Search for the Arsenals of Freedom
Conflict: American Revolution
Type of Action: Espionage Operation
Location: Massachusetts, New England
Forces: Not Applicable
The battles of Lexington and Concord, the opening engagements of what would become the American Revolution, did not occur spontaneously. Instead they were the result of long standing tensions and escalating clashes between the American Colonials and the English government. Increased taxes, colonial protests and embargo of British goods, the Boston Tea Party, the placement of a standing English Army in Boston and the English closing of Boston harbor all were stages in the development of the situation which allowed a war between the colonies and England to occur. During this escalation of tensions the American citizenry, Patriots as they called themselves, began to organize and prepare for the repelling of the Army should the central government choose to use it upon them. Initially this included the forming of militia groups, including the famous minutemen, and governing bodies, such as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The militia groups, loosely organized bands of men armed with their own personal firearms - firearms fairly equal in quality and function to those in use by the British Army - began to drill and prepare for a possiblee conflict. Such groups, however, could not long sustain any fight with the English without stockpiles of ammunition and food nor could they be as effective in battle as the English Army without the same sort of artillery as used by the British Redcoats. Accordingly one of the primary tasks of the Provincial Congress and other Rebel organizations was the procurement and stockpiling of such war material.
As is true in all times, the only guarantee of liberty was in an armed citizenry. The English tyrants had long known this and had many laws banning the owning of arms by its peasants, lest they rise up and throw out the king and his army. The colonists knew it as well, the inability of an unarmed populace to curb an over zealous government would be recognized in the protection of the right to bear arms in the Bill of Right's Second Amendment to United States Constitution. But in 1775 the American Colonists had no such right and if they were to stockpile arms and munitions they had to do so discreetly.
General Thomas Gage, Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts and the Englishman in command of the British Troops in Boston, and all of the colonies, and in charge of putting down the seditious activities going on in and about that city, knew that the Americans were arming and organizing themselves to protect themselves from the oppression of his Army and his government. He also knew that if he could seize the arms they were gathering that there could then be no revolution. Unarmed citizens no matter how outraged could not raise up in the face of the English Army without any means of defending themselves. Therefore, as a military man and servant of his tyrant, Gage knew that for his mission to succeed he need only seize the American's weapons - their muskets and cannon, shot and powder. The Rebels could not fight if they had nothing to fight with.
However knowing that the weapons must be seized and knowing that they existed was not enough. Gage had already seized small arms stores in late 1774, creating an uproar and nearly bringing revolution then. Now the Rebels had taken steps to hide their caches - and to defend them. Now Gage had to know where they were and how to get to them with the least resistance. Thus in the winter of 1775 or thereabouts Gage began the recruitment of agents - spies - within the colonial ranks. Some were men of note and power with positions within the Rebel movement who were ideally suited to knowing the goings on of the Rebel forces. One such was prominent Bostonian Dr. Benjamin Church, a supposedly avid Patriot who had been elected to the very Massachusetts Provincial Congress which was in charge of purchasing and hiding the arms. Another was Benjamin Thompson, a major in the New Hampshire militia. Others were just normal citizens who would report what they saw and heard from their porch steps or the local tavern, such as a never identified spy who reported from Concord in missives written in bad French, probably as a disguise to his message and his identity. Some of these men were paid and so acted only for monetary gain. Others took money yet acted out of loyalty for their King while still others took and expected no money and acted only out of loyalty to king and a desire to restore peace to their homeland - much as a modern day homeowner will call the police to crime. Still others were British soldiers and officers who, in civilian garb, would go out and watch the militia drill or slip into their storehouses to determine the levels of supplies.
Over several months prior to Lexington Gage obtained vast quantities of information about the goings on of the Rebels in this fashion. He learned of Rebel stores in Charlestown and Watertown and Marblehead in which towns Rebels were making gun carriages for cannon, Salem where there were twelve brass cannon near the North River "on the back of the Town", Mystic where pickaxes were being made for engineering work such as building entrenchments and gun emplacements, and Menotomy (now Arlington) where tools were being made for engineering work. Gages spies also told him that the largest Rebel supply stores were building up in Worcester, Concord and Hartford, Connecticut. His sources could be so detailed that on February 21, 1775 he learned not only that five wagon loads of flour to feed the Rebel Armies traveled from Marblehead towards Worcester but that the wagons had passed through Salem to Mystic to get there and that the trip had taken five days.
Soon Gage had all he needed to know which Rebel Arsenals he needed to seize in order to subdue the rebellion before it could begin. Still Gage wanted confirmation by some of his own officers and also intelligence on the routes of march and the lay of the land around these arsenals to determine which to attack first, how best to get there and what sort of resistance could be expected. Accordingly beginning on February 22nd English officers reconnoitered the roads to Worcester. The road to Concord was scouted as well. This scouting was repeated again in the weeks close before the Battle of Lexington, with a pair of officers again going to Worcester and to Concord. From these reports and his other intelligence, Gage chose in mid April to march upon Lexington and Concord to seize the Rebel Arsenal there, planning to march upon Worcester thereafter, probably due to the fact that his spies had found more likelihood of resistance on that road.
The British espionage search for the rebel arsenals could be said to be a tactical success as all said arsenals were found. Such success could not have likely been avoided. Firstly the Americans took only the most rudimentary efforts to hide their activities. Also they would have been hard pressed to hide anything where at least one third of the population actively supported the king. There was never really much question that the English would learn of the Rebel arms buildup and its location. However, if accuracy as to Rebel intentions is judged, then the operation was a failure. It is said that Gage did not bring artillery with him to Lexington for his spies reported to him that if no cannon was brought no resistance would be given - perhaps because it would not seem so heavy handed an action without all the tools of war. Whatever the rationale, this bit of intelligence may have cost Gage the Battle for he brought no artillery with him and was forced to call it up from Boston once hostilities began. Tactically, therefore, though his intelligence did tell Gage where to go it did not fully apprise him of what to expect when he got there, making the operation a failure in part.
Strategically the operation was an unmitigated disaster for the British. By concentrating on seizing the Rebel arms rather than negotiating with them, the British threatened the very liberty which the American people were so fervently trying to create and maintain. By using the British Army to seize those arms the English fulfilled the Rebel prophesy that the Army was indeed brought there to subjugate them rather than protect them as had been advanced by the English. Had the British actually failed to find the arsenals they would have been better off as it would, presumably, have forced them to treat with the Americans rather than disarm them.
Thus the espionage activities of the winter of 1775 set the stage for the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the opening of the American Revolution. One can only wonder if Gage had not acted to take the Americans weapons away from them, precipitating the fight by doing the one thing the Rebels were most outraged by - using the King's Army on its own citizens and trying to subjugate and disarm them thereby - whether or not war would have come to pass. But war it was, and 8 years of it followed. In the end America would be free.
BACK TO THE BATTLES OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Sources: Spies of The Revolution, Katherine and John Bakeless, Scholastic Book Services, 1962, New York, NY; The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution, 1763-1789, Robert Middlekauf, Oxford University Press, 1982 New York, NY; Redcoats and Rebels, Christopher Hibbert, Avon Books, 1990, New York, New York