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 Intent” series 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.