Noise! You’ll have noise enough before long–the Regulars are out!
If the conventional British view of the American martial character and intentions was largely distorted by class prejudice, one man, the king’s commander in Boston, Thomas Gage, was tasked with recognizing the underlying reality, and perhaps no man in America had a more informed sense of what a decisive British war effort in New England alone would demand. Subduing the northern colonies would require a large army, he argued, and a blockade by the British navy as well. Massachusetts by itself could put perhaps 60,000 armed men in the field, whatever their fitness, while Gage even with the addition of two regiments from Ireland would have barely 4,000 Regulars by year’s end. This evaluation he put bluntly to his lords across the sea: “If force is to be used at length,” he wrote, “it must be a considerable one, for to begin with small numbers will encourage resistance, and not terrify; and will, in the end, cost more.” As Parliament continued to debate the American question, however, the general must have wondered if anyone in the government was listening to its army’s commander on the scene. In November of 1774, he wrote again, this time in confidence to Lord Barrington, secretary of state for the army and a shrewder judge than most of the American temper: “if you will resist and not yield, that Resistance should be effectual at the Beginning. If you think ten thousand men sufficient, send Twenty, if one Million [pounds] is thought enough, give two, you will save both Blood and Treasure in the end.” (Remarkably, Lord Barrington kept this dire warning confidential; it came to light more than a century after the guns of the Revolution had fallen silent.) Overwhelming force, Gage argued again, “will terrify, and engage many to join you, a middling one will encourage Resistance, and gain no Friends.” But events just then in New England and in London were beginning to overtake both the mild governance and the grim calculations of Thomas Gage. Most important of these was a decision by his sovereign, George III. About the same time Gage was writing to Lord Barrington, the king was concluding that the governments of New England were in fact “in a state of rebellion, [and] blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.” Gage continued to call for reinforcement and ponder those blows. In London these calls only made the king’s ministers doubt the general’s mettle. With three thousand miles of ocean between them and the colonials, most were willing to accept the conventional wisdom. As one Briton put it, “Without rum [the Americans] could neither fight nor say their prayers.” There were “no meaner whimpering wretches in this universe” than sober Yankees.
But, as Thomas Gage and his spies could see, these Yankees were not laying in rum. They were doing their level best to stockpile the needful materiel of war. While communications between Gage and the ministry were making their laborious way back and forth across the Atlantic, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, meeting illegally and in secret in Concord, voted early that fall to purchase five thousand muskets and bayonets plus two dozen field guns and twenty tons of ammunition for them. (It was not yet clear to anyone, though, where Congress would obtain these arms or how it would raise the 20,000 pounds to pay for them.) Gage had already made some efforts to prevent guns and powder from falling into the hands of the colonial militias. On 1 September 1774, for example, he sent ten companies of light infantry out of Boston by transport, one detachment to Quarry Hill in Charlestown to seize powder there and a second hustling on to Cambridge to capture two field pieces. On the face of it, the raid was briskly successful: the Regulars got their guns and 250 half-barrels of powder back to Castle William in the harbor in short order. But just as briskly went colonial horsemen through the countryside spreading the alarm of British movement. Of course, as horsemen galloped with the alarm, the report of the modest British raid grew wildly, and many were led to believe that the British navy had shelled Boston and the town was even then afire. In fact, within hours some forty thousand militiamen were on the march to Boston from as far away as fifty miles. This mobilization had to impress Regulars and militiamen alike: between dawn and dusk, Gage’s command had very nearly become a British island in a sea of aroused Americans. Although the militiamen turned toward home again when they discovered Boston safe for the moment and that the harm done their cause could not be undone just then, Gage was alive to the danger represented by so many armed provincials. Across narrow Boston Neck, connecting the city to the mainland at Roxbury, he dug in, posted a regiment, and rolled up field guns. On September 9 the Selectmen of Boston formally complained to Gage that fortifying the Neck seemed to them intended to reduce “this metropolis . . . to the state of a garrison,” an act they feared “may hurry the Province to Acts of Desperation.” Not so, responded Gage diplomatically the same day. He had no intention of closing the city nor of injuring “the person or property of any of his Majesty’s subjects.” It was not only his duty, he added, but his “endeavor to preserve the peace, and to promote the happiness of every individual.”
Diplomacy, one wit has it, is the patriotic art of lying for one’s country. And if Gage was not exactly lying about the security of persons, property, and peace, he remained convinced that there would be no peace in the province without disarming the provincials. Perhaps the most effective move of all at this point would be a raid of some force into the countryside where rebellion was most firmly in control. A column of Regulars could seize munitions and at the same time possibly scoop up some of the colony’s rabblerousing Whig leaders–Dr. Joseph Warren, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams chief among them. These were in Gage’s view frankly traitors whose self-serving ends were the hard reality under a lot of windy rhetoric about American liberty. Dangerous though they were, he had been thus far hesitant to arrest them for fear of worse consequences from a zealous populace. In light of the astonishing mobilization of the militia in response to the Charlestown and Cambridge raids, an expedition after munitions and men into the hostile interior would have to be carefully planned and swiftly executed. As yet unknown to the Rebels, Gage had one valuable advantage in his planning: a spy in their innermost circle. In fact, since ’73 Dr. Benjamin Church, an apparent Patriot now serving on the powerful Committee of Safety had been in close correspondence with General Gage. Through Church and other Loyalists in his intelligence network, the general developed a sharp sense of the immediate problem. In Worcester, some fifty miles west of Boston, and Concord, just over twenty miles northwest, the colonials had gathered guns, powder, ball, flour, and tools, a beginning at least of what it would take to arm and supply an army in the field.
If he were to seize supplies at Worcester or Concord or both, Gage wanted accurate maps of the countryside and a full evaluation of the readiness of the militia along the likely lines of march. Early in the new year he called for volunteers “capable of taking sketches of a country.” Two young officers stepped forward, Captain William Browne of the 52nd and Ensign Henry de Berniere of the 10th. With Corporal John Howe (also of the 52nd) as boatman, the trio in the guise of surveyors crossed to Charlestown on the morning of 23 February and hiked through Cambridge to Watertown, the first leg of their reconnaissance to Worcester. What these surveyors discovered first and foremost, however, was the fact that they had been discovered. At an inn just beyond Watertown where they had stopped for lunch, a black serving girl recognized Browne as a British officer. And when de Berniere, making small talk over the table, remarked that it was “fine country” hereabout, he got more than small talk in return. Fine country it was, she agreed, and full of “very fine and brave men to fight for it. If you travel much further you will find it to be true.” Despite their considered poses and disguises, the three spies had not been more than a few hours in the enemy’s country before learning that they had not deceived a soul.
Indeed, in the weeks ahead the three would play a winter game of fox and hounds with the colonials in their journeys to Boston and Worcester and Concord and back again. Loyalists, themselves much hounded by their Patriot neighbors, managed to hide them here and there and pass information to them. And Ensign de Berniere managed thereby to produce excellent maps and sketches of the countryside. But what impressed them most was the extraordinary vigilance of the people and the determined drill of the militia in every town and village. On 10 April, having left more conspicuous officers behind, Corporal Howe was shown by a Loyalist the precise location of the militia stores in Worcester. That night over wine he asked his Loyalist comrade how he gauged the chances of a British raid on Worcester. “I do not think,” the man ventured, “that a single man would dare lift a finger to oppose the Regulars.” But the young Howe had seen enough to think otherwise: “If General Gage sends his entire force here with a train of artillery from Boston to Worcester,” he reckoned, “not one of them will get back.” Five days later he returned to Boston from Concord and made his report to the General. It was quite a coup for a youthful non-com: his maps, sketches, and reports had the rapt attention of the commander-in-chief and his senior officers. One question was of course uppermost in Gage’s mind: what did Howe think of the chances of seizing stores at Worcester and Concord? As to Worcester, Howe reiterated his earlier judgment. A column of Regulars marching the forty-eight miles to Worcester and back over a winding wagon road would be overwhelmed by thousands of militiamen. As to Concord, Howe’s best guess was that a mounted column, five hundred strong and riding hard, ought to be able to accomplish a swift search-and-destroy mission. A column of foot, however, would be acutely vulnerable. It was every step of twenty-two miles from Boston to Concord and a long road home if things went ill.
And for Gage things had been going ill for some time. As far as he could see, this province was in “actual Revolt.” Last September a so-called Continental Congress began seven weeks of deliberation in Philadelphia about how best to unite the whole of colonial America in support of New England’s treason. His own government apparently had no intention of sending anything like the 20,000 troops he asked for, though it did continue to pass coercive laws that only fueled the revolt already afire here. The resolution of the Provincial Congress in Concord that fall, though cautiously worded, pointed to the colonists’ serious intent to resist British coercion. Whenever troops “to the number of Five Hundred shall march out of Boston,” Congress moved, “it ought to be deemed a design to carry into execution by Force the late Acts of Parliament… and therefore the Military Forces of the Province ought to be assembled… to act solely on the defensive so long as it can be justified on the Principles of Reason and Self-Preservation and no longer.” Even before this resolution, the movement of ten companies across the Charles River, not three hundred men in all, had set 40,000 men marching. Meanwhile, Gage’s winter reconnaissance had demonstrated that a squad of three in disguise could not hike a half-dozen miles into the country undiscovered.
Then on 16 April 1775, the day after the last of that squad reported in, a fateful letter reached General Gage. Dated 27 January, it was from the Earl of Dartmouth, secretary for the colonies, and contained both a sharp rebuke for Gage’s failure thus far to restore the king’s authority in the province and instructions for his future action. An “untrained and tumultuous rabble” had run roughshod over the law, Dartmouth wrote, and it was time now for the general “to take a more active and determined part” in suppressing the Rebels: “The only consideration that remains is in what manner the forces you command may be exerted–the first essential step to be taken towards re-establishing government, would be to arrest and imprison the principal actors and abettors in the Provincial Congress–any efforts of the people, unprepared to encounter with a regular force, cannot be very formidable, and though such a proceeding should be according to your idea of it, a signal for hostilities, yet it will surely be better that the conflict be brought on, upon such ground, than in a riper state of rebellion.” Thus it was that reasonable, patient Thomas Gage set out at last, according to the letter of his instructions, to use force to repel force. If hostilities were now the consequence of aggressive action, so be it.
Dartmouth’s suggestion about arresting colonial leaders Gage had already considered of course. Since the adjournment of the second Provincial Congress the day before, they might be difficult to find and seize in the partisan countryside, but the location of the Rebel war chest in Concord, was in Gage’s notes, and, he believed, within reach. This also was a move Gage had actively planned for. His General Orders, dated 5 April but not read out to the troops until the 15th, relieved from regular duty all his “Grenadiers and Light Infantry in order,” as it read,” to learn Grenadier exercises and further new evolutions.” A British regiment of foot in 1775 (at least on paper) consisted of ten companies, each of 38 men commanded by a captain. Of these ten, eight were battalion companies and two flank companies, one grenadier on the right and one light infantry on the left when assembled on a regimental front. The grenadiers (though they had long since abandoned the highly unreliable grenades that gave them their name) were the regiment’s tallest, sturdiest men, their stature emphasized by tall black bearskin hats. The light infantry in their short black leather caps were chosen for speed and stamina, the regiment’s best legs for scouting and skirmishing in rough country. Thus, the column Gage had in mind would be an elite strike force.
Neither the grenadiers nor the light infantry had ever drilled in the “new evolutions” mentioned in the General Orders, however. That same day, the British man-of-war Somerset moved to a new position on the Charles River opposite Charlestown, and longboats gathered under her guns. The next morning, Gage met with Brigadier General Hugh Percy and Major Edward Mitchell of the 5th Regiment in his Province House headquarters. He intended to send twenty-one companies, light infantry and grenadiers, across the river at ten o’clock that night and on to Concord. The column ought to be in Concord before sunrise, do its destructive work, and be back in Boston by mid-day. Accordingly, the order went out to Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Lincolnshires: “You will march with the corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry put under your command with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy all the artillery and ammunition you can find.” This command fell to Smith not by Gage’s design but because chance made him senior officer of the day on 18 April. And if utmost expedition was essential here, chance had not dealt Gage the best hand: Smith was by all accounts slow, fat, and deliberate. As for secrecy, Major Mitchell would lead a mounted squad of twelve to Charlestown that afternoon. He would post two at Charlestown Neck and the other ten on the road between Lexington and Concord that night. These were to intercept any Rebels riding with the alarm to Concord. Lord Percy would have the First Brigade in readiness to march to Smith’s support in any event.
Of course, the Rebel leadership had not exactly been sitting on their hands while Gage prepared. They were kept very closely apprised of every move the British made by a network of spies throughout the province. In fact, Joseph Warren, the only Whig leader remaining in Boston just now, learned almost as soon as the orders were read out of the relief of the grenadiers and light infantry from regular duty. Then, too, anyone in the city could see the gathering of boats and bluejackets that same day opposite Charlestown. Whether Gage intended mass arrests of the provincial congressmen or raids on the stores at Concord or Worcester, Warren did not know, but it was clear enough that some British movement was imminent. Warren called that night on Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith, committed Patriot, and fine horseman, to carry the word to John Hancock and Sam Adams in Lexington. In the rising sun of a chilly April morning, Revere reached the pair at the home of the Reverend Jonas Clarke, delivered Warren’s news, then galloped on to Concord to report likewise to Colonel James Barrett of the militia there. Soon all Concord was in motion loading the hidden arms and ammunition into carts and wagons and hauling them along with cannon off to Sudbury and Groton or to new places of hiding nearby in the woods. Other riders mounted and flew off like sparks from a fire to alert the neighboring Minute companies to prepare to march for the North Bridge at Concord if and when the alarm went out. In the midst of such warlike energy, it must have been difficult for the good Christians of Concord to remember that it was Easter Sunday.
Revere had done a day’s work for his cause, but his business was far from finished. The British appeared to be ready to strike out for the countryside, but where exactly and by what route remained to be seen. Boston, a peninsula in the harbor, offered just two routes really. It was certainly possible for Gage to march out of the city by Boston Neck, through Roxbury, and on to Worcester to the west (though there was no reason a column could not turn north from Roxbury and on to Lexington and Concord that way). More direct and likelier in view of all those waiting longboats was the route across the Charles to East Cambridge, then on to Menotomy (modern Arlington), Lexington, and finally Concord. Revere, returning to Charlestown, arranged the signals that unfolding events would make famous. If the British marched out by land over the Neck, confederates in the Old North Church on Princess Street would hang a single lantern in the belfry; if they crossed by sea to Cambridge, two lanterns would give the alarm. When the time came, Revere would carry the word to the Minutemen and militia from Charlestown to Concord. With so much at stake, however, Dr. Warren was unwilling to risk all on a single rider. William Dawes would carry the alarm to Lexington and Concord by way of Roxbury.
In the end, though, the merest stirring of the British gave alarm enough. About nine o’clock on the night of 18 April, the twenty-one companies of grenadiers and light infantry, some 700 men all told, were roused from their quarters with orders to march to the foot of Boston Common. The Regulars knew little more than that they were to carry a day’s rations in their haversacks and board the boats for the trip across the river to Lechmere Point on the Cambridge shore. Bostonians, however, appeared already to know a great deal about this night’s work. Lord Percy was on the Common as the strike force was embarking. As a small circle of Boston men discussed the British movement in the dark, Percy heard one say, “The troops have marched, but will miss their aim.” Percy stepped forward and asked, what aim? “Why, the cannon in Concord,” he answered. By ten o’clock, as the first of the Regulars were climbing aboard the longboats, the news of the British movement was radiating outward into the countryside. William Dawes was already in motion over the Neck, and Revere, after a brief conference with Warren, was on his way by boat under the silent guns of the Somerset and on to Charlestown where Deacon Larkin’s best horse was waiting. Two lanterns burning in the Christ Church belfry signaled the Charlestown patriots. After a close encounter with a British patrol just beyond the Charlestown Common, Revere outraced pursuit and, waking militiamen as he rode, galloped the fifteen miles into Lexington by the light of a moon near the full. It was midnight or a little after on 19 April when he reached Reverend Clarke’s once more to warn Hancock and Adams. As he pounded at the door, Revere was confronted by a squad of guards and told not to disturb the sleeping household with his noise. “Noise!” he bellowed, “You’ll have noise enough before long–the Regulars are out!”