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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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Timothy Newell on the Outbreak of War

In 1775, Timothy Newell was one of Boston’s seven selectmen and a deacon of the wealthy Brattle Street Meeting-House (where the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper presided). He wasn’t heavily involved in the political resistance, like his fellow selectman and congregant John Hancock. Rather, Newell seems to have seen his wartime responsibility as looking after Boston and his place of worship. He remained in town through the siege, keeping notes about public events. The resulting diary is somewhat impersonal, but a valuable record of how Boston officials experienced the first months of the Revolutionary War.

Sometime in the following decades, the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, made a transcript of Newell’s document, and the society published it in 1852. I’ll quote Newell’s comments over the next several months, trying to time each entry for exactly 232 years after he wrote, to provide a sense of the siege.

Here, a couple of days late, is Newell’s account of how the war began:

1775. April 19th. At 10 of the clock last night, the Kings Troops marched out from the bottom of the Common, crossed over to Phip’s farm, marched on till they came to Lexington and proceeded to Concord where they were sent to distroy Magazines of Provisions, &c. After doing some damage by spiking up and destroying cannon &c. they halted and were soon attacked by our People, upon which they retreated, being about 800. Men commanded by Major Pitcairn of the Marines.
Maj. John Pitcairn was near the head of the column, and thus the senior officer during the skirmish on Lexington green. However. Lt.-Col. Francis Smith actually commanded the mission until the arrival of Earl Percy, who was a full colonel, with the reinforcement column.
Upon their retreat they were joined by a Brigade commanded by Lord Percy who continued the retreat and were beat by our People from thence, down to Charlestown, which fight was continued till sunset. Our People behaved with the utmost bravery—about thirty of our People were killed and wounded, and fifty of the Kings Troops. The next day they came over to Boston. (Double the number of Kings Troops to our People, were in action that day) and blessed be God who most remarkably appeared in our favor.
Newell’s numbers are estimates based on incomplete reports, obviously, and in one respect quite wrong. It’s now thought that on 19 April 1775 the provincial militia had 50 men killed, 39 wounded, and another 5 missing. The regular troops had 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing, some of those deserters.

More important, by the end of the day the provincials had twice as many men in the field as the army, contrary to Newell’s comment about “Double the number of Kings Troops” (which I suspect was an addition to his original sentence, hence the parentheses in the transcript). Newell, like many other Americans, preferred to think of their men as fighting against the odds, meaning any success showed that God was on their side. But the great strength of the Patriots throughout the war was their superior number. They didn’t have the training and weaponry of the British army, but they had more potential fighting men and more sympathetic supporters on the continent.

Newell’s original manuscript is now on sale for $75,000 through Kaller Historical Documents. Click on that link and search for “Newell.”

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