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, August 15, 2006

Mistaken Identity at Fort Griswold

Yesterday I visited Fort Griswold in Groton, Connecticut, which is about to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the British army storming the site on 6 Sept 1781. It’s an unusually well preserved eighteenth-century fortification, largely because the U.S. military site continued to use it until the twentieth century, preventing private development. But the people of Groton and New London, across the Thames River, were also quick off the mark to memorialize the battle on their waterfront. They formed a committee to build a monument in 1820 and completed it by 1830 (three and twelve years before Bostonians did the same for the Battle of Bunker Hill).

One reason I stopped at Fort Griswold involves the Bucks of America, which William C. Nell in The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855) said was an all-African-American unit attached to the Continental Army. One of the abiding mysteries of the Revolutionary era is that there's no record of this unit besides its flag, now owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Some sources, such as this National Park Service webpage and this article on Wikipedia, say the Bucks of America fought at Fort Griswold. That presents problems for the standard stories of both the Bucks and the fort. The unit was supposed to be a Continental Army unit, and in 1781 the fort was staffed at very short notice by local militia, not the army.

There’s a simple explanation for how this confusion arose. The commander of the Bucks of America, Nell wrote, was a Boston man named George Middleton. In 1855 George Middleton, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, wrote an account of the storming of Fort Griswold, which he had seen from afar as a boy. These were obviously two separate men since the first died on 6 Apr 1815, forty years before the second wrote.

Benjamin Quarles cited the recollections of the younger George Middleton when he described the Fort Griswold battle in The Negro in the American Revolution. (Two local African-American men were among the defenders who died in the battle.) Quarles had no reason to identify Middleton beyond his name and the citation of the battle history where his account was published.

People naturally looked in Quarles’s book for information about the Bucks of America. They didn’t find any, but they did find the reference to George Middleton as an eyewitness to the battle at Fort Griswold. Ergo, they concluded, the Bucks unit must have been there. Unfortunately, it’s a case of mistaken identity.


evan said...

well said... and thx for the correction!

J. L. Bell said...

The link on Evan’s name above has twisted itself around, but this link should take you to his site on the Battle of Groton Heights.