Friday, July 11, 2014

 
Fat Francis
 
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 Charles 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 to reach Concord 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 Charlestown.
 
     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 Concord 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.”
    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.
 
Encyclopedias provide little information about Francis Smith (1723-1791) prior to his sudden rise to prominence April 18, 1775.  At the age of 18 (April 25, 1741), he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers.  Six years later (June 23, 1747) he joined the 10th Regiment of Foot as a Captain.  In February 1762 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.  Five years later he and the 10th Regiment arrived in America.
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 Concord.  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.
 
    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 Concord at dawn.  Because of Smith’s leadership inadequacies, they arrived at dawn at Lexington.
 
Colonel Smith’s next major blunder was his decision to march to Concord after his men had killed eight Lexington villagers.  West of Menotomy (currently Arlington) he had ordered Major Pitcairn to hurry six of the light infantry companies to Concord ahead of the remainder of his forces.  It was Pitcairn, not Smith, who encountered much of Captain Parker’s militia company standing on the Lexington 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 happened.
 
            His instructions had been to seize military stores at Concord, not massacre there or any place in between the populace! What had happened here?!
         
    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 Concord, 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’s North Bridge, 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 Concord.  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, 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 Lexington during his army’s march to Boston, Smith was struck in the left thigh with a musket ball.  He turned his command authority over to Major Pitcairn.  Just east of Lexington, 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 Charlestown 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 Boston.  In the dead of winter, 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 Boston.  On the night of March 4, 1776, during a snow storm, British sentries on duty near Boston Neck heard digging across the bay on Dorchester Heights.  They reported this information to Smith.  Smith did not forward the information to his superiors. By dawn, Washington 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 Boston March 17, leaving for Halifax, Nova Scotia, aboard ships.
 
Promoted a brigadeer general, Francis Smith commanded a brigade during George Washington’s withdrawal from New York in August 1776.  He commanded two regiments in the Battle of Quaker Hill at Newport, Rhode Island, 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. 
 
Thereafter, Smith and his 10th Regiment returned to England to recruit and retrain.   Smith returned to America 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.