Thomas Gage

Introduction

British General Thomas Gage was, at one time, the highest authority in North America during the early stages of the American Revolutionary War.  In his time, he was criticized by the British and the Americans alike, and to this day, he is viewed by some as a poor military leader.  Such a judgment may be too harsh.

Thomas Gage (1718-1787) was the second son of 1st Viscount Thomas Gage and Benedicta Maria Teresa Hall, born in Firle, England.  As the viscount’s second-born son, Thomas was ineligible to inherit his father’s lands or title, but in his desire to do the best he could for his son and namesake, his father enrolled him in the Westminster School.  It was there that Thomas met and became friends with John Burgoyne, Richard Howe, and George Germain.  Raised as an Anglican, Gage developed a strong dislike for Catholicism and those who practiced it.

The Early Years

We know that Gage left Westminster School in 1736, and we know that he joined the British Army as an ensign in 1741.  What he did in the intervening years is unknown to us.  His earliest duties consisted of recruiting for the army in Yorkshire.  Recruiting duty was not the ideal assignment for a novice officer; his task consisted mostly of sending seasoned NCOs out to do the work, and his assignment was mainly to certify the enlistment documents.  He would not have learned much about fieldcraft, or leadership, or warfare.  After purchasing a lieutenant’s commission, he briefly served with the 1st Northampton Regiment before his assignment to the 62nd (Wiltshire) Regiment, where he served as a captain-lieutenant.[1]  Promoted to captain in the following year (no doubt the result of his father’s financial backing), he participated in the War of Austrian Succession in Flanders where he served as aide-de-camp to the Earl of Albemarle (Lieutenant General Willem Anne van Keppel) in the Battle of Fontenoy.

During the Jacobite Uprising (the Stuart rebellion) he fought in the Battle of Culloden (1746) and served in the low countries from 1747 – 1748.  In that year, he purchased a commission to major and transferred to the 55th Regiment of Foot for service in Ireland (1748 – 1755); Gage advanced to lieutenant colonel in 1751. 

Thomas Gage

Socially, he was a popular figure, attended all the right clubs, he traveled to exotic cities, such as Paris.  He did not consume alcohol but gambled lightly (socially) and his friendships spanned class and ability.  He corresponded with General Charles L Lee and established friendships with Lord William Barrington and General Jeffrey Amherst.

Before advancing to lieutenant colonel, Major Gage became engaged to a lady of rank and fortune.  While she accepted Gage’s proposal, the engagement was later broken, and Gage was spiritually wounded.  What he needed at that particular time was an adventure.

North American Adventures

The border between New France and British North America was not well defined.  One disputed territory was the upper Ohio River valley, then part of Old Virginia.  The French had constructed a number of forts in this region in an attempt to strengthen their claim to the territory.  British colonial forces, led by the 21-year-old militia Lieutenant Colonel named George Washington, attempted to expel the French in 1754 but were outnumbered and defeated by the French and their Indian allies.  When news of Washington’s defeat reached British Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, he called for a quick (yet undeclared) retaliatory strike.  However, his adversaries in Parliament outmaneuvered him by making PM’s intentions public, thus alerting the French Government, and escalating a distant frontier skirmish into a full-scale war.

The outbreak of the Seven Year’s War (which was actually a global event) began in North America with George Washington.  Under Pelham-Holles’ plan, Parliament dispatched Captain-General Edward Braddock “to expel French forces from the Ohio Country.”  Thomas Gage’s regiment was part of Braddock’s expedition.[2]

The British started the war, but it was not a good beginning.  Braddock, a typical British aristocrat, not only managed to alienate his native American allies but his colonial support base, as well — in equal measure.  As Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in North America, General Braddock led the main thrust against French fortifications in the Ohio Country.  Braddock’s column included around 1,300 men (two regular infantry regiments, one militia infantry regiment, artillery, and other support troops), and an extremely long wagon train.  Braddock intended to seize Fort Duquesne (near present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and then use that location as his base for pushing further into New France.  Gage’s regiment, renamed the 44th Regiment of Foot, was Braddock’s vanguard unit, Gage commanded the lead battalion within the regiment.

On 8th July, General Braddock’s force was encamped on land owned by his chief scout, Lieutenant John Fraser.  That evening, Braddock received an invitation to meet with local Indians.  He sent militia Lieutenant Colonel George Washington and Lieutenant Fraser.  The Indians asked the British to halt in place for a few days so that they could attempt to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal by the French from Fort Duquesne.  Both Washington and Fraser recommended this course of action to Braddock, who demurred.   

Braddock resumed march the next morning.  Gage’s battalion of 300 grenadiers and colonial artillery stepped off with a flourish of field music and drum cadence.  Washington warned Gage that his order of march was flawed (the formation was too bunched up and too loud in the line of march), advising him that the French would not meet with him in an open field under Queensbury Rules.  Apparently, the 36-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Gage didn’t require the advice of a 22-year-old colonial militia officer, and so he marched his command into meeting engagement with an estimated 100 French and Indian warriors — a force that quickly grew to around 900 enemies.

Thus began the Battle of the Monongahela (also, Battle of the Wilderness).  After the opening salvo of musketry, Gage withdrew his men to form a battle line, but was unable to do so because of the confined space of the battle area.  Confusion in the ranks ensued, and as Gage tempted to sort his men, the French combatants quickly enveloped Braddock’s column and began pouring fire into his disorganized ranks.  Both General Braddock and the officer commanding the 44th Regiment, Colonel Peter Halkett, fell mortally wounded.

Lieutenant Colonel Gage, although himself wounded, assumed command of the regiment.[3]  Young Washington distinguished himself by his courage under fire during the fight and by organizing the British force for an orderly withdrawal.[4]  For several years afterward, Gage and Washington maintained friendly correspondence but by 1770, Washington openly criticized Gage’s actions in asserting British authority in Massachusetts.[5]

Edward Braddock was replaced by Captain-General John Campbell, Lord Loudoun, in 1756.  Campbell served as Commander-in-Chief of North America and Governor-General of Virginia.  Loudoun was highly unpopular with the colonists and even less so after he moved against colonial traders who continued trading with the French after the commencement of hostilities.  One of Loudoun’s first steps was to close all British ports — which did little more than encourage smuggling operations.[6]

In December 1757, Lieutenant Colonel Gage proposed to Lord Loudoun the creation of a regiment of light infantry that, given the terrain in North America, would be better suited to woodland warfare.  Loudoun approved the plan before he was recalled to England, and recommended Gage for promotion to Colonel. 

Under the direction of Major General James Abercrombie, Lord Loudoun’s replacement, Gage spent the winter in Brunswick, New Jersey, recruiting for his new regiment, the 80th Regiment of Light-Armed Foot — a first for the British Army.  Gage may have chosen Brunswick because of his infatuation with Margaret Kemble, an attractive and well-placed lady in colonial society.  In any case, Gage’s recruiting and courting were both successful.  In 1758, Gage was in preparations for the annual campaign at Albany, New York, when he married Miss Kemble.

The campaign for which Gage went to Albany culminated in the disastrous defeat for the British at Fort Carillon where 4,000 French troops defeated 16,000 British.  Gage, whose 80th Regiment served in the vanguard, was again wounded — he, along with 2,000 other British soldiers.[7]  Before the battle, Abercrombie brevetted Gage to Brigadier General.  In 1759, Gage’s brother William, 2nd Viscount Gage, helped Thomas achieve regular promotion to Brigadier General.

Major General Jeffrey Amherst replaced Abercrombie as Commander-in-Chief of North America.  He placed Brigadier General Gage in charge of the garrison at Albany, New York.  Shortly after capturing Fort Ticonderoga (without a fight), Amherst learned of the death of Brigadier General John Prideaux, Amherst ordered Gage to replace Prideaux and seize Fort La Galette on Lake Ontario.  When Amherst subsequently learned that the French had also abandoned Fort St. Frédéric, he gave Gage more explicit instructions to capture La Galette and then, if possible, proceed to Montreal.

At Oswego, with only limited information about French troop strength, Gage determined that it would not be prudent to move against La Galette at that time and decided to await the arrival of reinforcements from Fort Duquesne.  Gage sent a courier to Amherst to explain his decision.  Amherst, who was well-known as an aggressive field commander, was outraged that Gage did not carry out his mission.  Subsequently, Amherst relegated Gage to guard the wagon train in his march (and conquest) of Montreal.

After the fall of Montreal in 1760, Amherst appointed Gage as the city’s governor, a task he found distasteful because it involved the day-to-day operation of a major city in addition to his military duties.  Nevertheless, Margaret joined him in Montreal, which became the birthplace of his first two children.  In 1761, the army promoted Gage to Major General and appointed him to serve as Colonel of the 22nd Regiment of Foot.[8]

History remembers General Gage as a fair administrator with a healthy distrust of French landowners and Catholic clergy.  When peace was announced following the Treaty of Paris in 1763, he began lobbying for another post.  While General Amherst was on leave in England, Gage learned that he would be named as his successor.  Gage left Montreal without delay and by mid-November had assumed his new duties in New York.  His first task was to solve the problem of Pontiac’s Rebellion.

Pontiac’s War

Pontiac

Following the conquest of New France, General Amherst (a man devoid of any respect for native Americans) instituted policies that severely hampered British-Indian relations, principally forbidding the sale of ammunition to them.  Combined with widespread concern about British expansion into their territories, this prompted the tribes of the Ohio Country and the formerly French Pays d’en Haut to rise up against the British.[9]  Note: there are no genuine images of Pontiac — pictured left is an artist’s rendition.

In May 1763, under the leadership of the Ottawa leader Pontiac, the Ottawa launched a series of assaults on lightly manned forts, successfully driving the British into retreat and terrorizing surrounding settlements.  General Gage hoped to end the conflict through diplomacy.  He sent Colonel John Bradstreet and Colonel Henry Bouquet on military expeditions while directing Sir William Johnson to initiate peace negotiations.  Johnson negotiated the Treaty of Fort Niagara in the summer of 1764; Bouquet negotiated a cease-fire in October.  In 1765, the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment pacified Fort Cavendish, but the conflict was not fully resolved until Pontiac signed a formal treaty with Johnson at Fort Ontario (1766).

General Amherst applied for and was granted a leave of absence from his duties in North America.  While in England, the General announced that he had no intention of returning to North America.  Upon that announcement, the Crown made Gage’s position as Commander-in-Chief permanent.

Despite the intrigues by such men as Robert Monckton, Major General Gage was promoted to lieutenant general in 1771.  He spent most of his time in and around New York City.  He was generally an honest man, in that he did not help himself to the public treasury, but he was not above engaging in nepotism and favoritism.

Rebellion

Political tensions increased during General Gage’s administration.  Strategically, Gage decided that his best course of action was to withdraw his forces from outlying settlements and reposition them along the Atlantic coast, near New York City and Boston.  As the number of soldiers stationed in cities grew, the need to provide adequate food and housing for these troops became urgent.

General Gage had found it difficult to persuade colonial assemblies to pay for the quartering and provisioning of military forces on the march.  Gage asked Parliament for a quartering act.  Most of the colonies had supplied provisions during the war, but the issue was disputed in peacetime.  The Province of New York was the Commander-in-Chief’s headquarters only because the New York Assembly had passed an Act to provide for the quartering of British regulars — an act that expired on 2 January 1764. 

Parliament approved Gage’s request — but the Quartering Act of 1765 went far beyond what General Gage had requested.  No standing army had been kept in the American colonies before the French and Indian War, so the colonies asked the question: why was a standing army needed after the defeat of the French?

On 24 March 1765, Parliament passed the Quartering Act — one of a series of measures primarily aimed at raising revenue from the British colonies in America. Although the Quartering Act did not provoke the immediate and sometimes violent protests that opposed the Stamp Act, it did prove to be a source of contention between some colonies and Great Britain during the years leading up to the Revolution.

Even during the French and Indian War, British commanders in North America found it difficult to persuade provincial assemblies to pay for the costs of housing and provisioning the soldiers sent over to fight the French.  Once the war had ended, the king’s advisors decided that some British troops should remain in North America — in theory, to defend the colonies.  Since the war had left Britain with a large national debt (£15 million in 2022 currency), it also was especially important that the colonies pay their share of the costs of keeping these men in America.

The Quartering Act of 1765 did not require that colonists bivouac soldiers in their private homes. The act did require colonial governments to provide and pay for feeding and sheltering any troops stationed in their colony. If military barracks were insufficient in number, then soldiers could be housed in inns, stables, outbuildings, uninhabited houses, or private homes that sold wine or alcohol. The act did not provoke widespread or violent opposition, partly because significant numbers of British troops were stationed in only a few colonies and also because most colonies managed to evade fully complying with its provisions. To a certain extent the Quartering Act was overshadowed by the colonist’s response to the Stamp Act, also passed in 1765.

At this point, the colonists were hard to please.  Many American colonists saw the Quartering Act as one more way Parliament was attempting to tax them without their consent.  Others suspected that the real purpose of keeping a small standing army in America – stationed in coastal cities, not on the frontier – was not for defense at all, but rather to enforce new British policies and taxes.  The Quartering Act did become a divisive issue in 1766, however, after 1,500 British soldiers disembarked at New York City.  The New York Provincial Assembly refused to provide funds to cover the costs of feeding and housing these men as required by the law.  In response, the British Parliament voted to suspend the Provincial Assembly until it complied with the act.  As it turned out, the suspension was never put into effect since the New York Assembly soon agreed to allocate revenue to cover some of the costs of quartering these troops.  The Quartering Act of 1765 was largely circumvented by most colonies during the years before the Revolution.

American colonists resented and opposed the Quartering Act of 1765, not because it meant they had to house British soldiers in their homes, but because they were being taxed to pay for provisions and barracks for the army — a standing army that they thought was unnecessary during peacetime and an army that they feared might be used against them (and they were right about that).

General Gage traveled to the United Kingdom with his family in June 1773 — so he missed the Boston Tea Party in December.  Parliament correctly judged the tea party as an act of lawlessness, and it was such a blatant example that there was no way Parliament could “overlook” such behavior.  Of course, those who planned, organized, and participated in the tea party were counting on this.  The Parliament was so incensed that they pass a series of punitive measures the colonists called the “intolerable” acts.  What you will hear Americans saying about this is, “The intolerable acts were a series of punitive laws passed by the British Parliament in 1774 after the Boston Tea Party, designed to punish Massachusetts colonists for their defiance in the Tea Party protest of the Tea Act.”  This statement is not altogether true.

The Tea Act of 1773 was a legislative maneuver by the British government under Lord North to make English tea marketable in North America.  A previous crisis had been averted in 1770 when all of the Townshend Acts had been lifted (except that on tea) which had been mainly supplied to the colonies by Dutch and colonial smugglers.  In an effort to help the financially strapped British East India Company sell 17 million pounds of tea stored in England, the Tea Act rearranged excise regulations so that the company could pay the Townshend duty and still undersell its competition.  But Lord North had another problem: to convince the colonists that they were still under the control of the British government and that Parliament could lawfully tax them as it saw fit.[10]

The colonists may have regarded these acts as “intolerable,” because they were imposed on a growing criminal element within the colonies, but Parliament saw them as simply coercive (which is what governments have always done to force compliance with policy and/or regulations).  To put a fine point on this, the Parliament was no more tyrannical than the U.S. government is today, which forces consumers to spend $5.00 on a pack of cigarettes when a pack of cigarettes used to cost fifty cents.

In consultations with Parliament in England, General Gage suggested (and Parliament implemented) the option of moving certain trials to English courts, restricting the activities of town councils, and depriving certain areas within the Ohio Country.  At that point in time, General Gage was more popular on both sides of the Atlantic than were Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver.  Members of Parliament were convinced that if anyone could placate the colonists, it would be General Gage.  Thus, in 1774, Gage was appointed Governor of Massachusetts.  There continues a debate about whether Bostonians were happy to greet Gage, or happier to see Hutchinson leave Boston.

Whatever Bostonians imagined about Gage was quickly affected by his first actions as Governor.  His Boston Port Act resulted in higher unemployment, and to “prevent” the Massachusetts assembly from sending delegates to the Continental Congress, he dissolved it.  Shortly after arriving back in North America from England, Gage withdrew his military garrisons from New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Halifax, and Newfoundland.  He also created a standing naval presence in Boston Harbor and demanded the confiscation of war-making materials and gunpowder.  This activity may be the reason why the founding fathers crafted a Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  In any case, while Gage was successful in confiscating gun powder, a thousand (or more) local militia marched to Cambridge as a show of force, which in turn made Gage ever mindful that the colonists were no paper tiger.

Gages’ actions resulted in more than a few unanticipated consequences, such as driving colonists to expand the committees of correspondence and safety.  He also caused The Sons of Liberty to offer him greater scrutiny.  Several of Gage’s subordinate officers wondered aloud why he was lenient with The Sons of Liberty — or why he put up with their insolence.

On 14 April 1775 Gage received orders from London to take decisive action against the Patriots.  He knew the militia had been stockpiling armaments at Concord (Massachusetts) and ordered detachments of regular Army from Boston to march there on the night of 18 April and confiscate those weapons.  A brief skirmish in Lexington scattered colonial militia gathered there, but in a later standoff in Concord, a portion of the British force was routed by a much-stronger militia.  The British search for weapons at Concord was largely unsuccessful because the colonists, having received an advance warning, had removed most of the weapons.  When the Red Coats left Concord, arriving militia engaged the British column in a running gun battle all the way back to Charlestown.  The battles of Lexington and Concord resulted in 273 casualties for the British, and 93 for the rebels.

Margaret Kemble-Gage

Gage’s order to confiscate the colonists’ weapons was supposed to be a secret.  It was found out by Joseph Warren and communicated by messenger to inform the colonists.  Gage had told his plans to only two people: his second-in-command and Margaret Kemble-Gage, his wife.  Some scholars claim (although hard evidence is nil) that Mrs. Kemble-Gage, an American-born woman, passed this information to Dr. Warren.  Photograph (right) of Margaret Kemble-Gage, c. 1771.  Following skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, thousands of colonial militia surrounded Boston town and began their siege.  At first, the rebels bottled up 4,000 British regulars.  Admiral Samuel Graves continued to control the harbor, which allowed the arrival of 4,500 reinforcements.  Arriving with the men were three additional general officers: Major General William Howe, and Brigadier Generals John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton.

On 14 June, Gage issued a proclamation (believed to have been written by Burgoyne) granting a general pardon to all who would demonstrate loyalty to the crown — with the notable exceptions of John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both of whom were known as traitors and criminals.  Soon after, Gage began working with the three recently arrived generals to break the grip of the besieging rebels.  The plan involved an amphibious assault to seize Dorchester Heights and an attack against rebels in Roxbury.  They would then seize the heights on the Charlestown peninsula, including Breeds and Bunker Hill.  Eventually, the British would take the colonial headquarters at Cambridge.  Again, someone sent a warning to the rebels.

On the night of 16–17 June, the colonists fortified Breed’s Hill, which threatened the British position in Boston.  On 17 June 1775, forces under General Howe seized the Charlestown Peninsula (the Battle of Bunker Hill).  The British won the battle, but at a terrible cost without a significant change in the state of the siege.  In the morning, there were 8,500 British soldiers; in the evening, there were only 7,500.  General Gage wrote to the Secretary at War —

“These people show a spirit and conduct against us they never showed against the French.  They are now spirited up by rage and enthusiasm as great as ever people were possessed of, and you must proceed in earnest or give the business up.  A small body acting in one spot will not avail, you must have large armies making diversions on different sides, to divide their force.  The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear.  Small armies cannot afford such losses, especially when the advantage gained tends to do little more than the gaining of a post.”

On 25 June 1775, Gage wrote a dispatch to Great Britain, notifying Lord Dartmouth of the results of the battle on 17 June.  Three days after his report arrived in England, Dartmouth issued the order recalling Gage and directing that William Howe assume his duties.  Some historians suggest that Dartmouth had already decided to relieve Gage and that the devastating battle was only the last straw.  Thomas Gage received his orders on 26 September 1775 and set sail for England on 11 October.

General Gage’s recall did not end his career.  Upon his return to England, Gage and his family settled in London.  King George continued to favor his “mild general,” but the press was far less kind to him.  The King advanced Gage to full general in 1782 — he passed away on 2 April 1787.

Endnotes:

[1] The British Army rank of captain-lieutenant no longer exists.  The rank indicated the lieutenant of the first company in the regiment.  In the 1740s, the next rank would have been captain.

[2] Captain-General (no longer in use in the British Army) was essentially a full general through the mid-18th  Century.

[3] Subsequently, Captain Robert Orme (Braddock’s aide-de-camp) filed a report indicating that it was Gage’s poor leadership in the field that caused Braddock’s defeat.  Orme’s spurious charges had no long-term impact on Gage’s career but did keep him from acquiring permanent command of the 44th Regiment of Foot.

[4] Of the 1,300 men under Braddock, 456 were killed outright, and 422 were wounded.  Of the officers, 26 of 86 were killed with an additional 37 wounded.  Of the 50 women accompanying the wagon train, only 4 survived.  The French reported 23 killed and 20 wounded.

[5] One can understand Washington’s criticism — it was the official patriot point of view, but there is also the reality that Gen. Gage had very little choice in the matter. 

[6] Benjamin Franklin, who was somewhat well acquainted with Loudoun’s character, observed that indecision was his strongest attribute.  Loudoun was recalled to England after the French bluffed Loudoun from mounting an expedition against Louisbourg and their capture of Fort William Henry.   

[7] Also includes Brigadier General George Howe, 3rd Viscount Howe, and Abercrombie’s second in command.  According to some sources, in his day, General Howe was the best officer in the entire British Army.  He was the elder brother of William, who later became Commander-in-Chief of British North America.

[8] An honorary appointment of patronage.

[9] Pays d’en Haute, or upper country an area west of Montreal that included most of the Great Lakes.

[10] Chelsey Parrott-Sheffer, editor, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, Colonial America, History, Indian War, New France, Pioneers. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Thomas Gage

  1. Andy says:

    Excellent bio! I was a little wary after the first couple of paragraphs that the bio of a second-rate British officer in colonial times could rise to your normal excellent standards. After reading the entire article, I have to admit my concerns were misplaced.
    Well-done. Well-done, indeed!
    S/F

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.