General Gage and Martial Law in Boston
The British relationship with the United States has been, overall, more cordial than many nations enjoy. There are obvious ties between the two nations, so much so that people talk of the ‘special relationship’ that exists between the two countries. For most of the last 150 years or more, the two countries have been close allies – amongst the closest in the world. Nevertheless, the colonists’ rebellion against Britain inevitably means that there are some more unsavoury moments in our shared history. On this day in 1775, General Gage declared martial law in the city of Boston.
The Revolutionary War had begun the previous April, when shots were exchanged between British troops and the Massachusetts Bay militia in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. While the battles were something of a wash, the colonists would have been far the happier with the results – not least because at this stage, British success probably puts down the rebellion entirely. This first battle ends with the British forces retreating to Boston, under attack from snipers who took pot-shots at them as they went.
In the days following, the British were besieged in Boston. The rebels dug in outside the city, trapping the British army and they were soon reinforced by other militiamen from across New England. Initially, the only way of resupplying the city was by sea, though that state of affairs couldn’t hold. Before long, citizens calling themselves ‘patriots’ had largely abandoned the city to the British, while those calling themselves loyalists had fled the countryside, now considered unsafe, for the city itself.
Though the British were able to resupply from the sea due to naval supremacy, smaller American vessels were able to interfere with that process, and eventually they were shortages in the city. That allowed the rebels to tighten their grip on the British forces, who found themselves having to leave the city in order to take provisions from the countryside. The Americans responded by removing or destroying anything the British soldiers might try and get their hands on. By the end of May, things were heating up as the situation was untenable for the British a major relief force arrived by sea – including generals William Howe, John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton. Preparations were being made for the British to be able to break out of Boston. The force was now in place for troops to try and subdue the countryside.
Nevertheless, if that happened there would be no going back. Gage decided to have one last try and ending the situation peacefully. In reality, this may have been no more than wishful thinking on Gage’s part. By this point there had not only been the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen had captured Fort Ticonderoga, while just four days earlier Lord Dunmore, the Colonial Governor in Virginia, had retreated to a Royal Navy ship in the York River, essentially ceding control of the Commonwealth to the Rebels. One wonders how likely it is that things could have been averted at this late stage. Nevertheless, Gage made the attempt. Given how close the American cause came to failure on more than one occasion, a pacified New England might have been the difference. Whatever the risks, the potential rewards were great.
However, Gage’s proclamation seemed to do more to push people towards the Patriot cause, rather than bring them back to his side. It began by effectively restating the loyalist position. There was little by way of conciliation in his language. He wrote, ‘The infringements which have been committed upon the most sacred rights of the crown and people of Great-Britain, are too many to enumerate on one side, and are all too atrocious [sic] to be palliated on the other. All unprejudiced people who have been witnesses of the late transactions, in this and the neighbouring provinces, will find upon a transient review, marks of premeditation and conspiracy that would justify the fulness of chastisement: And even those who are least acquainted with facts, cannot fail to receive a just impression of their enormity, in proportion as they discover the arts and assiduity by which they have been falsified or concealed.’
If his proclamation began with the stick, the carrot came later. ‘In this exigency of complicated calamities, I avail myself of the last effort within the bounds of my duty, to spare the effusion of blood; to offer, and I do hereby in his Majesty's name, offer and promise, his most gracious pardon in all who shall forthwith lay down their arms, and return to the duties of peaceable subjects’. The lone exceptions to this offer were to be Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whose offences, the document said, ‘are of too flagitious a nature’. Having made the offer, the proclamation stated the consequences of non-compliance. Refusal to lay down arms or to continue to assists Hancock and Adams would see you considered ‘rebels and traitors, and as such as to be treated.’
The declaration of martial law was tucked away in the following paragraph:
‘And whereas, during the continuance of the present unnatural rebellion, justice cannot be administered by the common law of the land, the course whereof has, for a longtime past, been violently impeded, and wholly interrupted; from whence results a necessity for using and exercising the law martial [my italics]; I have therefore thought fit, by the authority vested in me, by the Royal Charter to this province, to publish, and I do hereby publish, proclaim and order the use and exercise of the law martial, within and throughout this province, for so long time as the present unhappy occasion shall necessarily require; whereof all persons are hereby required to take notice, and govern themselves, as well to maintain order and regularity among the peaceable inhabitants of the province, as to resist, encounter, and subdue the Rebels and Traitors above-described by such as shall be called upon those purposes.’
Gage was clearly no idiot; he had risen to a position of some eminence and though things were going badly in Massachusetts at the time, he was caught, somewhat, between a rock and a hard place. How do you restore relations when two sides see the issues that divide them fundamentally differently? Gage’s correspondence demonstrates an ability to shift his views of the militias and their military capability, and so he was clearly not locked in to one particular view of his enemies or of the situation. There is also evidence, put forward by J.L. Bell and others, that the proclamation was written not by Gage but by John Burgoyne. Regardless, this intervention had the opposite effect – more men swelled the ranks of the army surrounding Boston.
The next day, word reached the militia that the British planned to break out of Boston and fortify the Dorchester Heights, effectively giving them control over the entire Boston bay. On June 16th, preparations began for the first pitched battle of the Revolutionary War. The next day, the British took the field after the Battle of Bunker Hill but suffered many casualties – more than double those taken by the Patriots. As General Clinton wrote in his diary afterwards, "A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America."
On the American side the rest, as they say, is history. As for Gage, his report of the battle was enough to cost him his place in Massachusetts. Within days of it reaching London, he was recalled by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Dartmouth. He was replaced as the Commander-in-Chief in America by General Howe. More significantly, the colonial office of Governor of Massachusetts Bay was effectively vacant on his departure. The man who would replace him, the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was John Hancock – one of the very men that had been excluded from Gage’s offer of pardon, five years earlier.
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.