Friday, November 7, 2014

Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh, Earl Percy -- "Contumacious Arrogance"
 
 
At the Great Bridge in Cambridge rebel forces, mostly from villages north and south of Boston, 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 Cambridge 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 and march toward Charlestown.  The flanker companies would reverse direction, reach the Charlestown road, and hurry toward the rear of the retreating column.
 
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 Cambridge 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 Charlestown, in near darkness.  Gage’s men were ferried across the Charles River to Boston.  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”:
 
             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 Great Bridge, 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.
     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 Boston he had issued but twenty-four cartridges per soldier. He had eschewed taking the ammunition wagon. His unconscionable bias had imperiled all.
     Had the provincials massed their companies along the Charlestown road instead of at the Great Bridge, 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.
     How blatantly shortsighted had been his appraisal. In one day he had been taught a lesson that officialdom in London 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.
     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 Boston chef. He wanted to luxuriate in a warm tub. He wanted to rest his exhausted body between freshly laundered sheets (Titus 388-389).
 
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 London.  Much to Percy’s dismay, General Howe replaced him.
 
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 Dorchester Heights hours earlier in the dark of night.  Unbeknownst to the British, the cannon had been transported by sleds to Boston from Fort Ticonderoga, New York.  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 Boston, in consequence, too exposed to hold” (Smith 651).  The soldiers assigned to carry the works, anticipating a second 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 New York City in July 1776.  On November 16, 1776, Percy directed the capture of Fort Washington, at the northern tip of Manhattan Island.  Weeks later, serving under General Henry Clinton, Percy took part in the uncontested occupation of Newport, Rhode Island.  He remained in Newport for five months.
 
The antipathy that Howe and Percy felt for each other climaxed over a dispute about how much hay Howe’s horses in New Jersey 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 England.  Howe granted it.  Having inherited his mother’s barony in December and thereafter elevated to the House of Lords, he never returned.
 
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 Breed’s Hill.  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 Alnwick Castle, his place of residence.  When corn prices fell in 1815, he reduced his tenants’ rent by 25 percent. 
 
Two years after his return to England, 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 America, 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.
 
How might have the course of the Revolutionary War been changed had Percy, not William Howe, been General Thomas Gage’s replacement?
 
Works Cited:
 
Fischer, David Hackett.  Paul Revere’s Ride.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.  Print.
 
Smith, Page.  A New Age Now Begins.  Vol. One.  New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976.  Print.
 
Titus, Harold.  Crossing the River.  BookLocker.com, Inc., 2011.  Print.