- 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
April 20, ’75 Sir: At Menotomy, I was informed by a person whom I met that there had been a skirmish between his Maj’s troops & the rebels at Lex n , & that they were still engaged. On this, I immediately pressed on, & in less than 2 miles we heard the firing very distinctly. About this time (which was between i and 2 o’clk in the aft n ) I met with L t . Gould of the King’s Own Reg, who was wounded, & who informed me that the Gren s & L[ight] I[nfantry] had been attacked by the rebels about daybreak, & were retiring, having expended most of their ammunition: & in about a quarter of an hour I met them retiring thro’ Lex n . I immedly ordered the two field pieces to fire at the Rebels. … The shot from the cannon had the desired effect. … In this manner we retired for 15 m. under an incessant fire all round us, till we arrived at Cha s town, wh road I chose to take, lest the rebels shd have taken up the bridge at Cambridge (wh I find was actually the case), & also as the country was more open & the road shorter [than by Brighton, Roxbury, and Boston Neck]. During the whole of our retreat, the rebels endeavored to annoy us by concealing themselves behind stone walls & within houses, & firing straggling shot at us from thence .&
Percy’s common sense and military judgment saved the British regulars from disaster on that galling April day. His decision to bypass the bridge across the Charles and turn off on another, more northerly route to Charlestown undoubtedly saved his own command—and Colonel Smith’s exhausted men—from heavy losses. How did Percy know this road? He may have had in mind the information on a crude pencil sketch of the area (page 28), which we found in the portfolio and which shows such a road.
For Percy himself the events of the day and the spirit shown by the rebels came as a severe shock, for in common with other officers and those in the government in England, he had regarded the colonials as poltroons. On the day after the retreat from Lexington he wrote in a personal letter,
Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers agst the Indians & Canadians, & this country being much cov d w. wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting. Nor are several of their men void of a spirit of enthusiasm, as we experienced yesterday, for many of them concealed themselves in houses, & advanced within 10 yds. to fire at me & other officers, tho’ they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant. … They are determined to go thro’ with it, nor will the insurrection here turn out so despicable as it is perhaps imagined at home. For my part, I never believed, I confess, that they wd have attacked the King’s troops, or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday.
Percy’s own position in the months before that April day had been difficult. As a member of the House of Commons from Westminster, his opposition to those very measures that were arousing the resentment of the American colonists was well known to his constituents; and in this attitude he followed the views of his father, the Duke of Northumberland, who had opposed the Stamp Act and the Tory party’s colonial policy. As an officer in the Royal Army, however, Percy believed that it was his duty to suppress by force any rebellion against the king’s government and decrees.
His assignment to Boston, the most intransigent city in America, had been a diplomatic maneuver by Lord North’s Tory government to charm and impress the colonists by the presence of a young man of personal attractiveness, liberal views, and noble family. On July 4, 1774, Percy’s transport arrived off Boston Harbor from Kinsale, Ireland, where his troops, the 5th Foot, had embarked on May 17. The next day the regiment landed at Long Wharf and marched through the streets to their encampment on Boston Common. “The Shiners,” a name given to the 51)1 because of their extreme polish and attention to dress, made a fine show: the coats of the soldiers were faced with gosling green, and the officers were resplendent in scarlet and gold; above them flew the green silken flag of the regiment with the figures of Saint George and the dragon above the motto “ Quo fata vacant .”
Percy was delighted with the land, “the most beautiful country I ever saw in my life.” He wrote to his father after a month, “It is, as far at least as I have been round this town, most delightfully varied. The hills, rising from the valleys by gradual & gentle ascents, interspersed everywhere with trees, give it a most agreeable appearance.”
Across the street from his camp on Boston Common, Lord Percy chose for his quarters one of the mansions of the city, a fine wooden house surrounded by wide lawns on the northerly corner of Tremont and Winter streets. It was the property of John Williams, an inspector of His Majesty’s customs in Boston. Soon after Percy’s arrival he wrote that he had acquired