We’re referring, of course, to the American insurgents, in 1775. Who do you think we meant?
First, let us set the scene
At the time of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the colonists and the Crown had long been at odds, and British governors and forces were on the defensive, defending, in part, knots of Loyalists who maintained their allegiance to the King in the midst of teeming revolutionary fervor all around.
The occupation of Boston in 1768 and the Coercive Acts of 1774 had cranked up the heat in the Colonies without, as King George III intended, restoring the Pax Britannica in the restive colonies. War was in the air, and both sides took a logistic view. There can be no war without arms stockpiles, so a period of arms raids — by both sides — ensued. The natives could produce their own individual weapons, and small arms then as now were easily smuggled. But cannons and their powder and shot were harder to hide and harder to move under pressure, and the British believed that such arms in the hands of the Colonial militia had more potential for being used on Redcoats than on the ostensible threat, the Indians of the frontier. A series of carefully planned and firmly executed raids, partly by foot but where possible delivered by Britain’s unmatchable Royal Navy, began to secure these arms — for safekeeping, officially.
The Colonials fell upon small and ill-defended armories and garrisons, and spirited away guns, powder and shot. In some places they ran the Crown courts that had been established by the Coercive Acts, and the British magistrates, military officers and governors completely out of town. This occurred in 1774 in Worcester, Massachusetts, which became a major logistics hub for the incipient Revolution; in December, 1774, colonists tipped off by Paul Revere compelled the surrender of Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: the one officer and three-man skeleton crew chose not to go out in a blaze of British glory when faced by 400 armed militiamen. The British, coming from the sea, ultimately retook the fort, again bloodlessly, but the cannon, powder, and shot were gone to points unknown.
Sitting in occupied Boston, besieged (figuratively) by throngs of desperate Loyalists who had abandoned their property and fled the restive countryside for the protection of a line of red coats and Brown Besses, General Thomas Gage, the military and civil Governor of the colony continued to send strong infantry raids to collect militia weapons. He would have mixed results in this. He knew he couldn’t touch Worcester — it was too well defended, and too far away. But he sent some 240 men under Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie to seize the cannon reported to be at Foster’s blacksmith shop and forge in Salem in February, 1775, and detailed an even larger force to take the arms of Lexington and Concord, and with luck, to lay hands upon high-value targets thought to be there, including Sam Adams, in April.
Leslie, a man of sufficient prominence to have been painted by Gainsborough, was landed by the Navy in Marblehead, but got into a jam on arrival at the Salem town limits on 26 Feb 75. A small, cold river divides the two towns, and at the time, there was a drawbridge over it and broad, swampy banks that channelized the Britons’ apparoach. The drawbridge was raised and a throng of militia lined the far side of the river, radiating hostility. They were militia, but they outnumbered Leslie’s Regulars, and the New England militia had spent the past year drilling, which was evident to Leslie and his men. And they had news for him: the cannon and munitions he had come to gather had been moved beyond his reach. In any event, he had orders to go to Salem and inspect a blacksmith shop, not to start a war, and a tense, drawn-out negotiation, using a minister as a go-between, gave Leslie a face-saving out: the bridge was lowered. And his command marched 50 rods (about 250 meters) into Salem, fulfilling his orders to go to Salem and see the blacksmith shop. By now, there were no cannon. The Redcoats turned about, and marched back. (There was for decades a bar/restaurant at approximately the high-water point of Leslie’s advance in Salem called Leslie’s Retreat, with a sign illustrating a powdered-wigged Redcoat in full retreat, Revolutionary themed decor and corny Revolution-themed names for traditional American comfort food. Alas, it closed this year).
Which brings us to April and Lexington and Concord, where no face-saving compromise obtained. We assume you are familiar with this weapons raid gone bad.
The Information Operations War
All this did not happen in a vacuum, but in an environment characterized by aggressive and pervasive attempts to manipulate men’s minds; long before the first shots were fired, the information operations war was on. It began with the Coercive Acts, which were meant to make the Colony of Massachusetts and the City of Boston in particular pay for the property damage of the Boston Tea Party. The four acts had a number of terms offensive to the colonies, but none more than the Administration of Justice Act, which gave Crown servants absolute immunity from civil and criminal law. (This was a response to the Boston Massacre trials, at which the Redcoats were acquitted, but Parliament was outraged that hey were ever charged). At the same time, Parliament passed a Quebec bill which not only restored the Catholic Church in the Francophone province, but also ceded it the western territories of the American colonies.
The first propaganda stroke was renaming these Acts, as a group of five, the Intolerable Acts. In addition, individual laws begat contumacious names: the Administration of Justice act became the Murder Act. As far as we know, no British magistrate or officer got away with murder under the act, but they could have done, and in Information Operations, perception is the war. This was a win for the insurgents. In time, even Britons and historians came to call the four Coercive Acts in particular the Intolerable Acts. It’s interesting that the Intolerable Act designation for the Quebec Act, though, didn’t really stick. Perhaps the issue of the Quebec border was not as immediate as some of the other laws’ restrictions, like closing the Port of Boston or suspending town meetings. Perhaps Quebec ceased to be an issue when British defeat moved its border back to the Great Lakes from the Quebec Act’s Ohio River.
But the biggest propaganda stroke came after Lexington and Concord. Each side had a different story to tell — even today, any historian who claims he knows who fired first is standing upon quicksand — and several audiences to tell it to. The most important audience comprised one man in Westminster — King George III. Closely behind him, as IO targets of both sides, were the factions in Parliament. In addition, there were outlets in Britain more sympathetic to one side or another; just like today’s insurgents and criminals, Sam Adams and his men had their partisans in newspaper offices in 1775. But getting word to England from the colonies then was worse than getting traffic to a space probe today. With no instantaneous communications, physical letters took time to transit in the sailing ships of the day: a month for a fast ship, a month and a half for an average one, two months if you weren’t lucky — that is, if the ship got through at all. Every voyage was a roll of the dice, and some were destined to come up snake eyes. As a rule of thumb, the trip west was a couple of weeks longer than the eastbound voyage, due to the eastward set of prevailing winds in the Northern Hemisphere.
While planning an attack that would avenge his defeat at Lexington and Concord, Gage wrote a series of reports spinning the fight and withdrawal as best he could, and dispatched it in a welter of other paperwork — you can’t have an Empire without paperwork — in the ship Sukey. Kevin Phillips writes:
His further instructions were only that any mail to the Massachusetts agents in London was to be seized. However, using the British mails was not what [Sam] Adams and [Dr. Joseph] Warren [head of the provincial Congress, and architect of the IO campaign] had in mind.1
They put their version of the story in the hands of John Derby of the Salem shipping and mercantile Derbys, and Derby, too made for England. He was four days behind Sukey, but in his own much faster schooner Quero. Unsure whether Gage had gotten word to London before him, Derby anchored Quero at the Isle of Wight 28 days after sailing, then snuck his dispatches through the Royal Navy homeport of Southampton and to the Massachusetts agents in London. What he brought them was dynamite: in Phillips’s words, the “first and most persuasive explanation of Lexington and Concord.” The agents knew who their friends were: liberals like the Lord Mayor of London, and certain newspaper editors.
Derby need not have worried. By the time the poky Sukey dawdled up the Thames, bringing Gage’s instructions to intercept the agents’ mail and his own after-action report, the Colonial version of the tail had monopolized the London newspapers for two weeks. His defensive, self-serving report looked even more defensive, and his attempt to muzzle the colonials’ communications channel was, at this late date, seen not as an IO masterstroke but as a guilty man’s cover-up. Meanwhile, Gage’s attack, on the colonials at Bunker/Breed’s Hill, carried the position, but at a terrible cost (one quarter of the British officers lost in the entire war, which lasted until 1783, died in April, 1775).
It is a measure of the effectiveness of Dr Warren’s propaganda campaign that Gage is remembered in America as a cruel monster, and in Britain as a bumbling incompetent. Given the weight of primacy in psychology — we tend to believe what we heard first over what we hear later — the importance of speed and of memorable labeling in information operations is clear.
- Phillips, Kevin. 1775: A Good Year for Revolution. New York: Penguin, 2012. p.13.