Military campaigns have been marred with blunders since man began the business of organized war. Beyond the strategies, armaments, battles, and aftermath, human error is one of the many fascinating chronicles of a mission. That isn’t to say that courage and determination and grit are not just as fascinating—they are, but for this moment, they are put aside.
There were many British military blunders surrounding the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. The Royal Governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage planned the mission. He had intelligence that there were rebel armaments in Concord and the mission was to capture the armaments. (He may have learned at the last minute that most of those munitions had been removed from Concord).
- General Gage handpicked the companies of light infantrymen and grenadiers from different regiments and placed them under the command of Colonel Francis Smith, with Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn as Smith’s second in command. This had the disadvantage of placing junior officers under the command of superior officers they didn’t know. Likewise, Smith and Pitcairn had no knowledge of their junior officers’ strengths and weaknesses.
- General Gage believed he was planning the mission in secrecy
with only Colonel Francis Smith’s prior knowledge. However, Gage supposedly revealed those orders to General Lord Hugh Percy. Further, Gage’s brother-in-law, Samuel Kemble, was his private secretary, and Kemble may have written Smith’s orders for Gage. There is speculation that Gage’s wife, Margaret, may have learned of the mission and betrayed that information to Joseph Warren, which would have spurred Warren to send Paul Revere and William Dawes to issue the warning that the regulars were out. That is quite another story, and again it is speculative…
- The 800 regulars and 70 officers assembled on the shores of Back Bay to cross the Charles River. The crossing was slow. Longboats had to make two trips to ferry the 800 troops to the Cambridge shore. To make matters worse, they were crossing against the incoming tide.
- The regulars’ landing point was in the middle of the wetlands of the Cambridge marshes. The men, burdened with the weight of their uniforms and equipment, had to slog through the knee-deep waters of the marshes.
- Four hours after their initial departure from Back Bay, Smith’s regulars were marching the road to Lexington. The country folk were raising alarms and some were shooting at the regulars. Smith sent an appeal to General Gage for reinforcements.
The troops of the First Brigade should have been at the ready to march at a moment’s notice. However, they were asleep and had to be roused.
As the First Brigade prepared to march, Lord Hugh Percy waited for the battalion of Royal Marines to arrive. Two hours later, the marines had not answered the call. The marines were also asleep because the orders for reinforcements had been sent to Major John Pitcairn’s quarters, and at that moment, Major Pitcairn was marching toward Lexington.
- As they entered Lexington, Major John Pitcairn’s troops in the vanguard continued along the road to Concord under the watchful eye of Captain John Parker and the Lexington militia. Then, the vanguard, led by the impetuous Lieutenant Jessie Adair, veered the wrong way at the intersection and marched up Bedford Road toward Captain Parker’s forces. Major Pitcairn and several other officers galloped toward the vanguard shouting at them to halt. In the confusion, a shot rang out.
- General Gage had ordered Colonel Smith not to plunder or disturb individuals or private property, but Smith’s regulars did just that in Concord and Menotomy (where the heaviest fight of April 19 took place). Those acts served to further anger the colonists.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution New York: Penguin Books, 2013. Print.
Borneman, Walter R. American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Print.