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, May 31, 2016

The Adventures of the Two Boston Cannon?

The last book I’ll highlight in this stretch of postings is no longer available in stores but can be read online—not that I recommend that.

In 1894 Rhode Island native Hezekiah Butterworth published The Patriot Schoolmaster; or, The Adventures of the Two Boston Cannon, the “Adams” and “Hancock”: A Tale of the Minute Men and the Sons of Liberty. The book included a few illustrations by H. Winthrop Peirce of Andover.

The Patriot Schoolmaster is historical fiction for young readers, and not very good at that. As the extended subtitle might suggest, Butterworth tried to cram every tradition of Revolutionary Boston into the book, and the result is a mishmash of events that never coheres into a plot.

On top of that, Butterworth kept breaking off from what little story there is to fill us in on the history, or future, of his characters, sometimes quoting long passages from his source material. One begins to suspect he was being paid by the word and never reread what he’d written.

The young hero, Allie Fayreweather, starts out as “about twelve years old,” but he seems younger, or stupid. The date of the opening action is “Saturday, September 27, 1768.” The novel lasts until Continental troops march into Boston, or six and a half years later. And Allie never seems to get older or smarter.

Most other characters are types reflecting the age when the book was written. It starts with Samuel Adams’s enslaved maid Surry speaking in broad dialect, and she remains a major character. Later Phillis Wheatley appears, better spoken but deferential and totally starstruck by Gen. Washington. The villain is a pompous, violent Tory named Dr. Oliver. Curiously, the title character plays a minor role. Instead, Samuel Adams is the anchor of the action, with his dog Queue and fictional young Allie trotting after him.

You might wonder why I mention The Patriot Schoolmaster at all. This book shows how the story of “the Two Boston Cannon, the ‘Adams’ and the ‘Hancock’” was a standard part of Boston’s Revolutionary narrative in 1894. To be sure, the novel gets nearly every detail of that narrative wrong. But for New England children of the turn of the last century, the legend of those cannon was as familiar as Paul Revere’s ride is to us now. Yet by the time of the Bicentennial, when I was growing up, that story was unknown.

My new book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, aims to change that. But with sources more reliable than The Patriot Schoolmaster. I’ll be speaking about that history at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Thursday.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Winner and Finalists of the 2016 Washington Book Prize

Last week Mount Vernon, Washington College, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History announced the winner of the 2016 George Washington Book Prize, created to honor “the best new works on the nation’s founding era, especially those that engage a broad public audience.”

The winner was Flora Fraser for The Washingtons: George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love.” The award announcement says:
While many books have chronicled George Washington’s life and public service, no other has so thoroughly examined the marriage bonds between him and his wife. Few primary sources exist on the life of Martha Washington, who destroyed all but one of the couple’s personal letters. But Fraser’s diligent research has resulted in a more comprehensive understanding of the nation’s first First Lady—and through her important story, a fuller sense of the nation’s first President. Fraser portrays a couple devoted to each other and steadfast in their loyalty: from their short courtship, through raising a family at Mount Vernon, to the long years of the Revolutionary War, to the first U.S. Presidency, and to retirement at their beloved Virginia plantation.
Living in London, Fraser’s previous books have been about European women. She’s a third-generation biographer, a granddaughter of Elizabeth Longford and a daughter of Lady Antonia Fraser.

In addition to The Washingtons, the finalists for this year’s book prize were:
Plenty of good reading there.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Marek Bennett Makes Sense of Money

These panels are from a short comic by the New Hampshire artist and educator Marek Bennett, looking at the dollars that the town of Henniker had to spend on a covered bridge late in the Revolutionary War.

Bennett mines the records of his town and others nearby and adapts their stories into comics form. As another example you can read online, he adapted Elisha Haynes’s application for a Revolutionary War pension. The comic captures that sort of document as well as anything I’ve read: the go-here-go-there nature of military service, the aged veteran deciding to seek public assistance, the meager property he had left (perhaps after giving some away to relatives).

Bennett’s Live Free and Draw website offers several more historical comics, most based on events in the 1800s.

This spring I enjoyed Bennett‘s new book The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby, adapted in the same visual style as in the panels above. You can sample pages here on that site and order the book from here.

As with George O’Connor’s Journey into Mohawk Country (discussed back here), the words on the page adhere very closely to the source material. The images fill out, comment on, or even (as in this page) undercut those words.

Colby’s document is mainly a record of Union Army camp and hospital life. When he finally got into battle, he apparently became too busy to keep journaling in such detail. And Bennett sticks to the source, not adding extra battles for the sake of drama.

As for that visual style, Bennett doesn’t always draw stick figures. But when he does, they’re emotive and easy to tell apart. (In Freeman Colby, all the Massachusetts men in Colby’s company have square heads to distinguish them from his New Hampshire chums.) That style makes Freeman Colby good teaching material since every kid can draw a story like that, and indeed Bennett offers school workshops.

As if that’s not talent enough, Bennett is also a musician, performing Civil War folk music in the Hardtacks.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Venues for Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

Following up on Bunker Hill (discussed in most of these postings), Nathaniel Philbrick has brought out Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution.

As the title indicates, this book focuses on the Continental commander-in-chief and one of his most capable yet prickly protégés.

Philbrick describes Arnold’s feats on Lake Champlain in the Battle of Valcour Island in the fall of 1776, at the same time that the British army was driving Washington out of New York City. He follows the two men through their separate campaigns—Washington running into defeat at Brandywine, Arnold enjoying part of the victory at Saratoga.

And then everything started to go terribly wrong.

Nat Philbrick’s great skill as a historian is finding details and quotations that bring out the emotional core of a story. In this book he focuses on the two men’s psyches as they grew together and apart. He also argues that the revelation of Arnold’s treachery, coming at a low point in the fight for independence, strengthened American unity by providing an enemy to rally against.

I missed Philbrick’s first swing through these parts on his book tour, but he’s coming back through New England next month. Here are the venues:
  • 7 June, 7:00, Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center on behalf of the Lake Champlain Maritime Center, Burlington, Vermont
  • 9 June, 7:00, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester
  • 10 June, 4:00, Falmouth Historical Society
  • 15 June, 7:00, Barrington Books, Barrington, Rhode Island
  • 16 June, 6:00, Boston Athenaeum
Then three events at the Nantucket Book Festival:
  • 18 June, 9:00 A.M., “Revolutionary Figures on a Shifting Canvas,” Nantucket Atheneum
  • 18 June, 1:00 P.M., Mitchell’s Book Corner
  • 19 June, 6:00 P.M., panel discussion at Nantucket Whaling Museum
For more details and other venues, check Philbrick’s website.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Finding Founding Fathers Funnies

Earlier this year Dark Horse published a long-awaited collection of Peter Bagge’s Founding Fathers Funnies.

For his comic Hate Bagge was honored with Harvey and Inkpot Awards, as well as multiple Eisner Award nominations. In 2014 he was named a United States Artists/Rockefeller Fellow.

The stories in Founding Fathers Funnies are short narratives about famous American Revolutionaries, some brand new and others first published in Bagge’s Apocalypse Nerd and the publisher’s Dark Horse Presents magazines.

In both style and attitude Bagge’s approach hearkens back to the underground comics of a generation ago. In other words, totally irreverent. Here’s a preview story about John Paul…Jones. Below are a couple of strips highlighting John Adams’s ability to argue both sides of most positions.

The hardcover edition of Founding Fathers Funnies is $14.99 for 88 full-color pages. In addition, ComiXology sells a digital edition.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Derek W. Beck’s Book Signings around Boston

With the launch of The Road to Concord coming up on Thursday, 2 June, I’m going to highlight some other Revolutionary literature of note.

Derek W. Beck is coming to Massachusetts in June to talk about Igniting the American Revolution and The War Before Independence. These two books retell the major stories of the American Revolution from 1773 to 1776.

Igniting the American Revolution starts with the Boston Tea Party, shifts to Parliament’s debates over how to respond to that act, and comes back to Massachusetts for a detailed retelling of the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

The War Before Independence covers the Battle of Bunker Hill, the American invasion of Canada, and the end of the siege of Boston. As of April 1776, with the exception of a few small outposts, the British military had been driven out of the thirteen colonies represented at the Continental Congress. When the Congress declared independence from royal control, it was putting a legal stamp on a situation that already existed—at least for a couple more months.

Beck is both an engineer and a military officer, and he excels at analyzing and describing the technical details of well-known actions.

Here are the places around Boston where he’ll be speaking and signing books next month:
  • 14 June, 7:00, Porter Square Books, Cambridge
  • 15 June, 7:00, Minute Man National Historical Park (Beck’s website says this signing will take place in Concord, but the park says it will be at the visitor center in Lexington, and I’m inclined to believe the latter.)
  • 20 June, 6:30, Old South Meeting House, Boston
  • 21 June, 6:00, Boston Athenaeum
  • 22 June, 6:00, Charlestown Historical Society
For more details and venues outside Massachusetts, check Beck’s webpage.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

“The Regiments be immediately settled”

Yesterday I examined how the transition from militia to Massachusetts army looked like from a private’s perspective. Here’s a view from the top.

Under New England’s militia system, most men in a community were supposed to turn out in a military emergency. But when the emergency was over? Those men expected to go home.

In late April 1775, with most of the British forces holed up in Boston, and smaller contingents actually withdrawing from Charlestown and Marshfield, there didn’t seem to be an emergency any more. At least, not one that should take every farmer away from his planting.

So some men started to head back home. On 23 April, Gen. Artemas Ward sent a plea to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress:
My situation is such, that if I have not enlisting orders immediately, I shall be left here all alone. It is impossible to keep the men here, excepting something be done. I therefore pray that the plan may be completed and handed to me this morning, that you, gentlemen of the Congress, issue orders for enlisting men.
The “plan” Ward referred to was one he and his colleagues in congress had been working on for weeks: for Massachusetts to enlist thousands of men into an official army, bound to serve until the end of the year.

The next day, the congress started to make that plan concrete:
Ordered, That Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry give the express going to the press, his orders for the enlisting papers.

Ordered, That the enlisting paper going to the press, shall be authenticated by the secretary pro tempore [Ichabod Goodwin].

Resolved, That six hundred of these papers be printed, and that the express wait for two hundred of them. . . .

Resolved, That the [resolves for the] establishment of the army be printed in handbills, and that a copy of them be sent by the express who is going for the enlisting papers, and that three hundred of them be printed immediately.

Moved, That a member from each county be appointed to attend the committee of safety, and let them know the names of the officers in said counties belonging to the minute men, and such as are most suitaable for officers in the army now raising.
In the New England style of raising troops, respected men who wanted to be officers in the army would go around their towns signing up subalterns and soldiers to serve under them.

That process took a while, of course. And there were other details to work out. As I quoted back here, it wasn’t until 5 May that the congress decided on how soldiers who signed up would be sworn into the army.

On 19 May, the process was still dragging on. In fact, the congress was just finishing the oath and commission for Ward himself. He wrote again to Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the congress:
Sir

It appears to me absolutely necessary that the Regiments be immediately settled, the Officers commissioned, the Soldiers mustered and paid agreeable to what has been proposed by the Congress—if we would save our Country.

I am Sir
your most Obedient
Huml: Servt:
A. Ward
Even as Ward wrote, the process was getting under way. That day the congress’s committee of safety started to recommended specific colonels for the congress to commission, certifying that their enlisting papers were in order. The committee also sent a letter to other colonels asking them to hurry up and send in their lists of names. Massachusetts had a legal army at last.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

“Concerning our chusing a sargent”

On 19 April 1775, Thomas Poor was captain of a minute company from Andover. His sergeants were named John Chickering, Cyrus Marble, Philip Farrington, and William Johnson, as stated on a muster roll for the first week of the war.

One of the privates in that company was James Stevens. He kept a diary, later published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections. It shows that the Andover minutemen remained in Cambridge, with occasional patrols into Charlestown, for the next few weeks.

During that time Massachusetts’s emergency assemblage of militia regiments was formally reorganized into an army. We see a little of that process from Pvt. Stevens’s diary entry of 10 May:
Wednsday ye 10 we got our brecfast & then went on the pread in the morning & Capt Poor come out & spok very rash concerning our chusing a sargent & said that we had no right to

wich displesd the soldiers very much thay went of & did no duty that day

about leven a clok we praded & capt Poor come & said that he was mis under stod & the comping setld with him by his making som recantation
This was the New England way of war, privates insisting they had the right to choose whom they would serve under and refusing to do duty if they didn’t get their way. Their captain, a respected veteran, had to make a “recantation” of his scolding before the men settled down.

Ten days later, Capt. Poor got a little distance from that situation by getting promoted to major of the regiment. Benjamin Farnum, a lieutenant in April, became the captain of Poor’s company. (Farnum’s gravestone above comes courtesy of Find a Grave.)

The men probably chose their new sergeant to replace Cyrus Marble, promoted to ensign by 7 May. John Chickering, Philip Farrington, and William Johnson all remained sergeants under Capt. Farnum. Chickering became an ensign by October while Farrington later transferred to another company as an armorer.

And the new sergeant? That was John Barker (1753-1839). (Just to keep things confusing, the minute company had two men of that name.) Presumably the enlisted men chose Barker, and then the officers agreed. Like most of his Andover comrades, he served to the end of the year, and then in short stints later in the war. I’ll get back to him in mid-June.

Lest we think that only enlisted men complained about ranks, on 6 June the captains of that regiment, including Farnum, petitioned the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to have more lieutenants in their companies:
According to the Recommendation of the Congress 20th of Octobr Last [i.e., in 1774] Six Companyes in Sd Regiment have appointed two Lieutnts & Since that time to the 19th of April have ben Diciplined in the Art Military with two Lieutnts & Ever Since ye Lo 19th of April have been Imbodied & have Regularly Done Duty in the Army & So have ben Deprived of the Advantages of Returning to the Country for Recruiting of Troops much to our Disadvantage & as we are informed that the Presant Congress have Determined That Each Company may have but one Lieutnt & an Ensign your Petitioners, Conceiving great Difficulties will Arise in our Companies upon Account thereof, beg that if it may be Consistant with the Honour & Dignity of the Congress That Each of the Seven Companies may have two Lieutnts
Like Capt. Poor, the congress bowed to that demand from below. Cyrus Marble received the rank of second lieutenant by October.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Celebration Turned Tragic in Hartford

On 23 May 1766, the town of Hartford, Connecticut, celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act with a day of thanksgiving. Church bells rang, cannons fired, and ships on the Connecticut River displayed flags. As in Boston and elsewhere, the holiday was supposed to end with a “general illumination,” including fireworks.

According to a city history published in 1886:
A number of young gentlemen had come together to make sky-rockets in an upper chamber of the brick school-house, while the powder stored in the room below was being distributed to the militia. Two companies of soldiers had just received a pound for each man, when the powder scattered by this delivery was thoughtlessly set on fire by boys, and in an instant the building was reduced to a heap of ashes, and twenty-eight persons were buried in its ruins, six of whom died after being taken out of the crumbling mass, and the others were more or less injured.
In 1836, John Warner Barber’s Connecticut Historical Collections cited the Connecticut Gazette of 31 May 1766 for this list of victims:
  • Mr. Levi Jones, John Knowles, (an apprentice to Mr. Thomas Sloan, blacksmith,) and Richard Lord, (second son to Mr. John H. Lord,) died of their wounds, soon after they were taken from under the ruins of the building.
  • Mr. William Gardiner, merchant, had both his thighs broken. [He died soon after.]
  • Mr. Samuel Talcott, Jun., very much burnt in his face and arms.
  • Mr. James Tiley, goldsmith, had one of his shoulders dislocated, and some bruises in the other parts of his body.
  • Mr. John Cook, Jun., had his back and neck hurt much.
  • Ephraim Perry, slightly wounded.
  • Thomas Forbes, wounded in his head.
  • Daniel Butler, (the tavern-keeper’s son,) had one of his ancles put out of joint.
  • Richard Burnham, son to Mr. Elisha Burnham, had his thigh, leg and ancle broke. [He was nineteen years old, and later died of his injuries.]
  • Eli Wadsworth, (Capt. Samuel’s son,) is much wounded and burnt, in his face, hands, and other parts of his body.
  • John Bunce, Jun., (an apprentice to Mr. Church, Hatter,) wounded in the head.
  • Normand Morrison, (a lad that lives with Capt. Tiley,) a good deal burnt and bruised.
  • Roderick Lawrence, (Capt. Lawrence’s son,) slightly wounded.
  • William Skinner, (Capt. Daniel’s son,) had both his thighs broke.
  • Timothy Phelps, (son to Mr. Timothy Phelps, shop-joiner,) had the calf torn off from one of his legs.
  • Valentine Vaughn, (son of Mr. Vaughn, baker,) had his skull terribly broken.
  • Horace Seymour, (son of Mr. Jonathan Seymour, Jun.,) two sons of Mr. John Goodwin, a son of Mr. John Watson, and a son of Mr. Kellogg, hatter, were slightly wounded.
  • Two molatto and two negro boys were also wounded.
Later newspapers added that Dr. Nathaniel Ledyard, a son of one of the town’s representatives in the colonial legislature, also died of his injuries. Like Jones and Gardiner, he was among the town’s “young and newly married men.” Here is Dr. Ledyard’s broken headstone and the ledger that he and his widow used for their accounts.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Looking at a Lantern

This lantern is in the collection of the Bostonian Society. According to its description, these words are painted on the bottom:
This LANTERN was on the Northwest Bough, (opposite Frog-lane), of the LIBERTY TREE; Illuminated last night with several hundred Lanterns, on the arrival of the News of the “Repeal of the Infamous GEORGE GRENVILLE Stamp Act.” Boston May 21st 1766 Eleazer Johnson
There was indeed a Capt. Eleazer Johnson active in Boston Whig politics (as well as other men of the same name in Charlestown and Newburyport, just to muddy the waters).

The lantern was donated to the Bostonian Society in 1889 by “Heirs of J. H. Hunneman”—presumably Joseph Hewes Hunneman (1812-1887). He had a first cousin named Eleazer Johnson Hewes (1803-1856), so it’s likely the family knew Johnson.

(Those cousins were both descended from Shubael Hewes (1732-1813), a butcher in Revolutionary Boston. Shubael Hewes was far from a Whig activist. He testified for the soldiers after the Boston Massacre, and he supplied meat to the British army during the siege of Boston. Yet Shubael Hewes didn’t leave with that army, either. He stayed in Boston and managed to regain the confidence of his neighbors enough to be elected to town office in 1781 and later. Other members of the family were active Whigs, including little brother George R. T. Hewes.)

There were articles about this lantern and two similar ones in The Magazine Antiques in 1930 and 1934. Discussing this lantern last year, Bostonian Society historian Nat Sheidley wrote:
In many ways the Bostonian Society’s lantern is relatively undistinguished. Like most lanterns of the second half of the eighteenth century, it is made of tin and glass. It is large enough to accommodate two candles, but at just over 20 inches by just under 8 ½ inches it is not oversized. It is painted green, red, and gold, and the tinwork is well executed but not overly ornate.

A closer look, however, reveals much that is of interest. The lantern bears a carefully wrought crown of elm leaf finials, a clear reference to the Liberty Tree itself. Importantly, the same finials are found atop all three surviving lanterns that hung from the Liberty Tree in May 1766. This suggests that the lanterns were made as a set, either by a single tin worker or by multiple craftsmen working together. Clearly, the lanterns were not a spontaneous outpouring contributed by Boston residents; instead, they were part of a carefully planned commemoration of the repeal and of the Liberty Tree’s role in the defeat of the Stamp Act.
Of course, we should always ask questions about Revolutionary artifacts that surface during the Colonial Revival with no earlier documentation. One detail of the label that makes me dubious is the phrase “the LIBERTY TREE.” In all the contemporaneous references I’ve seen, Bostonians called that elm “Liberty Tree” with no definite article. (They did write “the Tree of Liberty.”)

On the other hand, would someone writing on this lantern decades later really care about which British politician had been prime minister when the Stamp Act passed? Would a person faking this lantern based on newspaper reports have omitted the detail of 108 lanterns, which would have given verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative? Instead, the lantern says it was one of “several hundred,” the sort of exaggeration someone might write in the heat of the moment.

We might ask, would Johnson really label a common lantern on 21 May 1766 with so much historic detail that we’d be studying it 250 years later? That actually seems plausible. As the newspaper descriptions of the repeal celebrations show, Bostonians really did feel they were living through an important moment when they had helped to return justice and harmony to the British Empire.

TOMORROW: Celebration and tragedy in Hartford.