Early in my novel Crossing the River I have Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Percy returning to his residence just before midnight, April 18, 1775, having witnessed the chaotic loading of approximately 700 British soldiers into long boats to be rowed across the
River. Upon reaching the
opposite shore, the soldiers were supposed to be formed quickly into a marching
column and, afterward, hurried along the road through Lexington
by dawn. In this and successive posts I
will provide information about Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith, Major John
Pitcairn, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Percy, each of whom played a significant role
in the army’s ill-advised march to Concord and its disastrous retreat to
A hundred yards from the shoreline of Boston Common, Hugh, Earl Percy, feigning indifference, watched the final company of regulars clamber into the three remaining boats. The past forty-five minutes he had watched agitated junior officers locate, remove, and relocate their charges across the upslope of the Common. Because none of the waiting boats had been assigned to specific units, the more assertive officers had attempted to commandeer those closest. Arguments and the co-mingling of companies had resulted. Percy had observed in the rank and file a gamut of conduct, little of it exemplary.
Ten rods to Percy’s left, surrounded by a crowd of company captains, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith was seated on a chair, carried down, Percy assumed, from one of the barracks. “His attention is yet misdirected!” Percy muttered. If he, Percy, were commander, … He wasn’t!
Two hours ago General Gage had informed Earl Percy of Smith’s appointment. The General had summoned Percy to the Province House to apprise him of his subordinate assignment. First, however, had been Gage’s revelation that Colonel Smith was to lead. No! Percy had silently reacted. “I have placed Major Pitcairn second in command,” the General had thereafter stated.
At once Percy had recognized Gage’s reasoning. He had not wanted to offend his most senior field officer. An awful decision. Gage’s selection of Pitcairn, however, had been astute. Honest, efficient, fair-minded, and shrewd, John Pitcairn had the ability to correct Smith’s worst mistakes. Perhaps Smith would seek Pitcairn's counsel. Better yet, he might delegate to the Scotsman all decision-making responsibility.
These hurried thoughts had preceded Gage’s announcement of Percy’s assignment. “You shall command a sizeable force to be made ready to reinforce Colonel Smith and his men at or near the vicinity of
should events deem that action necessary.” -- So, the General has his own
doubts, Percy had thought. -- “But I don’t think the rebels will fight.” Concord
Riding past tall, peak-roofed buildings during his return to his residence, Percy had pondered Gage’s decision. A part of Percy’s creed was his belief that in combat a commanding general should utilize the entirety of his resources. That meant employing to maximum benefit his best field officer. The General had chosen to proceed differently, presuming that the colonials would not contest Smith, saving Percy to avert calamity should his judgment be proven deficient.
The mismanagement that Percy had witnessed the past forty-five minutes had laid bare the importance of Gage’s calculation.
At 52 a senior officer with twelve years experience serving in the colonies, called upon by his friend Thomas Gage to lead a selected force of 700 soldiers to seize and destroy stockpiled rebel munitions stored at Concord, a corpulent man slow to think and slow to act, called “Fat Francis” by the rank and file behind his back, Smith demonstrated immediately his deficiencies. First was the chaotic loading of the soldiers into the long boats. Next, after they had been rowed across the river, he spent far too much time organizing them into a marching column.
At that time a British regiment consisted of ten companies. 35 to 50 men filled a company. One of the ten companies was called light infantry, its men often used as flankers to protect the other nine obliged to march through hostile territory. These soldiers had to be able to move quickly over difficult terrain. A separate company of the ten consisted of grenadiers, muscular soldiers famous in previous decades for their ability to hurl heavy explosives. They were to be utilized April 19 to destroy the military supplies hidden in
. The soldiers of the remaining eight companies
were regular foot soldiers, sometimes called “of the line” soldiers. Light infantry and grenadier companies were
the elite companies of every regiment. General
Gage had provided Smith eleven light
infantry and ten grenadier companies from different regiments. Mindful entirely of protocol, Smith wasted
valuable time arranging these units into a marching column. In my novel Lieutenant John Barker, 4th
Regiment, gives the particulars. Concord
Colonel Smith’s expeditionary force had dawdled in the marshland two hours, not one! They had moved a jaw-dropping distance of fifty feet!
His eminence had used much of the time changing the composition of his column. Light infantry companies were to lead; grenadier companies were to follow; within the two groupings regimental seniority determined the location of each company. Their shoes and gaiters soaked, the men of the 4th had stood, shivered, been moved, shivered, been moved again, stood, shivered, and cursed.
The column had waited a good portion of the second hour for provisions, a third crossing of the boats! Much better to have received the beef hardtack upon the completion of their mission when its delivery would actually have served its purpose! Its distribution now -- added weight soon to be discarded -- made no sense! But when had making sense factored in his superiors’ operations?
General Gage had wanted his forces to arrive at
at dawn. Because of Smith’s leadership inadequacies, they
arrived at dawn at Concord . Lexington
Colonel Smith’s next major blunder was his decision to march to
Concord after his men had
villagers. West of Menotomy (currently Lexington Arlington) he had ordered Major Pitcairn to hurry six of
the light infantry companies to
ahead of the remainder of his forces. It
was Pitcairn, not Smith, who encountered much of Captain Parker’s militia
company standing on the Concord
common. At least one shot was fired from
off the common. Fatigued, in bad temper,
one of Pitcairn’s companies, brought up onto the common, lost all discipline. Disobeying Pitcairn’s orders, it volleyed into
the militiamen. A second volley
resounded. Bayonets leading, all of the companies then
surged forward. Smith, having heard the
volleys from afar, arrived atop his galloping horse. The worst of the encounter had already
His instructions had been to seize military stores at
, not massacre there or any place in
between the populace! What had
happened here?! Concord
Major Pitcairn's explanation was brief. Smith recognized in his demeanor both chagrin and anger. Smith lashed out at his soldiers after they had performed smartly their parade address. They had disobeyed their superiors’ orders, the worst of sins.
He recognized, while he lectured, that he was not entirely displeased. They had removed an impediment not of their making. They had done His Majesty a valuable service. What he had first thought to be a massive bloodletting had been an indelible lesson of the consequence of pertinacious disobedience. The schooling had not been costly. But one regular had been wounded -- not seriously, he had been told. Of the rebels, only a handful had been killed. Had these peasants had any doubt beforehand about the fighting prowess of His Majesty’s foot, they had this day been enlightened. As would, upon hearing the news of this farce of a skirmish, traitors elsewhere. Thinking to reward his soldiers, thinking to bolster their morale after he had scolded them, Smith ordered the traditional victory salute, a volley of musketry followed by three huzzahs.
Minutes later, after his brief exchange with three junior officers, urging of all things a return to Boston, the purpose of the mission having been made “impracticable,” to the strains of fife and the tattoo of drum, Colonel Smith directed his expeditionary force, in fine formation, westward.
Much of the time while his soldiers searched for hidden munitions in
Smith fed his appetite and quenched his thirst in a local tavern. Warned by Captain Walter Laurie’s messenger
that militia companies of considerable number had assembled on Punkatasek Hill
near Concord Concord’s ,
which Laurie’s outnumbered companies were defending, Smith was slow in
assembling reinforcements. A skirmish at
the bridge occurred before Smith and two grenadier companies arrived. Half of the engaged militiamen took a
defensive position off the road behind a stone wall. After studying them at length, Smith decided not
to engage them. He marched his
grenadiers and Laurie’s soldiers back toward North Bridge .
The militiamen left their position, crossed the bridge, and climbed
Punkatasek Hill. Learning of this, Smith
marched his forces back toward the bridge, stopped, and studied for two or
three minutes the deserted terrain. British
possession of the bridge was essential. Several British companies sent to the farm of Concord ’s Colonel James
Barrett to locate hidden munitions needed yet to cross it to return to the
village. Much to Lieutenant John Barker’s
disgust, Smith ordered his soldiers back to Concord Concord,
then back toward the bridge, and then, a final time, back to . Concord
The marching, the counter marching, Smith’s poltroonery, two hours of wasted energy, this!
About and beyond the Common the dismissed men were raising water, begging for food, crowding the sides of buildings to escape the sun.
Meanwhile, inside the tavern senior officers and His Rotund Eminence were devouring meat and pastry and tossing down flip.
Meanwhile, Parsons’ four crack light infantry companies, probably returning, were breathing kicked-up dust!
Standing outside Wright Tavern, aiming at the imprint of a boot heel, Barker spat.
Just west of
during his army’s march to ,
Smith was struck in the left thigh with a musket ball. He turned his command authority over to Major
Pitcairn. Just east of Boston , Smith’s desperate forces entered
the perimeter of approximately a thousand soldiers sent by General Gage to
rescue them. Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh
Percy now assumed over-all command.
Under his efficient leadership, the army reached the safety of Lexington at nightfall.
Months passed before Smith recovered from his wound. Meantime, George Washington took command of the militia forces that were conducting a siege of
In the dead of winter, Boston Washington sent
Henry Knox and a detachment of soldiers to Fort
Ticonderoga at Lake
Champlain to seize British cannon.
Using sleds, Knox’s men, unbeknownst to Gage’s successor, William Howe,
transported the artillery to . On the night of March 4, 1776, during a snow storm, British sentries on duty near Boston Neck heard
digging across the bay on Boston . They reported this information to Smith. Smith did not forward the information to his
superiors. By dawn, Dorchester
had a full complement of breastworks constructed on the heights ready for
Knox’s cannon. Vulnerable thereafter to
artillery attack, Howe and his army abandoned Washington Boston
March 17, leaving for , aboard ships. Halifax,
Promoted a brigadeer general, Francis Smith commanded a brigade during George Washington’s withdrawal from
in August 1776. He commanded two
regiments in the Battle of Quaker Hill at New York , in August
1778, the conflict
a denouement of a planned undertaking that involved American and French
soldiers and French warships and that was only partly executed. Smith’s
advance against the left flank of the American army stalled. He was reinforced, resumed his advance, and forced
a Yankee withdrawal to a more formidable defensive position. He thereupon initiated a probing attack, was
repulsed, and terminated his advance. Newport, Rhode Island
Thereafter, Smith and his 10th Regiment returned to
recruit and retrain. Smith returned to England in 1779
and was promoted a major general. In 1787 he was promoted
Lieutenant General and Aide-de-Camp to King George III. Four years later he died. America