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, February 13, 2007

Documents for Sale and Col. William Burbeck

A while back author Don Hagist reminded me of the online auctions at EarlyAmerican.com, which often include Revolutionary items, including powder horns, buttons, pamphlets, books, and documents.

For example, one item recently on the block was a manuscript describing a “New manner of forming a company in order of Battalion, as practiced by the Independent Companies in Boston”. This is a guide to militia drill, with a diagram, for a captain, two lieutenants, and four sergeants.

Another was a list of Massachusetts non-commissioned officers and men raised for the defense of the Castle and Governors Island in Boston harbor, made out by Col. William Burbeck of the state militia in 1782.

In the middle of 1775, Burbeck was second-in-command of the American artillery regiment under Col. Richard Gridley. He probably had more experience with explosives than anyone else in Massachusetts outside the Royal Artillery, having worked at the Castle William fort for several years while it housed first militia troops and later regiments from the British army. Burbeck was also Boston’s fireworks expert. He was at the Castle when the war began in 1775, and reportedly escaped to the provincial lines in a canoe.

In late 1775, Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress replaced Gridley with Col. Henry Knox, a much younger man whose highest previous rank was a lieutenant in the Boston grenadier company. Other aspiring officers, such as Thomas Crafts, Jr., seem to have resented Knox’s sudden promotion. Burbeck continued to serve in the regiment until the British military sailed away in March 1776.

Then Washington ordered most of the Continental artillery to move south to New York, where he anticipated another attack. On 12 April, Burbeck wrote to Knox:

I see, by your instructions from his Excellency, I am ordered to New-York directly. When I came out of Boston, the [Massachusetts] Provincial Congress voted me one hundred and fifty pounds during the war, and four shillings sterling a day for life. It would be ungenerous for me to leave their service, as they have provided so well for me. If I leave their service, the four shillings a day is lost to me. As I am advanced in years, I am unwilling to part with it.

I am not able to set out directly to New-York, because I am finishing the drafts for cannon, mortars, and carriages, for the Province.

I hope, sir, the above will excuse me for not complying with your orders.
Burbeck thus left his high post in the American artillery, preferring to remain in Massachusetts working for the state’s guaranteed salary and pension. (Two of his sons, Edward and Henry, remained Continental Army artillery officers; Henry eventually succeeded to Col. Gridley’s post as Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army.)

I suspect Burbeck may not have been happy continuing as Knox’s second-in-command; artillery officers seem especially touchy about relative rank. It was under that state authority as a militia commander that he wrote the document on sale this month.


melody allen olsen said...

Col. William Burbeck is my great,great, great grandfather. He had a daughter, Abigail who is my great grandfather, Charles Leslie Allen's mother. I have in my possession the deed to the Green Dragon Tavern. Can you help me find any additional information about my family? Thanks, Melody

J. L. Bell said...

I hope you're in touch with another Boston 1775 reader, Eric Fitzpatrick, who told me he descends from Georgia R. Burbeck. He, too, is interested in finding out more about the family, and wrote about some unpublished sources created or owned by his great-aunt.

Col. Burbeck's son Henry became a general in the U.S. Army and a founder of the military academy at West Point. Late in his long life he wrote several letters to Massachusetts historians about the military situation before and at the start of the Revolutionary War. Some have been published; most have not been. They're in different collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

William Burbeck and Paul Revere were occasional rivals in the leadership of the Freemasons in Boston, so Burbeck shows up in Jayne Triber's biography of Revere, A True Republican. However, since few sources from Burbeck himself are known, his motivations and choices remain quite a mystery.

Feel free to email me if you have specific questions.

Tracy Hall said...

My Great Great Grandfather was Charles Leslie Allen. My father was Allen Robinson Hall. I have the portrait of Viola Allen and other items from the family I believe including an entire family tree tracing back to William Burbank. Please contact me if you are interested. Tracyc@sohomyriad.com