Friday, January 3, 2014

Destined for Greatness


How much can the actions of one person alter the outcome of a major historical event? A lot, history indicates. What follows is how one Massachusetts militia leader could have, but didn’t, change significantly the early months of the American Revolution. I am speaking of Timothy Pickering, commander of the Essex County militia, in Salem.

The British army that marched to Concord, Massachusetts Colony, April 19, 1775, to destroy stockpiled rebel munitions began its return trek in the early afternoon. Almost immediately it came under heavy fire. Hiding behind stone walls, trees, and sheds and out of windows of houses, militia companies from nearby towns inflicted substantial punishment. To save the army, Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Percy feigned at Cambridge a crossing of the Charles River, believing that the planks of the town’s Great Bridge would be removed and most if not all of the town militias yet ahead of him would be positioned there to destroy him. Sending his flanking units toward the bridge, Percy turned his 1,700 soldiers in the opposite direction, toward Charlestown and Bunker and Breeds Hill, where he could establish a strong defensive position, receive reinforcements from Boston, and eventually be ferried across the river.

Percy’s army, breaking through armed resistance at the top of one major hill, advanced unopposed toward Charlestown, chased by a large portion of the militia companies caught flat-footed at the Great Bridge. Had Timothy Pickering and his Essex County militia appeared on the Charlestown/Cambridge road at this crucial stage to block the army’s retreat to Charlestown, Percy would have had to surrender. One-third of the British garrison in Boston would then have been lost, its commander, General Thomas Gage, would likely have not challenged subsequent rebel fortification of Breeds Hill, the Battle of Bunker Hill would not have been fought, and British evacuation of Boston would probably have occurred much sooner.

Pickering had been present with about 50 militiamen when General Gage had sent a detachment of soldiers northward by sea two months earlier to seize refurbished cannon located at a Salem forge. Thwarted by a raised drawbridge, the British commanding officer, Colonel Leslie, decided not to fire upon Pickering’s militiamen and a hostile crowd berating him, choosing instead to march his forces back to their transport at Marblehead. In the mid-morning of April 19, Pickering, informed that 8 Lexington citizens had been killed by British soldiers sent into the country to destroy Concord’s munitions, decided to keep his men in Salem.

Timothy Pickering had a large ego. Not yet 30, Harvard educated, a lawyer, the commanding officer of the militia of Essex County, the author of a well-read pamphlet defining how militiamen should be disciplined, he believed himself soon to be, if not already, extraordinary. Here is how I characterize him in my novel.

"What others had to say about his decisions after he had implemented them mattered not. He assailed difficulties … with supreme confidence, those men disagreeing with his conclusions later acknowledging, albeit privately, their errata. He concurred entirely with what he believed his peers had privately ascertained. He was destined for greatness."

A great leader differentiates himself from the majority. He rejects conventional wisdom. Possessing extraordinary courage and superior intellect, he does the unexpected, takes a different tack. So Pickering must have thought. Had he acted as other militia leaders far distant from Lexington had done that morning, he would have taken his men to Cambridge and the Great Bridge. Ironically, his obstinacy, his refusal to budge provided him, temporarily, the opportunity to appear to be the great leader he believed he was destined to be. Here is what happened.

"The news of the fighting at Lexington had reached him just before 9 a.m., interrupting that quiet period of time he took each morning to digest his breakfast. He had immediately concluded that the British army, having fired upon the Lexington militia at about dawn, having made blatant their plan in the country, would terminate their mission and return to Boston. Because Salem was farther away from Boston than Lexington from Boston, he had decided not to commit his troops, citing that their mustering and the subsequent hard march to Cambridge would serve no beneficial purpose.

More persuasive was his suspicion that any British expedition undertaken east of Boston would be a deception. He would not be duped into separating his forces from General Gage’s intended objective, that which two months ago General Gage’s surrogate, Colonel Leslie, had so ignominiously failed to confiscate.

Through the late morning the townspeople had given him little peace. Militia companies from other northern county towns were marching; why wasn't he? Simple-minded citizens they were, their minds closed to his logic.

Eventually, begrudgingly, uncharacteristically, he had yielded. To satisfy them, in the early afternoon he and his soldiers had taken to the road, but not so far that he would not be able to return should he be apprised of a second appearance of ships transporting regulars to a landfall at Marblehead. It had been a vain business. He had chastised himself for his acquiescence. Having stopped the march several miles west of the town, he had used up an hour inspecting his men, anticipating at any moment a messenger with information that would justify his return.

In the late afternoon, because a messenger had brought news of an entirely different sort, he had resumed the march; but not before he had sent forth a message pledging support. He had not intimated how far removed he was. He had believed that a forced march could, nay, would ameliorate his miscalculation, for which the British expedition’s commanding officer, having proceeded irrationally to Concord, was entirely at fault."

The road that Pickering took from Salem intersected the road between Cambridge and Charlestown. Had he left Salem an hour sooner, he would have reached the intersection before Percy did. He reached it minutes too late. Sensing that Pickering might not reach the intersection in time, Massachusetts’s General William Heath had told his companion, Doctor Joseph Warren: “Damn his perfidious soul! Percy seeps through our fingers here!” And after the lengthy British column had passed the vital intersection, Heath declared, “Mark this well, Doctor Warren! That bastard Pickering has no stomach for fighting!”

Pickering’s drive to achieve high station and great acclaim persisted. Next month I will tell you about his rise to national prominence and how he exhibited at least twice very poor judgment.