When one studies British General Thomas Gage and his performance leading up to Lexington and Concord you must step back and put yourself in Gage’s position. A man that believed not only in Royal authority over the American colonies, but also in the basic rules of law. Gage was not anti-American by any means.
In November 1763, Gage was placed in overall command of British forces in the American colonies and settles in New York. At this time Gage was well respected by most American colonists. Of course, this all changed in 1774 when Gage was sent north to Boston to become the Royal-appointed Governor of Massachusetts and enforce the highly unpopular Port Bill that closed the port of Boston among other harsh actions. He was walking into a situation that most historians today argue was a no-win situation.
As Gage tried to navigate his way through a rebellious population in and around Boston, he realized the situation was much worse than his superiors in London believed. Gage called for more men as he realized how armed and organized the Whigs (American leaders who opposed British rule) were becoming. His small force could only hold Boston and this was mostly due to the Royal Navy’s presence in Boston Harbor.
One of Gage’s superiors in London was William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth. Lord Dartmouth served as the Secretary of State for the Colonies and regularly corresponded with Gage. Lord Dartmouth wanted to take a hard line with the American colonies, especially after the Boston Tea Party in 1774. Gage originally attempted a more lenient approach as he believed strong force would only exasperate the situation. In addition, he knew he did not have the men he believed he needed to quell a total insurrection.
Gage sought to combat the rebels by establishing an intelligence gathering operation
through Loyalists, paid spies and even Whigs who were more inclined to obey British rule. Using his intelligence network, Gage then sought to disarm the local militias by removing gunpowder and weapons. This was a near impossible task as Whig leaders had established a complex organization and had become adept at hiding powder and weapons. In addition, their own intelligence network could warn them in plenty of time to move the powder and weapons before the British arrived.
As events began to tumble out of Gage’s control with the Powder Alarm, Salem Alarm and the outbreak of limited hostilities at Fort William and Mary in New Hampshire, Gage knew a strong and strategic strike had to take place. He began to make plans for such a strike when a dispatch arrived from Lord Dartmouth on April 16th (though some historians argue he received the dispatch on April 14th). As he read Dartmouth’s letter (which was written in January, taking four months to cross the Atlantic Ocean) Gage realized he was left with no more wiggle room. It was clear to him that his superiors were becoming dissatisfied with his handling of the situation. Again, this dispatch proved just how out of touch London was with his situation in Boston.
“The violences committed by those who have taken up arms in Massachusetts, have appeared to me as the acts of a rude rabble, without concert, without conduct; and therefore I think that a small force now, if put to the test, would be able to conquer them, with a greater probability of success, than might be expected from a larger army, if the people should be suffered to form themselves upon a more regular plan, to acquire a confidence from discipline, and to prepare themselves, without which everything must be put to the issue of a single action”.
- This must have frustrated Gage because Dartmouth and the King’s ministers believed the Whigs in Massachusetts to be a “rude rabble.” The events in the winter and spring of 1775 proved the rebels were anything but a “rude rabble” and Darmouth believed a small British force would be able to conquer the rebel militias and minute companies. Gage probably shook his head at this first paragraph as the Powder Alarm proved in September 1774 that the rebels were no small force and could gather and outnumber him quickly.
“In this view of the situation of the King’s affairs, it is the opinion of the King’s servants, in which his Majesty concurs, that the essential step to be taken toward re-establishing government would be to arrest and imprison the principle actors and abettors in the Provincial Congress (whose proceedings appear in every light to be acts of treason and rebellion), if regardless of your proclamation, and in defiance of it, they shall presume again to assemble for such rebellious purposes; and if the steps taken upon the occasion be accompanied with due precaution, and every means to be devised to keep the measure secret till the moment of execution, it can hardly fail of success, and will perhaps be accomplished without bloodshed. But however that may be, I must again repeat, that any efforts on their part to encounter 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 for the reasons I have already given, it will surely be better that the conflict should be brought on upon such a ground, than in a riper state of rebellion.”
- Dartmouth calls for Gage to arrest the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (which was acting at the de-facto government of Massachusetts, albeit illegally). Many colonists believed on April 19 that one of the goals of the British was to capture Sam Adams and John Hancock who were staying in Lexington. Getting to them quickly on the morning of April 19 and warning them of the British advance was one of the missions of Paul Revere and William Dawes. Most modern historians believed Gage never intended to arrest any of the Whig leaders because this would lead them to become martyrs and only inflame the situation worse. Gage ignored this directive and was probably happy that Adams and Hancock were not in Lexington when Lt. Col. Smith’s forces arrived.
It must be understood, however, of all I have said, that this is a matter, which must be left to your own discretion to be executed or not, as you shall, upon weighing all the circumstances, think most advisable…
With regard to the state of America in general, affairs there are now come to a crisis, in which the Government of this country must act with firmness and decision. You will be on your guard, and on no account suffer the people, at least of the town of Boston, to assemble themselves in arms on any pretence whatever, either of town guards or militia duty; and I the rather mention this, as a report prevails that you have not only indulged them in having such a guard, but have also allowed their militia to train and discipline in Fanueil Hall. In reviewing the Charter of Massachusetts, I observe there is a clause, that empowers the Governor to use and execute the law martial in time of actual war, invasion, and rebellion. The enclosed copies of a reply made to me by the Attorney and Solicitor-General contain an opinion that the particulars stated in the papers you have transmitted are the history of an actual and open rebellion in that province; and therefore, I conceive, that according to that opinion the exercise of power is strictly justifiable, but the expediency and propriety of adopting such a measure must depend upon your won discretion under many circumstances, that can only be judged of on the spot.”
- Finally, Dartmouth tells Gage in a backward way that whatever happens will be on Gage’s hands and not his. After giving him specific instructions, Dartmouth leaves it up to Gage’s discretion. Also, he passively aggressively blames Gage for being lenient and allowing the rebels to work in and around Boston gathering information and “allowed their militia to train and discipline in Fanueil Hal.” Clearly rumors were going wild in London as Gage never allowed rebel militia to train in Faneuil Hall, Gage’s superiors were obviously ignorant of the situation in Boston.
But orders were orders and Gage began to enact a plan he probably had in place already, but the dispatch from Dartmouth only fast-tracked his actions. As early as March 4th he wrote Lord Dartmouth that he was making plans for a strike on colonial stores of war supplies and arms. On April 5th, he asked Admiral Graves to prepare to move soldiers via water to Cambridge. With his intelligence about the stores in Concord and maps from Captain Brown and Ensign De Berniere from one of Gage’s intelligence gathering missions, he believed he was ready to make his move.
Holding Dartmouth’s orders may have sped up his timeline, but they were not the motive for his plans. What is more telling to us in Dartmouth’s dispatch, is how out of touch Royal leaders were about what was going on in Boston. A constant point made by many pro-American leaders in the British Parliament since the end of the French and Indian War. The only way to solve the crisis was if each side understood the motives and goals of the other side.
The time for compromise was quickly coming to an end.
Thomas Gage Papers, 1754-1807, William L. Clements Library, Manuscripts Division, University of Michigan. Volume 123 (September 5-October 14, 1774) and Volume 127 (March 21-April 22, 1775)