Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Monarchist Profile: General Thomas Gage

The man who presided over the outbreak of the American War of Independence was Thomas Gage, the son of Viscount Gage, born in East Sussex around late 1719 or early 1720. The family had long been Catholic but Viscount Gage accepted the Church of England in 1715 and as young Thomas grew older he became an increasingly devout Anglican, and increasingly anti-Catholic. He attended the Westminster School alongside such future British military leaders as “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, who would go on to glorious defeat as a general in the British army in America and Richard “Black Dick” Howe who would one day win great laurels for Britain on the sea as an Admiral in the Royal Navy. He graduated in 1736 and eventually joined the British army as an ensign, assigned to recruiting duties in Yorkshire. He later purchased a commission as lieutenant and earned subsequent promotion to captain, serving in Belgium as an aide to the Earl of Albemarle during King George’s War (the War of Austrian Succession). Afterwards he served in Scotland in the suppression of the second Jacobite uprising and later purchased the rank of major before being promoted to lieutenant colonel while serving in Ireland.

Thomas Gage was known as a good natured, upstanding man with none of the small vices and he made friends easily. Although his friendships extended to all classes, the most beneficial for him were with those in the upper ranks of the British military such as Lord Amherst. He tried unsuccessfully to be elected to the House of Commons before he was sent with his regiment to North America upon the outbreak of the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War). During that conflict Gage served alongside George Washington at the disastrous battle of Monongahela in which a British column under General Edward Braddock was wiped out in a surprise French and Indian attack. Gage was wounded but took command of the 44th Foot after the regimental commander was killed. General Braddock himself was killed and in the effort to assign blame the aide-de-camp of the late general pointed the finger at Gage which robbed him of the post of permanent commander of the 44th. George Washington also later joined the chorus against Gage but simply because he resented British officers having greater authority than colonial leaders like himself.

Gage helped organize the first British light infantry while serving in America and was recommended for promotion to full colonel. In 1758, in Albany, New York, he married Margaret Kemble, a New Jersey-born young lady of famous beauty. Later Gage led the vanguard in the British army that attacked Fort Carillon, a disaster for the British and probably the most stunning French victory of the war in which less than 4,000 French troops defeated a British army of 16,000, inflicting heavy casualties. Gage was again wounded in the attack and despite the defeat was commended for his bravery and, partly thanks to his brother Viscount Gage, was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of Albany under Lord Amherst. However, his decision not to move against a particular French fort as ordered angered his superiors and Gage was more or less sidelined for the rest of the conflict. Once the war was over and Canada was in British hands, Gage was made military governor of Montreal. His wife joined him and their first two of their seven children were born there. As an administrator he received mostly good marks though he found it hard to get along with the French lords and Catholic clergy who were at the top of the social hierarchy.

In 1763 Lord Amherst was recalled and General Gage was assigned to take his place in New York as commander of all British forces in North America. He helped bring a peaceful end to Pontiac’s rebellion but showed his vindictive side when he pressed a rather trumped-up charge of treason against the famed British irregular leader Major Robert Rogers (from whose unit the modern U.S. Army Rangers claim descent). As unrest and anti-British sentiment grew in the American colonies, Gage found he had to rely on treaties of friendship with the Indians in order to transfer the few British regiments on hand to the major port cities. His duties became less about securing the frontier and more about enforcing Crown authority on an increasingly rebellious population. In 1773 Gage returned to England with his family but the situation in the colonies continued to deteriorate with the so-called “Boston Massacre” and subsequent acts of Parliament, all unpopular, to bring the colonists to heel. Crown officials were becoming hated and Gage was considered the only man who could save the situation due to his years of experience in America and his close ties with leaders in London and the colonies. In 1774 he returned as royal governor of Massachusetts, the most troublesome colony and a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment.

Once back in America, after an initial warm reception, Gage began to draw criticism from both sides. The colonial “Patriot” groups despised him as the enforcer of unpopular British laws while many in London felt he was not being tough enough and allowed too many groups (most famously the Sons of Liberty) to carry on in spite of being flagrantly treasonous. Gage paid little mind to such groups. He was convinced that democracy was the real problem and that it was the local elected assemblies which were the breeding ground for sedition. He was content to see these dissolved while letting the rebel mobs vent their anger but at the same time he took measures to confiscate weapons and war materials that could potentially be used against Crown forces. Gage desperately wanted to avoid an all-out conflict, his years of service in North America having taught him that if it were to come to that, it would take a massive British army, a great deal of blood and treasure, to subdue the whole continent and that was a price he doubted that his fellow countrymen back in Britain were willing to pay. In that regard, Gage was ultimately proven correct, but it would take some time before the government in London came to the same conclusion.

When Gage was given direct orders to eliminate revolutionary activity, he took action, ordering the arrest of several ringleaders and the confiscation of weapons and ammunition. However, he had his troops move out at night in the hope of keeping a low profile and avoiding confrontation. As we know, thanks to Paul Revere and others, this was not successful and there was a confrontation at Lexington where was famously fired “the shot heard round the world”. After another clash at Concord and a running battle back to Boston the American Revolution was on and Gage and his garrison were under siege by a ragtag rebel army that greatly outnumbered his own. In the midst of this, something of a personal crisis also developed for General Gage and he decided to send his American wife back to England after accusations began to fly that she was secretly giving information to the revolutionaries. General Gage never believed the rumors, pointing out that all that was ever presented was circumstantial evidence, nonetheless, to avoid controversy he sent her to England. Meanwhile, additional troops arrived from England along with major generals William Howe, John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton to reinforce Gage and end the siege of Boston.

An elaborate plan was hatched but the rebels found out about it and moved in first, occupying, among other strategic points, Breed’s Hill. Gage launched an offensive against the position which became known in history as the battle of Bunker Hill. The British forces took heavy casualties and were repulsed more than once. But, their superior discipline and stoic courage won the day and finally, as they advanced again, the colonials broke into a panic and retreated. It had been a costly victory and did not change the overall strategic situation. London was not pleased and the battle was thrown onto the scales along with all the other complaints the national leadership had with Gage. He had won the battle but most, like General Clinton, recognized that Britain simply did not have the manpower to win such costly victories with frontal assaults. Gage was relieved of his command and replaced by General Sir William Howe, a great battlefield tactician but a man lacking in ‘killer instincts’.

General Gage returned to England, despite technically still being the governor of Massachusetts and was later promoted to full general after France entered the war and there were worries of a French invasion. There were many such times when Britain feared France was about to invade their island but, as before, such an attack never materialized. General Gage remained in touch with many of the Crown officials he had served with in America and gave testimony to support compensation claims made by American loyalists. Unfortunately, his health began to deteriorate rather rapidly and he died April 2, 1787. King George III, who was rather fond of Gage, referred to him as his “mild general” and the injustice of his rather low reputation is evident by how he was seen as too timid in Britain but too authoritarian in America. He had a good record of service behind him but was placed in an impossible situation with London pressuring him to be firm while knowing that any such action would only add fuel to the revolutionary fire by antagonizing the colonists.

General Gage, quite obviously, did not dislike the Americans and he correctly realized that they had been given far too much autonomy in their local assemblies for far too long. As a result, they resented any interference from London. Unfortunately, by the time Gage came along this situation had existed for too long to be overturned without provoking a full blown rebellion. Gage also realized, from his rather rough experience in the French and Indian War, that Britain would have to commit massive amounts of soldiers, hire foreign mercenaries and maintain a naval blockade of the entire continent to win an all-out war. In provoking him to action, London was effectively ordering him to start a war he did not have the tools to win. In the end, Boston had to be abandoned before the government realized that Gage had been correct and sent over the largest expeditionary force Britain had ever dispatched up to that time, complete with hired Hessians and a naval blockade. General Gage will certainly not be listed among the great captains of British military history but, he is nonetheless underrated.

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