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Men of the Revolution: 2. Thomas Gage

May 2024
3min read

The British commander-in-chief at the beginning of the Revolution was popular and conscientious, but events were beyond his control.

On October 10, 1775, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage took his last salute as commander in chief of His Majesty’s forces in North America and the next day sailed for England aboard the transport Pallas . As he wound up nearly two decades of dedicated service in the American colonies, almost no one saw him off; and after his arrival in London a fellow officer wrote of him as a “poor wretch [who] is scarcely thought of, he is below contempt …” while other countrymen joked about the possibility of hanging him. For nearly half of those years in the colonies Gage had been the most powerful official on the continent; honest, honorable, a faithful servant of his king, he had given all he had to his task, only to be despised by the Americans and abandoned by the British.

It was ironic that Thomas Gage’s colonial service should have begun and ended with two of the greatest disasters of British arms in North America Braddock’s defeat and the battle for Bunker Hill; yet in the twenty years between those bloody encounters the mood and circumstances in the colonies had altered forever, and forces totally beyond Gage’s capacity to control had swept across the land like a whirlwind, catching him up, helpless, and wrecking his career in the process. (It may have occurred to him that his family, the Gages of Firle in Sussex, had an affinity for losing causes: his forebears had backed King John, Charles I, and James II.)

After attending Westminster, the famous public school, where his fellow scholars included a collection of names that would figure in the Revolution Francis Bernard, John Burgoyne, George Germain, and two of the Howe brothers, George Augustus and Richard Gage (as was then the custom) purchased a lieutenancy, fought the French in Flanders, and helped rout the Scottish clans at Culloden. In 1754 his regiment was posted to America, and in July, 1755, Gage was out in front with the advanced guard when the French and Indians struck General Edward Braddock’s army. Wounded in the belly and the head, with several bullet holes in his coat, he nevertheless organized the rear guard for the retreat after Braddock was mortally wounded. He saw a thousand brave men killed that day, of fifteen hundred who went into action, yet Gage went back for more and was in Abercromby’s suicidal attack on Montcalm at Fort Ticonderoga, where his friend Viscount Howe fell. Out of this wilderness experience came, in 1757, his proposal for a corps of disciplined irregulars Gage’s “chasseurs” the first light-armed regiment in the British army. In 1760 Gage was made governor at Montreal; three years later he took command of British forces in North America.

Gage had demonstrated courage in battle, but he was not regarded as a brilliant commander; nevertheless, he had an aptitude for administration, and it was thought that his marriage to an American—the slender, ambitious Margaret Kemble—might be an asset. So in 1774, while Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, was home on leave, Gage was appointed to serve in his place in troubled Boston, retaining his rank as commander in chief. Good-natured, popular, with the fare of a calm, even-tempered aristocrat, the conscientious Gage saw his duty and followed it, and could console himself that he had been patient and reasonable at every turn, in the face of exceptionally trying circumstances One of his first acts in Boston was to put the unpopular Port Bill into effect an event greeted by tolling bells, fasting, and public display of mourning and every subsequent move he made on behalf of the king’s ministers met with nil the legal trickery and political chicanery known to the cantankerous, rebellious Yankees. He could have imposed martial law, but instead he permitted the town’s residents almost complete freedom. He made no move to censor or suppress the scurrilous press; he allowed the rabble-rousers to hold their meetings; he did nothing to stop militiamen in outlying towns from drilling on village greens and collecting arms and ammunition. To set an example of justice to local authorities, he listened to complaints against drunken British soldiers and punished offenders with a flogging. All to no avail; for while the rebels called him a “monster” his own soldiers and the loyalists ridiculed him as “Tommy, the old woman ”

Unhappily, Gage could not make policy; only London could do that. Again and again he wrote home, urging the government to take one clear course or another—either lop off the colonies “as a rotten limb from the empire, and leave them to themselves, or take effectual means to reduce them to lawfull authority. leniency would not work, he knew; force and action might. Yet even when the government clamored for action they refused him the means with which to execute it. When on April 14, 1775, he received a dispatch ordering him to move decisively, to use force if necessary, and to arrest the principal rebels at the risk of provoking hostilities—Gage ordered out the troops, with humiliating results at Lexington and Concord.

On June 17, when he was forced to move again, to capture the redoubt the rebels and erected in front of Bunker Hill, it was his final military act as commander, for the casualties of that frontal assault produced more than mourning in London; they incurred a hitter, unreasoning anger that demanded a scapegoat for defeat and national humiliation And the scapegoat had to be the man who had pointed the finger of blame at his superiors for not giving him adequate support.

For a time after his return to England, Gage had hopes of obtaining an important post; there was even talk of giving him a new commission as commander in chief, but it came to nothing. Thomas Gage survived the war, living on until 1787, but the echo of his anguished cry after he learned the extent of his losses at Bunker Hill still rings in the ear: “ I wished this Cursed place was burned!

—Richard M. Ketchum

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