The Ordeal of the British Infantry
This expedition … from beginning to end was as ill-planned and ill-executed as it was possible to be.
—Lieutenant John Barker, 4th (King’s Own) Foot, 1775
EARLIER THAT EVENING, while Paul Revere and William Dawes were preparing to leave Boston, General Gage set his army in motion. Many precautions were taken to prevent discovery. The soldiers were awakened in their beds, “sergeants putting their hands on them, and whispering gently to them.” 1 The men dressed quietly, strapped on their full cartridge boxes, and picked up their heavy muskets. They were ordered to leave their knapsacks behind, and to carry one day’s provisions in their haversacks. One soldier remembered that he was told to bring 36 rounds of powder and ball. 2
The British soldiers were “conducted by a back-way out of their barracks, without the knowledge of their comrades, and without the observation of the sentries.” The men were ordered to move in small parties, so as not to alarm the town. They “walked through the street with the utmost silence. It being about 10 o’clock, no sound was heard but of their feet. A dog that happened to bark, was instantly killed with a bayonet.” 3
The Regulars made their way to a rendezvous chosen for its remoteness—an empty beach on the edge of the Back Bay, near Boston’s new powder house in “the most unfrequented part of town.” When challenged by the sentries, they answered with the evening’s countersign, “Patrole.” 4
First to arrive were the flank companies of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Their regimental adjutant Frederick Mackenzie regarded punctuality as a point of honor. Next came the King’s Own, who bivouacked near Boston Common, close by the beach. Other companies came in from Fort Hill, and some from Boston Neck, and a few from the Warehouse Barracks near Long Wharf. Several companies arrived from the North End after forming up near the North Church. They were the troops who had nearly intercepted Robert Newman and Captain Pulling. Altogether, the expedition numbered between 800 and 900 Regulars in twenty-one companies, plus a few volunteers and Loyalist guides. 5
These were picked men, the flower of General Gage’s army. In that era most regiments of British infantry had two elite units: a grenadier company and a light infantry company. The grenadiers were big men, chosen for size and strength. In the earlier 18th century their special task had been to hurl heavy hand grenades at the enemy, hence their name and stature. By 1775 they had lost that role and gained another, as shock troops whose mission was to lead the bloody assaults that shattered an enemy line, or captured a fortification by a coup de main.
The light infantry companies were a different elite—the most agile and active men, selected for fitness, energy and enterprise. They had been added to every British regiment in 1771 to serve as skirmishers and flank guards, partly at the urging of General Gage. In some regiments these men carried long-barreled muskets, which were more accurate at longer distances than the standard issue Tower musket. Some were equipped with hatchets modeled on American tomahawks.
In the French and Indian War, British commanders had sometimes collected their light infantry and grenadier companies into provisional units for special service. General Gage followed this common procedure. His Concord expedition consisted of eleven companies of grenadiers and ten of light infantry. That practice had the advantage of bringing together the best soldiers in the army. But it also had a major weakness. Officers and men of different regiments were not used to working with one another. They found themselves commanded by strangers, and compelled to fight alongside other units whom they did not know or trust. The regimental spirit that was carefully cultivated in the British army worked against the cohesion of ad hoc units. Further, the normal chain of command was broken above the company level, and the complex evolutions of 18th-century warfare sometimes dissolved in confusion.
That confusion began to appear in the first moments of the Concord expedition, when the companies came together on Boston’s Back Bay. The 23rd’s regimental adjutant, Frederick Mackenzie, was appalled by the disorder he met on the beach. He found no officer of high rank firmly in command of the embarkation, and separate companies straggling aimlessly. The junior officers had been told nothing about where they were going or what they were to do. Lieutenant Barker of the 4th (King’s Own) wrote, “Few but the commanding officers knew what expedition we were going upon.” 6
The navy was there in good time, but Mackenzie counted only twenty ships’ boats, not nearly enough to carry the entire force in a single crossing. Two trips were needed to move everyone across the water. Mackenzie peered across the dark river toward the opposite shore, and discovered still another problem that had not been anticipated. General Gage’s staff had selected the crossing point mainly for secrecy. It ran from the most secluded spot in Boston across the Back Bay to a lonely beach on Lechmere Point in Cambridge, inhabited only by a single isolated farmstead known as the Phips farm. 7
The bay was broad and shallow at that point. The boats’ crews had to row more than a mile on a diagonal downstream course, against a rising Spring tide that was flowing up the Charles estuary. The Navy’s longboats were clumsy, heavy craft, built for strength and stability in the open sea. They were ordered to be tied together, bow to stern, in strings of three or four. That precaution was thought necessary to keep coxswains from losing their way in the dark, but it made the crossing even slower when speed was vital to success. 8
The soldiers were packed into the boats so tightly that there was no room to sit down. The vessels settled deep in the water until their gunwales were nearly awash. In the center of each boat the men stood quietly, their red coats nearly black in the moonlight and their long muskets slanting upward toward the bright sky. In the sternsheets beardless midshipmen whispered commands to weatherbeaten seamen while heavy ash oars creaked rhythmically against sturdy locust tholepins.
As the boats approached Lechmere Point, they went aground in shallow water that was nearly knee deep. The soldiers climbed into the river and waded awkwardly ashore, muskets held at high port. Then the boats backed off, and returned for another load. It was slow and painful work. Not until midnight was every man landed. Two precious hours had been spent crossing the Charles River.
On the Cambridge shore there was another scene of confusion as officers and sergeants struggled to form their broken companies. The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, looked on with horror at the disorder that surrounded him. He was what another army in a later time would call a book soldier— methodical, cautious, and careful—an officer much to General Gage’s liking. That night, when time was of the essence, Colonel Smith ordered each company to assemble in a predetermined order on the beach. First came the light infantry of his own 10th Foot, then the other companies of light infantry in order of their regimental number, and the heavy grenadiers in the same sequence. This tidy arrangement was not Colonel Smith’s private obsession. It was a point of regimental pride in the British army. A regiment’s number indicated its seniority. The 4th (King’s Own) Foot had the lowest number that night, then the 5th, and others in numerical order. More time was lost as units jockeyed back and forth. 9
At last every company was in its proper place, and the men were ordered to march. They advanced painfully in their soggy gaiters and square-toed shoes full of brackish river water. As they left the beach, the men discovered to their surprise that they had been landed squarely in the middle of the “marshes of Cambridge.” 10 Their landing zone was sparsely inhabited because it was a swamp.
The men tried to move along the river’s edge where the footing seemed more solid than in the swamp itself. But the slippery beach pebbles were treacherous underfoot, and the thick river mud sucked at their heavy shoes. The tide was still high. From time to time the column found itself plunging into the water again. One officer recalled that their route took them “at first through some swamps and slips of the sea,” and “they were obliged to wade, halfway up their thighs, through two inlets.” Lieutenant Barker was one of the lucky ones. He remembered that his company was wet merely “to our knees,” Another officer recalled that his men were soaked “up to their middles.” 11
At last they came to a rough farm track that ran through the marsh. The road was soft and wet, but at least it resembled terra firma. Here Colonel Smith halted his men yet again, while he waited for the navy to deliver two days’ provisions that had been prepared aboard ships in the harbor to avoid discovery. The Regulars stood quietly in the mud with the fatalism that is part of every soldier’s life, while sergeants prowled restlessly through the ranks, making sure that every infantryman had 36 rounds and a full cartridge box. The men were increasingly miserable. It was not a cold night by New England standards, but the men were sopping wet and a chill wind was blowing. They began to tremble in their wet uniforms, which were uncomfortable enough, even when dry.
The uniform of the British soldier in 1775 might have been designed by some demonic tailor who had sworn sartorial vengeance upon the human frame. The grenadiers wore towering caps of bearskin (later coonskin for Fusiliers), adorned with white metal faceplates and colorful cords and tassels, and blazoned at the back with their regimental number on embossed metal disks. Their headgear was designed partly to allow muskets to be slung easily, but its major purpose was to magnify the height of the men who wore them. On active service the caps were awkward and top-heavy. They were also costly to replace, and had to be protected in the field with painted canvas covers—caps for caps, which were slung from a belt when not in use.
The light infantry wore tight helmets of black leather, adorned with feathers or horsehair crests, and constructed with whimsical peaks in front or behind, according to the fancy of the regimental commander. This headgear was less awkward than the bearskins of the grenadiers, but it offered little protection against the rain, and tended to crack in the sun. When wet the leather shrank painfully, gripping the head like a vise.
The ordinary rank and file were called “hat companies” after their standard-issue cocked hats. According to the prevailing fashion in 1775, they were worn too small to fit snugly around the crown, and merely perched on top of the head. To keep them from tumbling off, the hats had to be fastened to the hair by tapes, and hooks and eyes.
The hair itself was dressed according to the taste of each colonel. In some regiments it was powdered white; in others it was congealed with gleaming black grease. Mostly it was plaited or “clubbed” into a pigtail, doubled on itself, and tied neatly with ribbon. Bald men, and even those with thinning hair were required to wear switches. The neck was swathed in tight stocks of horsehair or velvet that came nearly to the chin.
Lt. Col. Francis Smith of the loth Foot commanded the British expedition to Concord. A veteran of 28 years’ service, he joined in 1747 and saw much active duty. Some subordinates complained that he was fat, slow, stupid, and selfindulgent. Others including General Gage liked his prudence, caution, gravitas, and gentility. Both sets of qualities might be found in this painting, eleven years earlier. It is dated 1764, and hangs today in the British National Army Museum, Chelsea.
These men who stood in the muddy marshes of Cambridge wore snow white linen that had been changed only the day before. Every Wednesday and Sunday fresh linen was put on throughout the British army. They also were issued white or buff-colored waistcoats and breeches which were ordered to be kept immaculate on pain of a flogging. Later in the war, British soldiers were allowed to wear coveralls or loose “trowsers” on active service.
The most distinctive part of the uniform was the heavy red coat. For grenadiers and line companies this was a garment with long tails that descended nearly to the knee. The light infantry wore short jackets that ended at the hip, and were much preferred on active service. Later in the Revolution, General John Burgoyne ordered all his men to cut down their coats into jackets. Contemporary illustrations commonly show that the red coats of 1775 were worn very tight, according to the 18th-century fashion. They were supposed to be preshrunk, but after exposure to rain they shrank again, sometimes so much that the men found it painful to move their arms.
This unidentified British subaltern wears the uniform of a flank company in the 4th (King’s Own) Foot. The facings are royal blue. The epaulette, gorget, buttons, and sword-belt plate (with the regimental number clearly visible) are silver. The officer bids a sad farewell to a beloved foxhound as his ship prepares to sail in the background. The 4th Foot departed from the Isle of Wight for Boston on May 28, 1774. Many of its junior officers were casualties at Concord and Bunker Hill. One wonders if this melancholy portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, might have been a mortuary painting. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Both coats and jackets were made of a coarse red woolen fabric that was strong and densely woven, and meant to stand hard service. After the battle, Dover militiaman Jabez Baker carried home one of these red coats as a souvenir. In the New England way, it was put to work as a scarecrow in the fields. So sturdy was its cloth that it was still in service as late as 1866, a tattered survivor of ninety New England winters and an impressive testament to the durability of its sturdy British cloth. 12
The red coats were elaborately embellished with lace, wings, buttons, loops, knots, and incongruous heart-shaped badges on the coattails. Lapels and cuffs were turned to reveal contrasting “facings” of the regimental color. Royal regiments proudly wore facings of a rich dark blue—the original Royal blue. Men from three Royal regiments were standing in the Cambridge swamp this night—the King’s Own, the Royal Irish, and the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Other regiments had facings of buff (the 52d), pale yellow (the 38th), or off-white (the 47th). Lord Percy’s 5th Foot (soon to be the Northumberland Fusiliers) was elegant in facings of “gosling green,” The 59th (later the East Lancashire Regiment) was resplendent in bright purple; the 10th (afterwards the Lincolnshire Regiment) was gaudy in an exceptionally vivid yellow; a few men on detached duty from the 64th (subsequently the Prince of Wales’s North Staffordshire Regiment) wore facings of sinister black. The British Marines were made to wear snow-white facings which caused the men much trouble in the field. Their commander, Major Pitcairn, wrote home to a friend in the Admiralty, “I every day wish for any lapels but white … I wish his Lordship would give us blue, green, or black.” 13
Drummers and fifers, of whom thirty-nine were attached to the army units in the expedition, wore coats of the same color as the facings of their regiments (except in Royal regiments), and bright red breeches, linings, and vests. Their sleeves were heavily adorned with lace “as the Colonel shall think fit,” often in thick white chevrons from wrist to shoulder, to make them highly visible on a field of battle, where they had a vital function in command and control.
In every regiment, equipment was suspended from white crossbelts: a broad belt over the left shoulder to support the cartridge box, a narrow belt over the right shoulder for a long sword, and a waistbelt for the bayonet and short sword. The belts were kept immaculate by frequent rubbing with pipeclay, a ritual for many generations in the British army. The light infantrymen wore tanned leather belts which were less visible and more practical.
The grenadiers on the Concord expedition were probably still wearing their winter gaiters of black heavy linen, which covered the legs from ankle to thigh and were secured below the knee with black garters so tight as to threaten the circulation. For durability the gaiters had hard leather tops that chafed the upper leg so severely that white linen knee-cuffs were added to cushion them. The light infantry wore short gaiters that offered more comfort, but less protection.
The most bizarre part of this infantry uniform was the footwear. In 1775, British regiments called “Foot” did not wear right and left shoes, but heavy interchangeable square-toed brogans that were reversed every day to keep them from “running crooked.” The men of the Concord expedition would be asked to march forty miles in that unforgiving footgear. 14 Their special “marching socks” were made of linen, and soaked in oil to shed water. For this campaign, the historian of the King’s Own notes that “for the first time we hear that the private soldiers wore underclothes, a pair of linen drawers being included in the list of necessaries.” 15
Officers’s uniforms displayed many differences of social rank. Their coats were not red but scarlet, a distinction that continues today in the dress uniforms of some British regiments. The costly scarlet dye, prepared from the dried bodies of female cochineal insects, preserved its color long after the cheaper red coats of the rank and file had faded to a dusty rose. In the field, the brilliant scarlet tunics of the officers stood out at long distance from the brownish-pink of the rank and file—a dubious honor in America where unsporting Yankee marksmen went methodically about the business of killing the officers first.
Every article of dress became an emblem of rank. The men were given breeches of coarse white wool; officers on active service wore elegant “small clothes” of white leather. The uniform coats of the rank and file were embellished with lace of worsted woolenthread; their officers were adorned with lace of gilt or silver. Men wore a simple black stock around their necks; officers added a ceremonial gorget which was a vestigial relic of medieval armor—a crescent-shaped piece of metal, either silver or gilt to match the buttons of the regiment, embellished with the Royal arms, engraved with the regimental number, and suspended from a silk ribbon or a silver chain. Its highly polished surface sparkled in the light, and made a perfect aiming point just below the throat.
The men wore on their hips a gray canvas haversack prominently marked with the King’s broad arrow, and in some regiments a small canteen. Old soldiers sometimes marched with two canteens—one for water, the other for Yankee rum, which may have been passed eagerly from mouth to mouth as. they stood in the cold Cambridge marshes. Lord Percy himself carried a flask of fine French brandy.
The Regulars waited miserably in their wet uniforms for another hour, until at last their provisions were delivered by the navy. The army looked with disdain on naval rations, of which the staple was rock-hard ship’s biscuit, often crawling with white maggots. An officer of the 23rd remembered that his Fusiliers threw away the navy food in disgust, having brought their own army rations with them. 16
Finally, about two o’clock in the morning, a full four hours after leaving barracks in Boston, Colonel Smith ordered his column forward. To escape the marshes, it was necessary to double back nearly a mile to the east, on a farm road that curved around the northeastern side of a low hill. 17 Just as the men were beginning to dry out, they came to a little stream called Willis Creek that flowed into the Back Bay. A wooden bridge spanned the water, but Colonel Smith feared that the heavy tramp of army shoes would wake the sleeping countryside. He ordered his men off the road, and sent them sliding down a slippery mud embankment into a swirling stream that was frigid with melted snow. Lieutenant Barker vividly remembered the sensation of “wading through a very long ford up to our middles.” 18
The men were now shaking with cold. They formed up once again on the other side of the little stream and resumed the march. Steadily they advanced along the country roads past silent houses sleeping in the moonlight. Most of the soldiers still did not know where they were going or what they were asked to do. Even the company commanders had not been told the purpose of their mission. The men were wet, cold and numb. Few had slept since the night before. Many were hungry and thirsty, and had already drained their canteens. Some began to break ranks to drink from wells along the road. At least one soldier dropped out altogether, and went to the lonely farmhouse on Lechmere Point. The family took him in, learned about the expedition, and sent word into town. 19
This captain of light infantry in the 10th Foot is thought to be Thomas Hewitt, who joined the company in 1777, after every officer had been killed or wounded at Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. His facings are yellow, and his regimental number (a Roman X) is visible on his gorget and swordbelt plate. Captain Hewitt survived the war, and left the army in 1785. The portrait is dated 1781, and signed by the artist William Tate. (British National Army Museum, Chelsea)
The Regulars continued on through Cambridge, following a road that curved around the north end of town. They passed Piper’s Tavern in what is now Union Square, Somerville. An inhabitant saw them go by, and heard the soldiers repeat the name on the signboard, which they could read in the bright moonlight.
We think of our ancestors as early sleepers and early risers, but a remarkably large number were up and about in the small hours of that April night. In East Cambridge, the Widow Elizabeth Rand was wide awake. The day before, a hog had been butchered for her use. The carcass was hanging outside her house, and she worried that a thief might steal it in the night. About 2:30, she heard a strange noise and rushed outside in her nightgown to protect her property. To her amazement she saw 800 men marching silently toward her house. The Widow Rand dodged behind a rain barrel, and kept out of sight until the soldiers were gone. Then she tucked up her nightdress and sprinted to the home of her neighbor Samuel Tufts, who also was awake, hard at work with his slave, pouring lead into a bullet mold. Both men were so busy that they did not hear the Regulars go by. Tufts listened incredulously to the widow’s story and refused to believe a word of it. She led him to the road, and with the aid of a lantern showed him the square shoeprints in the ground. Samuel Tufts was persuaded. He saddled his horse, and rode off to spread the word. 20
The British Regulars continued west through Cambridge to the “great road” (now Massachusetts Avenue) that led to Lexington and Concord. As they turned onto the highway (at the present site of Porter Square), the British vanguard saw two countrymen coming toward them in a wagon. Thomas Robins and David Harrington of Lexington were taking a load of milk to market in Boston. They saw the British column at a distance, pulled off the road, and were working frantically to unhitch their horses when the Regulars were upon them. The two Lexington men were taken prisoner and made to march with the column. The horses were given to British officers. 21
The column crossed a little stream (now called Alewife Brook) and entered the village of Menotomy. In a house by the road, a man opened his door and watched the column go by. A thirsty soldier left the ranks and asked for a drink of water. The householder, Lieutenant Solomon Bowman of the town’s militia, asked the British Regular, “What are you out at this time of night for?” The soldier made no reply, and was sent on his way. Bowman went off to muster his company. 22
In Menotomy the column passed the Black Horse Tavern where the Committee of Safety had been meeting that day. Three Whig leaders, Colonel Jeremiah Lee, Colonel Azor Orne, and El-bridge Gerry, were staying the night. The landlord saw a party of Regulars turn off the road toward the tavern and cried, “For God’s sake, don’t open the door!” As the soldiers approached the front of the inn, the Whig leaders dashed out the back door, and hid in the fields, lying flat on the wet ground behind a low stubble of last year’s cornstalks. They were not discovered. 23
Farther on, a party of young men were playing cards in a shop by the road; they heard the soldiers and went to warn others. At the Tufts Tavern in Menotomy, the innkeeper was awake and toiling at his endless chores. He looked out and saw several Regulars moving toward his barn where he kept a handsome white horse. The Yankee innkeeper ran to intercept them, and said to an officer, “You are taking an early ride, sir!” The Regular replied, “you had better get to bed and get your sleep while you can,” and left, without the horse. 24
At a place called Foot of Rocks (near today’s Forest Street) the British column passed a house where a light was burning. They knocked on the door, and were told by a woman that her “old man” was ill, and she was brewing him a pot of herb tea. In fact she and her husband (who was hale and hearty) had been busy melting their pewter dishes into bullets. The next house (now 21 Appleton Street, Arlington) belonged to Menotomy’s militia captain Benjamin Locke. He also heard the column march past, and instantly set himself to rousing his neighbors. 25
Self-portrait of Captain William Glanville Evelyn, commander of No. 7 company, 4th (King’s Own) Foot. Evelyn marched with Percy’s Brigade to the relief of Smith’s force, and was in the thick of the fighting from Lexington to Charlestown. ~e’survived that day unscathed, but six weeks after inscribing this portrait to his mother he was mortally wounded at a small skirmish in Westchester County, New York. He was thirty-four years old. Evelyn left his estate to Peggie Wright, his servant who was with him in Boston. (Author’s Collection)
The leaders of the British expedition were increasingly concerned. They had been driving their men, hoping to make up the vital hours that had been lost in the Cambridge marshes. The column made remarkable time—a mile every sixteen minutes, a rapid clip for a night march in close order on a dark and muddy road. An officer noted that the pace was “hasty and fatiguing.” 26
But their commander was not pleased with their progress. Colonel Francis Smith was by nature a worrying sort of man. He worried about the late start and the early dawn that was now only a few hours away. Most of all, he worried about the bridges at Concord. What if the New England militia reached the bridges first? He might have to fight the “peasants” as he called them, or retreat as Colonel Leslie had done at Salem.
As the main body of the column moved into the village of Menotomy, Smith’s worries got the better of him. He halted his command, gave the men a short rest, and summoned his second-in-command, Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines. Pitcairn was ordered to take the six leading companies of light infantry and advance at the quick march to Concord. There he was told to seize the bridges north and south of the town, and hold them until the grenadiers came up.
Pitcairn set off instantly, leading his six light companies at a rapid rate. To set the pace, he put one of his best men at the head of the column—Lieutenant Jesse Adair, a hard-charging young Marine who could be trusted to keep the column moving. 27
With Adair in the van was a New England Tory named Daniel Murray, who had graduated from Harvard only three years before. He often tramped the roads between the college in Cambridge and his home in Worcester County, where his prominent family was much hated for their Loyalist sympathies; later his three brothers would take up arms for King and Empire. Also at the head of the column were several unattached officers: Lieutenant William Sutherland of the 38th Foot and Surgeon’s Mate Simms of the 43rd Foot. Behind them came an advance party of eight light infantrymen, among them Private James Marr of the King’s Own, a Scot whose speech carried a strong Aberdeen burr.
The hour was now near 4 a.m. Suddenly, the quiet of the night was broken by the heavy sound of hoofbeats from the west. In the vanguard of Pitcairn’s advance force, Adair whispered to Lieutenant Sutherland and the Tory guide Daniel Murray, “Here are two fellows, galloping express to alarm the country!” As the horsemen approached, Sutherland leaped out of the shadows and seized the bridle of one horse while Murray grabbed the other. Both riders were turned out of their saddles, and their horses were taken by the officers. The captives were Asahel Porter and Josiah Richardson of Woburn. They were made to march with the column on pain of death. 28
The Regulars became highly skilled at the art of snaring Yankees on the road. Two light infantrymen were posted well ahead in the shadows on either side of the highway. When a rider approached they allowed him to pass, then rose and closed upon him from the rear while others stopped him from the front. Two and a half miles east of Lexington the British vanguard captured an angry young man named Simon Winship. He was returning to his father’s house, “peaceable and unarmed,” and was ordered to dismount. At four o’clock in the morning he gave the Regulars a defiant lecture on liberty, demanding to know by what right they had stopped him in the public road. At gunpoint, he was pulled off his horse and put with the other prisoners. 29
The column met more horsemen. It began to hear signal guns and alarm bells ahead and even behind. Colonel Smith halted the grenadiers, and ordered an aide to ride back to Boston with a message that surprise had been lost and reinforcements might be necessary. The British courier galloped away into the night. The column resumed its long march, moving deeper into the dark and hostile countryside.