- Historic Sites
The Treasure Of Alnwick Castle
Behind the ancient towers of his Northumberland home are the unique Revolutionary War battle maps of the general who saved the British from disaster at Lexington
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled fanners stood And fired the shot heard round the world.
Finding this is for an American historian like an Englishman’s finding a manuscript map of Hastings dated October, 1066, made for William the Conqueror.
The American Revolution—the United States—began here.”
“Yes, I know,” the Duke said; “several years ago with an American friend I walked over the field of action of that day.” The part that his ancestor Hugh, Earl Percy, played in the events of April 19, 1775, was a crucial one, characterized by a coolness and intelligence that stood in marked contrast to the almost comic bungling of the rest of the British command. Late on the night of April 18, in a conversation with eight or ten gentlemen of the town on Boston Common, Lord Percy had heard that a contingent of royal troops had left Boston for Concord to capture the arms and ammunition there. The expedition, Percy knew, was supposed to be secret, and he hurried to General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British army in America, to tell him that the news was all over town. Gage was astonished: even the commander of the expedition, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, did not yet know his destination, for his orders were sealed. Someone, Gage said to Percy, must have betrayed his confidence. No one had, but every British troop movement, every order or conversation overheard, was being noted by the Boston patriots, one of whom was Paul Revere.
Delays meanwhile slowed the execution of Gage’s plan for a secret night march to Concord. On the opposite bank of the Charles River from Boston, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, old, obese, and ponderously slow, waited with his troops until almost two o’clock in the morning for additional supplies to be ferried over to him. With him was Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines. At last the troops got under way, wading through a ford up to their middles. By 6:00 A.M. Gage, disturbed by a messenger from Smith who reported that the country was aroused, sent orders that Percy’s brigade with Pitcairn’s marines should march to cover Smith’s return. The brigade received its orders at seven and by half past seven had assembled, with two cannon and supply wagons. Percy was ready; but where were the marines? Gage’s order, addressed to Pitcairn, was lying unopened on the Major’s desk.
By eight thirty the battalion of Royal Marines assembled without their major, and at quarter to nine Percy’s column marched along Orange Street and across Boston Neck toward Lexington and Concord.
Percy found an ominous sign of rebel activity when he reached the Brighton Bridge, a simple structure that spanned the Charles at Cambridge: the boards had been removed. But the local committee of safety had frugally piled them on the Cambridge bank; Percy sent some of his men across on the string-pieces of the bridge and they soon relaid the boards. The brigade was on its way again, with its two six-pounders. At Cambridge, Percy, confused by the numerous roads leading from the common, asked the only individual he could find in the apparently deserted town for directions to Concord. It was a tutor of Harvard College, Isaac Smith, who “could not tell a lie” and pointed the way. (For not having sent the troops to the marshes by Phipp’s Farm, Smith’s neighbors made his life so unbearable that he fled to England. Years later he returned and became Harvard’s librarian.)
For Percy now, action lay only a’ few miles ahead. He and his men met the retreating troops of Colonel Smith on the eastern outskirts of Lexington, formed a square to receive them, and gave them refreshments. “They were so much exhausted with fatigue,” wrote a British officer with Percy, “that they were obliged to lie down for rest on the ground, their tongues hanging out of their mouths, like those of dogs after a chase.” Percy’s own rough draft of his report to General Gage gives a vivid account of the events of the day. Part of this account, now with the Percy papers in Alnwick Castle, follows.