Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh, Earl Percy -- "Contumacious Arrogance"
Great Bridge in Cambridge rebel
forces, mostly from villages north and south of , waited. Hugh, Earl Percy, having that morning
encountered the removal of the bridge’s planks, recognized that they had set a
trap. He would pretend to enter it. He would send his flanker units through Boston ahead of the
column as if to clear its way to the bridge.
The column would turn left onto a country lane and then onto a secondary
road. It would turn left again onto the Cambridge-Charlestown
road northeast of Cambridge Cambridge and march toward . The flanker companies would reverse
direction, reach the Charlestown
road, and hurry toward the rear of the retreating column. Charlestown
Percy executed his feint; his flanker companies drew fire; his column reached the Cambridge-Charlestown road. "This sudden change of direction, and the brilliant use of an obscure and unexpected road, took the
New England men by surprise. It broke the circle of fire
around Percy's brigade” (Fischer 259).
Staring down the empty road toward the distant bridge, an
aide to Lieutenant Frederick MacKenzie, Percy’s Adjutant-General, exclaimed,
“We threw them!”
Several miles out of
the column ascended Prospect Hill, the last location where militia units were
assembled. "Percy advanced his cannon to the front of
his column, and cleared the hill with a few well-placed rounds. It was the last
of his ammunition for the artillery” (Fischer 260). The exhausted column resumed its march.
It reached the safety of Breeds and
Bunker Hills, outside Cambridge ,
in near darkness. Gage’s men were ferried
across the Charles River to Charlestown .
Safe in their barracks, they had considerable
cause to reflect on their misuse and survival and to give credit and place
blame where they believed it to be due. As
must have Hugh, Earl Percy. From
“Crossing the River”: Boston
In the hearts and minds of his officers, arthritic Lieutenant Colonel Hugh, Earl Percy, exhibiting extraordinary wisdom and courage, deserved full credit for the army’s deliverance.
To the exhausted soldiers in the darkness of Charlestown Square Percy was but one more horse-hauled Merry-Andrew who had placed everybody at death’s door. That night, secure in their barracks, jack-coves of every type would praise themselves for their survival. Some would thank Lord God the Protector. A few, not the least intelligent, would credit Lady Luck.
Percy’s criticism -- analytical, evidential -- was inwardly directed.
It vexed him that he, less condescending, less biased than his peers in his judgment of the English commoner, had, like his peers, disdained the militia.
Their shared hubris had come within a hair’s width of costing General Gage a third of his garrison!
Beginning with Colonel Smith’s retreat the provincials had fought independently from behind stone walls, trees, and boulders. They had fired their weapons from the windows and doorways of countless houses. Using their numerical strength on Menotomy’s broad plain, they had just about overwhelmed him. When he had turned his army away from their strength at the
outlying militiamen at Prospect Hill had conducted a gallant assault. Because
they had demonstrated provocatively their willingness to fight without
protective cover, he had had to presume their willingness to attack him
similarly here. Great Bridge
How narrowly he had evaded disaster! He had used the last of his cannon balls to fight his way beyond Prospect Hill. Prior to his departure from
he had issued but
twenty-four cartridges per soldier. He had eschewed taking the ammunition
wagon. His unconscionable bias had imperiled all. Boston
Had the provincials massed their companies along the
road instead of at the , they would have
vanquished him. That they had not done so he attributed to diffused leadership.
He doubted that any one rebel officer had had the authority to enforce such a
decision. That failing would be rectified. Great
How blatantly shortsighted had been his appraisal. In one day he had been taught a lesson that officialdom in
and officers of general rank might never comprehend. The King’s policy, which
Parliament had enacted and he had opposed, had abjectly failed. He and all
loyal countrymen could not rectify its disastrous consequence if they did not
first quell their leadership’s contumacious arrogance. London
The clattering of hooves on the Square’s cobblestone ended Percy’s introspection. Having prefatorily saluted, the courier offered the sealed envelope. Percy hastily read General Gage’s message.
“My Lord, Gen. Pigot will pass over with a reinforcement and fresh ammunition. The boats which carry him may return with the grenadiers and light infantry who must be most fatigued, and the wounded. I propose sending over Capt. Montresor immediately with intrenching tools to throw up a sort of redoubt on the hill, and to leave 200 men and guns on it, and if it's advisable during the course of the night, to bring your Lordship's men over. The fresh brigade may carry on the works. Fresh ammunition has been ordered long ago.”
The message raised the gate. A torrent of needs issued forth. He wanted to sit for awhile in a comfortable chair. He wanted delivered to his hands his favorite wine. He wanted hot food prepared by his
chef. He wanted to luxuriate in a warm tub. He wanted to rest his exhausted
body between freshly laundered sheets (Titus 388-389). Boston
Percy’s regiment fought June 17, 1775, in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Recognizing the stupidity of General Gage subordinate William Howe’s planned frontal assault on the rebel fortifications on Breeds Hill, Percy refused to participate. He would write to a friend that his brigade had “almost entirely been cut to pieces.” In October General Gage was recalled to
. Much to Percy’s dismay, General Howe replaced
On March 5, 1776, despite his expressed opposition, Percy was given the command of two thousand four hundred men to attack rebel cannon that George Washington had positioned on
hours earlier in the dark of night.
Unbeknownst to the British, the cannon had been transported by sleds to Dorchester Heights Boston from . Informed tardily of their arrival, General
Howe had not immediately acted, believing that one night’s fortification by the
enemy could do little to forestall his assault the following day. “When morning light revealed the strength and
extent of their defenses, a British army engineer expressed his
astonishment. Such works, in his
opinion, could not have been built by less than 15,000 or 20,000 men.” Howe’s reaction had been to “attack at once
before the defenses became impregnable and Fort
Ticonderoga, New York , in consequence, too exposed to hold”
(Smith 651). The soldiers assigned to
carry the works, anticipating a second Boston Breed’s Hill,
were loaded into boats at dusk, but a violent storm that evening prevented them
from being rowed across the river. The
next day, taking the advice of his senior officers, General Howe canceled the
attack order, deciding instead to leave the city.
Promoted thereafter a division commander, Percy participated in
Washington’s expulsion from in July
1776. On November 16, 1776, Percy
directed the capture of New York City Fort Washington, at the northern tip of . Weeks later, serving under General Henry
Clinton, Percy took part in the uncontested occupation of Manhattan Island . He remained in Newport, Rhode Island for five months. Newport
The antipathy that Howe and Percy felt for each other climaxed over a dispute about how much hay Howe’s horses in
were to be allotted. Howe’s logistics major and Percy disagreed about
the necessary amount. Taking the major’s
estimation, Howe reprimanded Percy. (The
major’s estimate would prove to be incorrect)
Percy was furious that Howe had chosen to accept the judgment of a mere
major, not that of a higher ranking officer, a peer, and the heir to a
dukedom. Percy requested leave to sail
to New Jersey . Howe granted it. Having inherited his mother’s barony in
December and thereafter elevated to the House of Lords, he never returned. England
An exceptionally generous person, Percy had been esteemed by his regiment. Unlike most officers of his time, he had opposed corporal punishment. He had involved himself directly in the provisioning and victualing of his men. He had sent home at his own expense the widows of his soldiers killed at
Later, he had provided them financial
assistance. Succeeding his father in
1786 as the Duke of Northumberland, he earned notoriety for his generosity as a
landlord. Twice each week he invited his
tenants and local tradespeople to his social gatherings at ,
his place of residence. When corn prices
fell in 1815, he reduced his tenants’ rent by 25 percent. Alnwick Castle
Two years after his return to
, Parliament permitted Percy
to divorce his wife, Lady Anne Crichton-Stuart, on grounds of adultery. On May 23 of the same year, 1779, he married
Frances Julia Burrell, with whom he parented six daughters and three sons. Despite his family connections, he never
succeeded in politics. Initially, he
supported Prime Minister William Pitt, but, complaining that he had not been
properly rewarded for his services in England , he sided eventually with
the opposition. In May 1801, he became a
knight of the Order of the Garter. Suffering
during his final years from frequent and excessive gout, he died July 10, 1817.
He was buried in the Northumberland
vault within Westminster Abbey. America
How might have the course of the Revolutionary War been changed had Percy, not William Howe, been General Thomas Gage’s replacement?
Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride.
Press, 1994. Print. Oxford University
Smith, Page. A New Age Now Begins. Vol. One.
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976. Print. New York
Titus, Harold. Crossing the River. BookLocker.com, Inc., 2011. Print.