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, January 24, 2022

“The general said that his confidence had been betrayed”

Earlier this month I noted the American Revolution Institute’s article about a likely caricature of Gen. Thomas and Margaret Gage published in London in 1776.

Comments on that post raised the question of when historians started to consider the possibility that Margaret Gage had betrayed her husband by leaking his plans for the 18 Apr 1775 expedition to Concord to the Patriots.

Not that anyone involved in that discussion believed that theory. Rather, we were just wondering when it arose and what evidence, if any, supported it.

By the end of the eighteenth century there were three readily available printed sources speaking to this question. The first was the Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America, published in London in 1788. Gordon knew the Boston Whigs well and was particularly close to Samuel Adams. He wrote of April 1775:
The grenadier and light infantry companies were taken off duty, upon the plea of learning a new exercise, which made the Bostonians jealous that there was some scheme on foot. A daughter of liberty, unequally yoked in point of politics, sent word, by a trusty hand, to Mr. Samuel Adams, residing in company with Mr. [John] Hancock, at Lexington, about thirteen miles from Charlestown, that the troops were coming out in a few days. Upon this their friends at Boston were advised to move out their plate, &c. and the committee of safety voted [18 April], “that all the ammunition be deposited in nine different towns. . .”

Mr. Adams inferred from the number to be employed, that these [military stores] were the objects, and not himself and Mr. Hancock, who might more easily be seized in a private way, by a few armed individuals, than by a large body of troops, that must march for miles together under the eyes of the public. . . .

When the corps was nearly ready to proceed upon the expedition, Dr. [Joseph] Warren, by a mere accident, had notice of it just in time to send messengers over the Neck and across the ferry, on to Lexington, before the orders for preventing every person’s quitting the town were executed.
I quoted from the 1801 edition, which differs a little in punctuation but not wording from the original.

Gordon described two pieces of information reaching two different Patriots. First, Adams outside Boston heard from a sympathetic woman with a Loyalist husband that a march would happen “in a few days.” There’s no clear hint that woman had inside information; instead, Gordon pointed to the orders for the flank companies, which lots of people heard about.

The Patriot leadership had already acted on that advice when Warren “by a mere accident” heard the march was imminent just in time to send messengers—we now know these were William Dawes and Paul Revere—out to Lexington.

From the British side, former officer Charles Stedman’s 1794 History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War confirmed that Gen. Gage was focused on Concord and tried to keep the mission secret:
In war there is nothing that so much avails as secresy of design and celerity of execution: Nor, on the contrary, so hurtful as unnecessary openness and procrastination. General Gage on the evening of the eighteenth of April told lord Percy, that he intended to send a detachment to seize the stores at Concord, and to give the command to colonel [Francis] Smith, ”who knew that he was to go, but not where.” He meant it to be a secret expedition, and begged of lord Percy to keep it a profound secret.

As this nobleman was passing from the general’s quarters home to his own, perceiving eight or ten men conversing together on the common, he made up to them; when one of the men said—“The British troops have marched, but they will miss their aim.”

“What aim?“ said lord Percy.

“Why,” the man replied, ”the cannon at Concord.”

Lord Percy immediately returned on his steps, and acquainted general Gage, not without marks of surprize and disapprobation, of what he had just heard. The general said that his confidence had been betrayed, for that he had communicated his design to one person only besides his lordship.
I broke Stedman’s single long paragraph into shorter paragraphs for easier reading.

Clearly Col. Percy was Stedman’s source for this story. And clearly Percy believed Gage’s plans had leaked, presumably through that “one person” (or maybe Gage hadn’t been as circumspect as he claimed).

Gage and Percy might not have guessed correctly about a leak. The man speaking on the Common might have been speculating about what the British goal was, based on the number of soldiers who were departing. After all, Adams had reportedly made the same guess.

One more early printed source was Paul Revere’s letter to the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap about the opening of the war, published in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Collections series in 1798:
The Saturday night preceding the 19th of April, about 12 o’clock at night, the boats belonging to the transports were all launched, and carried under the sterns of the men of war. (They had been previously hauled up and repaired.) We likewise found that the grenadiers and light Infantry were all taken off duty.

From these movements, we expected something serious was to be transacted. On Tuesday evening, the 18th, it was observed, that a number of soldiers were marching towards the bottom of the Common. About 10 o’clock, Dr. Warren sent in great haste for me, and begged that I would imediately set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the movement, and that it was thought they were the objects. When I got to Dr. Warren’s house, I found he had sent an express by land to Lexington—a Mr. William Dawes.
Belknap cleaned up some of Revere’s spellings before publishing. See the original here. Revere’s letter was reprinted in the Worcester Magazine and Historical Journal in 1826 and in the New England Magazine in 1832.

Thus, before the turn of the nineteenth century historians had sources close to the action revealing that:
  • The commander and second-in-command of the British troops thought the secret plan for the march had leaked, despite only three people knowing about it.
  • Bostonians had actually been talking about the likely plan for days, based on publicly visible signs; Samuel Adams had deduced the general’s goal; and the committee of safety was acting on that warning.
  • Warren sent Dawes and Revere to Lexington based on the mistaken idea that “the objects” of the march were Adams and Hancock; in other words, whatever last-minute information the doctor received “by a mere accident,” that source did not tell him that Gage was focused on Concord.

TOMORROW: The view from the mid-1800s.

1 comment:

Don Hafner said...

As for the ill-kept secret about British intentions, this is of interest, with its prediction in the final sentence:

See The Pennsylvania Journal, April 12, 1775, “from our correspondent in Boston”:
March 30 — This morning at daylight, the troops at Boston beat to arms, and five regiments marched out, with Earl Percy at their head. It was supposed they were going to Concord, where the Provincial Congress is now sitting. A quantity of provisions and warlike stores are lodged there. Several expresses were immediately sent away to give notice of their marching. Important consequences were apprehended; but happily, they only went a few miles out and then returned. The town and country were alarmed, and many of them got equipped for a march. ... The military spirit and resolution prevailing in this province, in support of their liberties and constitution, is astonishing. ... It is said that forty or fifty of the [British] troops were so fatigued by their march, that they could not keep up with their fellow-soldiers on their return. It is also said they are intending to go out again soon.
Quoted in Frank Moore, The Diary of the Revolution: A Centennial Volume (Hartford: J.B. Burr Publishing, 1876), vol. 1, pp. 57-58.