Sunday, September 16, 2018

Episode 062: Three Headed Cerberus in Boston

When Gen. Gage sent his reports about the Battles of Lexington and Concord to London, he knew it would be months before he could get any response.  His message needed weeks to cross the Atlantic.  Officials would then have to decide on a military or political response, then send the necessary resources back across the Atlantic.  It could be late summer before any response from England could affect events on the ground in Massachusetts.

Fortunately for Gage though, he would not have to wait nearly so long.  The North Ministry had second thoughts about its decision in late 1774 when it told Gage to get the job done with the men he had.  Other reports over the fall and winter of 1774-75 made clear that trouble was brewing.  While not sending the 20,000 men that Gage had requested, the Ministry did decide to send a large force of soldiers and marines to supplement the regulars in Boston.

Gage’s force had dropped from about 5000 men to less than 4000 over the winter.  Only a small number of these losses came from battle.  Trapped in Boston with insufficient access to fresh food, in unsanitary conditions, regulars began to die a at a pretty good clip from outbreaks of disease.  Some also deserted.

HMS Cerberus
(from NavalActionWiki)
After Lexington, Gage immediately scrambled for reinforcements from Halifax and New York.  That helped a little, but he needed more. Fortunately for Gage, Reinforcements from Britain had set sail well before the battle of Lexington.  They would arrive in late May, before word of Lexington even reached London.  Combined, Gage’s army grew back to over 5500 and would continue to receive reinforcements, bringing him up to about 8000 over the summer.  The incoming Regulars, combined with the exodus of civilians from Boston, meant that the city had more soldiers than civilians in it by June 1775.

With the new regiments from England came three new Major Generals to assist Gage with his command.  They sailed aboard the HMS Cerberus, the name of the mythological three headed dog that guarded the gates of hell.  The irony of three new British Generals arriving on a ship of that name was not lost on either side.  Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne left London in April 1775 tasked with putting down the rebellion in New England.  Since all three Generals will go on to play major roles in the war, it seems appropriate to introduce each of them now.

Gen. William Howe

Maj. Gen. William Howe was the most senior general deploying to Boston.  He was third son of the Viscount Howe.  His mother was the niece of King George I.  So he came from the highest classes of British aristocracy.  His eldest brother, George, who inherited their father’s title, was the young Bbrigadier Ggeneral who died during the failed attempt to take Fort Carillon during the French and Indian War.  Brother George died in the arms of his aide, Israel Putnam, now a General in the Provincial Army.  Howe’s bravery and exploits had prompted the colonists to pay for a monument for him in Westminster Abbey.  The monument also meant a great deal to William, who held the colonists in the highest regard.  William’s next older brother Richard inherited the family title from their childless brother George and served as an Admiral in the Royal Navy.  Richard would join his brother in 1776 in their attempt to squash the American rebellion, but that is getting ahead of the story.

William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
William had purchased his first officer’s commission as a Cornet in 1747.  He fought in the War of Austrian Succession and began to rise through the ranks.  He soon became friends with Gen. Wolfe, and served under him in America during the French and Indian War.  Lt. Col. Howe commanded a regiment at the Siege of Louisbourg in 1758. He played a conspicuous role in Gen. Wolfe’s capture of Quebec.  After the French surrendered Canada, Howe returned to England where he continued on active duty for the remainder of the war.

In 1772, Howe received his promotion to Major General.  He advocated for more light infantry forces, the type of fighting that would prove most effective in America.  William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe had expressed sympathy for the colonial cause.  Both served in Parliament as pro-colonist whigs.  But now, with war upon them, William Howe would do his military duty.  Like most British officers, he believed that the army would crush the colonial rebellion, with the proper leadership of course.

Gen. Henry Clinton

The second new major general, Henry Clinton was actually raised in New York.  He came from a noble family in Britain.  His grandfather was an earl.  His father, Admiral Clinton, had been Governor of New York.  Clinton received his first commission in New York, later rising to Captain through his father’s influence.  As a teenager, Clinton moved back to England to pursue his military career, starting as Captain and eventually rising to Lieutenant Colonel by the beginning of the Seven Years War.  Clinton served with distinction in Europe, rising to full Colonel.

Henry Clinton
(from Wikimedia)

After the War, Clinton played the patronage game and made influential friends.  In 1772, he received his promotion to Major General, and also won a seat in Parliament.  He did not seem to take much interest in Parliamentary debates though, spending much of his time on military tours of Europe before being called to join the expedition to America in 1775.  Clinton spent his time learning a great deal about German military tactics, something he would want to employ in the revolution.

Although Clinton had left America to pursue his career, he retained many ties to the colonies.  He owned thousands of acres of land in New York, which he inherited from his father.  Beyond personal advancement in the military, Clinton had a direct economic interest in restoring peace and British control of the colonies.

Gen. John Burgoyne

The third major general to arrive that day was John Burgoyne.  Burgoyne, unlike Howe and Clinton, had a common pedigree.  His father had been a Captain, though there is some speculation that John was actually the illegitimate son of an English Baron. For that or some other reason the Baron took an interest in his upbringing.  He was able to attend a prestigious military academy, where Gage was a classmate.  The Baron also provided fund so that Burgoyne purchased his first commission at age 15.  The young Burgoyne quickly developed a reputation for heavy spending and high living, well beyond his means.  He got the nickname “Gentleman Johnny”.  His debts though, caught up with him.  In 1741, at age 19, he had to sell his commission to pay off debts and avoid debtor’s prison.

John Burgoyne
(from Wikimedia)
A few years later, the War of Austrian Succession gave him the opportunity to join a new regiment without having to repurchase a commission.  He managed to come up with enough money to buy a Captaincy a few years later. After the war, Burgoyne married the daughter of an English Lord.  The father did not approve of the marriage.  After they eloped, he cut off his daughter.  Once again, Burgoyne sold his commission so that he and his wife could live in style.

Eventually, he convinced his father-in-law to provide some support.  He purchased a new Captaincy in time to participate in the Seven Years War.  Burgoine did not fight in America, but saw active duty in Europe, rising to Lt. Col.  He also got elected to Parliament and became a bright light in London society, where he wrote popular songs and plays.  He received continued promotion in the Army.  Like Howe, he was a vocal advocate for light infantry.  By 1775, he had become a Major General and prepared to work with his fellow officers in crushing the rebellion.

Like his two colleagues, Burgoyne had risen through the ranks through a combination of distinction in battle, personal charm, and the ability to play the political game in London.  None, however, had experience as a strategic theater commander.  But then, Gen. Gage remained the theater commander in America for now.

Gen. Frederick Haldimand

As long as I’m introducing Generals, I should mention one more.  Major General Frederick Haldimand had been serving in Boston as Gage’s second in command.  He was senior to all three of the Major Generals who had arrived on the Cerberus.

Haldimand’s rank matched his military experience in America.  He was second only to Gage himself.  He came from a German family, though they had lived in Switzerland for a few generations.  As a  young man, Haldimand joined the Prussian army as an officer, where he fought in the War of Austrian Succession.  After the war, he accepted a commission in the Dutch Army.
Frederick Hladimand
(from Wikimedia)

In 1755, the British prepared for imminent war with France, after young Captain Washington started a fight in the Ohio Valley a few months prior.  They recruited Captain Haldimand and a few dozen other German speaking officers to recruit and train German speaking Pennsylvania colonists for use in what would become the French and Indian War.  Haldimand received a commission as Lt. Col. in the British Army.  In 1758 he was wounded in the British assault on Fort Carillon.  The same action that saw the death of Gen. Howe’s older brother.

His wound did not slow him up any.  He continued to serve with distinction, receiving a promotion to full Colonel.  He was present at Montreal for the final French surrender of the war in Canada, and served as Gen. Gage’s second in command.  He proved equally capable in peacetime, as a military Governor in Canada.  In 1765, he received promotion to Brigadier General.  He then spent eight years in the rather unpleasant command of the Southern Department, stationed in Florida.  There, many officers and men succumbed to disease in that hot swampy land.  His work there earned him a promotion to Major General in 1772.  The following year, when Gage returned to Europe, he summoned Haldimand to New York to take command of all North American operations until Gage returned in 1774.

A few months after Gage returned to Boston and began to realize he was losing control, he called Haldimand, who had taken up a command in New York.  Haldimand and most of the regiments stationed in New York joined Gage in Boston for the months preceding Lexington and Concord.

With his extensive military and governmental experience in America, as well as his seniority among the Major Generals, Haldimand should have been the obvious successor to Gen. Gage.  Unfortunately for Haldimand, British officials decided otherwise.  His foreign birth raised concerns for his command of all British forces in North America during the war.  If something happened to Gage he would be the senior general.  So, The same ship that carried the three new Major Generals to Boston, also carried Haldimand’s orders to leave America.  He would return to London a few weeks later to great accolades for all his work, and would receive a cushy Inspector Generalship in the West Indies.  So, sorry for introducing Gen. Haldimand just as he is leaving us. I thought it worthwhile, though, to give this man some credit for all of his hard work.  He would eventually receive promotion to Lt. General, making him one of the highest ranking foreign born active duty officers ever to serve in the British Army.

Admiral Samuel Graves

More news arrived on the Cerberus for Admiral Graves.  He received a promotion from Vice Admiral of the Blue to Vice Admiral of the White.  He also learned of his additional orders pursuant to Parliament’s passage of the Restraining Act that I discussed a few episodes back.  His navy, already patrolling more than 1000 miles of North American coastline, also now would be responsible for preventing any colonial merchant traffic from carrying on any trade with any countries outside the British Empire.  The Navy would also prevent any colonists from fishing in the waters off Newfoundland.  He would have to do that while also defending and supplying the growing army in Boston.

Samuel Graves
(from Wikimedia)
Samuel Graves had replaced Admiral Montegu as Naval Commander in North America in 1774.  I’ve been giving the Navy rather little attention thus far.  Since I am using this episode to introduce all the Generals, I might as well give a little background on Admiral Graves as well.

Graves was in his 60’s when he received orders to take command of operations in North America.  He came from a family with a long naval tradition.  His grandfather had served as a Captain in the Royal Navy.  Samuel joined the Navy in 1732 at age 19. During the War of Austrian Succession, he served under his Uncle, Captain (and future Admiral) Thomas Graves where he served with distinction in combat.  He became Captain of his own ship in 1744.  After a series of successful commands during the Seven Years War, made Rear Admiral in 1762.  In 1770, he moved up to Vice Admiral.  Following the Boston Tea Party he received his orders to go to Boston and close the harbor in enforcement of the Boston Port Act.

It is not unusual for there to be friction between the army and navy.  Gen. Gage and Adm. Graves were no exceptions to this.  The two men did not get along well.  There were fights over the use of Royal Marines in land combat or how to deploy ships best to protect Boston.  But they also fought over little things.  The Navy controlled the harbor.  As the siege cut off food supplies, Admiral Graves charged a small fee for soldiers to take fishing boats into the harbor to feed themselves.  This frustrated the soldiers to no end.  Also, the Navy brought in food from other ports to feed the soldiers.  However, it skimmed off the best food for itself and gave the worst to the Army.

Graves played a crucial role in supplying and guarding the army in Boston.  But he and Gage remained at odds. The two men never developed a good working relationship.

Cerberus in Boston

So, with that background, The Cerberus, carrying Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne, arrived in Boston on May 25, 1775, about five weeks after Lexington.  Their regiments would continue to arrive over the next few weeks.  Before even arriving in Boston, the Generals aboard the Cerberus received word from a passing ship that the Boston garrison was besieged by 10,000 colonists.  They were shocked by this, thinking Regulars should be able to disperse civilian militia many times their number.

Gen. Gage remained commander in chief.  London had sent the three Generals to assist Gage, not to replace him.  But almost immediately, all three began writing back to friends and colleagues in London that Gage was weak and incompetent.  He had not shown any aggressive fighting spirit, and let the colonists run amok.

They arrived with the same attitude that Gage had shown a year earlier when he came to Boston as its new Governor General.  Just as Gage blamed Gov. Hutchinson for his failure to maintain a firm hand over the civilians, the new Generals hurled the same accusations at Gage.

Conventional wisdom of the time said that a professional army could always impose its will on a civilian population of much larger numbers.  Civilians and militia might talk tough, but they would not stand against a professional well trained army of regulars and take casualties with the same fortitude.  Therefore, a leader that marches around at will and unleashes the fury of the army on civilians will only remind them of what they lose when they reject the protection of the British Empire.

Gage had tried to push back against civil resistance to his policies as governor.  But he did not really use his army to enforce his will until Lexington and Concord.  Then, he sent out a party that was too small and without sufficient ammunition for battle.  The three new Generals assured themselves and each other that they could do better.

Remaining in Boston was not an option. Food and supplies were difficult to import and attempts to secure them would prove problematic.  I already discussed some of the skirmishes over resources last week.  But keeping thousands of soldiers in Boston only risked death from hunger and disease.  Sitting around would probably be more deadly to British soldiers than any attack.

Gage had not yet even declared martial law in the colony.  With some convincing, he finally would declare martial law on June 12.  His Declaration promised pardons for anyone who laid down their arms and returned home, with exceptions of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who would be tried for treason.  Although released under Gage’s name, the pompous language sounds much more like it was the work of Gen. Burgoyne.  No patriots seem to have acted on this offer of pardon, and nothing changed.  The declaration, however, provided the legal justification for levying war on the rebellious population.

The three ambitious Generals pushed to take the newly enlarged army on the offensive.  The beginning of summer was the time one started a military campaign.  The obvious first steps were to reclaim the heights outside of Boston.  To the south of the city, near Roxbury, rose Dorchester Heights.  To the north of the city, on the Charlestown peninsula, sat Bunker and Breed’s Hills.  If the provincials occupied either of these heights with artillery, both Boston and the fleet in the harbor would be at risk.  So far, British threats had intimidated the provincials from occupying either.  But that could not last forever.  Taking control of these high ground areas would be the first step toward tackling the militia mobs surrounding Boston.

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Next Episode 63: Buzzard's Bay and Machias

Previous Episode 61: Battle of Chelsea Creek

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Further Reading:


Gen. William Howe:

Gen. Henry Clinton:

Gen. John Burgoyne:

Belcher, Henry “Burgoyne” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 1913, pp. 172-195

Gen. Frederick Haldimand:

Adm. Samuel Graves:

Gen. Gage’s Declaration of Martial Law:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

De Fonblanque, Edward Political and military episodes in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Derived from the life and correspondence of the Right Hon. John Burgoyne, London: MacMillan & Co. 1876.

Ford, Worthington British Officers Serving in the American Revolution, 1774-1783, by Worthington Ford, Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1897.

French, Allen The Siege of Boston, New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Frothingham, Richard History of the Siege of Boston, Boston: CC Little & J. Brown, 1851.

Frothingham, Richard Life and times of Joseph Warren, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1865.

Hudleston, Francis Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne: Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1927.

McIlwraith, Jean N. Sir Frederick Haldimand, Toronto: Morang & Co. 1910.

Swett, Samuel History of Bunker Hill Battle: With a Plan, Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1826.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.

Lockhart, Paul The Whites of Their Eyes, New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

Nelson, James George Washington’s Secret Navy, New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson The Men Who Lost America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013 (book recommendation of the week).

Philbrick, Nathaniel Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, New York: Penguin Books, 2013.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Wilcox, William Portrait of a general: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, New York: Knopf, 1964.

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