Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh, Earl Percy -- An Anomaly
It was Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh, Earl Percy who saved General Thomas Gage’s 700 men expeditionary force from capitulation or annihilation during its retreat from
Massachusetts Colony, April 19, 1775. It
is a wonder that Percy thereafter played such a brief, insignificant role in Concord ’s
subsequent attempts to vanquish its rebellious colonies. For that reason, perhaps, Percy has received
scant attention in general history books.
His accomplishments and his character deserve our notice. Great Britain
When he disembarked with his regiment in
July 5, 1774, Percy, already a
lieutenant-colonel, was a month short of being thirty-two years of age. An aristocrat with close ties to King George
III, he, like his father, the Earl of Northumberland, was a member of Parliament. His history and that of his father prior to
1774, although complicated, need to be presented. Boston
Born Hugh Smithson August 14, 1742, Percy was the son of Sir Hugh Smithson and Lady Elizabeth Seymour, heiress of the House of Percy. The last Earl of Northumberland had died in 1670, leaving his daughter, Lady Elizabeth Percy, heiress to the title. Upon her death in 1722, her son, Algernon Seymour, had been created Baron Percy in recognition of her inheritance. Algernon died in 1750. His title, Baron Percy, and much of his estate were bestowed on his daughter, Lady Elizabeth Seymour. Lady Elizabeth had married ten years earlier Sir Hugh Smithson. Sir Hugh wanted the heritage of his wife’s grandmother -- the Percy name and Northumberland title -- bestowed on him and, eventually, his son. A special act of Parliament changed Sir Hugh’s family name from Smithson to Percy. He became a knight of the Garter in 1757, the Order of the Garter the most senior of all British orders of knighthood, its membership limited to the monarch and 25 knights. In October 1766 the government awarded him the title Earl Percy and the Duke of Northumberland.
When Hugh the father became the duke of Northumberland in 1766, Hugh the son was addressed as Earl Percy. He would become the Earl of Northumberland upon his father’s death.
Percy was educated at
from 1753 to 1758. He volunteered for
military service in 1759 and purchased the rank of Captain of the 85th Regiment
of Foot at the age of 17. He
participated in several battles in Europe
during the Seven Years War. He purchased
the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the 11th Foot in April 1762. In 1763 he was elected to represent in the House
of Commons. He married July 2, 1764, Lady
Anne Crichton-Stuart, daughter of the influential Lord Bute, the King’s mentor. He was immediately appointed the rank of
colonel and the aide-de-camp to the King.
He was all of 22. He was given
the command of the 5th Regiment of Foot in 1768, the regiment he would lead
April 19, 1775. Westminster
Percy was a physically unattractive man, very slight in physique with a large nose. He had poor eyesight. He suffered from chronic gout. But he “was honorable and brave, candid and decent, impeccably mannered, and immensely generous with his wealth” (Fischer 259). By 1768, both he and his father had distanced themselves from the King’s policy of governance of the American colonies. Both men voted against the Stamp Act and voted for its repeal.
Despite his opposition to his government’s administrative colonial policies, Percy chose to accompany his regiment to
. Being of high nobility and military rank, he had
the option to decline. The Earl of
Effington had done so. The Earl of
Chatham had ordered his son to leave the army rather than go to America . Because he had chosen the military as his career,
Percy believed he was duty bound to serve wherever he was sent. America
Like Major John Pitcairn, he despised corporal punishment. “At a time when other commanders were resorting to floggings and firing squads on Boston Common, he led his regiment by precept and example” (Fischer 259). His regiment became devoted to him.
Initially, Percy sympathized with the colonialists. Although he socialized openly with individual Bostonians, he became contemptuous of them as a group. General Gage bypassed him in selecting Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith and Major John Pitcairn to lead the 700 men expeditionary force to
. The following scene from my novel “Crossing
the River” portrays Percy’s qualities of character and state of mind prior to
General Gage’s selection. Concord
A heavy mist lay upon Boston Common. Hugh, Earl Percy had been watching his soldiers perform their daily, except for Sunday, early morning close-order drills. Once the refuse of the streets of
and the ports of
the Channel, rigorously disciplined, provided continuity, they had become good
soldiers, many, he believed, good men. London
He was cognizant of the acute discontent rampant in other brigades, evidenced by the recent spate in attempted desertions. His own men were likewise weary of the banality of barracks life, of the repetition of incessant drill. They, too, had suffered the provocative insults of the town’s populace. Their generalized discontent notwithstanding, they had maintained their allegiance to him. Long ago, looking after their collective needs, he had won their fidelity.
Months before they had come to
Percy had given each man a new blanket and a golden guinea. Laying out 700
pounds, he had chartered a ship to transport to Boston their wives and children. Before
coming to Boston
and here as recently as three weeks ago, to inculcate fortitude Percy, a thin,
bony man suffering from hereditary gout, had on long training exercises
disdained the use of his horse. Boston
Percy’s officers revered him. He had honored their allegiance with frequent invitations to his table, at the mansion at the corner of Tremont and Winter Streets, formerly the residence of the royal governor, a fine wooden house surrounded by wide lawns.
Without connivance, without deliberate forethought, he had fashioned a loyalty that other brigade commanders envied. An intelligent, attentive, generous aristocrat in His Majesty’s service, Hugh, Earl Percy was an anomaly.
A member of Parliament, a young nobleman who one day would become the Duke of Northumberland, Percy, like his father, had opposed Parliament's tax measures that had led ultimately to the destruction of tea in
Lord North's Tory government knew well Percy's liberal, Whig viewpoint; but
they knew as well his soldierly allegiance to English law and king. Boston Harbor
He had arrived off
July 5 of the previous year, a month and three days after the closure of the
Port. He had initially approved of General Gage's restrained enforcement of
Parliament's punitive expectation that Boston
recant its destructive act. The General’s policy had approximated Percy's
accustomed mode of social interaction: respect people as human beings, mollify
discontent, seek reasoned compromise, in specific instances help the indigent. Boston
The immediate assistance he had given the
family made homeless by a fire had been done without calculation. The
compliments he had sent to a merchant's wife on the excellence of her landscape
drawings had been sincere. He very much enjoyed the respectable people of Boston . He had entertained
many of the town's gentlemen. Often, after the early morning drills had been
completed, he had walked across the Common to the house of John Hancock to have
breakfast with the acknowledged rebel leader, his Aunt Lydia, and,
occasionally, Hancock's rumored fiancée, the spirited Dolly Quincy, who, if
gossip was truth, “fancied” him. Boston
In matters great and small the nobleman was percipient.
He had entertained the thought that the king's ministers had sent him to
to serve by
example. If his presence reduced somewhat the hostility that much of the
citizenry directed toward British officers, perhaps in time, with other
officers emulating his conduct, reasonable Bostonians might modify their
adversarial judgments. Like rainwater percolating to the roots of parched
trees, their altered perception of British superintendence might, then,
permeate the minds of the less rational. Boston
Thus, initially, his superiors may have hypothesized. If he had mollified to any extent the hostility of even a handful of righteous provincials, recent events had rendered moot that accomplishment. …
During the past six months Percy had written letters criticizing the General’s high-mindedness. “The general’s great lenity and moderation serve only to make them more daring and insolent,” he had written his friend, Henry Reveley, in England, after 400 New Hampshire militiamen had seized royal powder and cannon from Portsmouth’s dilapidated fortress.
Charitable as he had been to individual inhabitants, his opinion of them as a group, upon immediate exposure to them, had swiftly hardened. He had been appalled at the nastiness of the
mob. They and the people that incited them were bullies, cowards. “Like all
other cowards, they are cruel and tyrannical,” he had informed Reveley. The
Congregational clergy’s practice of denying Loyalists admittance to their
churches was abhorrent. These rebels are “the most designing artful villains in
the world,” he had written to his father. Selfish and strident in the pursuit
of their objectives, they were incapable of disciplined, cooperative
accomplishment. Town meetings were never-ending debates. Their town militias --
independent, jealous, wrangling entities -- talked much but accomplished
little. The best he had to say about his nine months amongst the people of Boston was that his tenure
had been instructive. Boston
The morning mist emblematic of attitudes contrary to his nature, he stared a good half minute at the drab river.
Which day this week would General Gage order the seizure of
What measures would the General take to forestall armed resistance?
What exigencies should the commander of the expedition strive to anticipate?
Would he, Percy, be that commander (Titus 86-89)?
Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride.
New York: Press,
1994. Print. Oxford
Titus. Harold. Crossing the River. BookLocker.com, Inc., 2011. Print.