Tuesday, June 10, 2014

 
Gage -- Thwarted, Blamed, Recalled
 
Following the debacle of April 19, General Thomas Gage sent reinforcements from his Boston garrison to Charlestown to occupy Breeds and Bunker Hills.  Militiamen from numerous Massachusetts villages assembled south of Boston Neck and along the road west of Charlestown.  Outnumbered, concerned that Boston might be overrun, Gage withdrew his forces from the two hills and Charlestown and fortified Boston Neck.  He waited, prepared for an attack.  It did not occur.  But Gage’s forces, 5,000 in number, were bottled up.  Admiral Graves’s fleet of warships provided the only route into Boston for Gage’s army to receive food and military supplies.
 
On May 25, Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne and 4,000 men arrived from England   
 
Thereafter, Gage failed to reach a peace settlement with the Provincial Congress leadership.  In early June he issued a proclamation of martial law to be enforced in the city.  At the same time he offered pardons to all provincial combatants except Sam Adams and John Hancock.  Rebuffed again, he approved William Howe’s plan to attack the rebel command headquarters and supply depot at Cambridge.
 
A large segment of the attacking force was to be rowed across the Charles River to take possession of the undefended Dorchester heights and afterward attack the rebel camp at Roxbury.  The remaining troops were to be landed at Wilson Creek, near the high ground of the Charlestown peninsula.  From opposite directions, across flatter, more accommodating terrain, the two segments were to advance upon Cambridge.  Informed of the plan, the Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety, hoping to preempt the attack, ordered Breed’s Hill fortified.  This was done during the night of June 16.  Rebel artillery fire could now be directed at shipping on the River and at north Boston.  It became obvious to Gage and Howe the following morning that they would have to remove the artillery before they could attack the enemy at Cambridge.
 
Gage assigned General Howe the task of capturing Breeds Hill.  So confident was Howe about the superiority of the British foot soldier and disparaging of the Massachusetts militiaman that he made two extremely unwise decisions.  One, he would employ frontal assaults to take the hill.  Two, he eschewed taking and holding the lightly defended ground across Charlestown Neck to cut off a rebel retreat.  Thomas Gage’s huge error of judgment was that he did not correct the flaws of Howe’s plan.
 
The Battle of Bunker Hill (fought on Breeds Hill) began June 17.  Howe threw in succession three battalions at the rebels.  Not until the Americans had run out of ammunition did Howe’s soldiers, advancing in straight lines, take the hill, the rebel forces retreating down the hill’s back side and across Charlestown Neck.  Howe suffered 1,054 casualties: 226 killed and 828 wounded.  The Americans suffered 441 casualties. 
 
Having control again of the Charlestown heights, Gage reinforced the town.  He cancelled his plan to attack Cambridge.  In Philadelphia the Continental Congress appointed George Washington commander of the rebel forces encamped outside Boston.  Washington set up his headquarters in Cambridge.  He divided his independent-minded army into three sections.  One part was stationed at Roxbury under the command of Artemas Ward, the middle part, commanded by Israel Putnam, was placed near Cambridge, and the third part, commanded by Charles Lee, guarded the exits from Charlestown.
 
Throughout the summer months no major battles occurred.  There were sporadic skirmishes, most of it rebel sharpshooters, occupying high ground, firing at British patrols.  Then, on August 30, British forces raided Roxbury.  Washington’s right wing defended while militiamen elsewhere attacked and destroyed the lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in outer Boston Harbor.  Gage and his officers could no longer communicate at night with Admiral Graves’s ships.  Days later Washington learned that the British command had decided to cease offensive operations until it received more reinforcements from England.  Accordingly, Washington detached 1,100 of his soldiers and Benedict Arnold to advance into and attack Canada.
 
On June 25, Gage had sent his report of the Battle of Bunker Hill to Lord Dartmouth in London.  After reading it, Dartmouth ordered Gage to relinquish his command to General Howe and return to England.  Gage received the order September 28.  He turned his command over to Howe October 10 and left Boston the following day.  The King’s ministers blamed Gage for everything bad that had transpired.  The three generals, Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne, concurred.  Gage was given a somewhat friendly interview with King George III sometime after his arrival, but public and private writings about him in England were critical.  Some were vicious.
 
Gage and his family settled in a large house on Portland Place in London.  He was reactivated to duty briefly by General Amherst in April 1781 to mobilize troops to defend against a possible French invasion.  The following year he was given command of the 17th Light Dragoons.  He became a full general November 20, 1782.  Gage supported the efforts of Loyalists to recover property losses caused by their forced emigration.  He assisted Benjamin Church’s widow in her attempt to receive compensation by confirming that Church had been his spy. 
 
Gage’s health began to decline in the early 1780s.  He died at his home at Portland Place April 2, 1787.  Living nearly another 37 years, his wife, Margaret Kemble Gage, died in England at the age of 90.  After the Battle of Bunker Hill Gage had shipped her to England on the transport Charming Nancy, along with sixty widows and orphans and 170 terribly wounded soldiers.  He had suspected, historians believe correctly, that she had revealed to rebel leaders detailed information about his planned Concord expedition.
 
Historians concede that the generous-natured Thomas Gage was an honorable man and a competent military administrator.  He was not, however, a good strategist or field commander.  During subsequent engagements his general officer colleagues, Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne, proved themselves similarly deficient.