The British soldiers who encountered American militiamen at Lexington and Concord may have been surprised by the colonists' fierce opposition. Yet the Redcoats knew of some colonists' increasing ill will toward them. Some of the British leaders had lived in North America for decades. Some had personal connections to colonists. And some had differing theories about how to deal with rebellion, in the years leading up to the conflict.
The Man in Charge
General Thomas Gage, British commander in chief for North America in the years leading up to the Revolution, had long experience of life in the American colonies. Gage came to America in 1754, and rose to his military rank in America in 1763, after fighting in the Seven Years War. During that service he married a beautiful American woman from New Jersey. He was devoted to her. During Britain's conquest of Canada he served as rear guard commander under Lord Jeffrey Amherst, British commander in chief in North America, and later became governor of Montreal. After Amherst returned to England, Gage ascended to the top military post. In 1774, while back in England, Gage heard the news of the Boston Tea Party, and returned to New England, carrying with him the title of governor of Massachusetts.
Too Firm, or Too Lenient?
Gage's domestic agenda was straightforward -- keep the port of Boston closed as punishment for the rebel acts. His governance, however, was limited. Gage commanded all the occupation forces in the city; Samuel Adams was the leader of an illegal Provincial Congress as an alternative government in the countryside. Although Gage had the manpower and firepower to destroy the city at will, he chose to pursue a liberal agenda, allowing the press to insult him, protestors to organize against him, and often deciding clashes between soldier and citizen in favor of the American. His reasons for keeping his four thousand men idle: "If force is to be used at length, it must be a considerable one, and foreign troops must be hired, for to begin with small numbers will encourage resistance, and not terrify; and will in the end cost more blood and treasure." One of his lieutenants, Lord Percy, saw things differently: "The general's great lenity and moderation serve only to make them [the Americans] more daring and insolent."
Nipping Rebellion in the Bud
When the government in Britain ordered him to arrest the leaders of the nascent provincial government, Gage decided on a different strategy. He believed that men could be martyred and replaced, but a lack of ammunition would nip any potential rebellion in the bud. Orders were issued to Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith of the Tenth Regiment of Foot on April 18, 1775.
The Mission: Grab Ammo
Colonel Smith, with Marine Major John Pitcairn, was ordered to march to Concord and destroy or confiscate all of the military supplies that the local militia had stockpiled. Smith was a veteran, cool headed but perhaps too slow to react; Pitcairn was temperamentally his opposite. They commanded about 700 men, grenadiers and light infantry from different companies and therefore from different leadership and who had not worked together. The mixing of troops delayed the march, as the men arranged themselves into a column on the Concord side of the Charles River.
A Decisive Day
Arriving in Lexington, Pitcairn rode to the town green and ordered the minute men assembled there to disperse. A stray shot led to a firefight; to this day, historians debate who fired first. Pitcairn furiously demanded that the British troops cease fire, but was unheard above the din. Smith made his way to the front of the column and found a drummer to beat out the cease fire command, ending the first fracas. The British column marched on. When they got to Concord, Smith kept Pitcairn with him in town, supervising the search for munitions. He left the guarding of the North Bridge to junior officers, who were ineffective when hostilities broke out again. During a chaotic return to Boston, Smith was shot in the leg before his troops were relieved by the appearance of Brigadier General Earl Percy and 1,000 reinforcements.
The Ablest Brit
General Earl Percy was a nobleman who had chosen the military as his career. Lord Percy had used personal wealth to buy his rank, but in the skirmishes of April 19, 1775, he proved to be the ablest British officer on the scene. In assuming command of the retreat, Percy prudently flanked his main column with infantrymen who searched and evacuated houses en route and encircled any snipers waiting in ambush. The British return to safety is largely credited to Percy.
Gage and Smith
Gage suspected, as others have, that his American wife betrayed his confidence to Dr. Joseph Warren and the patriots. The governor sent her back to Britain soon after the battles. Following repeated defeats, Gage lost the respect of his officers and was recalled to England in October, 1775; he died on April 2, 1787, six years after the colonies had secured their independence. Smith kept earning promotions despite his failures in the field. He ignored reports from his men that might have led to a better defense of Boston, and later dismissed a junior officer's suggestions that could have cut off George Washington's retreat in New York. If a single individual can be blamed for losing the American War, Smith would be a good candidate.
Pitcairn and Percy
In June, 1775, Pitcairn was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill, dying in the arms of his son. Percy, the only British officer who earned praise that day, ironically may have had sympathy for the colonists' political position. His superiors were suspicious of his loyalties even after he captured Fort Washington in New York. In 1777, after another clash of personalities, Percy requested and was granted a transfer back to Britain, where his remaining military positions were largely ceremonial.