Hugh Percy: Biography


The name “Percy” conjures up images of a proud northern dynasty of territorial magnates dating back to the Norman Conquest. For centuries, the powerful Percies, earls of Northumberland, were almost viceroys of northern England and the Scottish borderlands. That historic family, prominent in Shakespeare’s historical plays, was actually the second Percy family; it survived five centuries, and many vicissitudes, until the direct male line ended in 1670.

Hugh, earl Percy was actually a member of the third Percy family, which was the product of a conscious and deliberate effort in the middle of the eighteenth century to re-establish those past glories (De Fonblanque 1887; Brenan 1902). On his death in 1670, the last earl of Northumberland left a daughter and heiress, Lady Elizabeth Percy, who had married the sixth duke of Somerset. On her death in 1722, her son, Algernon Seymour (1684-1750; seventh duke, 1748) was created baron Percy in his own right, in recognition of her inheritance. Algernon’s son died early (1744) and his estate ~ and title of baron Percy ~ devolved onto his daughter, Lady Elizabeth Seymour (1716-1776). Lady Elizabeth had married, in 1740, an aggressive and wealthy Yorkshire baronet, Sir Hugh Smithson (1714-1786). Sir Hugh sought to restore the heritage of his wife’s grandmother: in 1749, the duke was created earl of Northumberland and baron Warkworth, with the special provision that those titles would pass on his death to Sir Hugh. Immediately after the duke’s death in February 1749/50, a special act of Parliament changed the new earl of Northumberland’s family name from Smithson to Percy. He later became a knight of the Garter (1757) and was lord lieutenant of Ireland (1763-65). In recompense for having his political ambitions thwarted ~ he almost became prime minister ~ the government elevated him in October 1766 to duke of Northumberland and earl Percy (Dictionary of National Biography 15 [1917]: 863-65; Complete Peerage, 9:742-44 and 10:468-69).

Valentine Green, Hugh, Earl Percy. London: V. Green, 1 Jan 1777. [Osher Collection]

Hugh, earl Percy (1742-1817): Politician and Soldier

Hugh, earl Percy was thus actually born Hugh Smithson in August 1742. He became Hugh Percy on his father’s ennoblement and name change in 1750 and, as was then customary, he was styled after his father’s second title (baron Warkworth). When his father was promoted to duke in 1766, Percy could not use his father’s old ~ now second ~ title of earl of Northumberland, because there could only be one “Lord Northumberland”; Percy was therefore styled by his father’s new third title, earl Percy. He continued by this customary title even after his mother died in December 1776 and he became baron Percy in his own right: a customary earldom is still superior in style to a real barony.* On his father’s death in June 1786, Percy was accordingly invested with the following titles (with their dates of creation): duke of Northumberland (1766), earl of Northumberland (1749), earl Percy (1766), baron Percy (1722), baron Warkworth (1749), and baronet (1660). He eventually became a knight of the Garter in May 1801. He died in July 1817 (Dictionary of National Biography 15 [1917]: 865-67; Complete Peerage, 9:744-46).

Percy’s life followed a relatively standard pattern both before and after he inherited his father’s position. He was educated at Eton (1753-58). He volunteered for military service in 1759 and fought in several battles in Europe during the Seven Years (French and Indian) War. After the war, in 1763, he was elected to represent Westminster in the House of Commons. Politically, he benefitted from his father’s close relationship with the king. He married, in July 1764, the daughter of the earl of Bute, the king’s mentor, and so secured for himself membership in the “king’s private junto.” This close relationship with the court did not last long; by 1768, both he and his father had distanced themselves from the court over the king’s policies for the American colonies. Both voted against the Stamp Act in 1765 and for its repeal in 1766. (The younger Percy’s slow political realignment would eventually carry him into the Prince of Wales’ circle of friends.) Percy continued to serve in the Commons until he inherited his mother’s barony in December 1776 and was automatically elevated to the Lords. In 1786, he inherited not only his father’s titles but also his father’s social responsibilities, including his fellowships in the Society of Arts (1787) and the Royal Society (1788) and his membership of the Order of the Garter (proposed 1788; installed 1801).

The duties of a peer’s son in parliament were not exactly onerous, and Percy simultaneously held commissions in the army. His rise through the ranks was that of the nobleman who had both the wealth to purchase new ranks and the interest to secure promotions when available. He joined the army in 1759, when he was gazetted as an ensign in the 24th Foot. Four months later he exchanged into the 85th Foot, purchasing a captaincy as he did so; he purchased a lieutenant-colonelcy in the 111th Foot in April 1762. After the Seven Years war, he was made a colonel and aide-de-camp to the king in October 1764, at the age of only 22. He was given command of the 5th Foot in 1768, with which regiment he would fight in America. Percy’s active military career ended with his return from the colonies in 1777, but he continued to serve in largely ceremonial positions: he obtained the colonelcy of the second troop of Horse Grenadier Guards (1784) and of the premier regiment, the Horse Guards in 1806; he became a full general in the army in 1793.**

*¬†There were five levels of nobility in the 1700s: duke (highest); marquis or marquess; earl, equivalent to a French count; viscount; and baron (lowest). Baronets are not peers ~ they are not called “Lord …” ~ but are inherited knighthoods. The Order of the Garter is the oldest and most senior of the British orders of knighthood; founded by Edward III, membership is limited to the monarch and just 25 knights.

** At the risk of some confusion, I should note that officers could have up to three distinct ranks at this time. Their basic rank was that in their regiment. Many officers were detached from their regiments to hold staff positions which carried separate ranks. Finally, there was a separate hierarchy of general officers with “army” rather than regimental rank. Thus, in 1776-77, at the time his portrait was published, Percy was colonel of the 5th Regiment of Foot, lieutenant-general in America (staff), and major-general in the army.

Percy’s Posting to Boston, 1774

Lord North’s government had decided to make an example of the unsettled province of Massachusetts Bay and so ordered a massive display of force in the colony. It was assumed that the threat posed by this force would overawe the provincials and lead them to submit to the Crown’s authority; if not, then the force would be more than capable of overwhelming any army that the provincials might field. Once troublesome Massachusetts Bay was dealt with, the other colonies were sure to fall back in line. To this end, the government ordered the concentration in Boston of no less than twelve infantry regiments, four batteries of artillery, royal marines, royal engineers, and the seven largest men-o’-war in the Royal Navy’s American Squadron (see Fischer 1994, 308-10).

From the American perspective, the metropolitan government’s high-handed deployment of force was of a piece with its increasingly tyrannical behavior. By the so-called Coercive Acts (1774), the British closed Boston’s port, revoked the colony’s charter, and shut down the provincial judicial system. General Thomas Gage, the British commander-in-chief in North America and now royal governor of Massachusetts Bay, was caught in the difficult position of implementing these policies ~ for which he was in large part responsible ~ without further antagonizing the provincials (Fischer 1994, 37, 39-41). Gage sought a moderate line. Thus, as Percy (1902 [1774-76], no.8) wrote to his father in September 1774, with the country in open rebellion against the Crown, and with the British fortifying Boston, Gage continued to act in a very circumspect manner, wishing to use actual force only as the last resort.

One of the regiments ordered to Boston was the 5th Regiment of Foot, of which Percy was colonel. Despite his own opposition to the government’s policies on the American colonies, and his strong hints that he agreed with the political aspirations of the colonials, Percy decided to accompany his regiment to America. It would have been acceptable for him, as a member of the peace party, to refuse to serve against the colonials. The earl of Effingham had so refused, and the venerable earl of Chatham had ordered his eldest son to quit the army rather than fight in America (Brenan 1902, 455 n. 4). But Percy had made the army his career and so felt it incumbent on himself to serve wherever he was posted. He therefore joined his regiment, then on station in Ireland. The 5th embarked at Kinsale on May 7th, 1774, and disembarked almost two months later, on July 5th, at Boston.

Gage had moved the provincial administration from Boston to Salem. In his absence, the commander of the senior regiment ~ which was the 5th Foot ~ had command of the growing encampment on Boston Common. Gage accordingly gave Percy command in Boston, together with the brevet rank of brigadier. Among his other duties, Percy was responsible for the construction of the fortifications. Once the fortifications were complete and winter had set in, Percy expected that the pace of work would decline. He sent to London, for example, for four books which would provide his “Winter’s Amusement,” including a recent account of the French and Indian War (Mante 1772; Percy 1902 [1774-76], no.12). But as it happened, the winter was quite mild. The provincials continued to prepare for the inevitable showdown with the British by collecting food and military stores, thereby laying the foundations for the opening shots of the Revolution, on April 18-19th, 1775.

18-19 April 1775: Lexington and Concord

The events of April 18th and 19th, 1775, have been told at length by many writers. The mythic status they achieved during the nineteenth century has largely been dispelled by the application of new source materials acquired early in the twentieth century. Fischer (1994, 327-44) provides a detailed historiography of Paul Revere’s ride that traces the frequent reinterpretation of that event according to disciplinary shifts and cultural reconfigurations. We cannot go into the events at any length here; for that, we recommend either Fischer’s (1994) wide-ranging and balanced monograph or Tourtellot’s (1963 [1959]) very engaging, popular history.

Suffice to say, that General Gage desired to prevent actual war with New England’s rebellious Whigs. The best way to do this was to remove their ability to fight. He therefore ordered the removal of gunpowder and arms from the provincial powderhouse in September 1774 (prompting the first “Powder Alarm” and, indirectly, the organization of the Provincial Congress and of the Minutemen); from Fort William and Mary, Portsmouth, NH in December 1774 (which backfired when the provincials were warned by Paul Revere and seized the fort); from Salem in February 1775 (which ended in humiliation when the British marines were faced down by the town militia and had to leave empty handed); and, from Concord in April 1775.

The main raid on Concord, led by Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Foot, was a fiasco rather than a “surgical strike.” The officers who, on April 18th, were arrayed ahead of the column with the task of capturing the provincial messengers (including Paul Revere) let go their captives, who then continued to raise the country. The column was poorly managed as it crossed the countryside in the early morning of April 19th. The confusion in the column was evident when the British troops fired on the militia gathered on Lexington column without orders from their officers. At Concord, the destruction of the arms and supplies was not very effective. Once the militia struck back, Smith delayed his retreat, until he was seriously outnumbered and could only retire under heavy fire.

Fortunately for Smith, he had sent word back early in the march that he expected to meet resistance and asked for the relief column to be dispatched. That column was commanded by Hugh, earl Percy. Percy left Boston at about 9am on the 19th, getting to Lexington by about 2pm, where he found Smith’s column, almost out of ammunition and in serious disarray. After marshaling the primary column, Percy led the retreat for 15 miles under heavy fire. The initial plan was to retrace the route of Percy’s advance; that is, the combined column would cross the Charles River at Cambridge and would enter Boston by land across the neck. The fighting became more intense as the British approached the Charles River, fueled by the militia regiments which had gathered in Cambridge. Percy’s vanguard soon observed that the roadway of the bridge had been destroyed, threatening to trap the British. Percy made a rapid decision that saved his command: he turned his column to the east, down “Kent Lane,” to the Charlestown road. The British continued under heavy fire until about 7pm, when they entered Charlestown and the protection of HMS Somerset. Percy was the sole British officer to gain any credit from the action.

The Remainder of Percy’s American Career, 1775-1777

Despite the praise that Percy garnered for leading the difficult retreat from Lexington, his political sympathies for the American cause seem to have put him in bad favor. Percy’s regiment, the 5th Foot, was part of the assault on Breed’s Hill (commonly misidentified as Bunker Hill) on June 17th, 1775, but Percy did not lead them. He remained in Boston, watching as his regiment and the rest of the British assault were decimated. Gage was recalled in October 1775, when his officers eventually ceased obeying his orders. His replacement, Lord Howe, was equally distrustful of Percy’s sentiments. After nine months of stalemate, the British evacuated Boston on March 17th, 1776. They sailed first to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to regroup, and then sailed to New York. There, General Howe lead the assault on New York city and its surrounding islands in July.

In November, Percy led the successful assault on Fort Washington, at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. This victory still did not endear Percy to Howe, and Percy soon found himself in command of the small British force detached to hold Rhode Island (captured by General Clinton in December 1776). Percy remained at Newport for barely five months. His disagreements with Howe came to a head in a little dispute over the provision of hay for Howe’s horses in New Jersey. In a misunderstanding over the amount of hay available, Howe took the word of the logistics major over Percy’s; Howe reprimanded Percy. As it happened, the major was wrong and the reprimand was uncalled for (Bowler 1975, 69-70). Percy, displaying the irascibility for which he would be famous in later life, was furious that Howe should listen to a mere major before a general, peer, and heir to a dukedom. Percy accordingly requested leave to return to Britain. Howe granted him permission, and Percy left Rhode Island in May 1777. He would not return to America.

Percy’s Cartographic Literacy

We describe elsewhere the general level of map consciousness among infantry and cavalry officers in the later eighteenth century. It is sufficient to note here that Hugh, earl Percy was one of a few officers who took map making very seriously. The Percy family archives at Alnwick castle contain more than fifty manuscript maps which he had been made for him while he served in America. These have been described, and several of them reproduced, by William Cumming (Cumming & Cumming 1969; Cumming 1974, 79-84).

Most of the maps comprised plans of engagements, made on the same day as the action or at least soon after it. In addition to plans of Breed’s Hill (a.k.a., Bunker Hill) and Fort Washington, for example, there are two plans of the events of April 19th, 1775. The first is a rough sketch of the country between Cambridge, Charlestown, Medford, and Menotomy; it is remarkable for being the only known map to show “Kent Lane,” down which Percy turned his column to avoid being trapped in Cambridge and was probably executed by one of the officers involved in the retreat (reproduced by Cumming & Cumming 1969, 28; Cumming 1974, 67; Marshall & Peckham 1976, 3 upper). The second is a more polished map of the entire region, laying out the sequence of battle and the deployment of troops; it is however incorrect in its depiction of Percy’s return route and was probably made from reports by an officer who had remained in Boston (reproduced by Cumming & Cumming 1969, 29; Cumming 1974, titlepage; Marshall & Peckham 1976, 3 lower). The second manuscript map was subsequently used as the basis of a map of the battles published in London by John DeCosta on July 29th, 1775 (Nebenzahl 1974, 40-41; Nebenzahl 1975, no.1).

Such plans were made after the battle; Percy’s knowledge of the territory before and during the raid on Concord is used to explore the extent of geographic information available to commanding officers during the Revolution. But in addition to the battle maps and fortification plans that constituted the staple of most military mapping, Percy also supported the creation of regional maps. In particular, he formed a close relationship in New York with Claude Joseph Sauthier, an Alsatian working as a government surveyor in New York whose skills were recognized and developed by Percy. Thus, it was Sauthier who made the plan of Fort Washington at Percy’s orders “immediately after” the capture of the fort. Sauthier went to Rhode Island with Percy, and when Percy left for home, Sauthier accompanied him. In Britain, Percy continued to support Sauthier’s regional mapping (Babinski 1997). Percy’s own copy of Sauthier’s chorographical map of New York, published in London by William Faden in 1779, was among the maps sold at the Percy auction in May 1997 (see Section I). Hugh Percy’s map collection was by no means as large as those compiled by British commanders-in-chief, such as Sir Henry Clinton (Adams 1928), or by London publishers, such as William Faden (Catalogue 1862), but Percy nonetheless stands out among his fellow colonels and generals for the degree of his cartographic literacy.