Modern history

A CIRCLE OF FIRE

image Lord Percy’s Long Retreat

We retired for 15 miles under an incessant fire, which like a moving circle surrounded and followed us wherever we went.

—Lord Percy, April 20, 1775

GENERAL GAGE expedition even before it left Boston. On the night of its departure, he took the precaution of alerting Lord Percy’s 1st Brigade. These were some of his best troops—three crack regiments of British infantry, and a battalion of Royal Marines. He ordered them to be under arms at four o’clock the next morning, and ready to march if needed. 1

What followed was a chapter of accidents, typical of the hierarchical and highly secretive system of communications in the British command. As always, General Gage acted with obsessive secrecy. His orders to Percy’s brigade were prepared in a single copy and sent in a sealed letter, personally addressed to the one man who needed to know—the brigade major, Captain Thomas Moncrieffe. 2

That unlucky officer was not in his quarters when the order arrived. The letter was left with a servant, who put it on a table and forgot to tell his master. Captain Moncrieffe returned early in the morning, perhaps less alert than usual, and tumbled into bed without discovering the message. At four o’clock, the hour when the troops had been ordered to assemble, he was blissfully asleep and the brigade was still in barracks. 3

A little past five o’clock, General Gage was rudely awakened by a galloper from Colonel Smith, bearing a message that the countryside was alarmed and reinforcements would be needed. The unfortunate Captain Moncrieffe was summoned from his slumbers, and at six o’clock the brigade was ordered to muster in marching order. The men came pouring out of their quarters, still only half awake, frantically buttoning their uniforms and tugging at their equipment. They formed up in the streets of Boston, shuffling into a long column that stretched halfway across the town.

It was seven o’clock by the time they assembled, and the people of Boston were going about their morning business. Young Harrison Gray Otis, then nine years old, was on his way to Boston Latin School. He turned a corner and was amazed to find the street filled with British soldiers. Many years later Otis remembered that “in the morning, about seven, Percy’s brigade was drawn up, extending from Scollay’s Building through Tremont Street nearly to the bottom of the Mall, preparing to take their march for Lexington. A corporal came up to me as I was going to school, and turned me off to pass down Court Street which I did, and came up School Street to the school-house. It may well be imagined that great agitation prevailed, the British line being drawn up only a few yards from the school-house door. As I entered the school, I heard the announcement of deponite libros, and ran home for fear of the Regulars.” 4

By 7:30, Percy’s brigade was ready to march—all except the British Marines, who were unaccountably absent. An hour passed, while the army waited restlessly in its long ranks. Finally an aide was sent to find the missing battalion. He discovered that once again the British chain of communications had failed, in precisely the same way as before. General Gage’s secret orders for the Marines had been sent in another sealed letter, personally addressed to the battalion commander. This officer was Major John Pitcairn, who at that moment was otherwise engaged on Lexington Green. The orders lay unopened in his room, awaiting his return. This double failure of communications in General Gage’s command delayed the assembly of the brigade by nearly five hours—the difference between life and death for many a British soldier on the Lexington Road. 5

While the Marines assembled in high haste, the brigade commander moved easily among his troops. Lord Hugh Percy was one of the most able officers in Gage’s army. He was a figure of high importance in our story—both for what he did, and who he was, and how he personified the clash of cultures that culminated in the American Revolution.

Lord Percy was the eldest son of the Duke of Northumberland, and sole heir to one of the greatest estates in England. He held a social rank that has no equivalent in our contemporary world. In 1775, the English aristocracy was very small—fewer than 190 peers in a nation of five million people. But its material powers were great, and growing greater throughout the English speaking world. We sometimes think of 18th-century revolutions as a rising middle class against a declining aristocracy. But the American Revolution (like that in France) was a violent collision between two moving forces—an expansive set of colonial cultures, and an aggressive British aristocracy that was extending its reach throughout the Empire. 6

This aristocracy laid claim to ancient pedigrees, but many of its members had shallow roots, and were consumed with ruthless ambition in pursuit of wealth and power. The Dukes of Northumberland were a classic case in point. Lord Hugh Percy did not receive his noble name and rank at birth. He had been christened plain Hugh Smithson junior. His father was a mere baronet—a rank below the lowest peer, invented by the Stuarts as a fund-raising device. Hugh Smithson senior was bright, ambitious, and by reputation the handsomest man in England. He courted a lady who by a series of strange dynastic accidents had become heiress to the Percy estates. She agreed to marry him, much against her family’s wishes. Later, through a complex line of descent, the elder Smithson succeeded to the title of Earl of Northumberland. By special act of Parliament he was permitted to take the name and arms of Percy, and by Royal favor he was raised from his earldom to the rank of first Duke of Northumberland (in the “third creation”).

This armigerous Horatio Alger rebuilt the Percy family’s ruined castles, revived its wasted fortunes, restored its vast estates, planted 20,000 trees in its handsome parks, and developed large deposits of coal on ducal lands into a major source of energy for the industrial revolution. (By the 19th century, the estates of the Duke of Northumberland would yield the fifth largest landed income in England.) 7

All this was the patrimony of Brigadier Lord Hugh Percy, who was heir to one of the great fortunes in the Western world. At the same time, he was also a highly skilled professional soldier, with military experience far beyond his thirty-two years. Percy wasgazetted ensign at the age of sixteen, earned his spurs at the battles of Bergen and Minden, became a lieutenant-colonel at nineteen, and aide-de-camp to King George III at the age of twenty-three. Like his father he married advantageously—to the daughter of the King’s mentor Lord Bute. When his father was given a dukedom, he gained the courtesy title of Earl Percy, and was also elected to a seat in the British House of Commons.

image

Lord Hugh Percy, thirty-two years old, was the eldest son of the Duke of Northumberland, and colonel of the 5th Foot (later named the Northumberland Fusiliers). He commanded the brigade that marched to the relief of the British Concord expedition. (Author’s Collection)

In 1774 Lord Percy came to Boston as colonel of his own regiment, the 5th Foot, later to be known as the Northumberland Fusiliers. He was not much to look at. Like many of his officers and men, Percy was in chronically poor health. He was a sickly, wasted figure with a thin and bony frame, hollow cheeks, a large protruding nose, receding forehead, and eyes so dim that he was unable to read by candlelight. His body was beginning to be racked by a hereditary gout. 8

But in colonial Boston he cut a great swath. Lord Percy rented a large house that had once been the residence of the Royal Governor. He bought what he took to be the best riding horse in New England for the princely sum of £450, and imported a matched pair of carriage horses when none of the local stock pleased him. In his dining room he lavishly entertained his brother officers, and made many friends in the garrison and the town. “I always have a table of twelve covers set every day,” he wrote home. 9

Throughout the army he was immensely popular. In an age of deference, many Englishmen deemed it an honor to be commanded by the eldest son of a Duke—a gallant young gentleman who perfectly personified the virtues of his class. He was honorable and brave, candid and decent, impeccably mannered, and immensely generous with his wealth. When his regiment came to Boston, Lord Percy chartered a ship at his own expense to bring over the wives and children. On another campaign he gave every man in the regiment a new blanket and a golden guinea out of his own pocket. He detested 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. When his men went on long marches, Lord Percy left his horse behind and made a point of marching beside them, gout and all. His mother wrote him in 1770, “I admire you for marching with your regiment; I dare say you are the only man of your rank who performed such a journey on foot.” 10

Lord Percy came to America with a strong sense of sympathy for the colonists. Like many high aristocrats in 18th-century England, he was a staunch Whig. In Parliament he had voted against the Stamp Act, and regarded Lord North’s American policy as a piece of consummate folly. He had no wish to fight Americans. “Nothing less than the total loss or conquest of the colonies must be the end of it,” he wrote, “either, indeed is disagreeable.” 11

But once in Boston, Lord Percy began to change his mind. He was appalled by what he took to be the narrowness of New England ways, and genuinely shocked by the mobbings that he witnessed in Massachusetts. His outrage was not that of a modern liberal, but of an 18th-century gentleman who came to regard the people of Boston as a race of money-grubbing hypocritical bullies and cowards, utterly devoid of honor, candor, and courage. “Like all other cowards,” he wrote, “they are cruel and tyrannical.” 12

Percy came to believe that the inhabitants of New England were “the most designing artful villains in the world.” He thought that they had “not the least idea of religion or morality.” 13 In particular he detested the Congregational clergy for denying their churches to Loyalists, and despised the Yankee town meetings for their interminable debates. “The people here,” he wrote home, “talk much and do little.” He thought that the men of New England were incapable of action, and utterly contemptible as a military force. “I cannot but despise them completely,” he wrote. On the morning of April 19, 1775, the American education of Lord Percy was about to begin. 14

The 1st Brigade finally marched at about 8:45. It made a brave sight as it left the little town with music playing and colors flying. In the lead was its commander, Lord Percy himself, splendidly mounted on his handsome sorrel horse, and resplendent in a uniform of scarlet and gosling green with trimmings of silver lace.

Behind him came three regiments of British infantry. Pride of place went to the 4th (King’s Own) Foot, proudly bearing the monarch’s cipher on its colors, and the dark blue facings of a Royal regiment on its faded red tunics. Nobody trifled with the King’s Own. Even their nickname in the army connoted high respect. They were called the Lions after their badge, which was the lion rampant of England. That emblem had been awarded for gallantry by William III and was proudly embroidered on all four corners of their regimental colors. In 1773, an inspector described the King’s Own as “a very fine body of men, well dressed and fit.” As it marched from Boston, an expert observer would have noticed that it was also exceptionally well equipped. The 4th had recently been rearmed with a new musket, two inches shorter and two pounds lighter than the previous issue, and so closely bored to the caliber of its ammunition that the regiment was among the first in Gage’s army to be issued steel ramrods. 15

Next in Percy’s brigade came the 47th Foot, unkindly nicknamed the Cauliflowers for their uncommon off-white facings, but highly respected as a fighting regiment. The 47th had brilliantly distinguished itself in the conquest of Quebec, and gloried in the name of “Wolfe’s Own.” The entire army sang a drinking song called “Hot Stuff,” to the tune of “The Lilies of France,” that celebrated its valor:

Come each death-doing dog who dares venture his neck,

Come, follow the hero that goes to Quebec…

And ye that love fighting shall soon have enough:

Wolfe commands us, my boys; we shall give them Hot Stuff…

When the forty-seventh regiment is dashing ashore,

While bullets are whistling and cannons do roar. 16

Percy’s brigade also included one of the most colorful regiments in the army, the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, 17 renowned equally for its steady courage and strange customs. Every St. David’s Day (March 1) its new subalterns were compelled to stand with one foot on a chair and the other on a mess table and swallow a raw leek without flinching, while the regimental drummers beat a solemn roll. On parade, these men marched proudly behind their mascot, a snow white goat with gilded horns from the Royal herd at Windsor, a custom described as “ancient” as early as 1775. The regiment gloried in its nickname of the Nanny Goats. 18 For all its quaint folkways, it was a highly professional unit that had served with distinction at Namur, Blenheim, Ramillies, Oude-narde, Malplaquet, Minden, and many other fields. At Dettingen in 1743 the regiment was commanded by George II, the last British king to lead an army into battle. For its courage the 23rd was allowed to wear the White Horse of Hanover on its colors. 19 When the Royal Welch Fusiliers arrived in America, General Haldimand sent a glowing report in his native French to General Gage: “Je dois en Justice informer votre Excellence que les Fusiliers se sont tres bien conduit ici. Ce corps est bien composé et tres bien commandé.” General Gage replied, “I dare say the Fusiliers will deserve the character you give of them. They were always esteemed a good corps and have gained reputation wherever they served.” 20

Also in the column was Lord Percy’s largest unit, a reinforced battalion of British Marines, the seagoing policemen of the Royal Navy, in brilliant red and blue uniforms with snow-white facings of a distinctive nautical cut. The men of the Marine battalion tended to be smaller in stature than those in the army. Their commander, Major Pitcairn, wrote home to a friend, “I am mortified to find our Marines so much shorter than the marching regiments. I wish you could persuade Lord Sandwich to give an order not to enlist any man under five feet six.” But these men had a fearsome reputation as fighters, in combat and out. They marched behind their drums with a distinctive rolling swagger that marked them as a breed apart from the army. 21

Interspersed between the long red columns of British infantry were the dark blue tunics of the Royal Artillery. Their regimental motto was Ubique, the same as the Royal Engineers. The Gunners insisted that their Ubique meant “Everywhere,” while the slogan of the Sappers should be translated “All over the Place.” In any case, here they were again, marching beside two stout six-pounder field guns, with long trails and massive wooden wheels that rumbled ominously through the streets of Boston. 22

Also traveling with the brigade were armed New England Loyalists in civilian dress, who have rarely been noticed in American histories of the battles. These American Tories were angry men, hungry for revenge against the “Rebels” who cruelly tormented them. Some were employed as mounted scouts. Prominent on horseback at the head of the column was a Boston Tory named George Leonard. Others marched behind the infantry as civilian auxiliaries. One of their number was a Tory barber named Warden, who hated the Whigs of New England so passionately that he shouldered a musket and joined the brigade as a volunteer. 23

The British soldiers were in a merry mood as they left town. No serious trouble was expected from the “country people,” or at least nothing that these proud regiments would not be able to handle. Their fifes and drums played a spirited version of “Yankee Doodle” as a taunt to the inhabitants—a musical joke that would long be remembered in Massachusetts. Afterward, a London wit suggested that a more suitable song might have been “The Ballad of Chevy Chase”:

To drive the deer with hound and horn
Earl Percy took his way.
The child may rue that is unborn
The hunting of that day! 24

The brigade marched south across Boston Neck, then west through the villages of Roxbury and Brookline, and north at the present site of Brighton to the Great Bridge over the Charles River. The long red column crossed into Cambridge, and wound its way past the austere brick buildings of Harvard College.

The towns along the route were normally teeming with activity at that hour, but this morning they appeared to be deserted. “All of the houses were shut up,” Percy wrote, “and there was not the appearance of a single inhabitant. I could get no intelligence concerning them [sic] till I had passed Menotomy.” 25

One of the few people he met was Isaac Smith, an absentminded Harvard tutor who had the misfortune to emerge from the College just as the brigade was passing. Percy asked the way to Lexington. Without thinking, Smith told him. Those who knew Tutor Smith believed that he did not intend to aid the enemy, but was merely oblivious to the larger world. Even so, the people of Cambridge were not amused. They were so displeased that Isaac Smith “shortly afterwards left the country for a while.” 26

With the help of directions from the distracted Harvard tutor, Percy found the road to Lexington. Still he knew nothing of what had happened to Colonel Smith’s force, or what lay ahead for his own brigade. Not until he reached Menotomy at about one o’clock in the afternoon did he learn of the fighting on Lexington Green. A little further, he met a chaise coming toward him in the road. In it was Lieutenant Edward Gould of the King’s Own, who had been wounded in the foot at Concord Bridge. Gould told Lord Percy that the grenadiers and light infantry had been “attacked by the rebels about daybreak, and were retiring, having expended most of their ammunition.” 27

Percy sent the wounded officer on his way and began to study the countryside with growing concern. A casual tourist might have taken pleasure in its rolling woods and fields, dotted with granite outcroppings and lined with picturesque stone “fences.” But to the trained eye of a professional soldier, the terrain took on a more sinister appearance. “The whole country we had to retire through,” Percy wrote, “was covered with stone walls, and was besides a very hilly stony country.” Many other officers were also looking nervously about them. Lieutenant Barker of the King’s Own noted that “the country was an amazing strong one, full of hills, woods, stone walls, etc.” 28

Two miles beyond Menotomy, the marching men began to hear the rattle of musketry in the distance. As they approached the village of Lexington the sounds of battle suddenly increased. Percy ordered his brigade to deploy on high ground half a mile east of Lexington Green, near a tavern owned by Sergeant William Munroe. The 4th was sent to the northern side of the road, and the 23rd to the south. The brigade rapidly formed into a line of battle on the hills of Lexington, with commanding views of the countryside. The Royal Artillery unlimbered its two guns on high ground and emplaced them with long fields of plunging fire along the road to the west.

Suddenly, beyond the village, the red uniforms of Colonel Smith’s men came into view. The men of the brigade were shocked by the scene that unfolded before their eyes. The grenadiers and light infantry were less a marching column than a running mob, pursued by a cloud of angry countrymen on their flanks and rear. A full regiment of New England militia appeared in close formation behind the Regulars. At extreme range, Percy ordered his artillery to open fire. The cannon balls screamed through the air and the militia instantly dispersed, running for cover from a weapon they had not faced before.

The grenadiers and light infantry of Smith’s shattered force ran up to Percy’s line, and dropped exhausted to the earth. Behind them, the New England men also went to ground and began sniping at the brigade from long range. Their fire did little damage, but goaded the Royal Welch Fusiliers on Percy’s left to break ranks and charge forward without orders. A British officer wrote, “Revenge had so fully possessed the breasts of the soldiers that the battalions broke, regardless of every order, to pursue the affrighted runaways. They were, however, formed again, tho’ with some difficulty.” Percy regained control of his troops, but he was beginning to have the same problems of discipline that had dogged Smith and Pitcairn. He made a point of moving among his men with an air of calm and competence. 29

To keep the New England militia at bay, the British commander sent forward a screen of his own skirmishers. He also ordered his men to set fire to three houses that offered cover to marksmen. As the buildings began to burn, a pall of dark smoke rose over the scene. The firing slackened, and then nearly ceased for half an hour, while the New England regiments rested on one side of the village, and the British brigade remained on the other. Behind the line of Percy’s infantry, the Munroe Tavern became a hospital for the many British wounded. Surgeon’s Mate Simms of the 43rd Foot worked among them, digging the soft lead musket balls from shattered bone and torn flesh.

Percy called his officers together in the Munroe Tavern and considered his position. He had no idea that so many men were in the field against him. Later he wrote to a friend that he was amazed to find “the rebels were in great numbers, the whole country having collected for twenty miles around.” Not having known the magnitude of his task, Percy had left Boston with no reserves of ammunition for his infantry beyond the 36 cartridges that each man carried in his kit. The artillery had only a few rounds in side boxes on the guns. The senior gunner in the garrison had strongly advised the brigade to bring an ammunition wagon, but Percy thought that it would slow his progress, and said that “he did not imagine there would be any occasion for more than there was in the side boxes.” 30

After the brigade had marched, Gage himself intervened, and sent two ammunition wagons with an escort of one officer and thirteen men. This little convoy was intercepted on the road by a party of elderly New England men from the alarm lists, who were exempt from service with the militia by reason of their age. These gray-headed soldiers did not make a formidable appearance, but they were hardened veterans who made up in experience what they lacked in youth, and were brilliantly led by David Lamson, described as a “mulatto” in the records.

With patience and skill these men laid a cunning ambush for the British ammunition wagons, waited until they approached, and demanded their surrender. The British drivers were not impressed by these superannuated warriors, and responded by whipping their teams forward. The old men opened fire. With careful economy of effort, they systematically shot the lead horses in their traces, killed two sergeants, and wounded the officer in command. 31

image

Lord Percy’s brigade marched with two of these six-pounder field guns. They fired a solid iron ball, approximately three inches in diameter. Their presence forced a change in American tactics during the afternoon. Percy refused to take an ammunition wagon with him; the gunners had only the rounds in the small side boxes that are visible between the wheel and barrel. (Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington)

The surviving British soldiers took another look at these old men, and fled for their lives. They ran down the road, threw their weapons into a pond, and starting running again. They came upon an old woman named Mother Batherick, so impoverished that she was digging a few weeds from a vacant field for something green to eat. The panic-stricken British troops surrendered to her, and begged her protection. She led them to the house of militia captain Ephraim Frost. 32

Mother Batherick may have been poor in material things, but she was rich in the spirit. As she delivered her captives to Captain Frost, she told them, “If you ever live to get back, you tell King George that an old woman took six of his grenadiers prisoner.” Afterward, English critics of Lord North’s ministry used this episode to teach a lesson in political arithmetic: “If one old Yankee woman can take six grenadiers, how many soldiers will it require to conquer America?” 33

The loss of the ammunition wagons gave Lord Percy another problem of arithmetic. “We had 15 miles to retire, and only our 36 rounds,” he wrote. Colonel Smith’s detachment had almost no ammunition at all. The problem of supply was desperate. 34 Percy summoned an aide-de-camp, a dashing young lieutenant of the King’s Own named Harry Rooke, and asked him to gallop back to Boston with an urgent message for the commander in chief. Rooke was ordered to report that Colonel Smith’s command had been rescued, but that the brigade would have to fight its way home, and that further reinforcement might be necessary.

The gallant young officer set off on a hazardous journey across many miles of hostile territory. The saga of Rooke’s ride might be compared with the midnight journey of Paul Revere. The British courier took the same route back to Boston that Revere had followed coming out—Lexington to Charlestown, and then the ferry to Boston. Along the way he dodged hostile patrols just as Revere had done, but by a different method. Rooke left the road, jumping walls and brooks in a wild cross-country gallop. Not knowing the ground, which was very soft in April, he took twice as long to cover the same distance as Revere had done, and did not reach Boston until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, too late to influence the course of events. 35

Even if Rooke had arrived sooner, there was little that General Gage could have done. Half of his effectives were already in the field. His other regiments were needed to hold Boston against its own inhabitants. Gage ordered his small garrison to remain under arms in barracks, ready for a rising of the population. He asked the navy to send two small armed vessels up the Charles River to cover the bridge at Cambridge. Otherwise, the commander in chief could only sit and wait in suspense for the outcome of events that he had set in motion.

While Gage waited in Boston, Percy was busily reorganizing his forces in Lexington for the long march home. He handled his command differently from Colonel Smith. A larger force was at his disposal, between 1800 and 1900 men, counting the survivors of the Concord expedition. 36 For the march back to Boston, Percy decided not to deploy his men in a single road-bound formation, but to distribute them in three columns, with a strong advanced party and a powerful rear guard. Together its interlocking units made something like a mobile British square. Later he wrote that “very strong flanking parties” were “absolutely necessary, as there was not a stone wall, though before in appearance evacuated, from whence the rebels did not fire upon us.” 37

Percy expected that the pressure would be comparatively weak against the front of his column, but strong on his flanks, and strongest at his rear. He arranged his forces on that assumption. At the front of the formation he placed a small vanguard of fifty men whose task was to clear the road ahead. Behind them came the surviving light infantry of Smith’s command, then the grenadiers, a convoy of carriages bearing wounded officers, and ten or twelve prisoners “taken in arms,” several of whom would be killed by “friendly fire” on the march. 38

To protect his right flank, Percy ordered five companies of the King’s Own to march overland on high ground south of the road. On his exposed left flank, he sent a strong force of the 47th to the north side of the road. For his rear guard he selected the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Supporting the Fusiliers was the artillery. The Marines were his reserve, in a position to reinforce any side of the formation that might be threatened. Percy was prepared to fight in any direction, and could move his guns to the front or rear as need be. His deployment gave him the tactical advantage of interior lines. He could shift his reserves from one side to another more speedily than the Americans could move around the outside of the formation. 39

Percy also made a change in march discipline. Colonel Smith, despite his reputation for lethargy, had driven his column so rapidly from Concord to Lexington that the flankers could not keep up. Percy decided to march more deliberately, and carefully regulated his pace, so that his flanking parties could keep abreast of the central column as they picked their way over unfamiliar ground. He also gave his men a long rest in Lexington, and planned another stop at Cambridge, halfway home. 40

The terrain posed special problems, but also gave him an opportunity. In Menotomy a rocky ridge ran three miles along the south shoulder of the road, rising as high as 100 feet. Percy’s right flanking column was ordered to secure the ridge; if they could do so, the south side of the formation was protected. To the north of the road were open fields and pastures. Further east the country became more thickly settled, so much so that Lieutenant Evelyn called it “a continued village” from the Lexington line to Boston. The advance guard was ordered to clear the houses close by the highway. Percy’s deliberate pace was designed to leave time for that work.

While Percy reorganized his force, the American commanders were busy with their own arrangements. The regiments that had fought Smith’s column had reached Lexington in some disorder. One regiment had been broken by Percy’s artillery. The others had become somewhat intermingled after the morning’s long pursuit. More companies were arriving from every direction. So well had the midnight riders done their work that elements of twelve New England regiments were in the field by early afternoon. Four of them were the Middlesex regiments (commanded by Colonels Barrett, Bridge, Green, and Pierce) that had fought at Concord. These units were now at full strength, perhaps more than full strength, with their many volunteers. Four other regiments (Colonels Davis, Gardner, Greaton, and Prescott) were at half strength, but rapidly increasing as other companies appeared. Four more regiments were just beginning to arrive from Essex and Norfolk Counties (Colonels Fry, Johnson, Robinson, and Pickering). In addition to these twelve, another eight regiments were gathering in Worcester County to the west. Altogether, no fewer than forty-seven regiments would muster throughout New England that day, perhaps as many as fifty-five. So rapid was their mobilization that several British officers believed they must have assembled several days before.

At Lexington, a general of Massachusetts militia assumed command. He was Brigadier William Heath, a gentleman farmer from Roxbury, then a beautiful green country town next to Boston. General Heath did not make a martial appearance. He looked the image of the contented country squire that he was—thirty-eight years old, fat, bald, jolly, affable. Sometimes he could be a little pompous; in his autobiography he always referred to himself as “our general.” But he was much beloved by those who knew him well. 41

Most of Heath’s soldiering had been done on militia training days with Boston’s Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. He had not been in battle before, and had never commanded a large force in the field. But behind his country manner was a Yankee brain of high acuity. As early as 1770, William Heath had become convinced that the people of New England might be forced to fight in defense of their ancestral ways. He began to write for the local gazettes, publishing essays signed “a military countryman,” which urged his neighbors to prepare for the test that lay ahead.

In Boston, William Heath haunted Henry Knox’s bookstore, with its large stock of works on military subjects. By day he studied the Regulars at their drill on the Common. By night he toiled over his books in his Roxbury farmhouse, and made a serious study of war as he thought it might develop in America. 42

In particular, William Heath became deeply interested in the tactics of the skirmish—the use of highly mobile light infantry in open order, trained to make full use of the terrain against a stronger force that stood against them in close formation. He believed that skirmishing was a method of war best adapted to the conditions in New England. Many American historians have believed that the inspiration for these tactics came from the Indians and the American wilderness. So it did, in large part. But William Heath and other New England leaders also looked to the old world for their military models, and found them in the campaigns of European irregulars. One of them described the Yankee militia as an organization of “colonist hussars.” 43

William Heath’s military scholarship was respected in New England—more so than it might have been in other cultures which believed that experience is the only teacher. In the American Revolution, New England produced a remarkable generation of self-taught military commanders who trained themselves by systematic study. They had virtually no military experience, but two of them, Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox, would be among the most able generals on the American side. Another, the brilliant turncoat Benedict Arnold, would become arguably the most able general on both sides. William Heath was another of these intelligent citizen-soldiers. Later in the war he would have his military troubles, but on the day of Lexington and Concord he fully justified the confidence that others had placed in him.

image

General William Heath (1737-1814) was a Roxbury gentleman-farmer who commanded the New England militia in the afternoon of April 19. He had little military experience, but much native ability, and was held in high esteem by his men. The Marquis de Chastellux, who knew him well, wrote, “His countenance is noble and open; and his bald head, as well as his corpulence give him a striking resemblance to Lord Granby. He writes well and with ease, has great sensibility of mind, and a frank and amiable character.”

That morning, William Heath had been awakened at dawn in Roxbury. He dressed quickly and went to join the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, scheduled to meet at the Black Horse Tavern in Menotomy, directly on the British line of march. The committee adjourned to Watertown, and was meeting there by ten o’clock. On a crossroad in that town, General Heath ran into Doctor Joseph Warren, who had left Boston that morning. Together they found the Committee. Only a few members were present: El-bridge Gerry, Jeremiah Lee, and Azor Orne, who had spent part of the night hiding in a field from the British troops. Paul Revere’s friend Joseph Palmer functioned as secretary. 44

Paul Revere himself may have joined the committee sometime that day. No evidence has been found of his movements, after he and his friend John Lowell had carried Hancock’s trunk to a place of safety. Revere was dismounted and unarmed. He had not been to bed since the night of the 17th. One imagines him dozing for a few moments in a chimney corner at the Clarke house, or perhaps resting by the fire in the taproom of the Buckman Tavern. But soon he would have been stirring again. Sometime during the day he headed east, and by evening he was in the vicinity of Cambridge and Watertown. The next day he was meeting with the Committee of Safety, helping to organize the American effort. 45

Heath and Warren sat with the committee through the morning, then left to join the troops at Lexington. They arrived about the same time as Percy’s brigade, and met with militia officers in the field. These discussions were followed by a change in American tactics for the afternoon.

Through the morning, the Yankee militia had many times offered battle in large formations in a manner that was far removed from the American myth of individual embattled farmers. At Concord Bridge, two New England regiments had boldly attacked the Regulars in close order. Later in the morning, a regiment of Middlesex minutemen had made a stand on the high ground east of Concord Bridge. Shortly after noon, elements of three Middlesex regiments stood in close formation at Meriam’s Corner. On both occasions Colonel Smith had wisely declined to engage, and hurried on his way to Boston. Beyond Meriam’s Corner, the Militia formed up once more in the line of battle that Lieutenant Sutherland called “battalia” order. From Concord to Lexington Green, the New England men fought from fixed ambush positions in more than company strength at least four times: Hardy’s Hill, the Bloody Curve, Pine Hill, and Fiske’s Hill. As Smith’s column retreated to Lexington Green, it was pursued by a body of militia in regimental order, until dispersed by Percy’s artillery.

Altogether, from Concord Bridge to Lexington Green, the New England militia stood against the British force in large formations at least eight times. Six of these confrontations led to fighting, four at close quarters. Twice the British infantry was broken, at Concord Bridge and again west of Lexington Green. Altogether, it was an extraordinary display of courage, resolve, and discipline by citizen-soldiers against regular troops.

Something even more remarkable happened in the afternoon. Now the New England men faced a different situation. They confronted a reinforced brigade of British infantry, nearly two thousand men with supporting artillery. The terrain east of Lexington was different too, and the New England men had a new commander who had studied the tactics of the skirmish.

General Heath and his officers did not attempt to stand against Percy in close formation or to fight from fixed positions in regimental strength, as had happened earlier that day. But neither did they dissolve into the military anarchy of myth and legend.

Instead, the New England men sought to surround Percy’s marching square with a moving ring of American skirmishers, “dispersed tho’ adhering,” in the descriptive phrase of one participant. The object was to fight a deadly battle of attrition that Britain’s “clever little army” could never hope to win. American officers minimized their own losses by using mobility and cover, and by open-order skirmishing at long range. The men who led the New England militia were experienced in this sort of war. Equally important, they were also practical politicians who understood that in an open society a bloody victory can be worse than a defeat. 46

This idea of a circle of skirmishers was a tactical plan well matched to opportunity and circumstance. But it was not easy to execute. The first task was to forge the ring firmly around Percy’s brigade, and to maintain some degree of command and control over these active and independent men. The second task, equally difficult, was to ensure that the New England militia and minutemen were at once “dispersed” and yet “adhering.” This was not an easy balance to maintain, especially with green troops. Yet it was maintained through a long afternoon—an artifact of active leadership in which General Heath and other American commanders played a vital role. 47 In the words of soldier-historian John Galvin, the American general proved to be “a genius of the minor plan… walking about the battlefield, helping regimental commanders to pull their people together, advising company commanders on the best use of terrain, moving units down on the flanks of the British… and above all simply by being present.” 48

When Heath reached Lexington he began by rallying the regiment that had been broken by Percy’s artillery, and helped to sort out the other units that had become intermingled in the pursuit from Concord. Heath also ordered some of his regimental officers to move against the flanks of Percy’s brigade. Major Francis Faulkner of Colonel Barrett’s 1st Middlesex Regiment remembered “organizing his regiment to work upon the flank of the enemy so soon as he should move again for Boston.” 49

Couriers were dispatched to units on the march from distant towns, informing them about the course of the battle, and redirecting them to points east of their original destination. A soldier in Fry’s Essex Regiment, marching from Andover far to the north, remembered that three couriers reached his regiment while they were on the road, urging them to move rapidly and turning them to the east. 50

There was also some resupply of the American militia in the field. The town of Maiden dispatched small boys on horseback with saddlebags full of supplies. Other towns sent wagons filled with food and ammunition to support their companies. 51

While Heath and other officers were attending to this business, Percy suddenly started to march. The time was 3:15. The cumbersome British columns took nearly half an hour to get on the road. Not until 3:45 by Adjutant Mackenzie’s pocket watch did the rear guard finally move out.

The American militia hurried to surround the British force. At first the ring was incomplete. As Percy had foreseen, the pursuit was closest in the rear, where the central Middlesex regiments occupied a broad arc behind the British troops. They engaged the rear guard so closely that the Royal Welch Fusiliers were compelled to march backwards, eight companies fighting in turn and leap-frogging over one another.

As the American attack was pressed home, the Fusiliers began to take casualties. The New England militia shot the colonel of this proud regiment and hit at least thirty-six of its 218 men in the course of the day. So many Fusiliers fell in this fighting that Percy relieved them, and was forced to commit his reserve of Royal Marines as their replacement early in the retreat. The Marines also began to lose heavily—more than seventy men that day. Later the Marines also had to be replaced as rear guard by companies of the King’s Own and the 47th Foot.

British officers were astounded by the volume of American fire, and by the persistence with which New England men attacked from the rear. Mackenzie later wrote, “In our rear they were most numerous and came on pretty close, frequently calling out, ‘King Hancock forever’.” Heath and Warren (who fought beside him as a volunteer) themselves joined the militia against Percy’s rear, urging the men forward but also keeping them dispersed. Throughout the afternoon, the two leaders were to be found where the action was hottest. One suspects that the action was hottest partly because they were there, rallying the militia forward in open order.

After the rear was engaged, the two American commanders moved to the left flank of Percy’s column, and led other militia regiments from Essex and Middlesex to attack from the north. Here again Heath was in the thick of the fighting. He wrote later, “I was several times greatly exposed; in particular, at the high grounds at the upper end of Menotomy.” Doctor Joseph Warren fought by his side, leading from the front with reckless courage. Heath remembered that Warren “kept constantly near me… a musket ball from the enemy came so near his head as to strike the pin out of the hair of his earlock [sic].” 52

image

Percy’s retreat had barely begun. And yet, while his column was still within the bounds of Lexington, the New England men were maintaining heavy pressure from the north as well as the west. Their fire drove Percy’s northern flankers back toward the road. The Americans maneuvered in units as large as regimental formations, but attacked in smaller groups of company strength. One British officer observed that the New England men were very “much scattered, and not above fifty of them to be seen in any one place.” Some complained that they rarely saw their enemies at all. Many Regulars expressed resentment and contempt of the Americans for fighting on their bellies and refusing to stand up. 53

The American officers were prominent in the fighting, keeping their men dispersed but engaged. This was dangerous work. Many company officers were killed or severely wounded in the course of the day: Bedford’s Captain Jonathan Wilson, Concord’s Captain Nathan Barrett and Captain Charles Miles, Needham’s Captain Eleazer Kingsbury and Lieutenant John Bacon, and others. Casualties also occurred among town elders who attached themselves as volunteers, and became battlefield leaders by reason of their social standing. Sudbury’s Deacon Josiah Haynes was killed while leading his townsmen from the front. His example, and that of others like him, was remembered by men who fought that day. 54

The British brigade was closely invested on both its rear and its left flank. On its right, Percy’s large flanking column of the King’s Own was able to keep the southern hills clear through the town of Lexington. But in Menotomy a new American force joined the battle. Heath later wrote that “the right flank of the British was exposed to the fire of a body of militia, which had come in from Roxbury, Brookline and Dorchester, etc.” These were Heath’s own neighbors and kin. Behind them came the first companies from Dedham and other towns in what is now Norfolk County, south of Boston. With their arrival the British column was in action on its rear and both flanks. 55

Percy was astounded by the skill that American commanders showed in managing their forces on the field. Later he wrote, “During the whole affair, the rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance and resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed they knew too well what was proper, to do so. Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself very much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as rangers against the Indians and Canadians, and this country being much covered with wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting.” 56 Only a few days earlier, Percy himself had thought of these men as a mob. He told a friend when he got home, “For my part, I never believed, I confess, that they would have attacked the king’s troops, or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday.” 57

Soon the front of his column also began to be attacked, more heavily than Percy had anticipated. Some of the pressure on the van came from mounted militia. A few small units of New England cavalry were on the field that day. Individual militiamen also arrived on horseback—among them older men who were experienced hunters and veterans of earlier wars. They fought not in the traditional manner of the arme blanche, but rather as mounted infantry. They used their mobility with skill, riding ahead of the British column, dismounting, fighting on foot, then riding away to fight again.

British officers testified ruefully to the effectiveness of these men. “Numbers of them were mounted,” Mackenzie remembered, “and when they had fastened their horses at some little distance from the road, they crept down near enough to have a shot; as soon as the column had passed, they mounted again, and rode round until they got ahead of the column, and found some convenient place from whence they might fire again. These fellows were generally good marksmen, and many of them used long guns made for duck-shooting.” 58

Many on both sides remembered a middle-aged militiaman named Hezekiah Wyman, from the outlying hamlet of Woburn that is now the town of Winchester. This day was his birthday. On the morning of April 19, 1775, Hezekiah Wyman turned fifty-five. His wife told him that he was too old to fight, but he saddled his “strong white mare” and galloped away. He collided with the British column on the Road east of Lexington, fired at an advancing Regular and brought him down. Hezekiah Wyman became highly visible on the battlefield—a “tall, gaunt” man with long gray locks, mounted on a white horse. The British infantry saw him many times from Lexington to Charlestown, and grew to dread the sight of him. Wyman was a crack shot. Again and again he rode within range of the British vanguard, jumped off his horse, and laid the long barrel of his musket across his saddle. As the Regulars approached he took careful aim, and squeezed off a shot with slow deliberation. Then he remounted and rode ahead to a new position—a grim, gray-headed messenger of mortality, mounted on death’s pale horse. 59

When the mounted militia attacked from the front, Mackenzie remembered that “at the head of the column… the fire was nearly as severe as in the rear.” The ring of skirmishers was now complete. Lord Percy himself wrote that his brigade was “under incessant fire, which like a moving circle surrounded and followed us wherever we went till we arrived at Charlestown.” 60

In the marching columns, the British soldiers suffered terribly under this hail of fire, which they remembered as “incessant” and “continual.” Among them was Ensign Lister, who had been painfully wounded in Concord. Surgeon’s Mate Simms had cut a Yankee bullet out of his elbow in the Munroe Tavern at Lexington, while Lister nearly fainted from pain and loss of blood. He was revived by a grenadier who brought him a hatful of dirty water from a horse pond. Another soldier kindly shared a bit of bread and beef with him. At Lexington, Lister was given a horse. He climbed dizzily into the saddle, and rode among the wounded until the firing became very heavy. Later he wrote, “When I had rode about two miles I found the balls whistled so smartly about my ears I thought it more prudent to dismount, and as the balls came thicker from one side or the other so I went from one side of the horse to the other.” 61

Soon Lister found that the fire was coming from all sides. He remembered that “a horse was shot dead close by me that had a wounded man on his back and three hanging by his sides. They immediately begged the assistance of my horse which I readily granted, and soon after left him wholly in their care.” 62

Other wounded men rode on the guns of the Royal Artillery, clinging precariously to the long flat sideboxes that were now nearly empty of ammunition. From time to time, when larger formations of militia came in sight, Percy ordered the artillery to disperse them. As the field pieces were wheeled into action, Ensign Martin Hunter of the 52nd Foot remembered watching as the wounded men on the guns went tumbling to the ground. 63

The column now approached the village of Menotomy, and the fighting grew still more intense. Small parties of green American militia, newly arrived from northern Middlesex County and Essex County, took positions in houses and yards along the road, against the advice of experienced officers. They were joined by individual householders who fought stubbornly from their own doorsteps, even in the face of certain death as British flankers surrounded them.

One of these embattled householders was Jason Russell, fifty-eight years old and so lame that he could barely walk. Russell sent his family to safety, then made a breastwork from a pile of shingles at his front door. Friends urged him to flee. Russell answered simply, “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” 64 Others rallied with him, and a fierce fight took place in the dooryard of the Russell house. A party of grenadiers was sent to storm the building. Most of the Americans retreated inside or ran away, but Jason Russell was too lame to run. He stayed and fought, until a grenadier killed him in his own doorway. His wife and children returned to find his body pierced with many bayonet wounds. Altogether eleven Americans were found dead at the Russell house.

In Russell’s orchard, a party of Danvers minutemen decided to organize an ambush before the British arrived. As they built a breastwork of stone and lumber, Captain Israel Hutchinson of another Danvers company passed by. A veteran of long experience, he warned them that they were too close to the road, and urged them to take cover on a distant hill. They ignored his advice, and a British flanking column surprised them. Seven Danvers men were slain, and four from Lynn were killed beside them. 65

Some of these Americans were killed after surrendering. A Danvers man named Dennison Wallis was captured, and relieved of his watch and money. He watched as the British soldiers began to kill their prisoners, and ran for his life. The Regulars raised their muskets and fired a volley at him. Wallis was hit twelve times, and left for dead. But he survived to speak of what he had seen. The American atrocity at Concord’s North Bridge was repaid many times over in Jason Russell’s orchard. 66

The fighting in Menotomy was bitter—house to house, room to room, and hand to hand. At close quarters, a Regular attacked Roxbury’s Dr. Eliphalet Downer, and tried to kill him with a bayonet. Downer parried the blow, seized the soldier’s musket, and impaled him on his own weapon. Menotomy’s Lieutenant Solomon Bowman met another British soldier in single combat. Both men fired and missed; Bowman stunned his enemy with a musket butt and took him prisoner. 67

Menotomy was the home of Samuel Whittemore, seventy-eight years old and badly crippled, but an old soldier and a strong Whig. When he heard that the Regulars were coming, Whittemore armed himself with a musket, two pistols and his old cavalry saber, and took a strong position behind a stone wall, 150 yards from the road. He waited patiently for the British column to approach. When it came in range, Whittemore got off five shots with such speed and accuracy that a large British detachment was sent to root him out. As the Regulars assaulted his position, Whittemore killed one soldier with his musket, and shot two more with his pistols. He was reaching for his saber when a British infantryman came up to him and shot away part of his face. Others thrust their bayonets into his body. After the battle he was found barely alive, bleeding from at least fourteen wounds. Friends carried him to Dr. Cotton Tufts of Medford, who shook his head sadly. But Samuel Whittemore confounded his physician. He lived another eighteen years to the ripe age of ninety-six, and populated a large part of Middlesex County with a progeny of Whittemores who are today as tough and independent as the sturdy old rebel who stood alone against a British brigade. 68

The Regulars responded savagely to this resistance by individual householders. In defended buildings along the road, no quarter was given. Mackenzie wrote in his diary that “the soldiers were so enraged at suffering from an unseen enemy that they forced open many of the houses from which the fire proceeded, and put to death all those found in them.” Lieutenant Barker, who was with the vanguard wrote candidly, “We were now obliged to force almost every house in the road, for the rebels had taken possession of them and galled us exceedingly, but they suffered for their temerity, for all that were found in the houses were put to death.” 69

In the Cooper Tavern at Menotomy, the Regulars found Benjamin and Rachel Cooper and their two steady customers, Jason Winship and Jabez Wyman, who had been fortifying themselves with mugs of flip. A British party broke in and did not stop to inquire what they were doing there. The two topers were later found “stabbed through in many places, their heads mauled, skulls broke and their brains out on the floor and walls of the house.” More than 100 bullet holes were counted in the building. The fury of that attack was a measure of the growing rage and frustration that was felt by the British soldiers, some of whom were drinking heavily themselves from tavern stocks along the road. 70

The fighting in Menotomy caused the heaviest casualties of the day. The Americans lost twenty-five men killed and only nine wounded, a suspicious ratio that tells much about the savagery of combat there. The British brigade suffered at least forty dead and eighty wounded in this town. Lord Percy himself was nearly killed there. A button on his waistcoat was shot away, but he escaped without a scratch. He wrote later of the “spirit of enthusiasm” which the inhabitants showed against his troops. “Many of them concealed themselves in houses,” he wrote, “and advanced within ten yards to fire at me and other officers, though they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant.”

Inside the village Percy lost control of his men, who left their units to plunder the houses by the road. Lieutenant Barker of the 4th Foot noted in his diary, “The plundering was shameful; many hardly thought of anything else; what was worse they were encouraged by some officers.” Lieutenant Mackenzie of the 23rd Foot added, “Many houses were plundered by the soldiers, notwithstanding the efforts of the officers to prevent it. I have no doubt this influenced the Rebels, and many of them followed us further than they would otherwise have done.” Colonel Abercrombie of Gage’s staff wrote, “I cannot commend the behaviour of our soldiers on their retreat. They began to plunder and paid no obedience to their officers.” 71

Here again, as at Lexington and Concord’s North Bridge, the British troops defied officers who tried to stop them. Houses, taverns, and churches near the road were systematically stripped of their valuables. One Regular was shot as he ransacked a chest, and fell dead across the open drawers. Anything that could fit in a haversack was carried away. The British soldiers even stole the church’s communion silver, and sold it in Boston, where it was later recovered. They smashed and destroyed much of what they could not carry, set fire to buildings, and killed livestock in a saturnalia of savagery. “We were much annoyed in a village called Anatomy,” one Regular wrote.

At last the British troops got clear of Menotomy, crossed a small stream then known as the Menotomy River (today’s Alewife Brook) and entered Cambridge. Here to their horror the fighting grew still more intense. Mackenzie remembered that “as the troops drew nearer to Cambridge, the number and fire of the rebels increased.” In Cambridge, several fresh regiments of militia appeared on the field in formation. Percy ordered his artillery to disperse them. At a crossroads called Watson’s Corner, the combat was as close and bloody as in Menotomy, as newly arrived parties of militia from Cambridge and Brookline were caught and killed by British flanking parties before senior American officers were able to disperse them. 72

The British brigade was in trouble. The hour was late, and still it had eight miles to go. Ammunition was running low. The artillery’s side boxes were nearly empty. Fire discipline among Percy’s infantry was as poor as Smith’s had been. Mackenzie noted that his men returned fire “with too much eagerness, so that at first much of it was thrown away for want of that coolness and steadiness which distinguishes troops who have been inured to service.… Most of them were young soldiers who had never been in action, and had been taught that everything is to be effected by a quick firing.” 73

The Charles River still lay between the British column and safety, and the only bridge was just ahead in Cambridge. This was the same span that Percy had used coming out. Commanders on both sides had given much thought to the bridge. On the American side, one of General Heath’s first acts was to send a detachment of Watertown militia with orders to remove the planking from the bridge. This was done, but the thrifty Yankee soldiers carefully piled the planks to the side for safekeeping. General Gage sent a party of engineers under Captain Montresor, who repaired the bridge and departed. The Americans came back, and removed the planks once again, this time hurling them into the Charles River. 74

As Percy’s brigade marched into Cambridge, Lieutenant Barker in the vanguard looked ahead and observed that the bridge was “broken down,” and blocked by a large force of American militia, with “a great number of men to line the road.” The British column was in grave danger of being cut off and pinned against the riverbank. 75

Instantly Percy made a bold decision. He abruptly turned his column away from the bridge, and sent it eastward on a narrow track called Kent Lane, toward another road that led to Charlestown. 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. The militia scrambled to get into position again. Another American force moved quickly toward high ground called Prospect Hill, which dominated the road to Charlestown. 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. 76

The militia kept after him, and its numbers continued to grow. A large force from Salem and Marblehead at last arrived, and could have created a major problem for Lord Percy. But its commander, Colonel Timothy Pickering, was reluctant to engage. He had dallied earlier that day until urged forward by his men. Now he stopped at Winter Hill, north of Percy’s route, and allowed the British brigade to pass. Pickering later fought bravely in the War of Independence. But he was conservative in his politics, and some have suggested that in 1775 he hoped for compromise, and wished to avoid total defeat for the British troops. Pickering later insisted that this was not the case, that he was halted on Heath’s orders—which Heath strongly denied. Whatever the truth, Percy’s brigade was allowed to pass by the last American force that could have stopped it. 77

At the rear of the British formation, the New England men continued to fight stubbornly. A flurry of firing broke out in that quarter, and Percy turned once again to the British Marines. Major Pitcairn, the senior officer when the first shot was fired at Lexington, also commanded the rear guard in the last engagement of the day. While Pitcairn’s Marines held the militia at bay, Percy’s brigade at last reached Charlestown and safety.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!