Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pitcairn's Retreat from Concord

    As Lt Col Smith started his men on their march back to Boston, he undoubtedly was wondering just where the relief force he had requested was. General Gage had a contingency plan for reinforcing Smith should it become necessary even before Smith started out on his march to Concord. Gage had ordered his most senior officer, Brigadier Hugh Percy* to have his brigade ready to march by 4 AM on Wednesday, April 19th, 1775 in case Smith would request support; but Gage had addressed the order personally to the brigade's adjutant, a certain Captain Moncrieffe who was attending a party when the messenger delivered Gage's order. Montcrieffe stumbled into bed totally unaware of Gage's order so that when Smith's request arrived at dawn, not a single soldier was set to march. It took another two hours to wake the troops and get them in formation ready to march. Fiasco turned to farce when an army officer realized that a contingent of marines that was to accompany the relief force had not arrived. Since the Marines were separate from the Army chain of command, Gage had sent a separate order to the Marine battalion commander. Of course, the Marine battalion commander was Major Pitcairn who was somewhere on the road between Lexington and Concord; the order lay unopened on his desk. Finally another Marine officer was located, the Marines mustered, and another 90 minutes was lost. Finally, shortly before 9AM, five hours behind schedule, the I1s brigade, flags flying and band playing, started out into the Massachusetts countryside. This unit was considered the elite unit in Gage's army and deployed over 1,000 men.

Withdrawal from Concord. This engraving , after the nineteenth century painting by Alonzo Chappell, illustrates the close nature of the fighting along the road back to Boston; however, the company sized unit of militia to the left is probably not accurate since the rebels preferred to work in small groups and to shoot from cover.
   The first mile of Smith's march back to Boston was uneventful but as the column arrived at Meriam's Corner, where several country lanes came together and the road passed over a bridge, and where, for the first time, the colonists could engage Smith's column with the certainty of numerical superiority. Gunfire erupted and the British suffered casualties. Most importantly, as many as half a dozen British company grade officers were hit. Moving on, Smith's column got pass Meriam's Corner and into a countryside dominated by prosperous and cultivated farms, orchards, fields and meadows in a countryside that today little resembles that of April, 1775.
A 19th century photo of the road facing east from Meriam's Corner.
The narrow road on which the British traveled dropped at times into small ravines, commanded by the hills and ridges above, perfect ambush sites. Many of these ravines and hills were leveled in the nineteenth century and the road straightened so that today's terrain in no way resembles that of 1775. In addition, the terrain was not as heavily wooded as today and the fields were lined with stone fences made up of roughly piled rocks and topped with heavy logs and split rails, again, perfect for ambushers.
The Meriam farmhouse today.

The column pressed on and was again attacked at Fiske Hill, with more casualties. As it approached Lexington, this time from the west, it ran into another prepared ambush. This one included men from the company that it had fired upon at dawn on Lexington Common. Along with men from the militia of the neighboring town of Lincoln, they took positions in the granite rock strewn pastureland and found cover in drainage ditches and large stone outcroppings. The Lexington men held their fire until the van of the British column came right up to them. As Lt Col Smith rode up, they opened fire. Smith tumbled out of his saddle, painfully wounded in the thigh. The fire was so intense that the British column was momentarily stunned and stopped in its tracks, the soldiers compressing onto the road.
   Seeing Smith go down, Major Pitcairn rode up from the rear of the column and ordered several units of grenadiers to launch a bayonet charge up the slopes of what later became known as Parker's Hill. The British Regulars forced the Lexington minutemen to retreat from the crest of the ridge; but the redcoats quickly confronted even heavier fire when they approached an even steeper heavily wooded slope called the Bluff. The British were stopped cold. Pitcairn called up his reserve force of marines and personally led them in a desperate charge to occupy the militia while the rest of the column pushed through down the road. Pitcairn was injured when his horse bolted in the furor of battle, unhorsing him, but the pressure on the colonial lines quickly evaporated. It was this type of action and courage that explains why Pitcairn's Marines suffered the heaviest loses of all of the British units engaged this day.
   With Smith and Pitcairn down, the column was ready to disintegrate. Indeed had there been some colonial officer in charge to whom they could surrender, it's probable that the Regulars would have surrendered.
   The injuries to Smith and Pitcairn threw
Lord Hugh Percy - eldest son of the Duke of Northumberland. Affected with terrible eyesight, severe gout, and what was probably asthma.

  Once Percy assumed command, Major Pitcairn returned to command his marine battalion. Percy reorganized and reordered the now combined column and sometime around 3:30 PM, he started back for Boston. In the new order of march, Percy placed Pitcairn's Marine battalion, now some 400 strong,  at the end of the column just after Smith's army forces. The Marines would alternate with the 23rd Foot as the rear guard. One of the few mistakes Lord Percy made that day was his belief that his march into Lexington would so unnerve the rebels that he would face no opposition on his march back to Boston. As soon as the colonists saw the Marines begin to move out, they surged in against the rear guard and heavy firing began from burning houses and the high ground near the Munroe Tavern.
  Percy's column now faced the same type of ordeal as Smith's did on its way from Concord to Lexington. As the column approached Mentomy (Arlington), it again came under severe attack. The commander of the rear guard, Lt Col Bernard, was wounded and his regiment so battered that Percy ordered Pitcairn to relieve it. The Marines were thrown in to save the rear and they were in constant combat as the column made its way into Cambridge and further into Charlestown. At Cambridge neck, it was the Marines, under Pitcairn, who held the swarming colonials at bay so that Percy could reach Charlestown and safety.
  It was nearly dark at  approximately 6:30 PM when John Pitcairn reached the safety of Charlestown. It had been a long day.
British Marine Private-1775.

* The British Army does not consider a Brigadier a General officer, but rather classifies one as a field officer.

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