Sunday, April 19, 2009

Decisive Battles: Lexington to Boston, 1775

Lexington to Boston Date: 19 April 1775Forces Engaged: British Imperial: Initially about 700 elite infantry troops in 21 companies: eleven (heavy infantry) grenadier companies of the 4th, 5th, 10th, 18th, 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 52nd and 59th Regiments of Foot, and the 1st Battalion, Royal Marines, and ten light infantry companies from the 4th (King's Own), 5th, 10th, 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 52nd and 59th Regiments of Foot, and the Marine battalion under LTC Francis Smith of the 10th Regiment of Foot. By the end of the day the British force on the road to Boston included over half the Boston garrison, including the 1st Brigade (4th, 23rd, and 47th Regiments of Foot), two six-pound cannon and crew (Royal Artillery), and the remainder of the 1st Battalion, Royal Marines – minus the flank companies then on Battle Road - , a total of 1,500 to 1,700 troops under BG Earl Percy. No cavalry.

American Colonial: Initially 77 men of the Lexington militia under Captain John Parker. By midday roughly 400 troops (militiamen from the towns of Concord, Lincoln, Acton, and Bedford as well as five companies of “select militia” or minutemen) under Colonel James Barrett of Concord. By late afternoon probably 3,500 to 4,000 mixed militia, minutemen and individual volunteers from towns throughout eastern Massachusetts under BG William Heath. No cavalry or artillery.

The Situation: Most of us should be familiar with the situation in and around Boston in the spring of 1775. This essay has no space for a complete discussion of the political relations between Britain and her American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s; the subject is complex enough to have filled libraries. Suffice to way that British debt incurred by the Seven Year’s War and the resultant revenue-raising measures strained matters between colonies and colonizer. A series of troubles surrounding the Stamp and Townsend Acts in the 1760’s, and then the Tea Act of 1773 – culminating in the original Tea Baggers of 1774 – eventually resulted in the closure of the Port of Boston and the British Garrison there (under MG Thomas Gage, in person a remarkably sane and decent officer) being called on to enforce the punitive so-called “Intolerable Acts”.Most sources state that by the spring of 1775 the British government was not in physical control of eastern Massachusetts outside of Boston proper. MG Gage had spent the autumn of 1774 and winter of 1774-75 in a running scuffle with the increasingly restive colonials of the Bay area to secure military supplies stockpiled by the locals. These so-called “Powder Alarms” succeeded in agitating the American insurrectionists without materially reducing their capacity for trouble. By the spring and the beginning of campaign season the only real question as whether the Americans would begin a rising on their own or wait for provocation. April’s events proved that when one side is looking for a fight, the other will be hard put not to give them one.

The Sources: In a literate age, the original sources are Multitude. Private and public letters, which were collected and later published, broadsheets, pamphlets and engravings all document what was even then recognized as a historic event. Both Continental and British militaries prepared reports ranging from casualty returns to battle accounts. Among the most useful accounts written since the events of 1775 are F.W. Coburn’s The Battle of April 19, 1775: In Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville, and Charlestown, Massachusetts, published in 1922 by the Lexington Historical Society (especially noteworthy as it is available complete on-line as a pdf document); D. H., Fischer’s 1994 volume Paul Revere's Ride, a tremendous guide to the primary sources, and D. B. Chidsey’s 1966 work The Siege of Boston: An on-the-scene Account of the Beginning of the American Revolution.

Perhaps the most accessible of the recent accounts is the Wikipedia entry for “Battles of Lexington and Concord”, which is extensively footnoted and appears more solidly researched than most of the work done for this popular but uneven resource.

The Campaign: The events of 19 April were the opening moves in what became the Boston Campaign, which included the battles at Lexington, Concord and along the Battle Road on 19 April 1775; Chelsea Creek (Hog Island, fought in May, 1775), Bunker Hill (fought in June, 1775). The siege of Boston continued for almost a year until the Crown forces evacuated the city in March of 1776.

The Engagement: The events of 19 April 1775 are fairly well understood by those of you with a penchant for history and military history; for those who aren’t buffs you can’t – and I can’t – do better than the Wikipedia entry, or many of the other published sources that discuss this day.

So what I’d like to do is refer back to what we discussed in the “Commander’s Intentseries of posts. Specifically, General Gage and his British army of occupation were in very peculiar political and military position in the spring of 1775. Similar to our military and diplomatic assets deployed to south-central Asia in the spring of 2009, they have two, seemingly contradictory, missions.The political mission is essentially one of pacification; the desired outcome is a well-disposed people in a cooperative client state (or, in the case of the American colonies, states), eager to meld with, and do the bidding of, the autochthonous Power.

The military mission was to support the political mission and to diffuse, and, if confronted, to defeat, armed resistance to the colonial Power. This placed the British Army – and places our own armed forces – in an extraordinarily difficult position. Traditionally the means of defeating armed force has always been to oppose it with superior; that is, more powerful, more violent, more deadly, force. An army wins by inflicting more death and destruction, wreaking more terror, on its opponent in the field. But here the traditional formula was stood on its head. Too little force would be not just inadequate but inflammatory – the natives would be made bolder by the sense that the imperial Power was weak. But…too MUCH force and the natives would be not just inflamed but impelled. If the imperial Power was out of control, an insensate monster destroying just to destroy, then what loss resistance? If death is inevitable, then why not die on your feet rather than on your knees?So the problem facing General Gage would be familiar to the officer commanding the forces in the Korengal Valley: A bomb is probably too big, but a knife is too small. How to graduate the measure of force so as to dissuade and intimidate the insurgents but not anger the noncombatants?

So, the essence of King George’s “Commander’s Intent” could probably have been best summarized as:

Procure the obedience of the colonial states of North America to the rulings of Parliament and the orders of the British Crown by whatever means necessary, to include military force, but without provoking open rebellion.

For Gage, the business came to a point on April 14, 1775, with the receipt of a confidential letter from the Secretary for American Administration, Lord Dartmouth. The salient points of this letter were:

1. Information that the Boston garrison was being reinforced: four battalions of infantry and one of cavalry were en route or had been mobilized for overseas movement.
2. However, in the style of politicians everywhere, Dartmouth flatly refused to accept Gage’s assessment that real pacification of the Massachusetts region would require 20,000 troops; instead, Gage was advised that he should “raise a corps of infantry from among the friends of government in New England”.
3. Most importantly, Gage was to act against the principals in rebellion against Great Britain; “…the first and essential step to be taken towards reestablishing Government, would be to arrest and imprison the principals of the Provincial Congress, whose proceedings appear in every light to be acts of treason and rebellion.”
4. To this end Gage was directed to impose martial law, and disarm the colonials then likely to acts against the Royal government.
5. And also in the style of politicians since Joshua, Dartmouth added “It must be understood, however, after al I have said, that this is a matter for discretion.”

So, plainly put: Gage must act, and soon, against the Americans defiant of Royal authority. But if his strike should go awry, and the rebels escape or, worse, profit, then the fault would be his alone.

As we know, the stroke DID fail, and the war was set in motion. Since we won’t learn anything new about the events of the day, let look at them in light of Gage’s mission. Where, in each event, did things go wrong? Where were the failures, the criticalfailures? Was there a decisive moment, or moments, in the day of battle, that could have retrieved his throw and held the American colonies for Great Britain?On April 18th, Gage set in motion the operation which would begin the end of British rule in the American Colonies. H-hour was set for around midnight, 19th April, 1775.

H-hour minus eleven days (8 April, 1775): The OPSEC Failure.

Had Gage only known it, he had failed to achieve his political objective – apprehension of the rebel leaders – over a week earlier.

Word of the Dartmouth letter had arrived early in the month from sources in London sympathetic to the rebel cause, and all the ringleaders except the rebel intelligence officers – Paul Revere and Joseph Warren principally among them – had decamped to the interior. The rebel elite troops – the “minute companies” or minutemen – had gone to a higher state of alert, and much of the war material stored in Concord had been distributed or moved.

Critical Failure: Operational security (OPSEC) is essential for military success. Uncertainty of location, and means, of an operation means than an enemy cannot prepare for it or react to it adequately. The initial OPSEC failure meant that political success had eluded Gates even before commencement of field operations.

H-hour minus 20 (morning, 18 April 1775): The Reconnaissance and Security Teams.

The morning preceding the planned operation a force of 20 troops (ten officers and ten sergeants) under a major was detailed to deploy from Boston into the countryside immediately west to act as a security screen and reconnaissance element. The group dispersed into small two- to four-man teams along the roads between Boston and Concord, including almost half the force proceeding on to the routes beyond Lexington.The mission of this recon and security element was to cut off communications between the rebel intelligence operations in Boston and their maneuver elements in the countryside, as well as to gather as much information as possible to aid the next day’s mission of apprehending the rebel leaders, particularly Sam Adams and John Hancock.In this mission the element completely failed. As we know, the rebel leadership was already moving underground. The R&S screen was pretty porous; they famously captured Paul Revere but allowed one of his companions to escape and released Revere himself after a time. Even worse, the patrols operated in a highly visible, noticeably unusual way; the officers were in full uniform, they were armed, they were highly indiscreet about their purpose, questioning people they passed, in particular about Hancock and Adams. In particular the teams stayed out in the countryside after nightfall, something no British soldiers that spring had done before. These teams were so disturbingly different that their activities roused the countryside even before word of the coming raid. Worse, sometime before midnight a small group of these R&S troops were surprised by one Josiah Nelson on the road to Concord, attacked and wounded him, and then inexplicably released him, warning him that his house would be burned around his ears if he told anyone of what had happened. Of course within an hour’s time Nelson was on the road raising the country.Failure: By varying from routine, and by failing to operate stealthily, the R&S teams alerted the American militia and the rebel leaders, compromising the security required for the success of the operation.

H-hour (midnight, 19 April, 1775): The Raiding Force Deploys.

LTC Smith led his troops ashore in Cambridge around midnight. The operation went slowly, as the shore was bad ground for landing and the soldiers had to wade in through waist-deep water. The ad-hoc raiding party was already wet and cold and had to stand about an hour or as much as two hours, reorganizing while officers and sergeants distributed rations and extra ammunition, and the gear and unit equipment was unloaded and readied for movement.

At this point Smith should have had no illusions about the stealth of his movement. One of his officers wrote later “…was on our March by one, which was at first through some swamps and slips of the Sea till we got into the Road leading to Lexington soon after which the Country people begun to fire their alarm guns light their Beacons, to raise the Country.” The raid had been detected, and surprise was now lost. More than three hours passed between the landing and Smith acting to replace stealth with violent action.

Failure: Once deception or security has been compromised, speed and decisiveness of action is an essential element of tactical success.

Worsening this pointless delay, the British command knew that the rebels already knew not only the existence of the operation but the objective. After the operations orders meeting the previous evening: “Lord Percy mingled with town folk on Boston Common. According to one account, the discussion among persons there turned to the unusual movement of the British soldiers in the town. When Percy questioned one man further, the man replied, "Well, the regulars will miss their aim", "What aim?" asked Percy, "Why, the cannon at Concord" was the reply. Upon hearing this, Percy quickly returned to Province House and relayed this information to General Gage.” Gage acted to close the land route out of Boston but did not alert the Navy’s vessels in Boston Harbor or inform Smith that his mission had been compromised.

Critical Failure: Once he was informed that the security of the mission and, particularly, the objective, had been compromised, Gage should have known that sending 700 troops unsupported by cavalry or artillery into a hostile country meant that, at the very least, the operation had little or no chance of success at that point. Gage should have either reinforced Smith massively or recalled him.

Marching at three miles an hour, Smith’s little force took four hours to move the eleven or so miles to Lexington. In fact, the grenadiers moved so slowly that at 3am Smith detached Major John Pitcairn of the Marines with six companies of light infantry to jog ahead to Lexington. The light companies arrived some time around 6 am to find 77 men of the Lexington militia “trained band” under Captain John Parker, waiting for them in ranks.

What happened next is still the subject of some dispute. The British light infantry deployed onto Lexington Common in some disarray, some of the companies falling in to the left of the Concord Road, others wheeling right and then facing front. Everyone agrees that the arrival of the regulars was fairly confused; the lights advanced with a shout, one of the British officers (reputedly Pitcarn himself) was roaring for the militia to disperse and lay down their arms, and Parker’s orders to fall out were partially lost in the noise, Parker’s command voice being badly affected by his history of tuberculosis.

At some point someone fired a shot or shots. Several theories have been advanced, including the probability that both sides, and possibly one or more of the onlookers scattered around the Common and in the windows of buildings overlooking the Common, may have fired nearly simultaneously. But what did unequivocally happen at this point is the regulars, in effect, mutinied.Both sides were very clear that no British officer gave the order to shoot. Lieutenant Barker, then the company XO of the Light Company, 4th (King’s Own) Regiment of Foot, wrote later: “…our men without any orders rushed in upon them, fired and put ‘em to flight; several of them were killed…We then formed upon the common but with some difficulty, the men were so wild they could hear no orders...”

This collective indiscipline halted the Smith column for some time. LTC Smith is recorded as having to find a drummer to beat the assembly to pull the lights back from pursuit and even breaking and entering into houses on the Common. More time is spent reorganizing the column, permitting the lights to fire a “victory volley” before the raid can set off again towards Concord.

Failure: Inability to exert command and control and loss of battle discipline contribute to delay in movement and disorganization of troops. Failure to convey to the soldiers the essential elements of information adds to the lack of concentration on the objective.

H-plus 8: Trouble in Concord.

By eight o’clock Smith’s force entered Concord. On the road immediately outside the town, however, the colonel must have gotten an ugly indication of what was coming: a force of some 200 militia from Concord and Lincoln turned up in front of him. Outnumbered, the rebels smartly turned about and marched into town 500 yards in front of his column…but still. Here was a pretty clear sign that the rebels were in arms, in force, and promised to grow stronger as outlying towns’ forces closed in.

At this point, again, Smith probably should have begun to retire. But the mere threat of bands of farmers must have not seemed like enough reason for a professional officer to abandon the mission. Smith proceeded to execute his orders and made a decision no sensible officer would make under normal circumstances: he divided his troops in the presence of the enemy.

Critical Failures: Dispersal of combat strength allows for defeat in detail. Failure to assess the deteriorating tactical situation correctly prevents prompt and decisive action.

Smith’s force, already in danger of being overrun, is divided into even smaller groups for a search mission. The grenadiers (less one company securing the South Bridge high-speed avenue of approach) and three companies of light infantry search the town itself. The remaining seven light companies are detached to search Barrett’s Farm, where intel has placed a large cache of arms. These seven companies are further divided; four march off to the farm itself, two are deployed on high ground en route to secure the road and the last is posted at the North Bridge itself.

Meanwhile, the rebel force had withdrawn to Punkatasset Hill, an eminence north of Concord, where arriving minute companies and militia from Acton and Bedford had swelled the force to some 400. Smoke from the town – indicating that the British regulars were involved in some burning – prompted the American force to move downhill closer to the bridge; as they did so the two light companies guarding the road retired in some confusion across the bridge.The British, ordered into an unfavorable tactical formation by a young captain inexperienced both in action and with the light companies he was leading, fired poorly and were smashed by the return volley. Badly led, under fire for the first time and in a poor tactical position, the regulars fled back down the road to Concord.

Critical Failure: Troops rely on officers’ technical and tactical competence; indications that the leadership lacks these qualities will quickly degrade soldiers’ confidence and will to fight.

As is not uncommon is war, there is now a caesura in the fighting. The Americans seem shocked by their success, retreating to the high ground to the north. LTC Smith arrives with two companies of grenadiers, surveys the battleground and holds the North Bridge long enough for the four companies from Barrett’s Farm to march back across the river and rejoin the main body. The British treat their wounded troops, eat, and organize to move back to Boston.

As a matter of note, they found little war supplies in Concord. Barrett’s was a bust, and other than three 24-pound cannon destroyed the food and shot uncovered in Concord were merely thrown into the town pond to be fished out after the regulars departed.

H-plus 12 to H-plus 14:30: Battle Road 1 - Concord to Lexington

The trouble begins for Smith not long after he leaves the village of Concord. By this time as many as 1,000 colonials have converged on the road between Concord and Lexington. Smith, seeing the crowds closing in, pushes out detachments of light infantrymen onto the high ground to the north overlooking what is now known as Battle Road.These flanking parties keep the American militia off the main body until a narrow defile about a mile east known as Meriam’s Corner. This road junction featured a narrow bridge, which forced the raiding force into a narrow column. As the trail elements of the column crossed the bridge the Reading and Billerica militias fired into them, killing two and wounding several more.The entire retreat from Concord consisted of more of this sort of thing; colonial ambushes in close terrain, ills and defiles, and long-distance shooting where the road opened up. Major attacks occurred at Brooks Hill, “Bloody Angle”, Mason’s (and possibly Nelson’s) farm, “The Bluff” and Fiske Hill, where organized militia and minute companies fought muzzle-to-muzzle with British regular light and grenadier infantry. But even more - hundreds, possibly thousands of bloody little fights took place, like this one near Josiah Nelson’s farmhouse:
“Just east of the pasture where Paul Revere had been captured lay two fields on the northerly side of the road. The first was meadowy and scarred with trenches and rough mounds of grass; the second was strewn with huge bowlders. Hiding in a hole in the first field, William Thorning, one of the Lincoln Minute Men, fired at the Regulars in the road. Their bullets cut up the ground about him. He began to run for the woods behind him, but met a flanking party which had been marching a hundred feet in his rear. They fired but did not hit him. Immediately he dropped down into one of the shallow trenches and lay quiet until the flanking party had passed. When the cross fire ceased, he ran quickly into the rocky field, and took his stand behind the jutting corner of a huge bowlder, which amply protected his body. Levelling his musket on top of the rock, he fired several shots and killed two soldiers. They were buried on a knoll in the orchard across the road, southeast of the Nelson house.”
Try and imagine the confusion and terror of these moments.The American minuteman scrambling for his life under the guns of angry, frightened, exhausted British infantrymen. And then, probably sobbing for breath and red-faced with the rage that comes from a release from fear, shooting down two of those enemies trying to flee down the road from the hungry guns all around them. To both sides, it must sometimes have seemed like a malignant dream…

By the outskirts of Lexington the British force had lost possibly 10 to 20 men and had many wounded. Most of these had happened in ones, threes and sixes rather than in large firefights - the grave sites, scattered all along the road from Concord to Lexington and beyond tell a sorry tale of tactical disintegration and rout. The Smith force, obviously, had no way to transport their wounded other than carrying or a handful of requisitioned carts or horses, so many of the wounded were left to the enemy. Accounts of this retreat emphasize that it was almost a rout; soldiers were shot down in the process of attempting to loot, and supposedly the remaining officers had to threaten their troops outside of Lexington in order to get them to reform. Both LTC Smith and his 2IC, MAJ Pitcairn, were wounded by this time.Interestingly, I don’t see many outright tactical failures here beyond the earlier error in not aborting the mission.

Smith’s flank security parties were a good idea which worked well, when the terrain permitted. The failure along here was simply a failure of 18th Century armies; there was no logistical or medical train. Wounded and dead were left behind. This was not a problem on the nice linear battlefields of the day; your bandsmen and the soldier’s wives came on behind to help them to the rear. But on Battle Road, as MG Braddock had found out years earlier, the physical reality of the American countryside overwhelmed the British military’s lack of support elements. The killing and wounding of officers meant that command and control was breaking down; a critical failing but not a failure per se, simply the fate of an overwhelmed and outnumbered task force.

It’s worth noting that the Americans were NOT sniping with rifles from long range. There were places on the road where American musketeers did shoot “into the brown” and with the number of shots fired some must have hit. A half-inch diameter lead ball carries a long distance even spent; some must have injured or even killed. But its important to remember that this wasn’t Tim Murphy at Bemis Heights. These guys had to dolly in close and unload their muskets from shouting range. As many as 40 Americans were killed, either by British fire or the bayonets of the flanking parties – these guys weren’t snipers. They were irregular grunts fighting regular grunts.

H-plus 14:30 to H-plus 21: Battle Road 2 – Lexington to Cambridge

Here the fighting intensified, as BG Percy’s regular battalions stabilized Smith’s exhausted flank companies but the colonial militia continued to pour in from as far away as Marblehead and Salem. Now under the command of BG Heath, the rebels formed a loose mobile encirclement around the British column as well as attacking from strongpoints such as stone houses and barns. The British troops began to run wild again, as exhaustion and battle madness took over and officers and sergeants were wounded or killed. The road between Menotomy and Cambridge was the bloodiest of the day: the colonists lost 25 men killed and 9 wounded, the British, 40 killed and 80 wounded. Percy managed to extricate the force with tactical acumen and a series of well-thought maneuvers, including a clever side-step at what is now Porter Square in Cambridge, as well as the assistance of the incompetence of one COL Pickering, who halted the Salem and Marblehead militias too far north to engage the British force, which fell back into hasty lines around Charlestown at nearly midnight. Some of the light and grenadier companies had been without sleep for two days and had marched 40 miles in 21 hours, and for 8 hours under fire.Of the skills of his American now-enemies, Lord Percy wrote:
"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.”

The Outcome: Tactical American Colonial victory. Provided the impetus for the Second Continental Congress to form a Continental Army and declare war, raising the metaphorical Red Flag of Revolution.

The Impact: It was said of the British Admiral Jellicoe that he could lose the First World War in an afternoon. MG Gage had effectively lost the geopolitical strategy of the North Administration in the course of two days. While it is unlikely that the grievances between the colonials and the mother country could have been resolved easily, the effect of the failed raid was disastrous. In a single day the British government appeared both vicious and incompetent. The bloody day in April ensured that the colonial troublemakers were rebels in arms and the British were counterrevolutionaries and invaders. From here could be no turning back.

So the bottom line would seem to be that - although the break was probably unpreventable by even the most deft political and military leadership - the REALLY critical failures can be assessed against Gage and Dartmouth.

Smith, though an unimaginative commander whose failure to reassess the tactical situation contributed to the scope of his defeat, can be faulted only for his inability to transcend the limitations of his army and his background; the retreat from Concord called for a Rommel or a Xenophon and what the British flank companies had was Francis Smith.

But the North Administration thoroughly underestimated the difficulty of using their conventional forces against a hostile American citizenry, the security of their communications, and the political temper of their own nation and their colonial insurgents. Gage failed to secure his plans, failed to procure accurate intelligence, both political and military, about his enemies, and, particularly, to realize that his raiding force could not accomplish its mission once compromised and recall Smith before the roof fell in.

Touchline Tattles: There a dozens of stories from this day, many gruesome, some stalwart and patriotic, some just sad. I will leave to better authors the rousing adventure tales from that day and, instead, present you with this little vignette from Coburn’s “The Battle of April 19, 1775”:

“Opposite Charlestown Common…on the corner of the road to Penny Ferry which crossed the Mystic River to Everett stood the home of William Barber, sea captain. His family consisted of his wife, Anne Hay, and their thirteen children. One of them, Edward, fourteen years old, sat at the window looking out at the brilliant pageant of soldiers marching in the road. Many of the soldiers must have seen him, as he was not in hiding. One did, in all events, and with that thirst for killing some one, even though but a boy, shot him and saw him fall back into the room dead.”

I keep coming back to the picture of the teenager sitting in the window in the long afternoon light, the battered, angry men in the once-splendid uniforms trudging past, the sudden, shocking sound of the shot and the stunned look on the boy’s face as he topples backwards, the last person to die on a long, long April day.I suspect that somewhere in the Korengal Valley a young man is being buried with that very same look frozen on his dead face. While overhead flies a C-5 carrying the metal box carrying another young man with the tired, dirty face that looks just like one that was tipped into a markerless scrape outside Meriam's Corner more than two hundred years ago.


Pluto said...

Excellent analysis, as usual, Chief. All I can do is to highlight some of the history prior to the battle that helps to explain the mistakes the British made but does not relieve the British commanders of blame.

The English Civil War which occurred roughly 130 years prior had been a messy affair (civil wars usually are). Neither side had a standing army at the start of the conflict and only slowly developed an effective military arm as the combatants slowly discovered that militia could not win the war.

This meant that, based on their own experience, the British figured that they could win through superior skill at arms if they moved fast enough to keep the Colonists from developing a regular army.

They had forgotten three things that any competent modern general would be quick to recognize:
1. The English Civil War was a vicious conflict that was difficult to put out once it started
2. The colonists had already been well-armed and organized by the British for the French and Indian war
3. A whole generation of British political theorists such as Locke had introduced so many new ideas about governing with the consent of the governed as to make the whole experience of English Civil War meaningless as a guide to dealing with the insurrections of the 1770's.

In fact, as the Chief's history noted, the Colonists had many supporters in Britain that gave them critical political support and information and there was no parallel in the English Civil War.

Marlborough's bloody battles in the 1720's through the 1740's had emphasized how trained soldiers can dominate battlefields, and through them, the political landscape. But experiences in Flanders, which had been domesticated for centuries, was not a reliable guide how to fight in much more rugged terrain of North America.

As many have pointed out before me, the really critical failing here was political. The British government desperately needed cash after winning the hideously expensive Seven Years War (French and Indian war to us) and because of imperial-overstretch was unable to see the possible (even likely) consequences of their actions.

A better plan to deal with the increasingly upset colonists would have been to do something similar to Edward III's subjugation of Wales. He grabbed the best sites for himself, heavily fortified them, and turned them into economic green zones and simply waited for the Welsh to accept his rule. This strategy would have worked wonders against the politically divided colonies, particularly if the British showed favoritism to loyal colonies and heavily taxed and raided colonies that didn't comply.

But that would have conceded two very large points:
1. The British would have needed to spend more money implementing this strategy (which still would have been vastly cheaper than the Revolutionary war)
2. British government would have had to have admitted to itself that the colonies had grown to the stage of being independent and the situation could have been resolved by a nicely negotiated political solution.

Such radical thinking was simply beyond the harried bureaucrats of the day and war was the natural result.

I do have to note that the British learned their lesson and recovered nicely and had a nice 200 year run of Empire afterward.

Pluto said...

I probably shouldn't bring this up, but in this period of American Imperial overstretch, could history repeat itself?

Is it possible that the knuckleheads we keep electing to Washington will do something far enough beyond the Pale that some region of the country will protest, be slapped down, and become restive enough to justify (in the minds of our dim leaders) military occupation?

The most likely scenario in my mind is:
1. A crisis that affects one part of the country more than the rest.
2. Our national leaders to respond inappropriately (such as raising taxes on a flooded region to help pay for flood relief).
3. The regional leaders (governors and the like) protesting and either being ignored, ostracized and/or jailed.
4. The regional leaders declaring something like "We're not going to take THIS lying down" and devising their own extra-legal solutions to the problem.
5. The national government deciding it can't afford to ignore the problem and over-reacting.

Please don't say it can never happen here. It can ALWAYS happen, it is just more likely at some times than at others.

Ael said...

I have been told that the British colonial administrators were *shocked* by the amount of tax revenue generated by Quebec after its capture in 1760.

They then took a look at the much richer colonies to the south and figured out how much they had been ripped off for all those years.

Alas for them, they failed to realize that les habitants were used to paying taxes, whereas the americans were allergic to taxation (with or without representation).

FDChief said...

Pluto: I think we all agree that many of the so-called "military disasters" are usually a case of a military force placed in an impossible situation by one or more geopolitical-, strategic- or operational-level boo-boos on the part of the echelons above reality. I think were seeing in Aghanistan and Pakistan the same kind of woulda-coulda-shoulda thinking that characterized the British colonial administration in the 1760s and 1770s. As Ael points out, the American colonies were vastly different critters than Quebec, or the West Indies or even India, and to generalize from Wolfe's defeat of French maritime troops in sparsely populated Canada or Clive's conquest of the polymorphous states of feudal India with relative handfuls of British and British-officered troops was foolish. But are we making much the same mistake today, assuming that a relative handful of American troops can somehow transform the cockpit of central Asia?

As an aside, I would suggest that Gage was the perfect storm for the British in New England. He was a fundamentally decent man - too decent for the Roman methods it would have taken to suppress the rebellion by 1775 - but as a commander his primary quality seems to have been inactivity. He reminds me of Jean-Dieu Soult forty years on; great at plans, but once the shooting started he tended to sort of dick around twitching a corner here and tweaking a battalion there. We'll talk about this in July when we talk about Bunker Hill, but there was another case where he had two options: just pull the hell out and start all over (a landing at Charlestown Nck, for example, could have bagged every colonial on Breed's Hill for a bagatelle) or fiddlefuck around trying different approaches to his fundamentally flawed plan of attacking hey-diddle-diddle-straight-up-the-middle. As in April, where the sensible thing would have been to either massively reinforce Smith or abort the mission once Percy informed him that the rebels knew not only his operation but his objective, he chose the least-active course; letting things just run on (and eventually off of) the rails. A nice man, but a fucking disaster of a commander.

mike said...

Good post, Chief.

My cousins in Somerville always used to tell me that Lex and Concord got into the history books, but it actually started half a year earlier in their playground (60 years go, they used to play Beau Geste or Fort Apache in what they called the castle at Powderhouse Square in Somerville).

So your post and that bit of memory got me to wiki 'Powderhouse Square' and then to 'the Powder Alarm'. It seems that Gage did go there first in September of 1774, and he succeeded in confiscating the King's powder. But the furor that it started was key in not only organizing the Minutemen, but also intel and commo networks throughout New England.

Between that incident in September 74 and April of 75 the New England Committees of Safety raided weapons depots in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. They moved powder and shot as well as cannon and muskets further inland away from Royal Navy depredations.

Pluto's thoughts on the English Civil War are apropos. The Massachusetts Committee of Safety was modeled after a body with the same name during the English Civil War.

Pluto said...

You're right about everything, as usual, Chief. I'm more interested in the aftermath.

The Brits managed to figure out what they were doing wrong and mostly fixed it after the revolution. Will we do as well?

Recent history suggests we still have too much power and do not see enough of a threat to change our ways. What will be the consequences of the choice to not change?

sheerahkahn said...

I love your series, especially the Colonial, and Medieval.
I learn so much.

One of things most of you should note is that the view of the British Crown and of Parliment was that the colonies were viewed as a mercantile venture, i.e. business.
Hence, the reason why the whole "no taxation without representation" kind of made them chuckle.
To put it in more recent terms, think of an American Company in China complaining about the taxes the US is leveling against them, and not only taxing their profits, but treating them like they were still on American soil.
Same same with the Brits view of the colonies, their view of the colonialists was that they were a business venture, and thus not accorded the same political enfranchisement.

Another less optomistic view was that the gun smiths developement of the Lancaster rifle was one of pure artistry, unfortunately, not everyone had one. The Brown Bess being the most common rifle, so no, I wouldn't expect a whole lot of accuracy (note how many times the guy shot at the two fleeing soldiers...brown bess, decent musket, but...yeah).
However, the Lancasters, which were finely made rifles were commonly used as hunting rifles, till the frontiersmen were brought into the battles, in which case the Brown Bess, accurate to about a hundred yards, whereas the Lancasters were out to three hundred.
As you can see, the disparity of the effective ranges is what brought about the mystique.
However, as Chief alluded too, and I'll spell it out, not everyone had a Lancaster.
The Lancaster could be counted as maybe one guy out of hundred had one.

FDChief said...

mike: The "Powder Alarms" are a fascinating bit of hitory and worth apost in their own right. The author of the Wiki entry on Lexington and Concord (who does some pretty decent work, IMO, as I noted in the main post) is pretty definate about the importance of the Somerville raid in setting forward the rebel plans for armed preparation for war and, consequently, the events of 19 April. I have to agree; if Gage had failed, or hadn't attempted, the raid on the Somerville powder house the fuze to rebellion would have been quite a bit longer.

I think the Powder Alarm also says something crucial about MG Gage. His reports to London had a real hair-on-fire quality: "if you think ten thousand men sufficient, send twenty; if one million is thought enough, give two; you save both blood and treasure in the end." But that's as far as he goes. Like Rumsfeld's generals, he wsn't able to bring his courage to the sticking point. He knew - because he had seen the Americans in arms - that London was underestimating the colonists and was overconfident of their own power. But instead of having the guts to tell them "This is the truth, and if you continue to deny the truth you are working to the ruination of my country and I cannot serve my country by serving you." he kept trying to accomplish their half-assed plans. It didn't work for him any better than it did for Abizaid or Sanchez. Sometimes what looks like a self-immolatory moral stand is really just good sense ahead of the conventional wisdom.

Pluto: I think one important factor in the change is the British tradition of Royal detachment, Parlimentary supremacy and ministerial rule. The King - unlike the President - is above party and thus can afford to be above partisanship. And his ministers can and will take the blame, and can be, as North and his cronies were, truly cast out into the political wilderness after 1783. Pitt the Younger was a true new broom who swept out a lot of the old squireen tradition, reformed the tax laws to stabilize the Exchequer and made important reforms in the colonial administrations. What have we got? A bunch of Clinton retreads and friggin' Newt fucking Gingrich and Tom Delay still hanging around with their moronic ideas. And a complete indifference to routing out the bad old neocon and Bushite policies, prosecuting the idiots who've got us into this mess and generally strolling along with out thumbs up our collecive backsides.

So, no, you're right, I don't get the sense that short of a truly catastrophic failure we will recognize the nonsensical nature of trying to fight a land war in central Asia with a force smaller than the former garrison of Berlin.


Pluto said...

Sheera: "Hence, the reason why the whole "no taxation without representation" kind of made them chuckle."

True, but I think we got the last laugh.

Pluto said...

P.S. - I caught a blurb on CNN where Ron Paul and the Texas governor publicly discussed the circumstances under which Texas would secede from the union. So far all the discussion is highly theoretical

sheerahkahn said...

"True, but I think we got the last laugh."

Well, in a sense, not really.
The fact of the matter was that the English still had an itch for the America's (which is how the colonies were viewed and communicated as such), which would later lead to, "discussions" of a military nature.
But in the immediate, the problems of finances were huge, and not easily resolved. Being an American was one of novelty and insecurity.
Once out from under British protection the Colonials pretty much had to play both sides of the asile with the French and the English. Not to mention the whole touchy, feely thing with the Dutch who were the bankers at the time.
Just thinking about how all the things that could have gone wrong and didn't just boggles the mind.

I think it's safe to say that "somehow it all worked out."

FDChief said...

Actually, Sheerah, the American colonies were difficult for the British to figure out because they were almost sui generis. They were the only foreign dominion the Brits had with a thriving Anglo population of any size and economic/military potential. Compounding the difficulty was that they were a confusing hotch-potch of different polities, from the smallholding democracies of New England through the commercial colony of New York, the planter aristocracies of the Carolinas and Virginia, the Quaker what-the-hell-was-it on Pennsylvania...

The Brits did well where the autochthnous settlers were a tiny minority in a sea of natives; India, the West Indies, Egypt, the African colonies. They knew how to manage those sort of colonies.

They only had three where the colonists were a politico-military force in their own right. We know what happened in the Americas. South Africa was a similar disaster that had to be put down (and was) by force. So when we talk about how they learned their lessons from the events of the 1770s and 1780s, it was really only Australia that benefitted...

I think honestly that neither the American colonies in 1775 nor South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries could have avoided war. It wasn't that the Brits were so bad, it was just that the colonists weren't in a mood to settle for what the Crown was willing to offer...

sheerahkahn said...

Hmm, I would like to think that the colonials were a confusing lot of beggars and scoundrels, but...well...something about the way Parliment and the Crown treated the colonies as little more than a business says other wise.
I think back to the meeting that Franklin was having with some parlimentarians, and it was commented by a scholar that he went into the meeting as an Englishman, and came out as an American. The meeting was obstensibly suppose to be about reconciling the colonies as extensions of the empire, and thus worthy of representation in parliment. However, the treatment therein was less than ideal.
Also, if we look at the way the colonies were set up, much like Australia later on, the America's were a convienent dumping ground for the malcontents, unemployed, the irritators, and the religious sepratists.
Given that the Eastern seaboard, from north to south, was colonized by various groups, Puritans up north, Catholics just wee north, business anglicans in Virginia, and in the Carolina's I can see the mash of confusing dynamics.
I think I'll have to do some more reading in this area...I've forgotten so much.

mike said...

Well, they did learn some lessons, but in tactics, not in politics.

Case in point from my favorite theory which my lone Brit acquaintance tells me is harebrained:

The Duke of Wellington used lessons learned from the American Revolutionary war during his peninsular campaign. These included:
* a few specialized rifle units used as skirmishers interspersed throughout the rarmy, the bulk of which carried muskets;
* targeting of French officers and NCOs by those riflemen;
* close coordination with and use of Spanish guerrillas
* several lines of defense with the first manned with irregulars falling back a la the Battle of Cowpens to lure the attacking force;
* and I am forgetting a few others, will have to hit the bookcase.

Yes - I know the Duke did not enter the British army until several years after the treaty of Paris as an 18-year old ensign. But as a junior officer and later as a field grade he served with many veterans of that war, including Cornwallis.

FDChief said...

Mike: Agree with your comment re: the British and light infantry but the guy you're looking for is Sir John Moore. Moore started his career in America, served in New England and then in the Carolinas. It was his training in Shorncliffe Camp in 1803 that started the British light infantry (including the Rifle) regiments. He took that experience to Spain in 1808 and it helped him win the Battle of Corunna.

Arthur Wellesly was a pretty smart guy, but he was gifted the light infantry organization and tactics by Moore - and, admittedly, used it brilliantly.

mike said...

Chief -

Well I never liked the Duke anyway. But my point was not that the Duke himself learned the lessons taught to the Brits by Morgan, Stark. Greene and others. And I will cheer for General Moore as a Scot and because my sweet grandma's maiden name was Moore.

But on the whole, I have to think that the lessons learned were never part of a formal process back then. And probably never learned by General Moore as his only experience in America was the Penobscot Expedition which was an American disaster and mostly a Brit naval victory. Although I did admire Moore's depiction in the fictional novels about Sharpe.

I would vote for another Scot though, Billy Stewart, for introducing riflemen into the Brit Army. He did not have any experience in America but was a devoted student of weapons. It was he who was the champion of and the first commander of the Experimental Corps of Rifles. Although they say he was a terrible general.

And I note that Wiki claims Stewart got his ideas for riflemen by observing Tyrolean and Croat light infantry with rifles when he was an observer with the Austrian Army - I call BS on that. He and many like him got those ideas at their regimental mess during bull sessions with older vets who had served at Saratoga or Cowpens or Guilford Courthouse or .....

mike said...

PS - It was Arthur Wesley - the Wellesley name came later when he and his brothers decided to gentrify.

mike said...

PPS - Sir John Moore I believe also served under Cornwallis during the Irish Rebellion. The Brits really used Roman COIN techniques there - Lord Corny was not taking any chances of another Yorktown.

FDChief said...

mike: My understanding is that Moore went south with Cornwallis and ended up @ Yorktown, so I'm guessing he knew at least secondhand about the rifles at Cowpens and such.

But I also thin that you're right in that Moore didn't just pull his ideas out of his ass. The idea of light troops, rifle-armed troops, must have impressed itself deeply on the Revolution generation of officers. And seeing what happened to the Fredrician linear armies of Europe at the hands of the French revolutionaries with their clouds of skirmishers...well, a bunch of Brits; Moore, Stewart, and others must have had (an) "a-ha" moment(s)...

mike said...

You are probably correct. Some companies of his regiment (82nd Foot) served at Guilford Courthouse and were with Lord Corny at his surrender in Yoktown. But I thought that Moore stayed with his Brigadier in Halifax. His bios seem inconclusive IMHO. Do you have a specific reference?

In any case, I would love to get a copy of JFC Fuller's book: Sir John Moore's System of Training which I understand is long out of print.

rangeragainstwar said...

To All,
Sheer- you called the Brown Bess a rifle and later a musket. It was a musket/unrifled. You know this but i wanted to clarify the point.
The American long rifle generally fired a lighter patched ball that adhered to the rifling and increased velocity and accuracy but didn't add much to Knock down power. The accurate range was closer to 100 meters.
The Brown Bess threw a heavier slug /non-patched with greater knock down factor.Big bullet-big punch very similar to todays shotgun pumpkin ball. These had better sustained fire rates and were better for rapid massed fires. These guns didn't even have rudimentary sights- it was all volume of fire and follow up with cold steel which the colonial rifles lacked since they had no bayonet lugs. In addition it's harder to load a bayonet equipped rifle because of the need to ram the patched ball home. The BB could seat a charge by hitting it on the ground to seat the charge and the projectile and also required less training.
Interestingly with all the history outlined in this fine article and discussion the US adopted unrifled muskets for our Army, there were a few exceptions but i speak largely.
Fine discussion- I learned a lot.

FDChief said...

Jim: Good points on the Penna. rifle vs. musket. My understanding is that a good British line trooper could fire up to two shots a minute by just slamming the butt on the ground to seat the ball.

Everything I've read suggests that many of the American militiamen along the Battle Road DID have bayonets - their armory was designed to equip them for a regular war against the French or their Indian allies. But I would agree with you that there's a difference between having a bayonet and USING a bayonet. The Americans militia didn't practice with it and didn't like either to use it or to face it - that was the genius of Morgan's tactics at Cowpens; he let his militamen fire their volleys (which they could do and do well) and then skedaddle before the British and Loyalist regulars closed with the bayonet (which ensured that the militia actually retreated and not routed).

Frankly, I'm with them - I'll shoot all day, the larger the barrel the better - but cold steel does something to me and not in a good way.

FDChief said...

mike: Unsure about Moore's movements after Penobscot - let me check further.

And I'd love to get my hands on the Fuller book. In college I worked my way though most of his "History of the British Army". Fucking incredible work of military history.

rangeragainstwar said...

To all,
The National Rifleman has a great article this month on the rifleman of the revolution by John Plaster .It's instructive for this art., I saw it at the library this weekend. And no I do not belong to the NRA!

rangeragainstwar said...

You can seat a bullet in the PA/Kentucky rifle also by slamming it on the ground and using the ball unpatched-this decreases accuracy and velocity but adds to the volume of fire.This is important when using massed formations. My point is that it's extremely difficult to ram a patched ball home when the bayonet is mounted on the weapon. There's a lot of force req'd and especially if the weapon is dirty from repeated shooting. In short, the bayonet is better for smooth bore muzzleloaders, this consideration is lost on most of us used to breachloaders

mike said...

Chief -

It was $225 at Alibris books - too rich for my blood. And the nearest libraries that I could find that had a copy were Frazer U. in British Columbia or UC Davis in Cal.

Lisa said...


I am always intimidated by your analyses, but I do get to them.

First let me say your ending was chilling, the analogy quite apt. So very many similarities to our current wars. They both seem no-win situations and very sad.

As you state, "To both sides, it must sometimes have seemed like a malignant dream." I do not understand how the line of enforcing occupation (surely how the rebel colonists saw the English at that point) can be held while also maintaining the favor of the subdued peoples.

I enjoy the way you explain the failures and critical junctures. as always, as learn a lot. Thanks.

Lisa said...

Re. my last garbled sentence, "I learn a lot." [Like I say, it's time for me to get on a better sleep regimen :)]

FDChief said...

Jim: hat tip for the link - I'll check it out.

I, too, love my rifle. But I loathe the moron-level politics of the NRA.

Lisa: Ta.

"...the line of enforcing occupation can be held while also maintaining the favor of the subdued peoples."And, as always, you strike to the heart of the contradiction that is "counterinsurgency". COIN has always seemed to me the politico-military equivalent of the "Mommy Dearest" school of parenting: we will hold you and cuddle you until you do something we don't like, at which time we'll snatch you out of your bed and beat you while screaming insanely wearing a cold-cream night mask.

Occupation by foreign troops will always be resisted in some form, from resentment and dissatisfaction to violent rebellion except in places and cases where the locals have made their own lives so utterly hellish that they welcome something, anything that will save them from themselves.

But once the place has started to get back on its feet, or as in the case of the American colonies where it was never so devastated, the external policeman is going to become an enemy. Not for no reason did Washington not apply to his former ally and comrade-in-arms Rochambeau for troops to put down Shay's and the Whiskey Rebellions.

A "government" that needs foreign troops to rule its own people has already lost what in China we like to call the "Mandate of Heaven".

Lisa said...

I like your analogy to "Mommy Dearest" -- that's it!

Re.: "A 'government' that needs foreign troops to rule its own people has already lost what in China we like to call the 'Mandate of Heaven'" --

again, a perfect analogy from today to the colonies. For the colonists, having the Hessian mercenaries was a bridge too far, so I understand.