Thomas Gage

c.1720–April 2, 1787 — British General, Royal Governor of Massachusetts

Thomas Gage was a British officer who served as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America and as the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early days of the American Revolution.

Thomas Gage, Portrait, Copley

Thomas Gage served as the Royal Governor of Massachusetts from 1774-1775. Image Source: Yale Center for British Art.

General Thomas Gage was quick to caution and hesitant to use force, which was a poor combination for the time, and invited criticism from citizens and British troops in the colonies and politicians in England. Gage tried to appease the rebellious colonists, especially in Massachusetts. He tried to maintain order without resorting to using British troops to apply force against the colonists, but eventually he had to give in to pressure from Parliament, and he ordered the fateful march on Concord that resulted in the first shots of the American Revolutionary War being fired at Lexington on the morning of April 19, 1775. Two months later, he was forced to order an attack on militia forces that had built fortifications on Breed’s Hill in Boston. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775. Although the British won the battle, they suffered serious casualties. Gage was eventually replaced and returned to England in October 1775.

Early Life, Education, and Family

Gage was born into nobility around 1720. As the second son of the family, he was not eligible to inherit his father’s land or titles, so chose the path of the military.

  • Born at his family’s estate, High Meadow, around 1720 in Firle, Sussex, England.
  • He was the second son of Thomas Gage and Benedicta Maria Theresa Hall.
  • His father was a member of the House of Lords and held the titles of Viscount Gage of Castle Island and Baron Gage of Castlebar. The titles passed to the eldest son, William.
  • The family was Catholic, but converted to the Church of England in 1715, so he was raised as an Anglican.
  • Attended Westminster School in London from 1728-1736.
  • Married Margaret Kemble, an American from Brunswick, New Jersey, on December 8, 1758. They had five daughters and six sons.
  • Margaret’s father, Peter Kemble, was a wealthy merchant and politician.
  • Margaret’s mother, Gertrude Bayard, had connections with the Schuyler, De Lancey, and Van Cortland families from New York.

Margaret Kemble Gage

Painting of Margaret Kemble Gage by John Singleton Copley. See full image »

Early Military Career

Gage made his way up the military ranks and participated in some of the most important and bloodiest battles in the War of Austrian Succession and the Jacobite Rebellion.

  • Joined the army on January 30, 1741, when a King’s commission was purchased for him as a Lieutenant in Colonel Cholmondeley’s Regiment of Foot in Ireland.
  • Promoted to Captain of the 62nd Foot in 1743.
  • Named aide-de-camp to Major General William Anne Keppel, Earl of Albemarle and Governor of Virginia in 1743.
  • Fought in Flanders (present-day Belgium) in the War of Austrian Succession.
  • Participated in the Battle of Fontenoy on May 11, 1745, one of the bloodiest battles of the 18th century.
  • Recalled to England to fight the final Jacobite rebellion.
  • Fought under Albemarle against the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden on April 27, 1746, and helped defeat the last of the exiled Stuart kings and Scottish allies.
  • Returned to Flanders until 1748, when the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed.
  • Transferred to the 44th Regiment of Foot and primarily served in Ireland from 1748-1755.
  • Purchased a Major’s commission in 1748.
  • Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the 44th Foot in 1751.

Role in the French and Indian War

Gage was sent to North America during the French and Indian War as part of General Edward Braddock’s expedition. During that time, he met George Washington, who he would oppose in the early days of the Revolutionary War.

  • Sailed with his regiment to North America in 1754.
  • Participated in General Edward Braddock’s failed campaign and survived the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755. Gage commanded the advance guard and was wounded in the battle. As the leader of the advance guard, he was criticized for failing to head off the ambush by the French and their Indian allies. However, he was also commended by some for his personal bravery and for organizing the rear guard that allowed the rest of the force, under the command of George Washington, to escape.
  • During Braddock’s campaign, he met George Washington, and apparently, they became friends. Washington petitioned Gage in 1758 and asked if he would recommend him to General John Forbes for his expedition to capture Fort Duquesne.
  • Believed that he would have stopped the attack at the Monongahela if he had troops that knew how to fight in the forest, so he raised the British army’s first light infantry regiment, the 80th, in 1758.
  • Led the 80th in Abercromby’s failed attack on Fort Carillon in 1758 and was wounded in the battle. He rose to second-in-command during the battle when George Augustus Howe, Viscount Howe, was killed.
  • He served as Colonel of the 80th under Jeffery Amherst in the operations against Quebec from 1759-1760.
  • In 1759, William Pitt instructed Amherst to execute a three-pronged attack that was meant to crush the French in Canada. General James Wolfe was to attack Quebec while Amherst moved towards Montreal. The third prong, under the command of Brigadier General John Prideaux, was supposed to capture forts at Niagara and La Galette near Ogdensburg, New York. When Prideaux was killed, Amherst ordered Gage to execute Prideaux’s orders. It was Gage’s first independent command.
  • He was supposed to capture the French post La Galette, near Ogdensburg, New York and then proceed to support Wolfe’s siege of Quebec. In case the siege failed, then Gage was supposed to help form a defensive line that ran from Crown Point to Oswego, New York to Niagara (near present-day Youngstown, Ohio).
  • He received new orders just before he reached Oswego, where he was supposed to take over the command from Sir William Johnson. Amherst told him to march toward Montreal after capturing La Galette. Gage failed to see it as a strategic move by Amherst. After a long discussion with Johnson about all the things Gage believed would make the mission a failure, primarily that he felt he had enough men or supplies. He decided he would not attack La Galette or march to Montreal.
  • Amherst was furious over Gage’s decision, which made things more difficult for Wolfe at Quebec. However, Wolfe succeeded when the odds were against him and defeated the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham and the British captured Quebec.
  • In the spring of 1760, the Governor of Canada, Marquis de Vaudreuil, laid siege to Quebec with an army he had raised. Amherst ordered General James Murray to march his army up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec, and he ordered Brigadier General William Haviland to take 10,000 men from Oswego and march them to Quebec. Gage commanded the rear guard of Haviland’s force. Amherst put a fleet together that sailed across to Quebec. When the British forces arrived, Vaudreuil was forced to surrender.
  • Amherst still respected Gage’s abilities as an administrator, so he appointed him as Military Commander of Montreal in 1760. Ralph Burton was named governor of the Three Rivers region. James Murray was the governor in Quebec at the time. Gage was the senior officer of the three, but he viewed Burton and Murray as his equals, and referred to the three of them as the “Three Kings.” Frederick Haldiman eventually replaced Burton.
  • Gage was promoted to Major General in 1761.

Life After the French and Indian War

Gage enjoyed a successful tenure as the Governor of Montreal and found himself again in the good graces of Amherst. When Amherst decided to take a leave of absence in 1763, he asked Gage to temporarily serve as commander-in-chief.

  • Gage left Montreal and went to New York to spend the winter of 1763-1764 there. He arrived there on November 16 and took temporary command from Amherst on November 17.
  • His position as commander-in-chief became permanent when Amherst decided to stay in England in September 1764.
  • Gage permanently succeeded Amherst as commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America on November 16, 1764.
  • He successfully negotiated peace treaties with the Indian tribes that had been involved in Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1765.
  • From his headquarters in New York, he commanded more than 50 garrisons and thousands of troops that stretched from Newfoundland to Bermuda. He was responsible for protecting British territory primarily from France and Spain, but also from unrest within the American colonies.

Role in the American Revolution

When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 to bring an end to the French and Indian War, France turned over nearly all of its territory in North America to the British, which significantly expanded British territory in North America.

The Indian tribes, who had primarily fought on the side of the French during the war, took exception and began attacking colonial settlements on the frontier in what became known as Pontiac’s Uprising.

The King attempted to appease the Indians by issuing the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited colonists from settling in the newly acquired Ohio Territory. Since the colonists had just fought a war to gain control of the Ohio Territory, they were upset that they were told they could not settle there.

To make matters worse, Parliament decided to send troops to act as a standing army in North America, partially to protect the new territory, and decided to levy taxes against the colonies in order to pay for it.

All of this led to the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765, which began Gage’s troubles with the American colonies. His troubles with the colonies grew worse over his tenure, culminating with the Coercive Acts in 1774. The colonies responded by calling the First Continental Congress and within a year the Revolutionary War had begun.

  • When protests against the Stamp Act Crisis started, he recalled troops from western posts and sent them to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, however, he refused to use troops to suppress riots in New York.
  • Stationed British soldiers in Boston in 1768, which contributed to the Boston Massacre in 1770. After the Massacre, he withdrew the garrison of regulars from the city in order to avoid more fighting.
  • He was on leave in England in 1773 when the Boston Tea Party occurred.
  • Suggested he would only need four regiments to quell any rebellion in the colonies.
  • Played a key role in the development of the Coercive Acts, which were designed to punish Boston and Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party.
  • Appointed Royal Governor of Massachusetts in 1774, replacing Thomas Hutchison, and was sent back to the colonies to take control of the situation and enforce the Coercive Acts.
  • In 1774, he wrote to the Governor of Quebec, Guy Carleton, and asked Carleton “whether a Body of Canadians and Indians might be collected, and confided in, for the Service in this Country, should Matters come to Extremities.” This helped fuel speculation the British were going to mobilize the Canadians and Indian allies and attack New England from the north. Eventually, the Second Continental Congress would strike first and launch an invasion of Canada in 1775.
  • On September 1, 1774, he had troops remove gunpowder from the storehouse in Charlestown, which contained all the gunpowder owned by the colony. This action resulted in rumors spreading throughout the countryside that the British had attacked Bostonians and destroyed the seaport. Thousands of militia quickly assembled in Boston but dispersed when they found out the rumors were false. Gage was surprised at how many militia assembled, and how quickly they came. As a result, he wrote to England and requested more troops, far more than the ‘four regiments’ he said he would need. He also requested a naval blockade of the coast.
  • After receiving instructions from Lord Dartmouth to take action, Gage ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to lead troops to Concord on April 18, 1775, to destroy military stores that had been hidden there by colonial militia and possibly to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
  • On the way to Concord, on the morning of April 19, the British regulars fired on members of the Lexington militia in the first confrontation of the American Revolutionary War (see Battle of Lexington). Lieutenant Colonel Smith restored order and marched to Concord.
  • The skirmish at Lexington was followed by another at Concord, known as the Concord Fight, or the Battle of Concord.
  • As the troops marched back to Boston, they were harassed and shot at by provincial militia. When they arrived in Boston, they were trapped. The Siege of Boston began, and over the next few days, thousands of militia from all over marched to Massachusetts and surrounded the city.
  • There is speculation that the colonists were alerted to the march on Concord by his wife, Margaret, who may have been spying on him.
  • Reinforcements arrived on May 25, 1775, including Major General William Howe, Major General Henry Clinton, and Major General John Burgoyne.
  • On the night of June 16, 1775, the Americans built fortifications on Breed’s Hill. Gage ordered an assault on the position the next day, June 17. The Battle of Bunker Hill resulted in a British victory, but Gage suffered massive casualties of more than 1,000 British troops.
  • Before Bunker Hill, the new Secretary of State for the Colonies, George German, had decided to replace Gage. He was replaced as commander-in-chief by Sir William Howe.
  • Howe officially replaced Gage in April 1776, but Howe would not officially take command of British forces until October 10, 1775.

Battle of Bunker Hill

Painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which took place on June 17, 1775, in Boston.

Life After the American Revolution

  • He was recalled to England and left North America on October 11, 1775, but thought he was going there to plan for a campaign to put down the rebellion.
  • He never held a field command again.
  • In 1781, he assisted Jefferey Amherst with preparing defenses in England against a potential attack from France.
  • He was commissioned a full general in 1782.
  • He died from cancer at his home in London on April 2, 1787.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Thomas Gage
  • Date c.1720–April 2, 1787
  • Author
  • Keywords Thomas Gage, French and Indian War, American Revolution, Coercive Acts, Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Jeffrey Amhurst
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 21, 2024