantly, the writer would not have written in such terms had she not assumed that Mrs. Gage would also share her view that the destruction of a patriot army was "good news". Clearly, the writer and Mrs. Gage, who were together in Boston at the time of Bunker Hill, would have discussed their views on the war etc. I think, therefore, that this letter is, if anything, evidence that supports the idea that Mrs. Gage was, as you would expect, a loyalist. The anonymous writer of the letter, by the way, was probably a relation or old family friend of Mrs. Gage. The letter is sent from Perth Amboy, where Margaret Kemble Gage grew up and where her father, Peter Kemble, lived.