J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Revisiting Castle William through the Commonwealth Museum

This summer the Commonwealth Museum at the Massachusetts Archives is featuring a small exhibit titled “Castle Island: A Storied History.”

It features documents from the government’s collection related to the harbor island first fortified in the 1630s. In the eighteenth century that site was called Castle William or simply “the Castle.” Today the rebuilt fortification is called Fort Independence. The land it sits on is connected to the mainland yet has “Island” in its name—go figure.

The exhibit description says:
From colonial Governor Andros imprisoned on the island by colonists, through British officials who fled to the "castle" on the eve of the Revolution, to colorful personalities like the young soldier Edgar Allan Poe, Castle Island and Fort Independence have played a fascinating role in Massachusetts history.
In the years before the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts politicians sparred over who should control that island. In 1766 Gov. Francis Bernard let a contingent of Royal Artillery stay there over the winter without consulting with his Council, and that became a political issue. As it turned out, the artillery training those professionals gave to Adino Paddock’s militia company turned them into a highly respected unit. [I discuss their standing in Boston in The Road to Concord.]

When the Crown sent British troops to Boston in 1768, town officials argued that they should stay in the barracks at Castle William. Bernard replied that the soldiers would be too far from town to tamp down any violent protests against the Customs service, which of course the town officials knew. Later, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson turned over control of the castle to the remaining regulars, prompting another round of complaints from the legislature that he was behaving unilaterally.

As part of this exhibit, the Commonwealth Museum says, it’s displaying “a rare, early American flag that dates to the time of the American Revolution. It is believed that the flag may have flown over Castle Island.” The flag, shown above, has thirteen stars and thirteen stripes, which means it was made during the war or in the years immediately following—or that it’s a replica of such a flag.

According to a story in the Boston Globe, the flag was loaned for this exhibit by James Mooney of Cincinnati, whose ancestors bought it with a home in Medford in 1901. That home, according to Mooney, belonged to “a significant family with a history in the Revolutionary War, and going back to the Mayflower.” However, that article didn’t identify the family or provide more evidence for the statements about the flag.

The Globe article does say: “Stephen Kenney, director at the museum, which is in the Massachusetts Archives Building, said the flag is identical in design to one that’s part of the State House art collection.” And according to this genealogy, in 1906 Gov. Curtis Guild accepted the gift of a similar thirteen-star flag, said to have been made for Jonathan Fowle in 1781. Again, no details behind those statements.

Monday, June 27, 2016

“My Dearest Friend” Opera in Quincy, 2 July

On Saturday, 2 July, Adams National Historical Park will host a free performance of Patricia Leonard’s opera My Dearest Friend.

These songs will feature soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer as Abigail Adams and baritone Charles Taylor as John Adams. The lyrics come from the letters the Adamses exchanged during their separations.

My Dearest Friend is several years in the making. Back in 2014 the Boston Globe profiled Leonard and her project, which grew out of a conversation with Harmer.

This isn’t the first operatic portrayal of Abigail and John Adams. In 1987 federal judge Richard Owens staged his Abigail Adams. Last year the park hosted the Chelsea Opera’s A Distant Love by Gary S. Fagin and Terry Quinn, parts of which date to 2004.

Adams herself came to enjoy the operas she saw in Paris, though as a New England minister’s daughter she felt she shouldn’t. In 1785 she wrote to her sister Mary Cranch:
Shall I speak a Truth and say that repeatedly seeing these Dances has worn of that disgust which I first felt, and that I see them now with pleasure.

Yet when I consider the tendency of these things, the passions they must excite, and the known Character, even to a proverb, which is attached to an opera Girl, my abhorrence is not lessned, and neither my Reason or judgment have accompanied my Sensibility in acquiring any degree of callousness. The art of dancing is carried to the highest degree of perfection that it is capable of; at the opera. The House is neither so grand, or Beautifull architecture as the French Theater, but it is more frequented by the Beau Mond, who had rather be amused than instructed. The Scenary is more various, and more highly decorated, the dresses more costly and rich. And O! the Musick vocal and instrumental, it has a soft persuasive power and a dying dying Sound.

Conceive a highly decorated building filled with Youth, Beauty, Grace, ease, clad in all the most pleasing and various ornaments of Dress which fancy can form; these objects Singing like Cherubs to the best tuned instruments most skilfully handled, the softest tenderest Strains, every attitude corresponding with the musick, full of the God or Goddess whom they celebrate, the female voices accompanied by an equal number of Adonises. Think you that this city can fail of becoming a Cytherea and this House the temple of Venus?
The performance of My Dearest Friend in Quincy is free. It’s scheduled to run from 2:00 to 4:00 P.M. on the lawn of the Beale Estate, 181 Adams Street. There is limited street parking and a free trolley from the park’s visitor center.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Following the Money after the Phillips-Woodbridge Duel

As I prepared yesterday’s posting about the duel between Henry Phillips and Benjamin Woodbridge, I noticed there’s a considerable literature about it. Samuel G. Drake wrote about the event in 1856. The Massachusetts Historical Society heard a paper on the topic in 1861 and another in 1904. In 1874 the Overland Monthly published another telling titled “A Duel on Boston Common.” Brent Simons devoted a chapter to the incident in Witches, Rakes, and Rogues.

Why do we have so much information about this event? Both duelists were from the social elite, but they weren’t really important. As I said yesterday, Phillips had graduated from Harvard. At age thirteen, Woodbridge was one of the people whom Dr. Zabdiel Boylston inoculated against smallpox in the first year of that controversial treatment. But neither young man did anything truly noteworthy before their duel.

The duel itself was unusual because it was reportedly the first in colonial America to end in death, and because colonial Massachusetts society reacted so strongly to it. “The town is amazed!” wrote Judge Samuel Sewall in his diary. Acting governor William Dummer issued a reward for Phillips’s capture; the Massachusetts Historical Society offers a look at that proclamation.

In addition to the new law I mentioned yesterday, there was also an angry sermon from the Rev. Joseph Sewall, the judge’s son, published with a preface by all the town’s clergymen. (The Sewalls had a personal connection to the case; Woodbridge’s business partner was Jonathan Sewall, the judge’s nephew and minister’s first cousin.) But the newspapers, legal documents, and sermons don’t tell us much about the duel itself.

Instead, those details come from the unusually large amount of testimony about the event that was collected and preserved, and those documents were created for a very powerful reason—there was money involved.

Not in the duel itself. The two young men had apparently quarreled over a gambling debt, but ultimately they dueled because their sense of honor exceeded their sense. The big money was the nearly £4,000 in real estate that Henry Phillips owned.

After fleeing to France, Phillips ended up dying in less than a year. Moralists of the time attributed his death to guilt for killing Woodbridge. Today we might wonder about the effect of depression or stress—i.e., a different way of linking the two deaths. Of course, there’s always the possibility Phillips died of a virus or congenital condition that didn’t care about the duel at all.

Whatever way he died, Phillips left no will. Under British common law, his property would go mostly to his older brother, Gillam Phillips (shown above). In contrast, Massachusetts law divided the estate in five among the deceased’s brother, mother, and three sisters (or their children).

Gillam sued, seeking to take a considerable sum from his female relatives (or their husbands). Losing in the Massachusetts courts, he appealed to London. It was apparently as part of that transatlantic lawsuit that Gillam Phillips gathered several depositions from witnesses to the men’s quarrel and the discovery of Woodbridge’s body.

Ten years after the duel, Gillam Phillips finally lost that case. The Privy Council ruled that Massachusetts law applied. In The Transatlantic Constitution, Mary Sarah Bilder of Boston College Law School wrote that that was an important precedent in establishing that colonial law could sometimes differ from British law. Gillam Phillips’s collection of documents eventually came to the Harvard Law School archives, becoming the source material for a no-doubt endless stream of articles about his brother’s fatal duel on Boston Common.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The First Fatal Duel on Boston Common

In 1719 Massachusetts enacted a law against dueling, establishing the punishment as a fine of up to £100, imprisonment for up to six months, and/or corporal punishment “not extending to member or pillory.” (I think “member” refers to cutting off body parts, such as ears.)

Given all the things that the Puritans forbade, it may seem odd that they never took a stand against dueling. The fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony probably had more important things on their mind. Only after 1692 when Massachusetts became a province with a royally appointed governor, bringing other Anglican aristocrats and merchant adventurers, did the practice of dueling become a concern.

At the Old North Church’s blog, Mark Hurwitz just told the story of the province’s first fatal duel, nine years after this law went onto the books.
In July of 1728, Henry [Phillips] and Benjamin Woodbridge drank and played cards at the Royal Exchange Tavern on the corner of State and Exchange Street. The card game turned into an argument, which led to a challenge to a duel with swords at Boston Common that same night. According to Henry, troubles between the two had been growing for some time and according to him, a friend of Woodbridge’s encouraged him to challenge Henry to a duel with swords.

Henry suffered minor wounds to his abdomen and fled Boston Common after wounding Woodbridge in the chest. Henry sought out the medical attention of Dr. [George] Pemberton who dressed his wounds. As he was being treated for his wounds, he confessed to participating in an illegal duel and wounding Woodbridge. He brought Dr. Pemberton to Boston Common and the both of them were unable to locate Woodbridge. He was found dead the next day. It is believed that Woodbridge had sought shelter several yards away under a tree when it began to rain, and thus he expired there.

Because dueling was illegal in Massachusetts, Henry’s friends and family helped to smuggle him out of town aboard a ship departing for England that evening. Several weeks later, Henry reached London and went on to La Rochelle, France where his brother’s brother-in-law, Peter Faneuil, had family, and they agreed to take him in.
Woodbridge was a “pretty young man,” according to a diarist. Only nineteen years old, thus below the age of majority, he was nonetheless a “young gentleman-merchant,” according to the New-England Weekly Journal. His father was an Admiralty court judge in Barbados.

Phillips was also fairly young, twenty-three years old. A Harvard graduate, he had joined his older brother’s bookselling and mercantile business. They were Anglicans, but also Boston natives.

Reportedly Phillips and Woodbridge were friends before their duel. Some contemporaries blamed another man for pitting them against each other. Traditionalists blamed the new bad habits coming from England.

The Massachusetts General Court passed a new law that increased the punishments for dueling. Among the new provisions, anyone killed in a duel or convicted of killing another was denied church burial.

Friday, June 24, 2016

“Revolutionary Saturdays” This Summer

Five National Park Service sites around Boston are inviting families to participate in “Revolutionary Saturdays” this summer.

In particular, the parks invite fourth-graders to download a voucher from the “Every Kid in a Park” website to prepare for their visits, which are aimed to prepare them to study the American Revolution in school next year. Here are the sites and their programs for those Saturdays (and in some cases for other days as well).

Minute Man National Historical Park, 9 July
  • “The Road to Revolution” multimedia presentation at the Minute Man Visitor Center, every thirty minutes, 9:00 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.
  • Paul Revere Rode Here!” walks at 11:00 A.M., 12:00 noon, and 1:00 P.M.
  • Life at Whittemore House, 11:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M.
  • “Muster the Minute Men!” at Hartwell Tavern, 10:15 A.M., 1:15 P.M., 3:15 P.M. and 4:15 P.M. (This program includes a musket firing demonstration.)

Boston National Historical Park, 16 July
  • Bunker Hill Museum, 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
  • “Mapping the Battle” at the museum, 11:00 A.M. and 1:30 P.M.
  • “Decisive Day” on the Monument grounds, every thirty minutes, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
  • “Of Muskets, Men and Liberty” at the Monument grounds, 11:30 A.M., 12:30 P.M., 2:30 P.M. and 3:30 P.M. (This program includes a musket firing demonstration.)
  • “Climb the Monument!” all day with the last climb at 4:30 P.M. (Sometimes closed because of weather.)

Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, 23 July
  • Tour Washington’s headquarters, on the hour and half-hour
  • “Meet George Washington,” 12:00 noon to 4:00 P.M.
  • Dress up as a colonist, 1:00 P.M. and 3:00 P.M.
  • “The Road to Revolution,” ranger-led tour of the historic neighborhood, 2:00 P.M.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site, 30 July
  • “1774! Rumblings of War!” in town meeting, U.S. Custom House, 11:00 A.M. to 12:00 noon
  • Explore the sailing ship Friendship of Salem
  • Visit the 1762 Derby House, home of a family that supplied cannon to the nascent Massachusetts army

Adams National Historical Park, 6 August
  • “Enduring Legacy: Four Generations of the Adams Family,” a 26-minute film
  • “Penn and Parchment: The Continental Congress,” Adams Carriage House at 135 Adams Street, 1:00 to 2:30 P.M.
Check each site’s webpages for more details and confirmation.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Hannigan on Crispus Attucks, 23 June

Tonight the Framingham Historical Society will hold its annual meeting, approving officers and a budget for the coming months.

Then they’ll hear from John Hannigan, doctoral candidate in history at Brandeis University, about one of the town’s well-known inhabitants: Crispus Attucks.
Hannigan will examine the facts embedded with the Crispus Attucks mythology. Had Crispus escaped from the Framingham farm where he was enslaved before being the first to die at the Boston Massacre?

Hannigan’s research on the relationship between slavery and war in 18th-century Massachusetts leads to questions like: How do we know what we know about Crispus Attucks? What can we learn by excavating around the margins of the historical record?
As I learned when I starting posted about Attucks’s tea kettle last year, John Hannigan offers new clues and new thinking on the man. The talk is bound to be fascinating, and—darn it—I can’t be there.

The meeting will start at 7:00 P.M. in the Edgell Memorial Library at 3 Oak Street. There will be refreshments afterward.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

News from the Wright Tavern in Concord

Earlier this month the Concord Museum and the town’s First Parish announced an agreement for the museum to lease the historic Wright Tavern for three years.

The tavern, located near the center of town, was the site of committee meetings during the first Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1774.

On 18-19 Apr 1775, the town’s militia companies mustered outside the tavern. After British troops arrived to search Concord for cannon and other military supplies [as detailed in The Road to Concord], their officers also used the tavern as a base of operations.

The First Parish has, somewhat incongruously, owned the tavern since 1886. At times parts of the building have been used for historic interpretation, but currently it is closed to the public, housing an architecture firm and a non-profit associated with the parish. The Concord Community Preservation Committee just funded improvements to the roof, windows, gutters, and electrical system.

Under the new arrangement, the Concord Museum will offer educational programs at the Wright Tavern. That will provide the museum with important additional space; its programs are now serving more than 10,000 students from three cities, an increase of 4,000 over the past five years. The site will also host public events in spring and fall to commemorate the congress meeting and the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

The reopening of the tavern as a public site has been a pet project of Mel Bernstein, chairman of the American Revolution Round Table at Minute Man National Historical Park. Of the new deal, he told the Concord Journal, “It provides an opportunity to transform the tavern into the historical center that it will become.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Samuel Gerrish “unworthy an Officer”

As I described yesterday, Col. Samuel Gerrish of Newbury was the first infantry officer to receive a Massachusetts commission in May 1775, but then ran out his string with a series of embarrassing actions and lack of action.

On 17 August, the Continental Army court-martialed Gerrish on the charge “That he behaved unworthy an Officer.” With Gen. Nathanael Greene presiding, a panel of officers found him guilty and ordered him “to be cashiered, and render’d incapable of any employment in the American Army.” Gen. George Washington approved that sentence on 19 August.

Washington’s private letters show that he was pleased with that outcome and, whatever incident was behind the formal charge, linked it to Gerrish’s behavior at Bunker Hill. To his overseer Lund Washington the commander wrote:

The People of this Government have obtained a Character which they by no means deserved—their Officers generally speaking are the most indifferent kind of People I ever saw. I have already broke one Colo. and five Captain’s for Cowardice, & for drawing more Pay & Provision’s than they had Men in their Companies. . . .

in short they are by no means such Troops, in any respect, as you are led to believe of them from the Accts which are published, but I need not make myself Enemies among them, by this declaration, although it is consistent with truth. I daresay the Men would fight very well (if properly Officered) although they are an exceeding dirty & nasty people. had they been properly conducted at Bunkers Hill (on the 17th of June) or those that were there properly supported, the Regulars would have met with a shameful defeat; & a much more considerable loss than they did. . .

it was for their behaviour on that occasion that the above Officers were broke, for I never spared one that was accused of Cowardice but brot ’em to immediate Tryal.
Likewise he told Richard Henry Lee that he “Broke one Colo. and two Captains for Cowardly behaviour in the action on Bunker’s Hill.” Gen. William Heath later told John Adams that Gerrish’s fault had been “Backwardness in Duty on the 17th. of June.”

According to Swett, judge advocate general William Tudor later said that Gerrish “was treated far too severely.” (At the time, however, Tudor’s main complaint to his mentor John Adams was that the courts-martial were unfair to him because of all the work he had to do.)

Samuel Gerrish went back to Newbury. Loammi Baldwin took over the leadership of the regiment. However, not everyone had lost respect for Gerrish since his town elected him to the Massachusetts General Court the next year.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Samuel Gerrish, First Officer of the Massachusetts Army

Last month I wrote about how the Massachusetts Provincial Congress finally started commissioning infantry officers for its army (as opposed to its militia) on 19 May 1775.

The first colonel to receive a commission was Samuel Gerrish (c. 1729–1795) of Newbury. I thought it would be interesting to look at what happened to him.

First of all, according to historian Richard Frothingham, Gerrish’s regiment wasn’t as complete as the congress had been led to believe; “there were difficulties in relation to six of the companies, which were investigated June 2.” Five of the companies originally listed under Gerrish’s name asked to serve under another Newbury colonel, Moses Little. It took another twenty days before eight companies were fully commissioned under Gerrish.

During that spring the regiment was spread out along the north side of Boston harbor with three companies at Chelsea, three in east Cambridge, and two at Sewall’s Point, the finger of Brookline land in front of the Charles and Muddy Rivers. On 16 June the officers of the regiment met at Chelsea and assigned jobs: Loammi Baldwin to be lieutenant-colonel, Richard Dodge major, Christian Febiger adjutant, and so on. This was the New England way, electing from below rather than the colonel appointing from above.

One day after that meeting, of course, came the Battle of Bunker Hill. In 1870 the Quincy family presented to the Massachusetts Historical Society one sheet of what had been a two-page letter describing the fight. Whoever wrote that account took particular notice of Col. Gerrish’s behavior, referring to him by his rank from the French & Indian War:
Major Gerrish was ordered also to Charlestown with a reinforcement, but he no sooner came in sight of the enemy than a tremor seiz’d him & he began to bellow, “Retreat! retreat! or you’l all be cutt off!” which so confus’d & scar’d our men, that they retreated most precipitately, & our soldiery now sware vengeance against him & determine not to be under his commd.
The historian Samuel Swett later wrote that Gerrish “was unwieldy from excessive corpulence”; on reaching Bunker’s Hill above the fighting, “he declared that he was completely exhausted, and lay prostrate on the ground.” Col. Israel Putnam roared at all the men stalled on that hill, hitting some with his sword, but they refused to go farther down and eventually retreated.

There was plenty of blame to go around after that battle. Other Massachusetts officers hadn’t even taken their troops onto the peninsula as Gerrish had. Swett wrote, “A complaint was lodged against him with [Gen. Artemas] Ward immediately after the battle, who refused to notice it on account of the unorganized state of the army.”

Not that Col. Gerrish was helping alleviate that disorganization. On 7 July the new commander-in-chief’s secretary, Joseph Reed, wrote to him to ask a second time for a return of all the men in the regiment. “The Express [to the Continental Congress] has been detain’d some time thro’ this Inattention,” Reed chided, “The Forces raised in Connecticut, New Hampshire & Rhode Island having sent in their Returns very complete.”

Gerrish finally reported having 258 men in his regiment. Even after that, there were administrative problems. In August eight officers at Sewall’s Point wrote to headquarters to complain that most of them had “been here in actual Service, since the Beginning of the Campaign, and been to a vast Deal of Expense, and not receiv’d one farthing of our pay.”

In early August, British floating batteries made some attacks on American positions near the water. One fired on Sewall’s Point. Instead of shooting back at that boat, Gerrish told his men to put out any lights and hunker down behind their fortifications. He was reported to have said, “the rascals can do us no harm, and it would be a mere waste of powder, to fire at them with our 4 pounders.” Technically, Gerrish might have been right. The British shots caused no casualties. But the colonel had used up any benefit of the doubt about his behavior in battle.

TOMORROW: Washington weighs in.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

“That day at Bunker Hill!”

You may have noticed that yesterday’s posting about Bunker Hill differed from the two that preceded it. It didn’t include any nineteenth-century poetry.

This posting corrects that omission. After Sarah Loring Bailey published the story of Pvt. John Barker and Capt. Benjamin Farnum in 1880, it inspired Annie Sawyer Downs to include the story in a long poem for the celebration of Andover’s sestercentennial sixteen years later.
The grass was green upon the lawn
The corn waved dark and tall.
And all day long the oriole,
Whistled his silvery call.
But what the veil, the film, the cloud
That frights the air of June?
And what the hush, the dread, the fear,
To which hearts beat in tune?

And why do men set faces hard
And eyes of women fill?
While trembling age and eager youth,
Press to the distant hill?
No courier swift swept through the street
With beat of martial drum,
And none could tell how the dread news
To Andover town had come.

Only that e’er the cannon’s roar,
Turned every heart's blood chill,
The voice was heard, “Stand fast! They fight
To-day at Bunker Hill.”
Dark rolled the smoke, when on the breeze
Was borne a deaf’ning shout
“We’ve beat the red coats off the field,
We hold the frail redoubt!”

Then there was mounting in hot haste
And hurrying to and fro,
For Doctor, Nurse, and Parson French
Swift to the field must go.
More weary hours wore slow away,
Again the mighty sound,
“A second time the red coats flee,
Once more they leave the ground.”

O maids and wives, and mothers dear,
Whose sad eyes watched the fire,
God grant though on that summer day
You lost your hearts’ desire,
That steadfast pride and courage high
Were yours through earthly ill,
For a great state was born that day,
That day at Bunker Hill!

Loud and still louder roared the guns,
Thick smoke hid all the sky,
And still the silvery oriole
Sang in the chestnut high.
At last the word, “Our powder gone,
We’ve turned us down the hill,
Content to prove this summer day,
This day at Bunker Hill!

That farmer lads can shake a crown
And lay proud England low,
And on a field they have not tilled
Such fearful harvest sow!”
Shot fell like rain on Charlestown Neck,
And brave the deeds oft told,
Of Bailey, Farnum, Frye, and Poor,
And stout John Barker bold.

For he was private in the ranks,
But last in the retreat;
When Captain Farnum struck by shell,
Fell just across his feet,
He lifted and he held him high
Full in the redcoats’ view
And shouted loud, “Now hold on Ben,
The Reg’lars sha’ n’t have you!”

A hundred years have come and gone,
And still in stirring verse,
The children of North Andover
John Barker’s deed rehearse,
And in the old-fashioned burying ground,
Shady and green and still,
On a mossy stone you oft may read,
“He fought at Bunker Hill.”

He fought the fight, he kept the step,
Loyal, and brave, and true,
For a free land he paid the price
Comrades, that day for you.
So lowly kneel, and softly tread,
In the graveyard under the hill
Fame writes aloft no prouder line,
Than, “Fought at Bunker Hill.”