Percy, Hugh

views updated

Percy, Hugh

PERCY, HUGH. (1742–1817). British army officer and politician. Hugh Percy was born in London on 14 August 1742. He was the eldest son of Sir Hugh Smithson, who in 1750 changed his name to Percy when he inherited the dukedom of Northumberland from his father-in-law. He was educated at Eton (1753–1758) before being gazetted as an ensign in the Twenty-fourth Foot on 1 May 1759. It is possible that he fought at Minden, Germany, during the Seven Years' War, He exchanged into the Eighty-fifth Regiment of Foot as captain only weeks after his seventeenth birthday. Percy was at St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1760, but his university studies barely interrupted his accelerated military career. In 1762 he became lieutenant colonel in both the Eleventh Foot and the Grenadier Guards. In 1763 he was elected to Parliament, where he supported the Grenville legislation, which included the Stamp Act. In 1764 he married the third daughter and in 1766 he voted against repealing the Stamp Act. A supporter of the ministry of William Pitt (the elder), Earl of Chjatham, he was made colonel of the Fifth Regiment in 1768, and from 1770 he opposed Lord North, Pitt's rival and successor to the post of prime minister. In 1774 Percy left with his regiment for America.

On 19 April 1775 Percy took 1,400 infantry and two six-pound cannon out of Boston to rescue Colonel Francis Smith's force as it marched back from Concord under fire. At Lexington he coolly deployed his troops to cover Smith's men while they reformed, and then made a fighting retreat to Boston. Now a local hero, Percy was given a local promotion to major general (effective only in America) in July, and the rank was officially recognized throughout the army in September of that year. He became a full general in America on 26 March 1776. He led a division at Long Island (Brooklyn) on 27 August and at the storming of Fort Washington on 16 November. In December he went with Sir Henry Clinton's expedition to capture Newport, Rhode Island, where he remained after Clinton's departure in January 1777 and became surprisingly popular there. However, he fell out with William Howe, who repeatedly interfered with Percy's command and criticized his decisions. Percy may, as might be expected with a young man owing his rapid rise a powerful family, have thought Howe insufficiently deferential to his social rank. He sailed for home on 5 May 1777, officially to inherit his mother's barony, but in fact to escape further disagreements with his commander in chief. Though promoted to lieutenant general in August, and to general in 1793, he saw no further active service.

In 1779 Percy divorced his wife and remarried. He inherited his father's title, estates, and parliamentary influence in 1786, and for a short time he supported the prime ministerial policies of William Pitt, the younger. Howe apart, most people found Percy modest and courteous. His generosity matched his exceptional wealth—he paid homeward fares and gratuities to the widows of his men who were killed in America—and was famous as a considerate landlord. He died in London on 10 July 1817.

SEE ALSO Clinton, Henry; Howe, William; Lexington and Concord.


Bowler, R. A. Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in North America 1775–1783. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Gruber, Ira D. The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1974.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America 1775–1783. London: Longman, 1964.

                                  revised by John Oliphant