History buffs have a treat in The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson, the author of, among others, the Pulitzer Prize-winning An Army at Dawn (2002), that kicked off a trilogy about World War II.
His latest book, The British Are Coming, is the first volume in a planned trilogy on the American Revolution. It became a best seller when it was released last spring — for good reason: Atkinson brings to life the first 21 months of the epic conflict with vivid details and personal stories about both legendary figures such as George Washington and Samuel Adams (the founding father “often stood on his toes when excited,” the author writes), and ordinary people in an almost cinematic way.
As a New York Times reviewer put it, “To say that Atkinson can tell a story is like saying Sinatra can sing.”
The British Are Coming is now available in paperback; read or listen (with narration by George Newbern) to the first chapter, below.
Text (c) 2019 by Rick Atkinson; Production (p) 2019 by Macmillan Audio
God Himself Our Captain
Boston, March 6 - April 17, 1775
The mildest winter in living memory had yielded to an early spring. Not once had the Charles River iced over, and even now whispers of green could be seen on the Common sward and across the tumbling hills to the north. By reducing the need for rewood, this “extraordinary weather for warlike preparations,” as one pugnacious clergyman called it, had preserved Boston from even greater suffering in the nine months since British warships had closed the port. Still, warehouses stood vacant, shipyards idle, wharves deserted, shop shelves barren. The only topsail vessels in view were the eight Royal Navy men-of-war plugging the harbor approaches. “It is now a very gloomy place, the streets almost empty,” a woman wrote an English friend in early March 1775. “Many families have removed from it, & the inhabitants are divided. ... Some appear desponding, others full of rage.”
Only a bountiful local crop of lambs and charity from other colonies preserved Boston from hunger: fish and flour from elsewhere in New England, rice from the Carolinas, rye from Baltimore, a thousand bushels of wheat from Quebec, cash from Delaware and Montreal. By British decree, provisions arriving by sea were unloaded in Marblehead and carted twenty miles to Boston, an expensive, tedious detour. Town selectmen launched projects to employ the unemployed — street paving, well digging, building a new brickyard. But gangs of idle sailors, longshoremen, ropemakers, riggers, and carpenters could often be found loitering by the docks or in the town's ninety taverns.
Even in better days, Boston had known ample misery — smallpox and measles epidemics, Quaker and witch hangings. For the past three decades the population had stagnated at fifteen thousand people, all of them wedged into a pear-shaped, thousand-acre peninsula with seventeen churches, no banks, no theaters, and a single concert hall, in a room above a shop. Puritan severity was not far removed. A generation earlier, both actors and theatergoers could be fined for “immorality, impiety, and a contempt for religion"; other miscreants were branded alphabetically —"A” for adulterers, “B” for burglars, “F” for forgers. Counterfeiters who escaped a scorching “C” might be nailed to the pillory by their ears. But never had the town seemed more abject or more menacing; these days there were as many British soldiers in Boston as adult male civilians. One resident watching the regiments at drill lamented that the Common “glows with warlike red.”
On Monday morning, March 6, the “gloomy place” abruptly sprang to life. Hundreds and then thousands filled the streets, most of them walking, since by ordinance no carriage or wagon could be driven at speeds faster than “foot pace” without risk of a ten-shilling fine. The annual commemoration of the 1770 Boston Massacre would be held a day late this year to avoid profaning the Sabbath, and Dr. Joseph Warren, a prominent local physician, intended to deliver a speech titled “The Baleful Influence of Standing Armies in Time of Peace.” An “immense concourse of people,” as one witness described it, made for Milk and Marlborough Streets, where an octagonal steeple rose 180 feet above the Old South Meeting House, with its distinctive Flemish-bond brick walls, enormous clock, and split-banner weathervane. By eleven a.m., five thousand packed the place to the double rafters and cambered tie beams. More than a hundred box pews filled Old South's floor, with high paneled sides to block chilly drafts and wooden writing arms for those inclined to take notes on the day's sermon. An upper gallery with benches wrapped around the second floor. Between the arched compass-headed windows rose a high pulpit, now draped in black and crowned with a sounding board.
"People's expectations are alive for the oration,” the lawyer John Adams had recently written. An uneasy murmur rose from the congregants, along with the smell of damp wool, perspiration, and badly tanned shoe leather. It was rumored that mass arrests were likely this morning, and that British officers had agreed that if the king were insulted they would draw swords and slaughter the offenders. “We may possibly be attacked in our trenches,” Samuel Adams had warned, and a witness reported that almost every man in attendance “had a short stick, or bludgeon in his hand.” The murmur in Old South grew louder when several dozen red-coated officers clumped through the door and stood in the aisles.
Samuel Adams was ready for them. An undistinguished petty official who had squandered a family malthouse fortune, Adams ran an impressive political organization, deftly shaping public opinion through a newspaper syndicate that for years had told other colonies — often with lurid hyperbole — what life was like in a free town occupied by combat troops.
"He eats little, drinks little, sleeps little, thinks much,” an adversary later wrote, “and is most decisive and indefatigable.” Now fifty-two and afflicted with a pronounced tremor in his head and hands, he often stood on his toes when excited, and surely he was on his toes now. He quickly cleared the front pews and beckoned the officers so that, as he later explained, they “might have no pretense to behave ill.” About forty eventually took seats on the forward benches or the pulpit stairs, while Adams settled into a deacon's chair, within sword thrust.
The crowd hushed when Dr. Warren appeared at the pulpit after sidling through the congested aisles. He was handsome and young, just thirty-three, pitied for having recently lost his wife, who'd left him four young children, yet much admired for his kindness, grace, and medical skill; more than a few of those in the audience had been inoculated by him during the smallpox outbreak a decade before. He was also a ringleader. As chairman of the extralegal Committee of Safety, he proved to be a capable organizer and insurgent strategist. John Adams, the previous day, had praised his “undaunted spirit and fire.”
Later accounts would depict Warren wearing a white toga over his breeches, symbolic of antique virtues — simplicity, industry, probity, civic good over private interest. Although the doctor was likely dressed more conventionally, he did affect what was described as a “Demosthenian posture,” with a handkerchief in his right hand, as he addressed “my ever honored fellow citizens":
Unhappily for us, unhappily for Britain, the madness of an avaricious minister ... has brought upon the stage discord, envy, hatred, and revenge, with civil war close in their rear. ... Our streets are again filled with armed men. Our harbor is crowded with ships of war. But these cannot intimidate us. Our liberty must be preserved. It is far dearer than life.
Warren invoked the long struggle to carve a country from the New England wilderness. He described Britain's recent efforts to assert hegemony over that country, and the shootings five years before that left “the stones bespattered with your father's brains.” Then came the Coercive Acts, insult upon injury. “Our wish is that Britain and the colonies may, like the oak and the ivy, grow and increase in strength together,” Warren said. “But if these pacific measures are ineffectual, and it appears that the only way to safety is through fields of blood, I know you will not turn your faces from your foes.”
Several British officers hissed and rapped their sticks on the floor in disapproval. A captain sitting on the pulpit steps allegedly held up several lead bullets in his open palm, a menacing gesture.
Although one skeptic would describe the oration as “true puritanical whine,” Dr. Warren knew his audience: farmers and merchants, seamen and artisans, with their queued hair, knee buckles, and linen shirts ruffled at the cuff, their pale, upturned faces watching him intently. They were a borderland people, living on the far rim of empire, where in six or seven generations the American clay had grown sturdy and tall. They were patriots — if that term implied political affiliation rather than a moral state of grace — who were disputatious and litigious, given to violence on the frontier and in the street: a gentle people they were not. Their disgruntlement now approached despair, with seething resentments and a conviction that designing, corrupt men in London — the king's men, if not the king himself — conspired to deprive them of what they and their ancestors had wrenched from this hard land. They were, a Boston writer concluded, “panting for an explosion.”
Reasonably democratic, reasonably egalitarian, wary of privilege and outsiders, they were accustomed to tending their own affairs, choosing their own ministers, militia officers, and political leaders. Convinced that their elected assemblies were equal in stature and authority to Parliament, they believed that governance by consent was paramount. They had not consented to being taxed, to being occupied, to seeing their councils dismissed and their port sealed like a graveyard crypt. They were godly, of course, placed here by the Almighty to do His will. Sometimes political strife was also a moral contest between right and wrong, good and evil. This struggle, as the historian Gordon S. Wood later wrote, would prove their blessedness.
Warren circled round to that very point:
Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful, but we have many friends, determining to be free. ... On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.
Applause rocked Old South. One British lieutenant would denounce “a most seditious, inflammatory harangue,” although another concluded that the speech “contained nothing so violent as was expected.” Swords remained sheathed. But when Samuel Adams heaved himself from his chair to move that “the thanks of the town should be presented to Dr. Warren for his elegant and spirited oration,” the officers answered with more hisses, more stick rapping, and shouts of “Oh, fie! Fie!”
That was but a consonant removed from “fire.” Panic swept the meetinghouse, “a scene of the greatest confusion imaginable,” Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie told his diary. Women shrieked, men shouted, “Fire!,” sniffing for smoke. Others thought a command to shoot had been issued, an error compounded by the trill and rap of fifes and drums from the 43rd Regiment, which happened to be passing in the street outside. Five thousand people tried “getting out as fast as they could by the doors and windows,” wrote Lieutenant John Barker of the 4th Regiment of Foot. The nimbler congregants in the galleries “swarmed down gutters like rats,” then hied through Coopers Alley, Cow Lane, and Queen Street.
A tense calm finally returned to a tense town. “To be sure,” Ensign Jeremy Lister of the 10th Foot later wrote, “the scene was quite laughable.”
Across the street from Old South, in the three-story brick mansion called Province House, Lieutenant General Gage was not laughing. Worried that the morning's oration would turn violent, he had placed his regiments under arms and on alert. The risible stampede came as a relief.
Thomas Gage was a mild, sensible man with a mild, sensible countenance; only a slight protrusion of his lower lip suggested truculence. Now in his mid-fifties, with thinning gray hair and a fixed gaze, he was the most powerful authority in North America as both military commander in chief and the royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Comrades knew him as “Honest Tom,” and even an adversary conceded that he was “a good and wise man surrounded with difficulties.” As a young officer he had seen ghastly combat in the British defeat by the French at Fontenoy in 1745 and in the British victory over rebellious Highlanders at Culloden a year later. In 1755, he led the vanguard of General Edward Braddock's expedition against the French in western Pennsylvania, where a disastrous ambush at the Monongahela River killed his commander and several hundred comrades; swarming bullets grazed Gage's belly and eyebrow, ventilated his coat, and twice wounded his horse. Three years later, Gage was a senior commander when the French battered a British expedition in New York at Fort Carillon, subsequently renamed Ticonderoga. These actions revealed a soldier without conspicuous gifts as a combat leader, a man perhaps meant to administer rather than command. It was Gage's misfortune to live in turbulent times.
Even so, twenty years of American service had been good to him, providing Gage with high rank, a comely American wife — the New Jersey heiress Margaret Kemble — and vast tracts of land in New York, Canada, and the West Indies. He evinced little sympathy for American political experiments. “Democracy is too prevalent in America,” he had declared in 1772, when his headquarters was in New York.
The tea party had pushed his lower lip out a bit more. In an uncharacteristic fit of bravado during a return visit to London in February 1774, he assured King George that four regiments in Boston should suffice — perhaps two thousand men — since the Americans would be “lions whilst we are lambs” but would turn “very meek” in the face of British resolve. Other colonies were unlikely to support Massachusetts; southerners especially “talk very high,” but the fear of slave rebellions and Indian attacks “will always keep them quiet.” The thirteen colonies seemed too geographically scattered and too riven by diverse interests to collaborate effectively. Promises of suppression on the cheap appealed to the shilling pinchers in Lord North's government. Gage's views had also helped shape the Coercive Acts by feeding the pleasant delusion in Britain that insurrection was mostly a Boston phenomenon, organized by a small cabal of ambitious cynics able to gull the masses.
Gage's report so encouraged the king and his court that the general was dispatched to Massachusetts as both governor of the colony and military chief of the continent. Respectful Bostonians had greeted him with an honor guard, banners, and toasts in Faneuil Hall, although two weeks later he shifted his headquarters to Salem, upon closing Boston Harbor at noon on June 1, 1774. His marching orders from the government urged him “to quiet the minds of the people, to remove their prejudices, and, by mild and gentle persuasion to induce ... submission on their part.” He imposed neither martial law nor press censorship. Troublemakers were permitted to assemble, to travel, to drill their militias, to fling bellicose insults at the king's regulars.
Gage had evidently learned little on the Monongahela or at Fort Carillon about the hazard of underestimating his adversaries; precisely what he had absorbed from two decades in America was unclear. But within weeks of planting his flag in Salem, he recognized that he had misjudged both the depth and the breadth of rebellion. The Coercive Acts, including the abrogation of colonial government in Massachusetts, had inflamed the insurrection. One ugly incident followed another. In mid-August, fifteen hundred insurgents prevented royal judges and magistrates from taking the bench in Berkshire County in western Massachusetts. Two weeks later, Gage sent foot troops to seize munitions from the provincial powder house, six miles northwest of Boston; rumors spread that the king's soldiers and sailors were butchering Bostonians. At least twenty thousand rebels marched toward the town with relocks, cudgels, and plowshares beaten into edged weapons. “For about fifty miles each way round, there was an almost universal ferment, rising, seizing arms,” wrote one clergyman. An Irish merchant described how “at every house women & children [were] making cartridges” and pouring molten lead into bullet molds. The insurgents found Boston unbruised and the British regulars back in their fortified camps, but the “Powder Alarm” emboldened the Americans, demonstrated the militancy of bumpkins in farms and villages across the colony, and revealed how crippled the Crown's authority had become. “Popular rage has appeared,” Gage advised London.
Additional episodes followed. More than four thousand militiamen lined the main street in Worcester in early September, closing the royal courts and requiring two dozen officials to walk a quarter-mile gantlet, hats in hand, each recanting his loyalty to the Crown thirty times, aloud. A Massachusetts Provincial Congress convened in Salem in early October 1774 to elect the wealthy merchant John Hancock as president — a vain, petulant “empty barrel,” in John Adams's estimation. Of more than two hundred Massachusetts communities, only twenty-one failed to send delegates. Like similar congresses soon established in other colonies, this extralegal assembly acted as a provisional government to circumvent British authority by passing resolutions, collecting revenue, and coordinating colonial affairs with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Amassing military supplies and making other martial preparations were entrusted to the Committee of Safety, led by Dr. Warren. Such committees in Massachusetts and other colonies enforced loyalty oaths, stigmatized ideological opponents, and compelled fence straddlers to make hard choices. In December, rebel raiders seized forty-four British cannons on Fort Island in Rhode Island. Two days later, several hundred men stormed a fortress in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, overpowered the six-man garrison, snatched nearly a hundred barrels of powder from the magazine, and lowered the British flag. A day later they returned to haul away sixteen cannons and sixty muskets.
Fearing for his own safety, Gage had abandoned Salem for Province House in Boston in late summer. Set back from Marlborough Street, with broad stone steps and the royal coat of arms affixed over the front door, the house featured wall tapestries, an iron fence, and ancient shade trees. Atop the eight-sided cupola swiveled a weathervane of hammered copper — a glass-eyed Indian in a feathered bonnet, drawing his bow and “bedazzling the eyes of those who looked upward, like an angel of the sun,” as a local author named Nathaniel Hawthorne would later write.
From his high-ceilinged study, Gage had sent a volley of gloomy dispatches to London that fall. “Civil government is near its end,” he warned in September, revoking his earlier optimism. “Conciliating, moderation, reasoning is over. Nothing can be done but by forcible means.” To Lord Dartmouth, the colonial secretary, he expressed shock “that the country people could have been raised to such a pitch of phrenzy.” American farmers for the past decade had generally been more restrained than their urban brethren in protesting British rule, but they now seemed just as bellicose; the imperial insult of closing the Boston port had proved especially offensive to them. Militia companies were training intensely; some had formed quick-reaction units called “minute men,” who reportedly carried their muskets even to church. The “disease” of insurrection, Gage wrote, had become “so universal there is no knowing where to apply a remedy.” Connecticut had ordered six militia regiments equipped for active service. Companies were drilling in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and every county in Virginia was said to be arming soldiers. In obedience to the Continental Congress's declared boycott of British goods, thousands of provincials would soon serve on local committees throughout the colonies, enforcing the ban and rooting out “enemies of American liberty” with threats, public scoldings, and violence. As local assemblies and committees of safety grew stronger, royal governors grew weaker. To Barrington, the secretary at war, Gage pleaded in November, “If you think ten thousand men sufficient, send twenty. If one million is thought enough, give two. You will save both blood and treasure in the end.”
Perhaps, he advised London, the Coercive Acts should be lifted as a conciliatory gesture. The king, appalled, replied that the “idea of suspending the acts appears to me the most absurd that can be suggested.” Lord North insisted that “the acts must and should be carried into execution.” While the government assembled reinforcements for Boston, including more generals, Gage's reputation sagged. There was muttering in England about the “lukewarm coward” in Massachusetts. His king referred to him as “the mild general,” and his own soldiers now called him “Old Woman” behind his back. A senior officer concluded that “his disposition and manners are too gentle for the rough, republican fanatic people.” Certainly there would be no more toasts and honor guards from those rough Americans. Instead, Gage effigies burned in bonfires. He was accused of papism, drunkenness, and even pederasty, as in a lewd verse that ended, “I'm informed by the innkeepers, / He'll bung with shoeboys, chimney sweepers.” On the last day of 1774, Barrington wrote, “I pity, dear sir, the situation you are in.”
The new year brought only new troubles. “Every day, every hour, widens the breach,” Dr. Warren warned. On Sunday, February 26, barely a week before the Old South oration, Gage sent 240 regulars by naval transport from Boston across Massachusetts Bay to Marblehead, where they marched in a red column four miles northwest to Salem in search of rebel cannons while most local citizens were in church. A militia colonel burst into the North Meeting House, shouting, “The regulars are coming!” A raised drawbridge over the North River delayed the column; insurgents perched on the uptilted span like roosting chickens as “a vast multitude” soon assembled to heckle the troops as “lobstercoats” and to vow that “if you remain you will all be dead men.” After ninety minutes, a compromise ended the stand-off: the bridge was lowered, the troops tramped across, and after precisely 30 rods — 165 yards — they made a smart about-face, as agreed, and returned to Boston empty-handed. “Go home,” a young nurse named Sarah Tarrant barked from an open window, and “tell your master he has sent you on a fool's errand.”
Gage could only agree. His governance reached no farther than could be seen through the glass eyes of the weathervane Indian above him, and his command was limited to the troops assembled within the sound of his voice on the Common. He expected imminent orders from London “to act offensively” since, as he readily acknowledged, “to keep quiet in the town of Boston only will not terminate affairs. The troops must march into the country.” But in a dispatch written in early March, he warned the government of insurgent legions “actuated by an enthusiasm wild and ungovernable.” American “bushmen,” he added, had demonstrated “their patience and cunning in forming ambushments.”
London promised to send him a hospital, “on a large scale.”
The six weeks following Dr. Warren's oration were suffused with “dread suspense,” as the Reverend William Emerson of Concord later wrote. Yet daily life plodded on. Goods smuggled or stockpiled before the port closing could be found for a price, including candles for five shillings a pound in the Faneuil Hall market, along with indigo and a few hogsheads of sugar. Greenleaf's Auction Room sold German serges, Irish linens, and Kippen's snuff by the cask. Harbottle Dorr's shop in Union Street advertised spades, Smith's anvils, and brass kettles, “none of which have been imported since the port was shut up.” A vendor near Swing Bridge offered fish hooks, cod lines, and “nails of all sorts.” With spring coming on fast, W. P. Bartlett's shop in Salem sold seeds for crimson radishes, yellow Spanish onions, tennisball lettuce, and several kinds of peas, including black-eyed, sugar, blue union, and speckled. “Choice cayenne cocoa” could be found on Hancock's Wharf, and pearl dentifrice — reputedly invented by the queen's dentist “for the preservation of the teeth” — was peddled in a shop on Ann Street. The London Book-Store in Cornhill, owned by gregarious young Henry Knox, offered lottery tickets and globes showing the reach of that empire on which the sun never set. For four pence on Marlborough Street, those desperate to glimpse a brighter tomorrow could buy a calculator that displayed the projected annual increase of colonial populations in America.
Auction houses sold the furniture of distraught residents determined to move — to England, to Halifax, deeper into New England, or just away. Mahogany tables, featherbeds, and looking glasses went for a song. For those who preferred to dance away their troubles, an unlikely new school in Boston offered lessons in minuets, hornpipes, and English country steps “in the most improved taste.” The Boston Gazette, known to loyalists as “the Weekly Dung Barge,” reminded readers that lofty talk of freedom had limits: a March 6 advertisement touted “a healthy Negro girl, about 20 years of age. . . . She is remarkably good-natured and fond of children. . . . Her price is £40.” Another ad offered a reward for a runaway “servant for life,” using the Massachusetts euphemism for a slave; this one, named Caesar, “is supposed to be strolling about in some of the neighboring towns. Walks lame and talks much of being free. . . . Had on when he went away a blue jacket.” A Boston ordinance required the night watch “to take up all Negroes, Indians, and mulatto slaves that may be absent from their master's house after nine o'clock at night,” unless they carried a lighted lantern and could account for themselves.
Freeholders gathered for meetings, as usual, in Faneuil Hall. The town agreed to borrow £600 to buy grain for the almshouse poor. A report in late March noted that thirty-eight smallpox patients were quarantined on a hospital scow in the Charles River, “some distance from the wharf.” Freeholders voted to continue a recent ban on inoculation; many now feared that it posed a greater risk of epidemic than natural infection. Any household with sick inhabitants was required to display a large red flag on a six-foot pole or incur a £50 fine. For those intent on inoculation, newspapers advertised the services of a private hospital in New York.
Friction between patriots and loyalists intensified. Hundreds of Tories, as they often were called with a sneer, arrived from the provinces to seek the king's protection in Boston. The “once happy town” was now “a cage for every unclean bird,” in Mrs. Samuel Adams's estimation. “Humbling the Tories” had become a blood sport in Massachusetts Bay, with excrement smeared on houses or dumped through open windows, with severed sheep's heads tossed into open chaises, or with loyalists locked in smokehouses — the chimney flues obstructed — until they renounced the Crown. A tavern keeper in South Danvers was forced to recite in public, “I, Isaac Wilson, a Tory I be, / I, Isaac Wilson, I sells tea.” A radical Presbyterian cleric thanked God from the pulpit for “sufficient hemp in the colonies to hang all the Tories,” while a loyalist woman hoped someday soon to be riding through rebel blood to the hubs of her carriage wheels. Small wonder that a Falmouth minister believed the colony was suffering “a discontent bordering on madness.”
A Calvinist people marinated in the doctrine of predestination braced for the inevitable, and preparations for war continued apace. Clandestine military cargo had arrived all winter from Hamburg, Holland, even London, smuggled through a hundred coves and stored in a thousand barns. The Simsbury Iron Works in Connecticut cast cannonballs. Salem women secretly cut and stitched five thousand flannel powder cartridges for field guns. The provincial congress, meeting first in Cambridge and then in Concord, ordered enough military stores amassed for fifteen thousand militiamen: canteens, bell tents, field tents, Russian linen, wooden spoons. By April, the provincial stockpile included 21,549 relocks, nine tons of gunpowder, eleven tons of cannonballs, ten thousand bayonets, 145,000 flints. Fifteen medicine chests, purchased for £500 from Boston apothecaries, contained opium, liquid laudanum, emetics, mercurial ointments, tourniquets, and a trepan for boring holes in a skull to relieve pressure from an injured brain. Dr. Warren would distribute the chests among seven towns by mid-April, including two sent to Concord.
Farm carts hauled ammunition and powder kegs down country lanes, to be hidden in attics or buried in new-plowed furrows, along with those radish and onion seeds. British soldiers searching a countryman's wagon in mid-March seized more than a ton of musket balls and over thirteen thousand musket cartridges stacked in candle boxes; the teamster insisted that the munitions were for his private use. But most shipments went undiscovered. In Concord a militia colonel, James Barrett, listed more than three dozen caches in his notebooks — including rice, ammunition, axes, oatmeal, and wood-bladed shovels rimmed with iron shoes. As ordered by the provincial Committee of Supply, he appointed “faithful men” to guard the stocks, with teams ready “by day and night, on the shortest notice” to haul the matériel away as required.
The provincial congress also chose five militia generals and approved a system for alerting the colony with mounted couriers in moments of peril. Several dozen articles of war were adopted; the first two required soldiers to attend church and to avoid profane oaths, with a fine of four shillings per cuss for officers, less for privates. Virtually every white male from sixteen to sixty in Massachusetts was required to serve under arms. “The parson as well as the squire stands in the ranks with a relock,” a Boston merchant wrote. Instead of exercising once every three months, many companies now met three times a week. An Essex County militia colonel, Timothy Pickering, simplified the manual of arms with his Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia, which would be widely adopted. Muskets could be primed and loaded with one order and ten motions. “Lean the cheek against the butt of the relock,” the Easy Plan instructed. “Shut the left eye, and look with the right along the barrel.”
Each company elected its own officers, but at a militia gathering in March, Reverend Emerson drew from the Second Book of Chronicles to remind the men of Concord who really led them: “Behold, God himself is with us for our captain.”
Boston's natural beauty had once beguiled British soldiers. “The entrance to the harbor, and the view of the town of Boston from it, is the most charming thing I ever saw,” an officer wrote home in 1774. That enchantment had faded by the spring of 1775. “No such thing as a play house,” a lieutenant in the 23rd Foot complained. “They [are] too puritanical to admit such lewd diversions, though there's perhaps no town of its size could turn out more whores than this could.” A captain in the 38th Foot told his brother in Ireland, “The people here and we are on bad terms, ready to cut one another's throats.” Small insults bred seething resentments. All it took was an overbearing British customs official, mud flung at a fusilier on the street, or a fist fight over a girl between a “Jonathan” — a rebellious American, in British slang — and a lobstercoat.
A Royal Navy officer described seeing miniature effigies of British soldiers hanging by nooses from roadside trees, each wearing a tiny red coat. In March, a marine lieutenant reported how passing Bostonians made coarse gestures with their hands on their backsides. For their part, devout colonists resented regulars dishonoring the Sabbath by ice-skating across a Roxbury pond; they also loathed British Army profanity, which dated at least to the Hundred Years’ War, when English bowmen were known as “Goddams.” Major John Pitcairn, the marine commander in Boston, advised the Admiralty in March, “One active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights. Nothing now, I am convinced, but this will ever convince these foolish bad people that England is in earnest.”
The British garrison now exceeded five thousand, of whom more than four-fifths were soldiers, gunners, and marines in thirteen regiments. They crowded every corner of the town: artillerymen billeted in warehouses on Griffin's Wharf, the 4th Regiment of Foot — known as the King's Own — in a vacant distillery in West Boston, the 64th Foot in Castle William on a harbor island, the 43rd Foot on Back Street. Troops drilled in Brattle Square and on the Common, throwing stones to drive away the cows and avoiding the burial ground that held the graves of a hundred comrades dead from disease and mischance. Regiments took target practice on the wharves, six to ten rounds for each soldier, firing at river flotsam or at man-size figures cut from thin boards. A physician visiting from Virginia told his diary of watching light infantry exercises in late March, “young active fellows” who loaded relocks while lying on their backs, then flipped over to fire from their bellies. “They run out in parties on the wings of the regiment,” he added. “They secure their retreat & defend their front while they are forming.”
Ugly encounters between Jonathans and lobstercoats multiplied. Officers mocked the Old South oration with a parody delivered from a coffee-house balcony in “the most vile, profane, blackguard language,” a witness reported. In mid-March, soldiers from the King's Own pitched tents within ten yards of a meetinghouse and played drums and fifes throughout the worship service; troops later vandalized John Hancock's elegant house facing the Common. A peddler from Billerica named Thomas Ditson, Jr., who was accused by British soldiers of trying to buy old uniforms and a musket from the 47th Regiment, was stripped, tarred, feathered, and paraded from Foster's Wharf through King Street while a fifer played “The Rogue's March.” A placard labeled “american liberty” was draped around his neck. “It gave great offense to the people of the town,” a British officer wrote, “and was much disapproved of by General Gage.”
The indiscipline of a bored, anxious army weighed on Gage. Gambling had become so pernicious that he imposed wager limits and established the Anti-Gambling Club. Worse still was inebriation in a town awash with cheap liquor. Regulars preferred West Indies rum, although it was often contaminated with lead, but 140 American distilleries also produced almost five million gallons a year, which sold for less than two shillings a gallon. “The rum is so cheap that it debauches both navy and army, and kills many of them,” Major Pitcairn, the marine, warned the Admiralty in March. “It will destroy more of us than the Yankees will.” A soldier caught trading his musket for a jug of New England Kill-Devil could draw five hundred lashes with a nine-cord cat, enough to lay bare the ribs and kidneys. Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Foot — the Royal Welch Fusiliers — recorded in his diary that many men “are intoxicated daily” and that two had died of alcohol poisoning in a single night. “When the soldiers are in a state of intoxication,” he added, “they are frequently induced to desert.”
And desert they did. Drunk or sober, redcoats were lured by Americans who offered farm-smock disguises, escape horses, and three hundred acres to any absconding regular. Estimates of British Army desertions over the past year ranged from 120 to more than 200. Five-guinea rewards were advertised by company officers in the Boston Post-Boy for the likes of Private Will Gibbs, “about 5 feet 7 inches high, and of a fair complexion,” last seen wearing a round hat and a brown coat trimmed in blue. The problem was even worse for naval captains: more than twenty thousand British seamen had jumped ship in American ports since early in the century, and nearly another eighty thousand — almost 14 percent of all jack-tars who served — would abscond during the coming war, including those who deserted in home waters. Many had been forced into service by press gangs, while some detested the harsh life at sea; all resented the paltry nineteen shillings a month paid seamen since the reign of Charles II. Boston was particularly notorious for desertion, and the Royal Navy ships now blockading the harbor had remained at anchor through the winter with their gunports caulked and their topmasts housed against the weather, unable to berth for fear of mass defections.
Floggings, and worse, had limited deterrence. Private Valentine Duckett, barely twenty-one, had been sentenced to die after a three-day trial for desertion in the fall. “I am now to finish a life, which by the equitable law of my country, I just forfeited,” he told his comrades while being lashed to a stake on the beach below the Common. A six-man ring squad botched the job even at eight yards’ range, but after a coup de grâce to the head, the entire army was ordered to march “in a slow, solemn step” to view Private Duckett in his coffin. Private William Ferguson of the 10th Foot, a former tailor now dressed in a white shroud, suffered a similar fate on December 24. The execution, a lieutenant observed, was “the only thing done in remembrance of Christmas.” On March 13, Gage commuted the death sentence of Private Robert Vaughan, but after more soldiers deserted the next day, the high command announced that this would be “the last man he will pardon.” Vaughan took advantage of his reprieve to flee again a month later, this time without getting caught.
By contrast, many young British officers hankered for action. Among them was a tall, dark-eyed captain in the King's Own, the eldest son of a vicar from County Antrim. William Glanville Evelyn, now thirty-three and still unmarried, had a shark-fin nose, a dimpled chin, and the faint spatter of smallpox scars across his cheeks. He had soldiered for the king since the age of eighteen and was ever alert for the patron and cash needed to secure his next promotion; most army commissions came with a price tag, ensuring that only the better sort filled the officer ranks. (A lieutenant colonelcy in a foot regiment might cost £3,500.) In one of the sixteen surviving letters he would write from America, Evelyn assured his father that he was “pretty well known” to General Gage and that other senior officers in Boston had been “very civil to me.” The 4th Foot — raised a century earlier and designated the King's Own to honor George I in 1714 — was serving the empire at a critical moment in a vital place. To properly dress the part, Evelyn had asked that a Bedford Street cloth merchant in London send out scarlet, white, and blue material for two new uniforms, plus “the proper quantity of regimental buttons,” a pair of epaulettes, and two hats “with silver buttons.”
Nine months of duty in Boston had showed young Glanville Evelyn that a New England posting was not all hardship and tedium. “We get plenty of turtle, pineapple, and Madeira,” he wrote. “The weather is delightful beyond description.” Yet his contempt for the Americans had increased week by week. “There does not exist so great a set of rascals and poltroons,” he told his father a month after arriving in Boston. By October 1774, he had concluded that “a civil war must inevitably happen in the course of a few months, or Great Britain might forever give up America.” By December he fully shared his government's conviction that “a few enterprising, ambitious demagogues” had incited the insurrection; moreover, he believed that many thousands of loyalists were “inclined to our side,” though they would not “openly declare themselves” until the Crown asserted its full authority. “Never,” he wrote, “did any nation so much deserve to be made an example of to future ages.” As his soldiers practiced their sharpshooting and beat their drums to annoy the Jonathans, Evelyn's greatest worry was that “unsteadiness” in Lord North's ministry might lead to a political settlement that spared the Americans from imperial wrath. “We only fear they will avail themselves of the clemency and generosity of the English,” he wrote a cousin in London, “and evade the chastisement due to unexampled villainy, and which we are so impatiently waiting to inflict.”
With the early arrival of spring, the chances of a pernicious peace faded. Captain Evelyn was glad. Blood had risen in his gorge. “ The hour is now very nigh in which this affair will be brought to a crisis,” he told his father. “The resolutions we expect are by this time upon the water, which are to determine the fate of Great Britain and America. ... We shall shortly receive such orders as will authorize us to scourge the rebellion with rods of iron.”
As usual, he signed his letter, “Yours ever affectionate, W.G.E.”
The expected orders arrived on Friday, April 14, when a burly, flush-faced dragoon captain bounded into Boston from the Nautilus. He had been sent ahead to Massachusetts to buy mounts for his regiment, now following on the high seas from Ireland, but his first task was to deliver a sealed dispatch marked “secret” to Province House. Striding past the budding elms and up the broad front steps beneath the gaze of the copper Indian on the roof, the captain handed over the document, saluted, and wandered off to look at horse flesh.
Upon breaking the seal, Gage found a twenty-four-paragraph letter from Lord Dartmouth, the Psalm Singer, written with the cocksure clarity of a man who slept in his own bed every night three thousand miles from trouble. Drafted on January 27, in consultation with the king and North's cabinet, the order had remained in Dartmouth's desk for weeks while events played out in London, including those futile conversations with Dr. Franklin, Parliament's minuet with the monarch at St. James's Palace, and the introduction of more punitive legislation. Further weeks passed while ill-tempered westerly gales kept Nautilus and her companion sloop Falcon pinned to the south coast of England. But at last the fatal command had arrived:
The violences committed by those who have taken up arms in Massachusetts have appeared to me as the acts of a rude rabble, without concert, without conduct; and therefore I think that a small force now, if put to the test, would be able to conquer them. . . . It is the opinion of the King's servants, in which His Majesty concurs, that the essential step to be taken toward reestablishing government would be to arrest and imprison the principal actors and abettors in the provincial congress, whose proceedings appear in every light to be acts of treason and rebellion.
There was more: reinforcements were en route, though hardly the twenty thousand that Gage thought necessary. Twice Dartmouth conceded that “your own judgment and discretion” must shape any operation; yet, with proper preparation and secrecy, “it can hardly fail of success, and will perhaps be accomplished without bloodshed. . . . Any efforts on their part to encounter a regular force cannot be very formidable.” It was agreed in London that Gage had demonstrated restraint to the point of lamentable indulgence; now he must be firm, come what may. “The king's dignity and the honor and safety of the empire require that in such a situation, force should be repelled by force.”
Although clear enough, this dispatch from Dartmouth was actually a duplicate. The original, with appended documents, was aboard the Falcon, and Gage, ever scrupulous, ever cautious, would await that vessel's arrival in Boston before striking. Meanwhile, there was plenty to do, and orders flew from Province House. Newly repaired navy longboats were to be lashed to the sterns of the Somerset, Boyne, and Asia for quick repositioning. The fortifications at Boston Neck, the slender isthmus leading into the town from Roxbury, would be double-checked for strength and security. Rumors were afoot that insurgents intended to burn Boston before British reinforcements arrived. A moat now stretched across the Neck, filled by each rising tide, and the defenses included a drawbridge, mud breastworks with walls twelve feet thick, wooden blockhouses, and more than twenty cannons.
Gage had no cavalry for a quick, bold strike into the countryside. Few enlisted regulars had ever heard a shot fired in anger, although a substantial number had been in uniform for five to ten years, or longer. The most agile and many of the strongest were grouped into elite light infantry and grenadier companies; regiments usually had one of each, typically with three dozen soldiers apiece. Forced to rely on infantry plodders, Gage ordered these elite troops relieved of their regular duties on Saturday, April 15, and formed into a makeshift brigade with twenty-one companies — eleven of grenadiers and ten of light infantry, some eight hundred men altogether. Gage, the man who had formed the Anti-Gambling Club, was betting that the advantage of concentrating these companies — with their skirmishing skills, marksmanship, and ferocity — would outweigh the disadvantage of severing them from their accustomed regiments and senior officers. Word of this improvisation quickly spread through Boston. “I dare say they have something for them to do,” Lieutenant Barker told his diary.
But what, and where? Small, daylong expeditions had marched beyond Boston repeatedly in recent weeks — five regiments here, two there, trampling grain fields, toppling fences, gathering intelligence, and, not least, spooking the Jonathans. Gage also had dispatched officers “capable of taking sketches of a country.” Dressed in country clothes — the disguises fooled no one — British scouts wandered into Suffolk and Middlesex Counties with instructions to “mark out the roads and distances from town to town.” They also were to note the depth and breadth of rivers, to determine the steepness of creek banks, and to assess whether various churchyards “are advantageous spots to take post in, and capable of being made defensible.”
Gage also had a clandestine espionage network. Through American spies on the British payroll, he knew that militia generals had been appointed. He knew that several dozen men, mostly artisans and mechanics, routinely met at the Green Dragon Tavern, a two-story brick building with symmetrical chimneys, to coordinate surveillance of British troop movements; at each meeting they swore themselves to secrecy on a Bible. Further, Gage had been told that mounted rebel couriers could quickly rouse 7,500 minutemen, and that caches of military stores were hidden in Worcester, Watertown, and other settlements. Even so, he doubted the Americans had a field marshal “capable of taking the command or directing the motions of an army.”
That steady gaze of his had fixed on Concord, said to be the first village founded in Massachusetts Bay “beyond the sight and sound of the sea.” Eighteen miles from Boston and now home to 265 families, it was a place where church attendance was compulsory, where the provincial congress sometimes met, and where, according to Gage's spies, munitions and other war supplies had been secreted in bulk. He even had a hand-drawn map, crude but detailed, showing the houses, outbuildings, and other hiding places where caches could be found.
The Americans, too, had informants. Gage would complain that the rebels collected “good, full, and expeditious intelligence on all matters transacting in England.” Reports sent from London to patriot leaders warned of regiments preparing for deployment and of the blunt new instructions sent Gage. Since early April, many families had fled Boston for country refuges. Among the most prominent patriot leaders, only Dr. Warren remained in town. Samuel Adams and John Hancock had retired to Lexington, east of Concord. The provincial congress adjourned on April 15 for three weeks — entrusting the Committee of Safety to oversee military matters — and various false alarms kept the province on edge. Gage's concentration of longboats, grenadiers, and light infantry companies hardly passed unremarked. “Some secret expedition,” one merchant noted, was no doubt afoot.
On Sunday, April 16, the Falcon glided into Boston Harbor. “In want of many men and stores, and very leaky” after her rough passage, as the Royal Navy reported, the sloop nonetheless carried Dartmouth's original orders. Now Gage could complete his preparations. Using the discretion permitted him, he chose to ignore Dartmouth's proposal of targeting “actors and abettors” like Hancock and Adams; chasing such scoundrels across the province seemed futile, if not capricious. A hard strike against the depot in Concord would be more fruitful, although disappointing late intelligence indicated that the cagey rebels had evacuated at least some military stocks to other sites. Opposition seemed unlikely except perhaps from scattered “parties of bushmen.”
Gage drafted a 319-word order for Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Foot, appointed to lead the strike brigade. If corpulent and edging toward retirement, Smith was mature, experienced, and prudent. He was to march “with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord,” Gage noted, adding,
You will seize and destroy all artillery, ammunition, provisions, tents, small arms, and all military stores whatever. But you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants, or hurt private property.
The map enclosed with the order illustrated Gage's demand that two bridges over the Concord River be secured by an advance “party of the best marchers.” Captured gunpowder and flour were to be dumped into the river, tents burned, salt pork and beef supplies destroyed. Enemy field guns should be spiked or ruined with sledgehammers. The expedition would carry a single day's rations and no artillery; speed and surprise were essential. Sentries on horseback would be positioned to prevent rebel couriers from sounding an alarm.
Gage concluded his order without sentiment: “You will open your business and return with the troops as soon as possible.”
And now, as one loyalist wrote, “The war began to redden. . . . The iron was quite hot enough to be hammered.”
Excerpted from The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, by Rick Atkinson. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Rick Atkinson. All rights reserved.
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