Lord Dartmouth Orders Thomas Gage to Take Action in Massachusetts

January 27, 1775

As tension mounted between the American Colonies and Great Britain, William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth and Secretary of State for the Colonies, sent a letter to General Thomas Gage, ordering him to take action. Dartmouth authorized the use of military force and ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress

Lexington and Concord, William Legge, Lord Dartmouth, Orders to Gage

William Legge, Second Earl of Dartmouth. Portrait by Nathaniel Hone I, 1777. Image Source: Hood Museum, Dartmouth College.

Lord Dartmouth’s Orders — Annotated Transcript

Please note that section headings, spacing, and notes have been added to make the text easier to scan and comprehend. 

Trouble in Massachusetts

The Earl of Dartmouth to Gov. Thomas Gage

January 27, 1775

WHITEHALL January 27th 1775 Secret.

SIR,

Although your letters by the Scarborough represented the Affairs of the Province under Your Government in a very unfavourable light, & stated an Opposition to the Execution of the Law which marked a Spirit in the People of a dangerous & alarming nature, 

yet as they did not refer to any Facts tending to shew that the Outrages which had been committed were other than merely the Acts of a tumultuous Rabble, without any Appearance of general Concert or without any Head to advise, or Leader to conduct that could render them formidable to a regular Force led forth in support of Law and Government, 

it was hoped that by a vigorous Exertion of that Force, conformable to the Spirit & Tenor of the King’s Commands signified to you in my several Letters, any further Insults of the like nature would have been prevented, & the People convinced that Government wanted neither the Power nor the Resolution to support it’s just Authority & to punish such atrocious Offences. 

Rebellion in the American Colonies

Your Dispatches, however, intrusted to Mr. Oliver, and those which have been since received, by the Schooner St. Lawrence, and through other Channels relate to Facts, and state Proceedings, that amount to actual Revolt, and shew a Determination in the People to commit themselves at all Events in open Rebellion.

Dartmouth Authorizes the Use of Military Force

The King’s Dignity, & the Honor and Safety of the Empire, require, that, in such a Situation, Force should be repelled by Force; 

Raising and Organizing an Army to Deal with the American Rebellion

and it has been His Majesty’s Care not only to send you from hence such Reinforcement of the Army under your Command as general Considerations of public Safety would admit, but also to authorize you to collect together every Corps that could be spared from necessary Duty in every other part of America. 

AHC Note — Dartmouth told Gage to use his authority as Commander-in-Chief of North America to recall as many troops as needed to put an end to the rebellion in Massachusetts.

It is hoped therefore that by this time your Force will amount to little less than 4,000 effective Men, including the Detachment of Marines that went out in the Men of War that sailed in October last, 

AHC Note — Dartmouth estimated Gage would have 4,000 troops.

and I have the Satisfaction to acquaint you that Orders have been given this day for the immediate Embarkation of a further Detachment of Seven Hundred Marines, and of three Regiments of Infantry, & One of light Dragoons, from Ireland.

AHC Note — Dartmouth told him more troops were being sent from Ireland.

The Regiments of Infantry will be completed by Recruits to their full Establishment; and the Regiment of Light Dragoons will be augmented eighteen Men a Troop, that is to say Nine Men to be drafted with their Horses from the other Regiments of Light Cavalry in Ireland, nine Men without Horses from the Light Dragoons in England.

It is further directed that the number of Men wanting to complete the Regiments now with you, according to your last Returns, which amounts in the whole to near 500 should be raised by drafting one Man a Company from each of the Regiments in Ireland which will amount to about 200 & by drafting one Man a Company from some Regiments here, which will make about 60 more, and the remaining 240 to be raised by recruiting in Ireland for the number which (after the other mode of Supply) will he wanted for each Regiment.

Dartmouth Instructs Gage to Secure Horses

You will observe that nine Men in each Troop of the Regiment of Light Dragoons will be without Horses, and a large Allowance must also be made for the Loss of Horses in the Passage. It will therefore be necessary that ample Provision of Horses be made, & you will not fail to take the earliest & most effectual Measures for securing a number, not less than 200 and Preparing them for Service upon the Arrival of the Regiment.

The New England Army

I understand a Proposal has been made by Mr. Ruggles for raising a Corps of Infantry from among the friends of Government in New England. Such a Proposal certainly ought to be encouraged, and it is the King’s Pleasure that you should carry it into effect upon such Plan as you shall judge most expedient.

AHC Note — Dartmouth referred to rumors that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was in the process of organizing a New England Army. This was, in fact, true. However, Congress did not formally organize the army until after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The army was formed out of the thousands of Massachusetts Militiamen who responded to the Lexington Alarm and the Concord Fight. “Mr. Ruggles” is Timony Ruggles.

Dartmouth Criticizes Gage for Being Cautious

It appears that your Object has hitherto been to act upon the Defensive, & to avoid the hazard of weakening your Force by sending out Detachments of your Troops upon any Occasion whatsoever; & I should do injustice to Your Conduct, and to my own Sentiments of your Prudence & Discretion, if I could suppose that such Precaution was not necessary.

Reinforcements Will Allow Gage to Carry Out the King’s Instructions

It is hoped however that this large Reinforcement to your Army will enable you to take a more active & determined part, & that you will have Strength enough, not only to keep Possession of Boston, but to give Protection in to Salem & the friends of Government at that Place, & that you may without Hazard of Insult return thither if you think fit, & exercise Your Functions there, conformable to His Majesty’s Instructions.

British Authority Must be Supported

I have already said, in more Letters than one, that the Authority of this Kingdom must be supported, & the Execution of its Laws inforced, & you will have seen in His Maty’s Speech to both Houses of Parliament, & in the Addresses which they have presented to His Majesty, the firm Resolution of His Majesty and Parliament to act upon those Principles; 

Three New England Governments Seek Independence

and as there is a strong Appearance that the Body of the People in at least three of the New England Governments are determined to cast off their Dependence upon the Government of this Kingdom, the only Consideration that remains is, in what manner the Force under your Command may be exerted to defend the Constitution & to restore the Vigour of Government.

It seems to be your Idea that Matters are come to such a State that this is not otherwise attainable than by an absolute Conquest of the People of the three Governments of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut & Rhode Island, & that such Conquest cannot be effected by a less Force than 10,000 Men.

Dartmouth Doubts War Will Start

I am persuaded, Sir, that you must be aware that such a Force cannot be collected without augmenting our Army in general to a War-Establishment; and tho’ I do not mention this as an objection, because I think that the preservation, to Great Britain, of her Colonies demands the exertion of every effort this Country can make, yet I am unwilling to believe that matters are as yet come to that Issue.

A Smaller British Army Should Be Enough to End the Rebellion

I have stated that the violences committed by those who have taken up arms in Massachusetts Bay, have appeared to me as the acts of a rude Rabble without plan, without concert, & without conduct, and therefore I think that a smaller Force now, if put to the Test, would be able to encounter them with greater probability of Success than might be expected from a greater Army, 

if the people should be suffered to form themselves upon a more regular plan, to acquire confidence from discipline, and to prepare those resources without which every thing must be put to the issue of a single Action.

Arrest the Leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress

In this view therefore of the situation of The King’s Affairs, it is the Opinion of The King’s Servants in which His Majesty concurs, that the first & essential step to be taken towards re-establishing Government, 

would be to arrest and imprison the principal actors & abettors in the Provincial Congress (whose proceedings appear in every light to be acts of treason & rebellion) if regardless of your Proclamation & in defiance of it they should presume again to assemble for such rebellious purposes; 

and if the steps taken upon this occasion be accompanied with due precaution, and every means be devised to keep the Measure Secret until the moment of Execution, it can hardly fail of Success, and will perhaps be accomplished without bloodshed; 

Dartmouth Doubts the Rebels Can Organize a Formidable Force

but however that may be I must again repeat that any efforts of the People, unprepared to encounter with a regular force, cannot be very formidable; 

and though such a proceeding should be, according to your own idea of it, a Signal for Hostilities yet, for the reasons I have already given, it will surely be better that the Conflict should be brought on, upon such ground, than in a riper state of Rebellion.

AHC Note — In Dartmouth’s opinion, if the Patriots in Massachusetts raised an army, it would be a “Signal for Hostilities/”

Dartmouth Leaves it to Gage’s Description

It must be understood, however, after all I have said, that this is a matter which must be left to your own Discretion to be executed or not as you shall, upon weighing all Circumstances, and the advantages and disadvantages on one side, and the other, think most advisable.

I have fully exposed to you the Grounds upon which the Proposition has been adopted here, & unless the situation of things shall be very different from what they at present appear to be, it is considered as the best & most effectual means of vindicating the authority of this Kingdom.

Punishment for Prisoners

Some attention must be given to the consideration of what it may be fit to do with those who shall be made prisoners in consequence of this Proceeding —

And here I must confess the little hope I have that in the present situation of Things, and the temper of the people, they could be prosecuted to conviction. 

Their imprisonment however will prevent their doing any further mischief, and as the Courts of justice are at present not permitted to be opened, the continuance of that imprisonment will be no slight punishment.

I have mentioned this Measure as having the probable effect to become a Test of the People’s resolution to resist, but there are other Cases that must occur in which the affording the Assistance of the Military will probably become unavoidable.

The Continental Association Encourages Illegal Activity

The recommendation of the General Congress, that Committees in the several Provinces should be appointed to carry into execution the Association for Nonimportation, and that they should take into their possession all ships arriving in the American Ports after the first of December, and should dispose of their Cargoes, in the manner, and for the purposes stated in their Resolutions, encourages Acts of so illegal & arbitrary a nature that every Effort must be made to protect the Commerce of the Kingdom and the Property of the King’s Subjects from such outrageous Insults; and if, in any such Cases, the Assistance be afforded with Vigour and Celerity, I trust not much will be hazarded in the Execution, even should the Attempt encourage the People to take up Arms, seeing in this, as well as in the other Case, their Efforts of Resistance must be made without Plan or Preparation.

AHC Note — The Continental Association went into effect on December 1, 1774. The 12 Colonies that attended the First Continental Congress agreed to be members of the Association. Georgia, which did not participate in the Congress, voted to join the Association in July 1775.

Naval Reinforcements

In such an Event as I have here supposed, it must be considered also, that any Efforts of Resistance on the Part of the People will be the less to be feared, as the Scene of Action, if it should come to Extremities, must be in Situations, where the Naval Force, which will receive immediate & considerable Augmentation, may be brought to act in Aid of the Army with full Effect. 

Gage’s Decision

I sincerely wish that the Information which we have received of the State of the Province, would enable me to instruct you upon every Case in which you may wish to receive such Instruction; but in a Situation where everything depends so much upon the Events of the Day, and upon local Circumstances, your Conduct must be governed very much by your own Judgement and Discretion.

Dismantle Military Defenses in Connecticut and Rhode Island

What I have said will point out to you with precision the Idea entertained here, of the manner in which the Military Force under your Command may be employed with effect; and it only remains for me to suggest to you, whether it may not be advisable, if there should be an evident Intention on the Part of Connecticut and Rhode Island to support the Inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay in their Rebellious Conduct, that the Fortifications upon the Island in front of the Town of Newport, and the Battery at New London should be dismantled; 

It may also be advisable to bring away the Cannon and Stores belonging to that Battery, and deposit them in some Place of Security; a Service which, I conceive, may very easily be effected by the Admiral without the Aid of any Detachment from the Army; and you will do well to consider whether it may not be practicable, to recover into The King’s possession those Cannon and Stores which have been taken away in so extraordinary a manner from the Fort at Newport.

The American Crisis

With regard to the state of America in general, affairs there are now come to a Crisis in which the Government of this Country must act with firmness and decision.

Criticism of Gage for Allowing Massachusetts Militia to Train

The accounts of what has already passed in Parliament on the Subject of America will probably reach You thro’ other channels as early as you can receive this Letter; and I make no doubt they will be accompanied with every misrepresentation and exaggeration that can have the effect to encourage in the people more desperate Measures; you will therefore be more than ever on your guard, and upon no account suffer the Inhabitants of at least the Town of Boston, to assemble themselves in arms on any pretence whatever, either of Town guard or Militia duty; and I rather mention this, as a Report prevails that you have not only indulged them in having such a Guard, but have also allowed their Militia to train and discipline in Faneuil Hall.

Declare Martial Law

In reviewing the Charter for the Government of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, I observe there is a clause that impowers the Governor to use & exercise the Law-Martial in time of actual War, Invasion or Rebellion.

The Use of Military Force is Justified

The inclosed copy of a Report made to me by the Attorney & Solicitor General, contains an Opinion that the Facts stated in the Papers you have transmitted, are the history of an actual and open Rebellion in that Province, and therefore I conceive that according to that Opinion, the exercise of that power is strictly justifiable, but the Expedience and Propriety of adopting such a Measure must depend upon your own Discretion under many Circumstances that can only be judged of upon the Spot.

I am Sir, Your most Obedient humble Servant

DARTMOUTH

Honble Governor Gage.

Background of Dartmouth’s Orders for Gage

  • General Thomas Gage was the Governor of Massachusetts and the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America when the Battles of Lexington and Concord took place.
  • William Legge was the Second Earl of Dartmouth and the Secretary of State for the Colonies from August 1772 to November 1775.
  • Following the Boston Tea Party, Parliament enacted the Intolerable Acts, intending to bring Massachusetts into submission.
  • The American Colonies responded by organizing the First Continental Congress, which protested the Intolerable Acts.
  • Congress established a ban on trade with Great Britain, known as the Continental Association.

Facts About Dartmouth’s Orders for Gage

  • On January 27, 1775, Lord Dartmouth sent a letter to General Gage and instructed him to take action against the “open Rebellion” in Massachusetts, however, he did not give him specific instructions on how to deal with the situation and left it up to Gage. 
  • While the letter was on its way to Massachusetts, General Gage was receiving information from a spy within the Massachusetts Provincial Congress — Dr. Benjamin Church — and was aware the Congress was making preparations for hostilities.
  • Gage responded by sending Captain John Brown and Ensign Henry De Berniere on a spy mission to gather intelligence and map the roads west of Boston.
  • On March 20, Gage issued more orders to Brown and De Berniere. This time, they were told to go to Concord, “examine the road and situation of the town” and gather “information…relative to what quantity of artillery and provisions.” While conducting their mission, the two spies were informed there were 14 cannons hidden in Concord, along with other military supplies.
  • On April 14, Gage finally received the letter from Lord Dartmouth, instructing him to take action, and Gage started to carry out a plan to seize and destroy the military supplies in Concord.
  • Although Lord Dartmouth approved the use of military force, he also told Gage to arrest the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The most prominent leaders were John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
  • On the night of April 18, Gage gave instructions to Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, ordering him to lead an expedition to Concord and seize and destroy the military supplies hidden there.
  • Gage did not mention arresting the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in his orders to Smith.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Lord Dartmouth Orders Thomas Gage to Take Action in Massachusetts
  • Date January 27, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Battles of Lexington and Concord, Lord Dartmouth, William Legge, Thomas Gage
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 27, 2024

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