Saturday, May 10, 2014

 
A Decisive Blow
 
Forced by King George III and his cabinet officers to take decisive action to put down rebellion in Massachusetts, Thomas Gage had to select his target.
 
He had received a letter dated March 4, 1775, from his spy in the Provincial Congress – Dr. Benjamin Church.  The letter stated that the Congress had appointed a committee to “watch” the Army.”  If Gage decided to send armed soldiers into the country, minutemen would be summoned to oppose them. “The Minutemen amount to 7,500 and are the picked men of the whole body of the militia and are properly armed.”  Nearly their entire magazine of powder, some 90 to 100 barrels, lies hidden at Concord. 
 
On March 9 Gage had received a note in French from John Hall of Concord.  Food supplies as well as armament were being stockpiled in that Middlesex County town.  Hall had identified the exact location of the dumps, the main magazine being at the farm of James Barrett, the recently appointed colonel of the town militia.  Responding, Gage had sent two spies, Captain John Browne and Ensign Henry de Berniere, to Concord to investigate.  They had returned with corroboration: a detailed map and Tory resident Daniel Bliss.
 
Gage had received another letter, dated April 13, from Church.  The spy was an important member of the Congress's Committee of Safety.  Take action within the next several days! Church advised.  When it serves your purpose!  Sam Adams and his cronies wanted confrontation. They wanted a replication of the Boston Massacre.  Defeat their designs when they least expect it.  Congress had agreed to raise an army of 18,000 men.  8,000 were to come from Massachusetts. Important Committee of Correspondence leaders from New Hampshire and Rhode Island were taking part in Congress's discussions.  But amongst the members there was much irresolution.  A sizeable number had opposed the raising of the army.  The Congress was about to recess.  During that recess Gage should strike suddenly, remove their powder, scuttle their idea of a provincial army, and dissuade Connecticut and New Hampshire interference.
 
It would be Concord, then, that he would target.  The difficulties?  Many.  Getting to Concord (some thirty miles away) swiftly was paramount.  He would send approximately 700 soldiers across the Charles River to Cambridge by longboats sometime after 11 p.m.  They would march rapidly to arrive at Concord at dawn.  Surprise was essential.  He would place officers on horseback along the various country roads west of Boston to intercept express riders intent on broadcasting the news of his expedition’s departure.
 
He, indeed, had misgivings.  “Too much of his plan depended on probabilities, reasoned assumptions. If he had been accurate in his assessment of the major difficulties, if he had chosen effective measures to negate them, the expedition’s outcome would be determined by how well its commander executed the plan and how rapidly and aggressively the enemy responded. Intangibles all” (Titus 82)!
 
But the provincials knew his intention.  Doctor Joseph Warren, running rebel operations in Boston, had a source very close to the General.  “Doctor Warren’s confidential source was someone very near the heart of the British command, and so much at risk that he – or she -- could be approached only in a moment of dire necessity.  As evidence of British preparations began to mount, Warren decided that such a time had come.  One who knew him wrote later that he ‘applied to the person who had been retained, and got intelligence of their whole design.’  The informer reported that the plan was ‘to seize Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were known to be at Lexington, and burn the stores at Concord.  … Margaret Gage made no secret of her deep distress.  In 1775, she told a gentleman that ‘she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen’” (Fischer 95, 97).  Paul Revere rode to Concord a week before Gage’s forces were rowed across the Charles River near midnight April 18.  Concord militiamen had a head start moving and hiding their stores.  In the early hours of April 19 Revere was stopped by Gage’s officers between Lexington and Concord; but Dr. Samuel Prescott, riding with Revere, escaped arrest and alerted Concord’s militia.  Gage would not have the advantage of surprise.
 
Neither did he have a competent commander.  He had appointed his senior field commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith.  Corpulent, slow to think and slow to act, Smith wasted two hours reconfiguring his light infantry and grenadier companies first by category and then by seniority after they had been ferried across the river.  More time was wasted as he waited for the arrival of food provisions.  He reached Lexington – not Concord – at dawn.
 
Smith’s soldiers found little to destroy at Concord.  They left, belatedly, that afternoon.  It wasn’t until they crossed a little bridge over Mill Creek just east of the town that they received sustained musket fire.  For that they had themselves to blame.  They had not been fired upon by militiamen on Lexington’s town common yet had attacked and killed eight.  They had fired at militiamen descending upon Concord Bridge, killing two, before they themselves had been briefly targeted.  They had been watched but not fired upon as they had crossed Mill Creek, but then their rear guard had volleyed at the watchers.  Beginning then and continuing until hours later when they reached the safety of Breeds and Bunker Hills near Charlestown, Smith’s forces were steadfastly attacked.
 
Gage’s attempt to strike a decisive blow against Massachusetts rebellion was a disaster.  It would be followed soon afterward by another disaster of which Gage was partially responsible. 
 
Sources cited:
 
Fischer, David Hackett.  Paul Revere’s Ride. New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press.  1994.  Print.
 
Titus, Harold.  Crossing the River.  Booklocker.com, Inc.  2011.  Print.