The terms “disinformation” and “Information warfare” were not coined until long after 1775, but America’s Founding Fathers absolutely understood the importance of them and controlling the narrative.
When the smoke and chaos cleared on that fateful, bloody morning of April 19, 1775, the politically-savvy Patriot leaders immediately realized the all-important question of “Who fired first?” on Lexington Green would forever distinguish for the world between the aggressors and defenders in the American Revolution.
Refusing to sit back and allow the British forces, led by General Thomas Gage, to control the narrative, the Provincial Congress formed a committee within days, including Marblehead merchant and future congressman and vice president, Elbridge Gerry, to gather depositions to convey to London the American version of events at Lexington and Concord. Compiling the accounts was only half the battle, though. They knew they must 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, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of this unique group of Americans who, multiple times, changed the course of the Revolution. The story also has many parallels to today.
The Patriots knew that if Gage’s narrative reached the British press first, they would be branded as traitors who initiated the Revolutionary War by firing on the king’s troops. Gerry launched himself into the task with such zeal and celerity that it invoked John Adams to proclaim, “If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell.”
After gleaning twenty sworn depositions from both American and British battle participants that all supported the American conviction that the British had fired first, Joseph Warren drafted a letter confirming the colonists’ narrative of victimhood and self-defense to sway public opinion in Great Britain. To reinforce the American viewpoint, Gerry enclosed copies of accounts of the battles as told in the Salem Gazette, including illustrations of black coffins representing the American dead, adorning the headline.
Transporting the packet to London before Gage’s report became a race against time. Near panic ensued when the Patriots learned Gage’s vessel, the hulking, 200-ton brig, Sukey, had departed for London days earlier with the British version of events. The Patriots, instead, pinned their hopes for their future on the deftness of thirty-four-year-old Salem native John Derby, “the accidental captain,” and his ship, the Quero, to sneak through the British blockade, outrace the British warship across the Atlantic, and avoid interception on the other side.
In the dead of night on April 28, the sleek, nimble 62-ton Quero, devoid of cargo, carrying only the precious packet of depositions and ballast stones, departed from Salem for Britain. They managed to avoid the British warship Lively’s blockade of Salem and Marblehead to cut through to the emerald, churning waters of the Atlantic. Her crew had no idea of her cargo, destination, or the importance of her mission. Joseph Warren had sworn Captain Derby to secrecy: “You are to keep this order a profound secret from every person on earth.”
Derby had orders to land first in Ireland and travel overland to England to avoid British agents and ships before delivering his extraordinary news to Massachusetts’ London-based agents, Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee. Derby, however, disregarded the order, and in 29 days landed on the Isle of Wight, beating the Sukey, while also managing to avoid detection.
Derby was dubbed “the accidental captain” because he appeared in London, seemingly out of nowhere, with earth-shattering news that would change the British Empire overnight. Arriving by carriage from the port of South Hampton, the captain met clandestinely with Arthur Lee, a Virginian educated in medicine and law, who delivered the news to John Wilkes, Lord Mayor of London, who was sympathetic toward the Americans. Derby then slipped through a British dragnet, once again, to sail back to the colonies.
The American depositions successfully shaped the narrative and engendered British compassion. When the London press reprinted them along with the American newspaper accounts of the bloody battle, it created a tidal wave of public opinion favorable for and sympathetic to the colonists as the victims.
Gage’s report would not arrive for another excruciating twelve days. In the meantime, the Crown attempted to discredit the American account, but Lee countered the attack in the press with an American broadside. When Gage’s ship did finally arrive, it bore 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 British hands on Lexington Green, but the shot heard round the world might have not been heard beyond Concord, Massachusetts, if not for a forgotten Essex county captain and his fast ship who had handed the colonists a tremendous, precocious propaganda victory that changed the course of the Revolutionary War.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickKODonnell