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"Retreat! Retreat! Or you all be cutt off!" - The Misfortunes of Newbury's Colonel Samuel Gerrish

November 3, 2019

In the days following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the British army found itself trapped; surrounded by an army of Massachusetts Yankees. Unbeknownst to General Gage and his officers, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety were confronted with their own dilemma: the provincial forces surrounding Boston began to slowly disappear. At first, militiamen left in small groups, and then by the hundreds, as lack of provisions along with the tug of responsibilities back home weakened their sense of duty. Artemas Ward, the overall commander of the American army besieging Boston, opined that soon he would be the only one left at the siege unless something was done.

To meet this problem, the Provincial Congress agreed to General Ward’s requests that the men be formally enlisted for a given period of time. On April 23, 1775, the legislative body resolved to raise a “Massachusetts Grand Army of 13,600 men and appoint a Committee of Supplies to collect and distribute the necessary commodities.

In accordance with these beating orders, one such regiment raised was Colonel Samuel Gerrish’s Regiment. In exchange for enlistment, each man was paid £5 and promised a bounty of a coat. Designated Colonel Gerrish’s 25th Regiment of the Massachusetts Grand Army, the regiment was composed of 421 men from the Massachusetts towns of Lexington, Woburn, Wenham, Ipswich, Newbury, Manchester, and Rowley and was assigned to the left-wing of the besieging army. Three companies were stationed in Chelsea, two at Sewall’s Point and the remaining three were stationed in Cambridge.

 

 

As the weeks passed after the regiment’s formation, the men of the unit quickly discovered that their regiment was plagued with misfortune and mismanagement, both of which were directly attributable to its colonel. Although Gerrish reported his regiment was at full strength on May 19, 1775, the reality was it was only at half strength. Worse, his soldiers were poorly supplied and in desperate need of additional clothing, equipment, and ammunition. 


When a militia company from Newbury learned it was to be annexed into the regiment, the men threatened to return home rather than serve under him. On June 2, 1775, six companies petitioned to leave Gerrish’s command and form a new unit under the leadership of Moses Little. Following the submission of the petition, the colonel was notified that “a number of gentlemen have presented a petition to this Congress in behalf of themselves and the men they have enlisted, praying that Captain Moses Little and Mr. Isaac Smith may be appointed and commissioned as two of the field officers over them. Six of said petitioners are returned by you as captains, as appears by your return, and the petition has been committed to a committee, to hear the petitioners and report to the Congress, and it is therefore Ordered that the said Col. Samuel Gerrish be notified, and he is hereby notified, to attend the said committee, at the house of Mr. Learned in Watertown, the 3d day of June instant, at eight o’clock in the forenoon.”

The Committee of Safety conducted a full hearing on the officer’s grievances and permitted the companies to depart and form Little’s Regiment.

On the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Gerrish’s negligent conduct was so commonly known that it became the focus of commentary within several military circles on both sides of the conflict. In a letter to General Gage, Dr. Benjamin Church severely criticized the abilities of the inept colonel.

The regiment first saw combat on June 17, 1775. As the British army advanced on Breed’s Hill General Ward found it impossible to reinforce the American position. The militiamen on Bunker Hill were more than reluctant to join their comrades in the front lines on Breed's Hill; the majority categorically refused to move forward. Most militia companies simply walked away from the fight. An alarmed General Ward correctly surmised that if the desertions continued, not only would the British win the day, but they might sweep away the colonial left flank leaving the way open to an assault on the American headquarters in Cambridge. Ward called upon every available regiment to the fight. Gerrish’s Regiment quickly assembled and marched off towards Charlestown Neck.

The battalion arrived at Charlestown Neck shortly after the first assault on Breed’s Hill and immediately came under heavy fire from the Royal Navy. As the regiment’s major recalled, “[I] went with the recruits and met men from the fort or breastwork where there was a great number of cannon shot struck near me, but they were not suffered to hurt me.” Upon seeing the narrow roadway being raked from both sides by British warships, Colonel Gerrish was overcome with fear. “A tremor seiz’d [Gerrish]. He began to bellow, ‘Retreat! Retreat! Or you all be cutt off!’ which so confused and scar’d our men, that they retreated most precipitately.”

 

 

Moments later, Connecticut’s General Israel Putnam arrived on the scene and found Gerrish prostrate on the ground, professing that he was exhausted. The general pleaded with Gerrish to lead his troops onto the field. Finding both the colonel and the entire regiment unresponsive, Putnam resorted to threats and violence. He cursed and threatened the men and even struck some with the flat of his sword in an attempt to drive them forward. Only Christian Febiger, the regimental adjutant, and a handful of men who rallied around him, crossed over the neck, climbed Bunker Hill and moved forward to take up a defensive position on Breed’s Hill. In the midst of the confusion, Thomas Doyle, a private in Captain William Roger’s Company, was killed. The remainder of the regiment scattered and fled back towards Cambridge, where they remained for the rest of the day.

Following the American defeat at Bunker Hill, “a complaint was lodged against [Garish], with Ward, immediately . . . who refused to notice it, on account of the unorganized state of the army.” Years later, General Putnam’s son would bitterly complain about Gerrish’s Regiment, stating “But those that come up as recruits were evidently most terribly frightened, many of them, and did not make up with that true courage that their cause ought to have inspired them with.”

In late July, a British floating battery attacked the American fortifications at Sewall’s Point. Colonel Gerrish, commanding the position, but made no attempt to repel the assault, arguing, “The rascals can do us no harm, and it would be a mere waste of powder to fire at them with our four-pounders.” As evening set in, he ordered the lights of the fortification extinguished. In the darkness, the British continued the bombardment, although the cannonballs flew wide of the fort. For his conduct, Gerrish was immediately arrested. On August 18, 1775, he was tried at Harvard University in the College Chapel for “conduct unworthy of an officer.” The next day he was found guilty.

As a result of the verdict, General George Washington ordered "Col Samuel Garish of the Massachusetts Forces, tried by a General Court Martial of which Brigadier Genl. Green was Presdt. is unanimously found guilty of the Charge exhibited against him, That he behaved unworthy an Officer; that he is guilty of a Breach of the 49th Article of the Rules and Regulations of the Massachusetts Army. The Court therefore sentence and adjudge, the said Col Garish, to be cashiered, and render'd incapable of any employment in the American Army--The General approves the sentence of the Court martial, and orders it to take place immediately."

Surprisingly, many American officers, including the judge advocate presiding over the hearing, declared the punishment was too severe. Following his removal, Gerrish returned to Newbury. Despite his court-martial, the townsmen elected Gerrish to the General Court in 1776.

After Gerrish’s removal, command of the regiment was given to Lieutenant Colonel Loammi Baldwin of Woburn. On April 19th, Baldwin had been one of the first militia officers to bring a force to the aid of Lexington, and to see the bloody results of the engagement on the common. Afterward, he led two hundred Woburn militiamen against the retreating British and devastated their lines at the Bloody Angle in Lincoln. Upon his assuming command in August, the regiment not only experienced a complete reversal from the plague of blunders and mismanagement but quickly developed into a crack fighting unit.

In January 1776 many of the men reenlisted for military service in Baldwin’s successor unit, the 26th Continental Regiment. During that difficult year, Baldwin would lead his regiment across Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In New York, the regiment fought like wolves to hold off a British amphibious landing at Pelham Bay. The regiment later comprised part of the force that crossed the Delaware River with General Washington on Christmas Night 1776 and routed the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Days later, an advance party of the regiment was given the honor of leading the march to Princeton.

 

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