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Americans love to describe the opening of the American Revolution with a rendition of Emerson’s “shot heard ‘round the world.” We romantically depict farmers as reluctant warriors who, when set upon by shameless Redcoats, grab their muskets and defend their homes in a spontaneous act of bravery. It’s a great narrative, but it’s the Disney version. To the military professional studying mission command, the truth is far more interesting, complex, and with apologies Walt, an even better story. As you read this virtual staff-ride (with a slight dash of presentism) look for the many examples of mission command, miscalculation, and adaptive thinking – on both sides – and consider what’s necessary for an army to fight and win in today’s complex environments. Then despite all, decide whether an army should celebrate the values embodied in Parker, Barrett, and Brooks, or Gage and Smith.
19 April 1775
When Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith marched his Regulars into Concord early on 19 April 1775, he was alert to the darkening mood of his OE, his operating environment. He did not plan, or want, the fight that had erupted on the Lexington Green three hours ago, and he was keen to avoid any further antagonism. Bravado aside, he realized that his regiment might have to march back (more than 20 miles) through what he sensed was becoming very hostile territory. He prayed that the courier he had sent requesting the planned relief column had made it.
General Thomas Gage, his Commanding General (CG) as well as the Royal Governor, warned him about this possibility when he issued the order the day prior (PDF). After Gage told him to “seize and distroy (sic) all Artillery, Ammunition, Provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all Military Stores,” he admonished him to “take care that the Soldiers do not plunder the Inhabitants, or hurt private property.” We can see that the mission’s tactical task was a raid. The “why” of the raid was to seize and destroy any military supplies and capture members of the illegal Committee of Safety, but the larger purpose (the intent) was to assert the Crown’s authority while maintaining the peace. Success, Gage emphasized, would be a law-abiding populace.
Gage had done his homework and could easily frame the strategic problem around the social, political, economic, and military aspects of the conflict. Pointedly he had to balance several competing forces, including local radicals who were looking for a spark to rally moderates to their cause, and the growing pressure from home to squash this insurrection. The tension around Boston in particular had been building for years, and boiled down to the colonists’ reluctance to pay for what they called the French and Indian War twelve years prior. Since then, in a series of Parliamentary acts, changing tax laws, legal protests, and mob violence, not to mention an innate penchant for self-governance, the colonists and the Crown found themselves on the brink of war. By 1774 the colonists had expelled all loyalist officers from their units, and their minute and militia companies were openly and brazenly drilling, training, and conducting reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance patrols. Gage was anxious to avoid handing them that next provocation knowing too that the Second Continental Congress was about to meet in Philadelphia.
Smith isolated Concord with a textbook cordon by deploying companies at both the north and south bridges, and initiated his search for military stores. Four companies marched across the North Bridge toward their main objective – Colonel James Barrett’s farm - about two miles northwest of Concord Center. Despite the fact that they were tired (having been up since the previous night) and despite the momentary loss of control and discipline on the Lexington Green, the men went about their business without incident.
Smith had 21 companies in his task organization, each one an elite “flanking company,” the grenadier and light companies (who typically lined up on the flanks of a regiment). They were the shock troops and scouts, respectively. They were the most intelligent, athletic, and loyal, but they were not used to working with each other or the officers assigned to their command. They were the most disciplined, but lacked any sense of cohesion, or mutual trust. Lastly, in a move reminiscent of his experience during the French and Indian War, Gage ordered them to march light: without artillery, extra ammunition, or rations.
To Gage, these were prudent risks, not gambles. It was still possible to avoid war and his actions needed to appear non-threatening yet forceful. This was a precarious balance. Although the patrols in and around Boston were largely uneventful, the raid last February on a suspected munitions stockpile in Salem, Massachusetts, ended in a humiliating failure, albeit without bloodshed. Gage knew he had to be careful. He only had 4,000 men, and despite the political calculations from 3,000 miles away, he knew twice that many wouldn’t be enough. This raid had to be fast, smart, but if necessary, lethal. Only his best troops could pull it off.
Concord militia Colonel James Barrett was not at his farm, but about a mile north on a small hill with elements of his regiment looking down at the north bridge. His minute companies and militia companies were coming in from the surrounding towns as fast as they could. So far, he could see men from Concord, Lincoln, Bedford, and Acton. They all heard of the bloody fight on the Lexington Green, and the need to assemble, but details were in short supply. None were surprised, though. They believed a fight was coming. Tensions were running too high to expect anything less. Further, colonial spies could see the regulars preparing for an operation, and Gage’s reconnaissance teams were not as covert as they believed.
The men around him watched the smoke rising from the town and wondered aloud at its meaning. Some of the younger men, having assumed the worst, began to goad Barrett. Although he wished to exercise restraint, Colonel Barrett knew he was running out of time. He would have to make a decision despite his lack of situational understanding.
Like Smith, his present dilemma started at daybreak, just a few miles east in the town of Lexington. Although they all knew there could be violence, it was still shocking. The 76 men on the green, ably led by Captain John Parker, didn’t wish to start a fight, only to show resolve. They intentionally left the road clear, so when the regulars moved rapidly and aggressively off the road to face them at 100 yards, it raised a lot of concern.
The redcoats who showed first were from an advanced guard – a small and fast group of light fighters who pushed ahead of the main column. A few miles outside of town Lieutenant Colonel Smith dispatched this reconnaissance force because he and his officers were increasingly aware of alarm bells, musket shots (to signal their approach) and the contemptuous warnings from captured alert riders. He was nervous, and he wanted to know what lay ahead.
Led by an aggressive Marine major named John Pitcairn, these men were eager for action. They were frustrated with what they saw as another pointless mission, and perhaps a little scared given all the evidence of a roused populace. Further, they were tired (having been up all night due to logistical incompetence) and hadn’t eaten breakfast. When they saw what to them looked like hundreds of “rebels” contesting their route, they didn’t hesitate; when ordered, they filed off the road from their march into a formation opposite the object of their scorn. As Pitcairn shouted at the rebels to lay down their arms, someone fired a shot. No one knows who, or why, but with 17 casualties (including eight colonists dead), one could argue Pitcairn exercised undisciplined initiative. He either did not know, or care about, his commander’s clear intent.
As a key leader in the militia, Colonel Barrett knew his endstate. The Committee of Safety directed the militia and minute companies to protect their homes and property from any unlawful actions by the regulars, but they should only fight if the regulars fired first. Their main purpose was to thwart and frustrate the British. Barrett knew from the men arriving that something had gone horribly wrong at Lexington – but these reports were still unconfirmed. He faced a truly ambiguous and complex situation – after all, he was a British subject, and these were the King’s soldiers. He knew his tactical decisions would have strategic implications. He didn’t know if these early reports were exaggerated, or simply false. He didn’t want to be the cause of a war, but given the smoke rising above the town’s center he believed it was time to act. He ordered his 400 men forward. It was only much later that Barrett learned that the smoke was the result of well-intentioned regulars throwing water on smoldering embers to prevent collateral damage.
The British officers at the north bridge panicked when they saw the orderly lines of militia marching down the hill toward them. They were greatly outnumbered (having only three companies -120 men, give or take) and were unsure how to handle such an unexpectedly organized and hostile force. With no time to consult Smith, they pulled back to the Concord side of the river and fired a volley as the rebels came into range.
In this exchange, both sides took casualties, but the regulars got the worst of it and retreated to a nearby ridge. The rebels pursued only so far; neither side knew what to do next.
Throughout the area of operations, the rebels continued to gather. They watched the regulars but took no further action. The regulars, having marched overnight and engaged in two sharp fights, took advantage of the lull and elected to rest. Besides, they needed to wait for the return of the men out at Barrett’s farm.
When these four companies returned, the sight of the wounded and dead men stunned them. As the full scope of the situation dawned on them, they were amazed that they were able to rejoin their lines unmolested. Ironically, the regulars found nothing of real value at Barrett’s farm, or in the town center, and now, despite their careful preparations, had failed in both mission, and intent. Moreover, it was only 1000 hours.
Lieutenant Colonel Smith’s options were narrowing fast in light of his expressed orders, his CG’s expectations, and the unfolding events. Despite all he’d seen however, Smith did not reframe his problem. He still reasoned that the rebels would be no match for the professionalism and precision of his force. He wished to believe the rebel’s morale could not withstand a volley fire and bayonet charge - he’d seen stronger forces run at this menacing tactic – so he elected to execute the plan as prepared days ago, and march back to Boston by the same route. It was all quite sound from his military training and experience, and he expected to meet the anticipated relief column. His plan lacked only one thing; Smith couldn’t imagine what was coming next.
It was now about noon, and the rebels continue to gather. By some estimates, there were 2,000 men in company-sized formations converging about a mile east of Concord near the Miriam farmstead. They’d been marching since the news of Lexington, and came from remote towns like Dracut, nearly 20 miles to the north. By word of mouth most knew to assemble here because if the regulars came back on the same route, this would be the first open ground they’d see.
As Smith’s column left Concord, it did not carelessly march down the road. Smith put out “flankers,” groups of light infantry trained for scouting and protecting the unit’s flanks. All looked fine until his column approached the Mill Brook (less than a mile from Concord center) and due to Mill Brook - a natural choke point - the flankers lost their maneuver room. Here Smith began to realize his previous analysis and confidence might be misplaced.
The rebels didn’t take long to develop a common understanding of the way to fight Smith’s column as it moved from Concord. They couldn’t fight “the European way” as the regulars preferred because they’d never trained that way. Their ability to coordinate large group actions – even to move in formation - was poor. Yet, they knew if they tried to fight purely as skirmishers, Smith’s flankers would defeat them in detail. The rebels decided to use their greater numbers and knowledge of the terrain to set up company-sized ambushes (units of 50 men) along the route. They looked for key terrain - points where the regulars would have to slow down (such as when the road turned) or where their guard force would have to cross an obstacle. With regiments that were in truth more administrative than combat ready, they would rely on this shared understanding, use of simple mission orders, and trust that each small unit leader would know how and where to adapt. Their first test came as Smith’s flankers came down from the ridgeline that ran parallel to the road, and crossed the brook.
To the militia gathered at Miriam’s, Smith’s column was a remarkable sight and represented not only the finest army in the world, it was their government’s army. Despite Lexington, despite the fight at the bridge, many still held back still trying to convince themselves that this fight was necessary. By now the regulars had no such compunction, and used their .75 caliber “Brown Bess” muskets tipped with 17-inch bayonets to lethal effect. They fought through Miriam’s corner, and did it again when they faced John Brook’s company a quarter mile further down the road.
The company John Brooks commanded was not what we all think of when we think “military.” They did not have standard uniforms, or have a regulation firearm. In the militia, the soldiers more often than not elected their officers and these officers took votes before making decisions. Leadership was by consensus and consent, and neighbors were reluctant to impose strict discipline on one another. Yet, many were combat veterans from the French and Indian war, were in excellent physical condition, and had been training for this for many years. Their unit cohesion was remarkable, and they were defending their homes and families. Smith would route the militia repeatedly that afternoon, but they always reformed and found new ground to fight.
Opportunity for new ground was rampant. Smith’s column was nearly a half-mile long, and susceptible to the accordion effect known to soldiers of every generation. There were times when the rear companies were forced to halt as the lead companies negotiated a turn in the road or fought through an ambush. In other words, as often as the flankers and forward companies were fighting through ambushes, the rear guard was defending itself against determined and aggressive small unit harassment.
One such fight occurred at Tanner’s Brook where the road turns sharply to the left, and after a quarter mile turns right again. Here the regulars met with a sustained 30-minute attack from newly arriving militia units toward the front, and pursuing units from Miriam’s Corner in the rear. The fight was not completely one sided. Many colonists were killed as they fixated on the road and fell prey to the flankers coming in from behind.
The regulars eventually pulled through what has become known as the bloody curve, but the constant fighting and the fact that the light infantry flankers had run nearly the whole way was beginning to take its toll. Smith knew he couldn’t stop to rest, nor could he slow down the pace. Given the number of rebels – and they were continuing to pour in from the surrounding communities – he might quickly find himself surrounded and forced into an ignominious surrender. His only viable course of action was to avoid becoming decisively engaged, and to move as fast as he could through each fight.
It was now about 1430 hours – more than two hours since they left Concord - and they had travelled only five miles. Making matters worse, with 15 more miles to go and only 38 rounds per man to start, they were running out of ammunition. As he continued the march, Smith was learning that there’s a fine line between tenacity and foolishness. Meanwhile the men from Lexington were waiting.
Captain John Parker was adaptive, agile, and angry. He knew from situation reports that Smith was retreating along the same route; he did not need someone to tell him what he should do. After rallying his company from the morning’s defeat, he led his men into a rocky hillside position with a commanding view of the road with the intent to ambush the regulars.
Picture Smith’s regiment as Parker did, coming down this narrow road at a quick march, very much bloodied, exhausted, and scared. Casualties were mounting and morale was flagging. This was not the same confident and aggressive force they’d met earlier that day. When the militia opened fire forcing another action drill from this bluff to the larger neighboring Fiske Hill, not to mention wounding Lieutenant Colonel Smith, these best-in-the-world elite fighters simply broke. The brigade that had left Boston on 18 April was now running for its life.
Fortunately for them, Smith’s plea had reached Gage, who hours ago dispatched 1,300 fresh troops under the command of Lord Hugh Percy. Percy’s column left Boston around 9:00 a.m., but came by land around the Boston neck so it took them a long time to reach Lexington. Although they too did not carry extra supplies or extra ammunition, they did come with some artillery. Percy’s brigade made it to the Lexington Green just about the time Parker’s men were ambushing Smith’s column on the West side of town. These newly arrived soldiers arrived in time to witness the near panic of their elite brethren cresting Fiske Hill followed closely by thousands of rebel soldiers. Percy, who brought two small artillery pieces, now used them to great effect and checked the militia’s zeal. Smith’s torment for the moment was over.
Lord Percy, Smith, and Pitcairn all made it back to Boston, although the fight through Menotomy (now Arlington) was savage. As these two columns consolidated and reorganized, the talk among the men was about the savage nature of the fighting and the atrocities committed by the rebels - the Companies coming back from Barrett’s farm found one of their men with a hatchet wound to the skull. Incensed, the regulars sought revenge and unleashed their frustration upon the people (who they’d now call “the enemy”) by burning homes and killing bystanders.
The regulars fought bravely and skillfully, but in an inelastic fashion. Their carefully synchronized elements of combat power failed to awe, and despite their sophisticated processes, obsession with perfection, standardization and control, they lost. The colonists, on the other hand, fought a brilliantly ad hoc battle. They were so dangerously unscripted that they couldn’t coordinate and synchronize their combat power to stop the combined column. But what they had in abundance was audacity, independent thinking, and a clear and common appreciation of the end-state. Any army can train processes and battle drills, and the nascent Continentals eventually did, but it’s the spirit of Barrett, Brooks, and Parker that should resonate more clearly across the ages. No amount of well-written doctrine can substitute for these stories and the heritage we chose to celebrate.
Stories such as this will only become lore if we follow through with our everyday actions, if we reinforce the behaviors we commend. Fewer update briefings and more ad hoc training might mean – as it did for Barrett, Parker, and Brooks - varying levels of quality and mistakes, but overtime there are fewer mistakes and the bonds of trust are real. Let’s take pride in these individualists and what they represent. Our Soldiers have earned and deserve no less.