The efforts of the American Provincial Congress at the beginning of the revolutionary war against Great Britain offer the perfect case study to understand how best to utilize information against an enemy during conflict. After the initial skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, the Provincial Congress sought to influence Great Britain’s political apparatus and public opinion prior to the start of major combat operations, with the main objective of dividing the British Nation in their support for the coming war. The material used to accomplish this consisted of detailed sworn depositions from American participants in the battles, a copy of the Essex Gazette newspaper describing the events, and an official narrative of the battle, all of which painted a positive picture of events from the American perspective. This action initiated one of the most successful information campaigns in the entire history of conflict.
Within days of the events at Lexington and Concord, the Provincial Congress realized that Gen. Thomas Gage, Commander in Chief of all His Majesty’s forces in the American colonies and Governor of the Province of Massachusetts, was publicly declaring “that the provincials fired upon his detachment before the troops fired upon the provincials.” Some believed that Gage was being “scandalously deceived by his officers” on the facts of the engagement. Either way, it was determined that England must hear of the true story of events—as the Americans viewed it—as soon as possible. In addition, they also realized that they must attempt to stop the British narrative from reaching England first.
Orders were soon issued to attempt to prevent the British ship of war Lively, and any others, from sailing with accounts of the event, as their arrival in England first would “injure the most important cause we are engaged in:” the American information campaign. Gage, besieged in Boston and feeling the effects of this, complained to the Secretary at War how the Provincial Congress “Published the most false and inflammatory Accounts of the Skirmish on the 19th . . . and robbed the Mails of all letters giving a different account of the Affair from their own.” Interestingly, as evidence of the effectiveness of American efforts to physically hamper the British counter-narrative, Gage sent this comment by water “for the Land Communication with every other Province is cut off.”
A swift schooner named the Quero, owned by Richard Derby and commanded by his son John, was soon commissioned and given the mission by the Provincial Congress to spread their narrative first. Derby was directed to make his way undetected to London with great haste at which point he was to “forthwith deliver his papers to the [American] agent.” His cargo consisted of the detailed sworn depositions from American participants and three British captives in the battles, a copy of the Essex Gazette, and an official narrative drafted by Joseph Warren. To ensure confidentiality, the order concluded with a postscript instructing Derby to “keep this order a profound secret from every person on earth.”
The American agents in Britain mentioned in Derby’s order were Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin, though the material landed in the hands of Lee as Franklin had already sailed for home. “The contents of this packet will be our apology for troubling you with” begins the message to the agent who was about to embark on an effort to sway British public opinion to the American cause. “Our enemies, we are told, have despatched to Great Britain a fallacious account of the tragedy they have begun” continues the letter; to prevent the British narrative affecting public opinion against the American cause, Congress entreated Lee that the item carried by the Quero “be immediately printed, and dispersed through every town in England, and especially communicated to the lord mayor, aldermen and council of the city of London.”
In contrast to American information efforts, the report Gage sent back to England left much to desire. Though his dispatch departed on a British cargo ship four days prior to the American schooner, the heavily laden Sukey was no match in speed to the empty Quero. The schooner commissioned by the Provincial Congress, armed with the American paperwork, made it to England a full two weeks before British accounts of the battle arrived—immediately establishing dominance over Great Britain with a narrative favorable to the American cause. Derby, in a feat of seamanship, made the crossing in four weeks, arriving in London on May 28. Within a day, the carefully crafted American narrative authored by Warren had sped across the nation, under the header To the Inhabitants of Great Britain.Along with Warren’s narrative the article from the Essex Gazette was reprinted across England, it began, “the Troops of his Britannick Majesty commenced Hostilities upon the People of this Province, attended with Circumstances or Cruelty no less brutal than what our venerable Ancestors received from the vilest Savages of the Wilderness.”
Gage at least understood that the Americans would most likely try to get their story to England, but assumed they would do so by conventional means. This was reflected by his order to the captain of the Sukey: “to examine every letter on board her, those directed to Doc Franklin, Lee, Borland &c, to be sent to Boston; any other suspicious letters, to be put under cover to the Secretary of State.” Though Gage understood that the Americans would try to present their narrative, he underestimated the considerable effort they would put behind it and failed to fully grasp his enemy’s strong desire to influence British public opinion. Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State to the Colonies, quickly realized the truth of the messages “sent by the enemies of Government on purpose” to represent the engagement “in a light the most favorable to their own Views.”
The intricate and detailed narrative circulating among the British public was met mainly with silence by the government of Great Britain, as they chose to wait for a comprehensive account from the colonies before replying. Dartmouth did initially release a brief statement in the newspapers that only assisted in amplifying the American account: “it is proper to inform the publick, that no advices have as yet been received in the American department of any such event.” To counter this message and lend further credibility to the American narrative, Lee published a reply to Dartmouth that appeared directly below his statement, inviting “all those who wish to see the original affidavits which confirm the account” to come inspect them in person for validity. As the American message continued to spread, the British government soon asked the public “to suspend their Judgement upon that Event until they can be more authentically informed of the Particulars.”
“The intelligence by Captain Derby . . . has given very general pleasure here, as the newspapers will testify” wryly noted one witness to the results of the stories appearing in the British media. Regarding the conflict, none “can speak of the disposition of people in England,” continued the contemporary, though since Derby’s report, “we are clear that the friends of America increase every day.” Despite the lack of a written defense, the Crown did realize the deleterious effect the American narrative was having on the population, as evidenced by other letters from the period. One observer described the terror of the government who “despatched some of the nobility and gentry throughout England to contradict the Boston news, in order to quiet the landed gentlemen, cajole the manufacturing cities, and prevent the dreaded effects on the stocks.” Edward Gibbon, noted English historian from the time period, commented on this lack of defense to a friend, “The American news becomes every hour more problematic.”
“I can form no decisive Judgement of what has happened,” Dartmouth lamented in frustration on the lack of a complete account from Gage. Because of the dearth of knowledge of what actually occurred, Great Britain was unable to immediately counter the provincials’ narrative and quell the public uproar it had caused. Another private letter commented on how many in England believed that their government had no plan to respond to the event and were “in total confusion and consternation” as they waited for Gage’s dispatch. “On reading the Account of the Skirmish between the King’s Troops and Provincials in America” remarked one British citizen in an open letter to the newspapers, “it is impossible not to observe that great Pains are taken to blacken and misrepresent the latter.”
“I have now nothing to trouble your Lordship with, but of an Affair that happened here on the 19th instant,” began Gage’s lackluster dispatch—the first official report on the event written after the engagement to the Secretary at War. Newspapers reported that when Prime Minster Lord North received the American version of the news he “was struck with astonishment, turned pale, and did not utter a syllable for some minutes.” Gage’s report arrived two weeks after the American accounts and contained an appalling absence of detail which did little to bring color to North’s cheeks. Dartmouth was shocked by the much-anticipated dispatch. As he waited for this message, and knowing full well that Gage would not see his reply for months, he wrote Gage a note in which he angrily commented on the swiftness of the Queroand Captain Derby and its singular mission and purpose to convey “every possible Prejudice and Misrepresentation of the Truth” on behalf of the Provincial Congress. To avoid a repeat of this occurrence, the Secretary of State chastised Gage that any future events of importance were to be sent quickly by “one of the light Vessels of the Fleet.”
Although upset, Dartmouth acknowledged the Americans’ industry on this occasion and the effect it had “in leaving for some days a false Impression upon Peoples Minds.” Regardless of Dartmouth’s anger and frustration over the Americans’ control of the narrative, he still maintained some small hope “that when the middle Colonies have recovered from the Prejudices & Consternation, which were created by the artful Misrepresentations of the Affair of the 19th of April,” some common ground could be found toward reconciliation. Despite this misplaced optimism, the damage was irrevocable. One sullen Tory later noted of the American information operation after Lexington and Concord that the Provincials “never labored harder . . . in propagating the most atrocious Falsehoods.” Despite the counter-narrative efforts of Gage and other British leaders, “the qui vult decipi decipatur [The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived]” operation could not be halted; as noted by our Tory friend, “thus the Rupture could not be closed.”
By 1780 it was obvious that Great Britain was losing; so much so that the British House of Commons created a committee to study the Detail and Conduct of the American War. Throughout the collected depositions and documents, the successful American information campaign was repeatedly mentioned. Gen. William Howe, Gage’s successor, commented on the efforts of the Provincial Congress to control the narrative in England, “The American leaders acted very artfully . . . If they gained belief, then they outwitted both governors and administration; if they did not, it gave them farther occasion of continuing their unwarrantable clamors and outrages.” Beginning with Lexington and Concord, the Americans were able to consistently and effectively adjust their informational messages to affect Great Britain’s decision-making cycle. Evidence of this appears in the House of Commons committee’s final paragraph, where they declared that during the whole course of the revolution thus far they had “been alternately beaten, baffled and betrayed.”
The tangible results of the military defeat at Lexington and Concord were threefold. It confined the British army and Tories to Boston, effectively removed Great Britain as a governing entity over the area, and it finally gave the Provincials a common cause to rally behind and accelerated their need to quickly form an army. What is not so easily measurable is the dedicated informational campaign waged by the Americans and the effects it had on Great Britain. Prior to the onset of the major combat operations on the continent which were sure to follow, the Americans were able to establish the narrative and seize the informational initiative from the enemy. Early control and dominance of British public opinion laid down the proper conditions to be leveraged once the war escalated. The effects of this initial campaign were even noted by the French: “America is lost to the British in spite of their efforts,” summarized one diplomat to the King of France, noting that due to American informational efforts to control the narrative, the war over public support for the upcoming conflict “rages more fiercely in London than in Boston.”
“Letter from the Committee of Safety to the Selectman of Boston, April 27, 1775,” in The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 and of the Committee of Safety, ed. William Lincoln (Boston, MA: Dutton and Wentworth, Printers to the State, 1838), 524.
Thomas Gage, “Letter to Barrington, May 13, 1775,” in The correspondence of General Thomas Gage with the Secretaries of State, and with the War Office and the Treasury, 1763-1775, ed. Clarence E. Carter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933), 2: 678.
Joseph Warren, “To the Inhabitants of Great Britain.” The London Evening Post, June 1, 1775, p. 2, newspaperarchive.com/london-evening-post-may-30-1775-p-2/.
The Essex Gazette, April 25, 1775, p. 3, www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/4/sequence/808.
The London Evening Post, June 1, 1775, p. 1, newspaperarchive.com/london-evening-post-may-30-1775-p-1/.
The London Evening Post, May 30, 1775, p. 1, newspaperarchive.com/london-evening-post-may-30-1775-p-1/.
Public Advertiser, May 30, 1775, p. 2, newspaperarchive.com/public-advertiser-may-30-1775-p-2/.
“Extract of a Letter Received at Watertown, Dated London, June 1, 1775”, in American Archives, Fourth Series Containing a Documentary History of the English Colonies in North America, from the King’s Message to Parliament, of March 7, 1774, to the Declaration of Independence by the United States, Volume II, ed. Peter Force (Washington, DC.: M. St. Clair and Peter Force), 870.
The St. James Chronicle or British Evening Post, June 17, 1775, p. 2, newspaperarchive.com/st-james-chronicle-or-british-evening-post-jun-15-1775-p-2/.
The London Evening Post, May 30, 1775, p. 1, newspaperarchive.com/london-evening-post-may-27-1775-p-1/.
Detail and Conduct of the American War under generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe: with a very full and correct state of the whole of the evidence, as given before a committee of the House of Commons (London: Richardson and Urquhart under the Royal Exchange, 1789).
“Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais to the King of France, September 21, 1775,” in New Materials for the History of the American Revolution, ed. John Durand (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1889), 53-54.