Modern history

MOUNTING TENSIONS

image Inevitability as an Act of Choice

On both sides large preparations are making … bloodshed and desolation seem inevitable.”

—Robert Auchmuty to Thomas Hutchinson, March 3, 1775, Hutchinson papers, BL

It is certain both sides were ripe for it, and a single blow would have occasioned the commencement of hostilities,”

—Lt. Frederick Mackenzie, Royal Welch Fusiliers, Boston, March 6, 1775

ASSPRING APPROACHED in 1775, the atmosphere in Boston grew heavy with foreboding. “Things now every day begin JLJL to grow more and more serious,” Lord Percy wrote home on April 8. It was one of the few facts on which everyone could agree. Here was a curious phenomenon, rarely studied by historians of war, and yet always part of its antecedents. On both sides, men acquiesced in a growing sense that conflict was inevitable. Many adopted this idea of inevitability, as an act of choice. That expanding attitude rapidly became the father of the fact. 1

The wretched weather did not help. A dreary season of mud and flood and drizzle that New England dignifies by the name of spring literally created a climate of despair. One British soldier wrote home that even springtime in New England was “cold and disagreeable, a kind of second winter.” 2

After many months of frost, Boston larders were empty, and food was increasingly scarce. The price of fresh provisions rose so high in the crowded town that General Gage was forced to put his army on salt rations. One of his officers wrote privately, “Tommyfeels no affection for his army, and is more attached to a paltry oeconomy.” 3

Even the drinking water went foul. The 43rd Foot reported that the water in its reservoirs “smells so excessively strong that many of the men drop down in fits while they are pumping.” 4 The health of the garrison was not good. A “malignant spotted fever” (perhaps typhus) broke out among the Royal Irish. They were quarantined on a transport in the harbor. The “throat distemper” (possibly diphtheria) spread through the garrison, killing General Gage’s confidential secretary and many others. Sam Adams reported to his friends in Virginia, “The army has been sickly through the winter and continue so. Many have died. Many have deserted. Many I believe intend to desert.” 5

The British infantry were kept busy drilling on the Common and shooting at floating marks in Boston harbor. Twice a day they were ordered to stand parade in rigid formation, and made to endure spit-and-polish inspections while gangs of ragged apprentices shouted insults from a safe distance. The men were increasingly bored, angry, and hungry—a recipe for disaster in any army.

The common British soldier has rarely received his due in histories of the American Revolution. Many people regarded them as rough, unlettered, hard-drinking men—outcasts from civil society, a breed apart. They were reviled by civilians and despised even by their own commanders. But those who knew them as individuals formed a different opinion of their character and worth. William Cobbett, before becoming a political journalist of high eminence in the United States and Britain, enlisted in the 54th Foot near the end of the American Revolution and served nine years as a common soldier. Afterwards he remembered his comrades with affection and respect. “I like soldiers as a class in life, better than any other description of men,” he wrote. “Their conversation is more pleasing to me; they have generally seen more than other men; they have less vulgar prejudice about them.” 6

The British Regulars bonded closely with one another against a hostile world. They spoke their own distinctive dialect—a form of speech related to the “flash language” of the 18th-century underworld. Among themselves they kept a soldier’s code of honesty, loyalty, and courage, and enforced it strictly upon one another in kangaroo courts that their officers knew nothing about. Cobbett recalled, “Amongst soldiers, less than amongst any other description of men, have I observed the vices of lying and hypocrisy.”

These men were at their best on active service. But after a long winter in Boston garrison they were bored and restless. The supply of strong New England rum was cheap and abundant. “A man may get drunk for a copper or two,” wrote Lieutenant Barker of the King’s Own. In February, Major John Pitcairn of the British Marines told a friend, “We have lost seven by death, killed by drinking the cursed rum of this country. There are I believe several more [who] must die.” By March, Major Pitcairn was so concerned about drunkenness in his battalion that he wrote directly to the First Lord of the Admiralty, “I have lived almost night and day amongst the men in their barracks for these five or six weeks past, to keep them from that pernicious rum. I would not have your Lordship think from this that we are worse than the other battalions here. The rum is so cheap that it debauches both navy and army, and kills many of them. Depend on it, my Lord, it will destroy more of us than the Yankies will.” 7

Several Regulars sold their muskets for drink. When a soldier in the King’s Own was caught “disposing of his arms to the townspeople,” he was trussed up like an animal on a tripod of sergeants’ halberds and given 500 lashes on his bare back—enough to kill an ordinary man. The conscience of New England was deeply shocked by this cruelty—not only by its inhumanity as we would be, but also in another way. The biblical statutes of Massachusetts restricted whipping to thirty-nine strokes; anything more was thought to be unscriptural, and forbidden by God’s express command. To the people of Boston, here was another Sign. 8

In the British garrison, desertion rapidly increased. One of the best regiments, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, lost 27 men. Private Thomas Macfarlane of that unit enlisted on May 19,1774, deserted on July 19, returned on October 6, and deserted again on December 2, 1774. A detachment of the 8th Foot arrived in Boston, on their way to join their regiment in Quebec. The most direct route would have been west through Massachusetts by the Boston Post Road. But Gage wrote, “If I had marched them thro’ the country to Albany we should have lost half of them.” He sent them by sea to New York. 9

General Gage doubled his guards around the town, more to keep his own men in than the “country people” out. In desperation he began to execute his own men. When a young private tried to desert for the third time he was dressed in a white shroud of repentence, taken to Boston Common, and shot by a firing squad while the town watched in shock and horror. In New England, corporal punishment was lawful for the violation of God’s Commandments, but not for the orders of General Gage. 10

Another soldier in the 10th Regiment was shot on Christmas Eve, “the only thing done in remembrance of Christmas Day,” Barker noted bitterly. In March Private Robert Vaughan of the 52nd Foot was caught in act of deserting, and sentenced to death. He was pardoned the night before his execution, and promptly disappeared into the countryside, with much help from the town. General Gage was informed by a Loyalist agent that the people of Boston had organized a secret escape route for British deserters, who were spirited away by boat across the Charles River. One soldier was given four dollars and a suit of clothes by a Boston merchant and taken to the town of Andover, Massachusetts. Another, Private John Clancey in the 47th Foot, was promised that he “should be made a gentleman” if he chose to desert. Whig leaders passed the word that they would give 300 acres in New Hampshire to any soldier who left his unit. 11

Most of the Regulars refused these bribes, and stayed loyally with their comrades. They began to hate their commander in chief, who treated them as incipient felons, and punished them more severely then he did the Yankees. They equally despised the Bostonians who reviled them, and desperately wished for other duty. Even the officers of the garrison ran out of control. In late January, a party of subalterns viciously attacked the town watch. When the Dogberries defended themselves with their billhooks, the officers drew their swords. One watchman had his nose cut off; another lost his thumb. 12

Other officers began to attack each other. Even senior officers joined in. At evening parade, Lieutenant-Colonel Walcott, commander of the 5th Foot, drew a sword on one of his junior officers, who was also his kinsman. General Gage ordered a court-martial for both men. 13

The top commanders began to quarrel among themselves. General Gage and Admiral Graves were often at loggerheads. “It is a great misfortune to me,” Marine Major John Pitcairn wrote, “that the General and Admiral are not as cordial as I could wish.” In fact they hated and despised each other, and quarreled angrily over the Marine battalion that had been sent to reinforce the garrison. Graves refused to allow it to leave his ships unless he could continue to supply their rations, at a handsome profit. “The admiral can have no reason but to put money in the pursers’ pocket,” Major Pitcairn wrote. 14

Both the army and the navy in Boston were at the end of a long logistical lifeline that functioned fitfully in the best of times. Major Pitcairn struggled incessantly with the Admiralty to supply his men with uniforms and equipment. They had been sent to New England in December without winter garments. Pitcairn had greatcoats, leggings and warm caps made in Boston for every man in his command. As Spring approached, he begged the Admiralty for campaigning equipment with little result. One letter sought swords for his grenadiers and drummers. Pitcairn wrote furiously, “the last have nothing to defend themselves but their drumsticks.” 15

Many junior officers turned their frustration against the people of New England. Major Pitcairn went over the heads of his superiors, and dispatched an angry letter directly to the First Lord of the Admiralty, urging hard measures against the colonists. “One active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights,” Pitcairn wrote, “Nothing now, I am afraid, but this will ever convince those foolish bad people that England is in earnest.”

This hard-bitten Marine officer had formed a complete contempt for the Americans. “I assure you,” he wrote from a Boston coffee house to a fellow Marine in Britain, “I have so despicable an opinion of the people of this country that I would not hesitate to march with the Marines I have with me to any part of the country, and do whatever I was inclined. I am satisfied they will never attack Regular troops.” 16

On the other side, Bostonians were increasingly contemptuous of the British troops. The town itself became a tinderbox, and on March 6, 1775, a small spark nearly set it ablaze. That day a huge crowd squeezed into the Old South Meetinghouse to mark the fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Paul Revere was probably there, along with John Hancock, the Adamses, the British spy Dr. Benjamin Church, and many others. Also in the audience were many bored and idle British officers who were looking for trouble. The meeting began with high solemnity. Dr. Joseph Warren rose into a pulpit that was hung with heavy black cloth, and delivered the major speech in a flowery provincial style that was much admired in Boston but little to the taste of English gentlemen. When he finished, Sam Adams rose to his feet in the pew where he was sitting with the Selectmen, and moved that “the thanks of the town should be presented to Dr. Warren for his elegant and spirited oration.”

Several British officers in the crowd began to hiss. One shouted, “Oh! fie! Oh! fie!”

The people of Boston did not understand that elegant imprecation of the new Imperial elite. In the New England dialect with its lost postvocalic r’s, “Fie! Fie!” sounded like “Fire! Fire!”

Panic broke out. Shouting men and screaming women pushed toward the doors. Several people hurled themselves from the windows into the street. At that unlucky moment the fifes and drums of the 43rd Regiment marched past the meetinghouse with a great rattle and crash of military music. The frightened townfolk saw the marching troops, heard the drums of the 43rd, and thought they were under attack. Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie, the cool-headed adjutant of the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, observed that “almost every man had a short stick or bludgeon in his hand, and … many of them were privately armed.” Any violent act, he believed, “would have been the signal for battle. Both sides were ripe for it, and a single blow would have occasioned the commencement of hostilities.” 17

Britons and Bostonians alike were shocked by what had nearly happened. Whig leaders struggled to calm their neighbors, while senior British officers worked to keep their men in check. The town was quiet for a few days.

Then, on March 9, a Yankee pedlar named Thomas Ditson got into the quarters of the 47th Regiment. With more enterprise than judgment, Ditson offered to buy the soldiers’ uniforms, and even their weapons. Several were willing to sell, but others reported Ditson to their commander. The pedlar was seized by order of an officer, tarred and feathered “from head to foot” by the rank and file, and mounted in a chair on top of a cart, and paraded through the town to the Liberty Tree. A fife and drum played a raucous Rogues March, and the colonel of the regiment led the procession.

The parade passed directly under the window of the commander in chief, who heard the irregular beat of the drum, but thought (as he later explained) that the men were merely “drumming a Bad Woman through the streets.” When he found out what had happened, General Gage was infuriated. He severely chastised the 47th for lowering itself to the level of a Boston mob, “below the character of a soldier.” 18

Other incidents followed. On March 16, Bostonians complained that a party of soldiers led by their officers had deliberately disrupted a solemn Fast Day called by the Congregational clergy. On March 17, the many Irish Catholic soldiers in the garrison celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a Hibernian enthusiasm that appalled the Protestant town. Scarcely a day passed without an incident.

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“The Rogues March” is thought to have descended from a brutal Scottish drum-tune called “Cuckolds Come Dig,” which was played when whores were flogged through the streets of Edinburgh. For three centuries it was heard in English-speaking armies when men were drummed out of their regiments. British Regulars made it into a drinking song:

Fifty [lashes] I got for selling my coat

Fifty for selling my blanket,

If ever I ’list for a soldier again,

The devil shall be my sergeant.

From Lewis Winstock, Songs and Music of the Redcoats.

The Whigs of Boston added to the growing tension. General Gage, scrupulous as ever to protect the rule of law, had left New England’s press free to publish without restraint. Polemics poured from Boston printshops, and added greatly to the pressures that were building in the town. Once again, Paul Revere played a prominent role. Between his many rides and various other activities, he found time in the Winter and early Spring of 1775 to engrave a series of hard-hitting political cartoons on Whiggish themes. Revere was no Hogarth; his engravings were crude and primitive. But they made their point, and summarized the complex ideology of the revolutionary movement in simple images that reached a larger public with greater force than John Adams’s subtle briefs for liberty, or Sam Adams’s solemn orations, or Joseph Warren’s ornate phrases. 19

Some of Paul Revere’s cartoons in early 1775 were done at the request of his friends Isaiah Thomas and Joseph Greenleaf, for a new periodical called the Royal American Magazine, which despite its name had a strong Whig tone. In its January issue, Revere published a copper-plate engraving called “A Certain Cabinet Junto.” It showed Lord North offering King George III a bill for the “Abolition of Civil and Religious Liberty in America.” Behind the King lurked the sinister figure of the Earl of Bute, the King’s Scottish mentor. In the center was the saturnine figure of Lord Justice Mansfield, giving his approval to the Act for the Better Administration of Justice, which Revere called by its Boston name, the Murder Act. On the far left sat the feminine figure of British America in deep distress. At her side was the shield that symbolized Britannia, and by her feet was the Indian bow and quiver that represented America. Tucked under her arm were a Phrygian cap and liberty pole that symbolized freedom in the iconography of 18th-century Whiggery. 20

By our standards Paul Revere’s engravings were very crude. He borrowed heavily from other prints, even to the point of what we would consider plagiarism. The four ministerial figures, the suffering figure of British America, and the liberty pole and cap were all staples of English caricature, copied line for line from the work of English artists. 21

But even as Paul Revere borrowed freely from British Whiggery, he added a strong spiritual theme that was his own invention, and uniquely a product of New England. Revere’s feminine figure of British America looked to the heavens, and prayed (in italics), “Lord thou didst drive out the heathen before, our hope is in thee,” From a heavy threatening thundercloud, she was answered (in boldface), “I have delivered and I WILL deliver,”

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Paul Revere published this cartoon in January 1775 America appears as a lady in distress, surrounded by the symbols of liberty. Lord Worth hands George 111 a "Bill for the total abolition of civil and religious liberty in America," while Justice klansfield offers an "act for murdering the Bostonians" and the Earl of Bute looks on approvingly. Revere copied the figures from an English print, and added a strong religious theme. (American Antiquarian Society)

Imperial officials were outraged by these publications. On March 10, 1775, the same 47th Regiment that had tarred and feathered the Yankee pedlar Thomas Ditson mustered in front of Isaiah Thomas’s print shop. With their colonel at their head and the regimental band playing the Rogue’s March, they warned the publisher that he would be next to wear a coat of tar and feathers. 22

Paul Revere’s engravings for the Royal American Magazine were models of restraint, compared with the abuse that streamed from other Yankee presses. General Gage himself became the favorite target. As early as 1775, American journalists had already formed the habit of reducing complex public questions to personal attacks on prominent leaders. They accused General Gage of every imaginable vice from alcoholism to pederasty. In Newburyport’s Essex Journal, for example, one journalist wrote:

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Lord North pours tea into a helpless America (wearing an Indian headdress and not much more), while Lord hfansfield pinions her arms, the Earl of Sandwich peeks under her skirts, and Britannia averts her eyes. Paul Revere copied this cartoon line for line from the London Magazine, adding only the word "Tea" to Lord North’s kettle for anyone who missed the point. (American Antiquarian Society)

In truth, it’s judg’d by men of thinking,

That GAGE will kill himself a drinking.

Nay, I’m informed by the inn keepers,

He’ll bung with shoe-boys, chimney sweepers. 23

Worse, in New England eyes, he was accused of being a Papist, whose secret purpose was to convert all of America to Roman Catholicism by the sword. It was utterly without foundation, but had a powerful impact on American opinion.

This steady drumfire of personal abuse changed Boston’s attitude toward General Gage. Up to this point, despite many differences, both sides had been careful to preserve the decencies. As late as January 1775, Samuel Adams believed that Gage was a virtuous victim of corrupt advisers who were “perpetually filling his ears with gross misrepresentations. 24 By March, Sam Adams was telling his friends that Thomas Gage was a man “void of a Spark of Humanity, who can deliberately be the instrument of depriving our Country of its Liberty, or the people of their lives in its defence.” 25

On the other side, these personal attacks also had an impact on the thinking of General Gage. He bitterly condemned the “flagitious prints” of New England, and accused them of spreading the “grossest forgeries, calumnies and absurdities that ever insulted human understanding.” 26 His letters home to ministers in Britain betrayed increasing anger against the people of Massachusetts.

The letters that came back from London added to the tension in yet another way. Thomas Gage’s superiors were losing patience with their man in America. For months they had been urging him to act, without result. On April 2, two ships from England arrived at Marblehead with unofficial reports that new orders were on their way to General Gage—firm instructions to move decisively against the rebellion and to arrest its leaders.

These rumors from London proved to be correct. As so often, they reached the people of Massachusetts before they got to the commander in chief. The news was sent by a galloper from Marblehead to Boston. Many leading Whigs astonished the British commander by instantly packing their bags and leaving town. By April 8, only two major Whig leaders, Joseph Warren and Paul Revere, remained behind.

The commander in chief caught wind that reports from London had arrived in Marblehead, but nobody on his staff could tell him what news they contained. He wrote home, “I can’t learn whether she brought letters to any of the Faction here, but the news threw them into a consternation, and the most active left the Town before night.” 27

Finally on April 14, 1775, the dispatch ship HMS Nautilus reached Boston, with the secret orders that the Boston Whigs had already learned about. The documents were carried by Captain Oliver De Lancey, Mrs. Gage’s American cousin and the son of the acting governor of New York. De Lancey came ashore, resplendent in a uniform of the 17th Light Dragoons. His crested cavalry helmet was adorned with his distinctive regimental badge, a huge grinning death’s head and crossbones that made a fitting symbol for the grim tidings that were delivered by this harbinger of war. 28

The most important dispatch was a confidential letter to Gage from the Earl of Dartmouth, dated January 27, 1775. It promised that more troops were on the way: another 700 Marines, three regiments of foot, and De Lancey’s dragoons, which were thought to be specially effective in the suppression of civil disturbances. General Gage was bluntly informed that the King’s ministers did not accept his estimate that the conquest of New England would require 20,000 men. He was told that if he needed more men, he should raise a corps of infantry from “friends of government in New England.” He was also instructed in no uncertain terms that the time had come for decisive action against “proceedings that amount to actual revolt.” The ministers insisted that nothing less than the sacred honor of the Empire and that of the King himself were at stake: “The King’s dignity, and the honor and safety of the Empire, require, that, in such a situation, force should be repelled with force.”

The ministers were aware of General Gage’s scrupulous concern for the rule of law. They reminded him that “the charter of Massachusetts impowers the governor to use and exercise the law-martial in time of actual war, invasion, or rebellion.” They were explicit about the specific steps that Gage should take. He should seize the ringleaders, and disarm the population. Dartmouth told him, “It is the opinion of the King’s servants, in which His Majesty concurs, that the first and essential step to be taken towards reestablishing Government, would -be to arrest and imprison the principal actors and abettors of the Provincial Congress whose proceedings appear in every light to be acts of treason and rebellion.” 29

The King’s ministers were entirely optimistic about the outcome. They had suppressed many insurrections in Ireland, Scotland, the Colonies, and even England itself. In the absence of a professional police force, the Regular Army had been routinely assigned to do this work and had become highly skilled at it. Many of the regiments in Boston had recently seen service on similar missions in Britain itself. Just before coming to America, the Royal Welch Fusiliers had been used to “restore order” throughout Devon and Cornwall, and especially the towns of Penryn, Truro, and Falmouth. The 18th Foot had been called out to stop riots against Press Gangs in Whitehaven. The 43rd and eight other regiments had been assigned to put down agrarian risings that spread through twelve counties of the South Midlands and East Anglia in 1766. The 4th, and many other units, had been busy along the south coast of England suppressing rings of highly organized tea-smugglers whose activities made the Boston Tea Party seem like an affair of amateur theatrics by comparison. The British Marines had been sent on a similar mission into Romney Marsh. Ireland had been in a state of insurrection in 1771 and 1772; several of General Gage’s regiments had come directly from that realm of incessant strife. In England itself, between 1740 and 1775, there had been at least 159 major riots, and minor ones beyond counting. Many were put down by the army. To the King’s ministers in London, the troubles in distant Boston seemed merely another routine disturbance that could be dealt with in the usual way. 30

These men, who knew so little of America, assured General Gage that the “rebels” of Massachusetts were merely “a rude Rabble without plan, without concert, and without conduct.” Gage was told that “a smaller force now, if put to the test, would be able to encounter them with greater probability of success than might be expected from a greater army.” He was advised that “if the steps taken upon this occasion be accompanied with due precaution, and every means devised to keep the measure secret until the moment of execution, it can hardly fail of success, and will perhaps be accomplished without bloodshed.” 31

It all seemed so easy, three thousand miles away. Still, in the eternal manner of politicians everywhere, the ministers were careful to cover themselves. The Earl of Dartmouth added, “It must be understood, however, after all I have said, that this is a matter for discretion.” In other words, if all went right the Government would claim the credit; if anything went wrong General Gage would bear the blame. Nevertheless, Gage’s orders were clear enough. He was to move quickly and decisively with all the strength at his disposal. In the name of the King himself he was commanded to arrest the leaders of the rebellion, to disarm their followers, and to impose order on the Province of Massachusetts by “law-martial” if necessary.

With these instructions on his desk, General Gage studied the calendar. The snow had melted in New England. The ground was still soft, but the season for campaigning would soon begin. It was time to prepare.

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