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  • History Friday: The General’s Lady

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on March 10th, 2017 (All posts by )

    (A version of this post appeared on the website Heroes, Heroines and History in January, 2017.)

    It is suggested that she may have been a spy – the general’s lady, Margaret. She was the wife of General Thomas Gage, a long-serving officer in the service of his Majesty, King George III, a veteran of the wars against the French and their native Indian allies against the British colonials settled along the long and mostly temperate shores of North America. Thomas Gage was a commander and administrator of agreeably competent ability, a scion of minor nobility; titled, but not one of the grander, wealthier houses, and in any case, a younger son. In the 18th century scheme of things, the heir got the title, the property and the income, the spares were allocated to the church or the military, with a suitable rank or living purchased. Thomas Gage had been in the British army at various ranks appropriate to his age and experience, participating in campaigns in Flanders (the War of Austrian Secession) and Scotland (the second Jacobite uprising). He dabbled in politics briefly and unsuccessfully, to the point of running for a seat in Parliament in the early 1750s, after suffering a disappointment in love when a lady of rank and quality broke their engagement. He briefly contested the first, not the second, and probably took refuge in the fact that his regiment was posted to the Americas … just in time to experience the brutal defeat of an expeditionary force of British and Colonial troops sent to capture the French stronghold of Fort Duquesne on the Ohio River. There, Thomas Gage was a comrade with his eventual foe, George Washington, then a colonel in the Virginia militia. The catastrophe of the Braddock expedition had Thomas Gage seriously re-thinking established British Army practice when it came to fighting. He was promoted to full colonel and given the authority to recruit a new kind of army unit, which were to function as skirmishers and irregulars, taking advantage of the wooded landscape in skirmishes with the French and their Indian allies. He recruited in up-country New York and New Jersey, drawing on local soldiering talent and from other British army units, making friends, and connections.

    Sometime during 1757 or 1758, Colonel Gage encountered Margaret Kemble, likely at a formal dance or occasion where the local colonial squirearchy would be accustomed – indeed, comfortable mingling with those from “across the pond” whom they viewed as their social equals. She would have been about twenty-four, when she married Colonel Gage in December, 1758, in Albany, New York. He was nearly twenty years her senior – not uncommon when it was expected that a man should be well-established in the world, and capable of supporting a wife and family. She was no innocent country girl dazzled by a good-looking soldier in a braid-trimmed red coat, who had so many titled friends and relatives. Margaret was the daughter of wealthy merchant Peter Kemble, the great-granddaughter of that van Courtland who was the first native-born mayor of New York, a connection to the influential Schuyler clan, and a notable beauty in her own right. She was painted more than twenty years later by John Singleton Copley, dressed in fancy robles a la Turquerie – a beautiful woman, even allowing for artistic license. She had an oval face, with fine, regular features, dark eyes and hair. She looks pensive, intelligent, even a little melancholy.

    With the surrender of the French in the New World, after the fall of Montreal two years later, Thomas Gage was promoted again, and tasked with governing the former French territory. Margaret joined him there – and the first two of their eventual eleven children were born in Montreal. Six of those children survived to adulthood. Likely Margaret was happy in her marriage and pleased with the start of her family: by 18th century standards she had done very well in marriage. Her husband’s position enabled her to live in considerable comfort; observers then and later thought their marriage a loving and companionable one. With the ending of the bitter war between English and French colonists, made even more horrible by the use of Indian proxies against the English colonial population – all would have been sunshine and promise.

    Thomas Gage proved to be an able civil administrator, despite a certain impatience with the local wealthy landowners and a distrust of the Catholic church only to be expected from an Englishman of his era. But he couldn’t stand the harsh Canadian weather, confessing waspishly in a letter to being, “very much [tired] of this cursed Climate, and I must be bribed very high to stay here any longer.” When his superior in the Americas, the much-respected Lord Jeffrey Amhurst returned to England on leave, Thomas Gage was named as Amhurst’s interim administrator; the most powerful authority in the British American colonies. He and Margaret promptly moved from the frigid north to the familiar surroundings of New York. When Lord Amhurst announced in 1756 that he had no intention of ever returning to the Americas, Thomas Gage was confirmed as his permanent successor. He was well-recompensed for his tireless labors in governing a territory several times larger than Britain itself; all their surviving children were sent back to England for their education. Thomas Gage appears to never have been tempted into using his position at the top of the heap to enrichen himself through shady financial dealings. He and Margaret would have been at the center of the social whirl – a situation which must have been very pleasing for her.

    But there were already clouds on the horizon, clouds which grew darker over the next several years. The relative independence of the American colonialists – accustomed to their town meetings to decide matters of local governance – was a matter for administrators like Thomas Gage to fret over. That settlers persisted in leaving the settled counties, striking out in the direction of new lands – in defiance of British edicts – was exasperating. And that they insisted, with unwavering obstinacy, that they had a perfect right to manage their own political affairs … that was beyond the toleration of a loyal officer and representative of the Crown. The furious reaction to the Stamp Act, which the British had intended to cover the costs of administering and defending their colonies and the colonists viewed as a tax levied on them without consent, took the British by surprise. Thomas Gage grumbled sourly that democracy was just to prevalent in the Americas. The Stamp Act was rescinded, after boycotts, protests, and demonstrations; but the expenses incurred by the Crown and resentment at the obduracy of the colonials didn’t.

    When the next attempt by the Crown to manipulate the colonists into paying what the Crown regarded as their fair share, the Gages were in Britain, on what amounted to a long home leave – and so missed experiencing first-hand the protests that rocked the Colonies and culminated in the Boston Tea Party. In mid-1774, George III tasked Thomas Gage as the military governor of Massachusetts, charged with restoring good order and dispatched to Boston. He was experienced and trusted by all – even the not-quite-rebellious Colonials. Margaret followed him later in the year, and they set up housekeeping Boston.

    Thomas Gage was initially popular as governor, but differences between Crown and Colonies hardened to the point that they became irreconcilable. The Crown demanded obedience and tax monies, the colonists insisted on their rights as they understood them. Not even the most gifted administrator could bring about a compromise, and it is a matter of record that Margaret Gage was increasingly distressed over this, telling a close friend in the words of Lady Blanch in Shakespeare’s King John, “Which is the side that I must go without? I am with both, each army hath a hand…” To another acquaintance, she wrote that “she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen.” And of course – being American-born, her true loyalties were doubted by both sides as the situation deteriorated.

    As part of his efforts to disarm the local colonial militias, Thomas Gage sent out troops to confiscate gunpowder from various armories near Boston. Instead of dampening opposition to royal policies, this only stiffened defiance on the part of rebels – rebels like Paul Revere, and his fellow “Sons of Liberty”. Revere and his good friend Dr. Joseph Warren had set up a briskly efficient espionage service which covered all of Boston with a network of eyes … eyes which watched the activities of the British garrison and the naval ships resting at anchor in the harbor. On a certain day early in April, 1775, those watchers noted a burst of unusual activity: something involved a quantity of longboats, all being put into readiness. A hostler at a stable where some Army officers kept their horses overheard them talking – something about “hell to pay tomorrow” as the officers tended their riding tack. An unusual number of officers were observed in conversation, striding up and down at the end of a long wharf … obviously discussing something they wished to keep private. The British were planning an operation – but in which direction? The Sons of Liberty and their friends in outlying towns absolutely had to know the answer. Only one of Dr. Warren’s many informants could tell them – and that was a person whose identity was a secret to all but Dr. Warren, a person close to the upper levels of British command in Boston, a person to be contacted with extreme care, and only as a last resort.

    It is not an absolute certainty that Margaret Kemble Gage was that person, but the circumstances hint at it. A local clergyman later wrote that Dr. Warren’s secret informant was “a daughter of liberty unequally yoked in the point of politics,” which suggests a woman. Dr. Warren was killed barely a month later, in the fighting at Breed’s Hill, taking the identity of his secret informant to the grave. As a practicing doctor, he would have had a fair excuse for calling on Margaret in his medical capacity and coming away with the answer: the British were mounting an extensive expedition to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock – thorns in the side of the British garrison for their outspokenness – and burn the military stores at Concord.

    Only the very highest levels of the British command were privy to this intelligence. That evening, Thomas Gage summoned Brigadier General Lord Hugh Percy and other senior officers and briefed them on the mission to Concord – telling him that it was a closely held-secret and to tell no one. Returning to his quarters later, Lord Percy saw a knot of ten or twelve Bostonians in animated conversation. Asking them what they were discussing so earnestly, Lord Percy was appalled when one replied, assuring him that while the British troops may have marched, they would miss their aim at Concord. Lord Percy understood at once that the mission was compromised. He hurried back to inform General Gage … and Gage exclaimed in horrified disbelief that his confidence had been betrayed; he had spoken to only one other person regarding his plan before briefing his officers. Who that person was is left unspecified, but circumstances do suggest that it could have been his wife – although there is no irrefutable proof of this. Thomas Gage had loved his wife for twenty-five years. To publicly brand her as a traitor, if she was Dr. Warren’s informant must have been something he simply could not do. And even though tensions were running high, few could have foreseen that the mission to Concord would draw blood at Lexington Green and throughout the disastrous British retreat to Boston, or that this would be the spark that set off the American Revolution.

    How did it end with the General and his wife, who may have been a spy? Margaret was sent with other wives and families out of Boston later that summer, returning to safety in England from what had become a war zone. He spent several more months in the Colonies, prosecuting a war for which he seemed to have little heart. Some accounts have it that she and Thomas Gage were estranged thereafter, but there is little contemporary gossip to suggest such a situation. Others point out that they had two more children together after the debacle at Concord and shared a London residence on his return to England; a well-earned retirement after a lifetime of conflict and hard work. Thomas Gage’s health declined in the following years, and he passed away in 1787. Margaret survived him by nearly 40 years. She never returned to America, spending the rest of her life in England, where her children married into the peerage and served as Thomas Gage had done … but leaving a puzzle for historians.


    4 Responses to “History Friday: The General’s Lady”

    1. Grurray Says:

      Some prominent Whigs like Edmund Burke viewed the American Revolution not as a rebellion but a civil war. Burke launched his political career arguing against the Stamp Act, and he considered the root of the problem to be unjust repression of liberty by Parliament.

      It certainly looked like a civil war in New Jersey and the Carolinas. Margaret may have been a spy. She probably didn’t see herself as a traitor against the crown, and with good reason because she wasn’t.

    2. Sgt. Mom Says:

      It is true that Gage didn’t seem to have the stomach for really prosecuting a civil war, although certain of his officers did. Dr. Warren was so hated by the British officers in Boston that after he was killed, some of them desecrated his body. A total, all-out war in the Colonies just wasn’t in the cards, I think. Not the distance from England that it was, the number it would have taken for the British to win it, and having opposition it the war at home… still and all, it was a close-run thing. I just got a book to review about Saratoga, so I will see what I can glean from that for the next book.

    3. Anonymous Says:

      Because a significant number of Indians consistently rebuffed demands that they cede their lands and because Americans were determined to acquire them anyway, the United States constantly pursued war against Indians. Indeed, America was born fighting Indians. In the early phases of the Revolutionary War most Indian nations allied with Great Britain in large measure because they saw a new settler nation as an unprecedented threat to their lands. In 1779 the United States declared war on the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to punish them for raids they had undertaken to roll back colonial settlement. The object, in George Washington’s words, was “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements.” When the Continental Army invaded, the Haudenosaunee decided not to risk the loss of life that would result from defending their towns and instead evacuated them. This allowed U.S. troops to burn dwellings and crops, but as Chief Old Smoke later explained, “we lost our Country it is true, but this was to secure our Women & Children.”19 The number of Haudenosaunee directly killed by the American army was around two hundred (including some women and children), though as many as a thousand died from disease (primarily dysentery but also smallpox) and starvation in refugee camps. Out of a population of 9,000, the death toll from all causes was probably around 15 percent. Had the Haudenosaunee decided to defend their towns, it would almost certainly have been higher.

      War, 1776–1815

    4. Sgt. Mom Says:

      An interesting link, Anon – totally off-topic to the question of Mrs General Howe being an informant for the Colonialists, but interesting.
      Do come back again. Post under your name or internet nym, and try to stay on topic.

      Say, wasn’t the British commander in the Colonies at a slightly earlier date, Sir Jeffrey Amherst the one who wrote a letter suggesting that smallpox-contaminated blankets be distributed to the Tribes?