Masters of Information Warfare and Unknown Travel
The terms “disinformation” and “information warfare” weren’t coined until long after 1775, but America’s Founding Fathers fully understood their significance and controlled the narrative.
When the smoke and chaos cleared on that fateful and bloody morning of April 19, 1775, the politically savvy leaders of the Patriots immediately understood the crucial question of “Who fired first?” on Lexington Green would forever distinguish for the world the aggressors and defenders of the American Revolution.
Refusing to sit down and allow the British forces, led by General Thomas Gage, to control the narrative, the Provincial Congress formed a committee within days, including merchant Marblehead and future Congressman and Vice-President, Elbridge Gerry, to take statements to send to London. the American version of the events in Lexington and Concord. Compiling the accounts was only half the battle, however. They knew they had to get their version of events across the Atlantic before Gage’s account of the battle.
The full story of one of the most important, yet forgotten, voyages in American history is now fully told in the bestselling book, Indispensables: Marblehead’s Various Sailor-Soldiers Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Through Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of this unique group of Americans who repeatedly changed the course of the Revolution. The story also has many parallels with today.
The patriots knew that if Gage’s account made it to the British press first, they would be branded traitors who started the War of Independence by firing on the king’s troops. Gerry threw himself into the task with such zeal and speed that he summoned John Adams to proclaim, “If every man here were a Gerry, America’s Liberties would be safe against the Gates of Earth.” and Hell.
After gleaning twenty sworn depositions from American and British battle participants who all supported the American belief that the British had fired first, Joseph Warren wrote a letter confirming the settlers’ narrative of victimization and self-defense to influence the public opinion in Britain. To reinforce the American point of view, Gerry has attached copies of accounts of the battles as told in the Salem Gazetteincluding illustrations of black coffins representing the American dead, gracing the title.
Getting the package to London before Gage’s report became a race against time. A near-panic ensued when the Patriots learned that Gage’s ship, the large 200-ton brig, Sukey, had sailed for London days earlier with the British version of events. Instead, the Patriots pinned their hopes for their future on the skill of 34-year-old Salem native John Derby, ‘the accidental captain,’ and his ship, the Quero, to weave through the blockade. British, ahead of the British. warship across the Atlantic, and avoid interception on the other side.
In the middle of the night of April 28, the sleek and agile 62-ton Quero, devoid of cargo, carrying only the precious bundle of depositions and ballast stones, left Salem for Britain. They managed to avoid the blockade of the British warship Lively on Salem and Marblehead to cross the emerald and boiling waters of the Atlantic. Her crew had no idea of her cargo, where she was going, or how important her mission was. Joseph Warren had sworn to Captain Derby to secrecy: “You must keep this order deeply secret from everyone on earth.
Derby had orders to land in Ireland first and travel overland to England to avoid British agents and ships before delivering his extraordinary news to London-based agents from Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee . Derby, however, disregarded the order and, within 29 days, landed on the Isle of Wight, defeating the Sukey, while managing to avoid detection.
Derby was nicknamed “the Accidental Captain” because he appeared in London, seemingly out of nowhere, with heartbreaking news that would change the British Empire overnight. Arriving by horse-drawn carriage from the port of South Hampton, the captain secretly met Arthur Lee, a Virginian trained in medicine and law, who announced the news to John Wilkes, Lord Mayor of London, sympathetic to the Americans. Derby then slipped through a British net, once again, back to the colonies.
American depositions successfully shaped the narrative and engendered British compassion. When the London press reprinted them along with American newspaper accounts of the bloody battle, it created a tidal wave of public opinion favorable and sympathetic to the colonists as victims.
Gage’s report wouldn’t arrive for twelve excruciating days. In the meantime, the Crown attempted to discredit the American narrative, but Lee countered the onslaught in the press with an American broadside. When Gage’s ship finally arrived, it carried a version similar to the American account, with the major exception of who fired first.
Not all engagements are won and lost on the battlefield. American Patriots fell to the British on Lexington Green, but the gunshot heard around the world might not have been heard beyond Concord, Massachusetts, were it not for a Forgotten County Captain Essex and her fast ship which had given the colonists a huge and early propaganda victory. that changed the course of the Revolutionary War.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a critically acclaimed best-selling military historian and expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including Les Indispensables, Les Immortels de Washington and Les Inconnus. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks about espionage, special operations and counterinsurgency. He provided historical advice for DreamWorks’ award-winning Band of Brothers miniseries and documentaries produced by the BBC, History Channel and Discovery. PatrickKODonnell