Monday, April 7, 2014

 
"Honest Tom" Gage
 
The consensus opinion of most readers of American history is that British General Thomas Gage was an incompetent field commander and administrator.  This judgment is not surprising given that Gage ordered to Concord, Massachusetts Colony, April 19, 1775, the fool-hardy military expedition that started the Revolutionary War.
 
Nevertheless, I believe that Gage deserves a kinder evaluation.  Lengthy, steadfast military service had earned him his position in 1775, that of Massachusetts Colony military governor and commander in chief of military forces in North America.  During his tenure in Boston prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, he had sought to achieve his country’s purposes first through reasonable compromise.  Only when negotiations with Boston’s radicals failed did he chose to employ force.
 
The son of aristocratic parents, Gage joined the British army sometime before 1741 when he purchased a lieutenant’s commission in the 1st Northampton Regiment.  He quickly earned the nickname “Honest Tom.”  He was promoted to captain in 1743 and participated in the Battle of Fontenoy on Flanders Field during the War of the Austrian Succession.  He witnessed appalling death.  To harden himself after the battle, he walked amid the dying and dismembered.  A year later in Scotland he survived the Battle of Culloden -- a victory, the power of the Highland clans broken -- witnessing again terrible carnage.  A lieutenant-colonel in 1755, Gage led the vanguard of General Edward Braddock’s expeditionary force to expel French forces from Fort Duquesne -- at the juncture of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers.  Gage’s regiment was ambushed by a company of French soldiers and Indian warriors.  The Battle of the Monongahela resulted.  Braddock was mortally wounded; many of his officers were killed; Gage was slightly wounded, one of 1,600 British and American soldiers wounded or slain.  George Washington, Colonel of the Virginia militia, organized the survivors’ retreat. 
 
During the winter of 1757-1758, while in New Jersey recruiting volunteers to form a light-infantry regiment, Gage met Margaret Kemble, a beauty of the Brunswick area and granddaughter of New York’s mayor, Stephanus Van Cortlandt.  They were married December 8, 1758.  He was 39.  Eight years earlier he had been engaged to an English lady of rank and fortune; she had broken off their engagement; he had carried on several years thereafter broken-hearted.
 
A full colonel in 1758, Gage was stationed in Albany, New York Colony.  He commanded the regimental vanguard of a large British army of 16,000 soldiers that attempted on July 8, 1758, to overwhelm 4,000 fortified French soldiers inside Fort Carillon at Lake Champlain.  Led by the Commander-in-Chief in North America, General James Abercrombie, the army, disdaining the use of artillery, sought to capture Fort Carillon (to be renamed Fort Ticonderoga) with a frontal assault.  Abercrombie failed.  His army suffered more than 2,000 casualties.  Gage was again wounded.  Recalled to London, Abercrombie was replaced by Major General Jeffrey Amherst.  Gage was promoted a brigadier general.   Gage participated in Amherst’s uncontested capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1759.  Given command of British forces on Lake Ontario, Gage incurred Amherst’s displeasure by not attempting to attack one of two strategic French forts that Amherst wanted taken.  As punishment, Amherst placed Gage in command of his army’s rear guard during his capture of Montreal in 1760.
 
Gage was appointed a major general in 1761.  Montreal’s military governor until England and France’s signing of a peace treaty in 1763, he dealt mostly with civil litigation, territorial disputes, and in the Great Lakes region quarrels between traders and Indians.  Respecting people’s lives and property, he was judged by his peers to be a fair-minded administrator.  When Amherst, on leave, returned to England, Gage was named temporary Commander in Chief of North America.  He took over Amherst’s command in New York City November 17, 1763, and replaced Amherst permanently when Amherst declined to return to North America.
 
Gage inherited the consequences of Amherst’s ill-advised Indian policies.  Native resentment that government policy permitted British expansion into Indian territories resulted in Pontiac’s Rebellion.  Ottawa Chief Pontiac led a series of attacks on lightly garrisoned frontier forts and settlements.  Eight forts were destroyed.  Hundreds of colonists were killed or captured.  Many more fled the territory.  Employing diplomacy, Gage was able to quell the rebellion, getting disaffected tribes to sign peace treaties in 1764, 1765, and 1766.
 
As commander in chief, Gage was responsible for more than 50 garrisons and stations stretching from Newfoundland to Florida and from Bermuda to the Mississippi.  He spent most of the twelve years carrying that responsibility in New York City, where he relished the social scene.  His authority gave him the opportunity to line the pockets of high-ranking subordinates.  By all accounts, he did not do so; but he did practice nepotism and political favoritism, securing for family members and friends advantageous positions. 
 
He believed initially that colonial discontent after the passage of the Stamp Act (1765) had been caused by a small number of colonial elites, led especially by dissident leaders in Boston.  To quash potential rebellion, he transferred troops from frontier encampments to several large cities, most notably New York City and Boston.  Reaction to the passage of the 1767 Townsend Acts forced Gage to send additional troops to Boston.  In March 1770 friction between hostile soldiers and embittered citizens escalated into an altercation that left five citizens dead, an event heralded thereafter by Massachusetts radicals as the Boston Massacre.
 
By then Gage had concluded that democracy itself was the prime instigator of colonial rebellion.  Too prevalent, it needed to be curbed.  Acting on this belief, he forwarded to King George III and his counselors specific recommendations.  Confine the colonials to the Atlantic seaboard, where they must adhere to English law and authority.  … Abolish immediately their rancorous town meetings, which were the wombs of sedition.  Remove trials of such matters to England, away from intimidated judges and corrupt juries” (Titus 77).  The King ordered Gage to return to England to defend his recommendations.  During his absence, Bostonians dumped 342 chests of imported East India Company tea into their harbor.  In the minds of the King, his cabinet, and most members of Parliament, the Boston Tea Party necessitated harsh punishment.  Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, the most important of which was the Boston Port Act, which closed the harbor to all commerce until the colony paid for the value of the destroyed tea.  Gage returned to America in 1774 to serve additionally as Massachusetts’s military royal governor.  His attempts to enforce the provisions of the Coercive Acts were stymied by radical leaders.
 
Refusing to violate constitutional law, eschewing heavy-handed repression, implementing, instead, a benign, yet firm, consistent policy, Gage had attempted to win the obedience of the populace. His attempts to do what was lawful and just had been thwarted at virtually every turn.
 
“He had been unable to stop the town meetings in Salem and Boston. He had nominated royal judges to the Massachusetts bench. Loyalist juries had refused to serve. Many judges, fearful of reprisal, had refused to sit.  … he had removed 250 half-barrels of powder from the Provincial Powder House at Charlestown and, additionally, several cannon at Cambridge. The powder had been the lawful property of the Province of Massachusetts, not the illegal Provincial Congress [Gage had dissolved the Massachusetts Assembly in June] and the proliferating town militias. The following day 4,000 provincials, incited by fraudulent rumors, had demonstrated on the Cambridge Common! Dubbed the ‘Powder Alarm,’ the uprising had instructed him to proceed thereafter with greater circumspection. 
 
“Subsequently, he had fortified the Neck; entrance and egress were now carefully monitored. He had ordered the inhabitants of Boston to surrender their weapons, after having purchased the inventory of every gun merchant” (Titus 77).    
 
In September 1774 Gage brought to Boston additional soldiers, from garrisons in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Halifax, and Newfoundland.  He ordered to Boston a fleet of warships.  In November he wrote Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the American Colonies, that the Coercive Acts should be suspended until additional troops from England were provided; “there was ‘no prospect of putting the late acts in force, but by first making a conquest of the New England provinces.’ That would necessitate a force of at least 20,000 soldiers” (Titus 77-78).
 
While waiting for Dartmouth’s response Gage attempted in December to remove royal gunpowder and cannon from a crumbling fortress near the entrance of Portsmouth Harbor.  Express rider Paul Revere alerted the local militia before the arrival of Admiral Graves and a detachment of British troops.  400 militiamen overwhelmed the guard of 6.  100 barrels of gunpowder and 16 cannon were carried away. 
 
In late February 1775, Gage dispatched a regiment of soldiers under the command of Colonel Alexander Leslie by sea to Marblehead to march to Salem to seize eight new brass cannon and field pieces converted from the cannon of four derelict ships.  A raised drawbridge that provided access to the cannon thwarted Leslie’s attempt.
 
In early spring Gage received a response, dated January 27, from Dartmouth.  “… the King had angrily rejected his requests. Troops were, in fact, on the way: 700 Marines and three regiments of foot. But, the King and his ministers did not accept Gage’s estimate that 20,000 soldiers were needed to quell the rebellion. If General Gage sincerely believed that more soldiers were required than what he was being provided, he should recruit men from ‘friends of the government in New England.  … The King’s dignity, and the honor and safety of the Empire, require, that, in such a situation, force should be repelled with force.’ Seize the ringleaders; disarm the populace. They are ‘a rude Rabble without plan, without concert, and without conduct. A smaller force now, if put to the test, would be able to encounter them with greater probability of success than might be expected from a great army’” (Titus 78-79).  Dartmouth informed Gage that Generals John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton, and William Howe were accompanying the Marines and regiments of foot.   It was obvious to Gage that to avoid being replaced and recalled he would indeed have to put his “smaller force … to the test.”
 
More information to follow.
 
Source cited:
 
Titus, Harold.  Crossing the River.  BookLocker.com, Inc.  2011.  Print