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, June 09, 2007

British Officers Taken Prisoner

On Wednesday I shared some reports of a prisoner exchange between the British and provincial armies, 232 years earlier. The Essex Gazette reported the provincials’ prisoners as:

Major Dunbar, and Lieut. Hamilton of the 64th on horse-back; Lieut. Potter, of the marines, in a chaise; John Hilton of the 47th, Alexander Campbell of the 4th, John Tyne, Samuel Marcy, Thomas Parry, and Thomas Sharp, of the marines, wounded men, in two carts
Few sources on the siege of Boston say anything more about those men, so here’s what I’ve been able to gather.

Maj. William Dunbar was a retired British officer who had been traveling in New England when the war broke out; he was captured in Cambridge while seeking to ride home to Canada. On 29 April the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety ordered that “Major Dunbar, now a prisoner at Head-Quarters” in Cambridge, be taken “to Woburn, under a strong guard, and...kept in safe custody.” (The committee also authorized the company escorting Dunbar to charge their tavern bill to the province.) According to Historical Sketches of Andover, relying on correspondence between Dunbar and Samuel Osgood, the officer was “Mayor of Quebec,” but there seems to have been no such office until 1833; that might simply have been a misreading of “Major.” Dunbar died in Montreal in 1788.

Lt. Hamilton of the 64th Regiment was probably one of the British officers who rode out on horseback early on 18 April to scout the route to Concord, stop alarm riders like Paul Revere, and otherwise prepare the way for the army’s march that evening. He was captured, unwounded, by provincial militiamen as he tried to get back to his regiment at Castle William. (He was not Lt. James Hamilton of the 10th, who had refused to ride out the night before, claiming illness.)

In an invisible-ink report to Gen. Thomas Gage dated 6 May 1775, Benjamin Thompson of Woburn said that “Dunbar from Canada, & Ens. Hamilton of [tear] Regt. with their Servants are Prisoners in this town.” Ensign was the rank below lieutenant, the equivalent of a 2nd lieutenant in today’s U.S. army, so Thompson wasn’t far off. (Judge Peter Oliver, in a letter to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, referred simply to “Mr. Hamilton, of the 64th Regiment.”) Did Dunbar and Hamilton have servants with them who did not return to Boston, or did Thompson assume the enlisted men were their servants?

Lt. Isaac Potter of the marines was wounded near Lexington, according to Gage’s report to London. Lemuel Shattuck’s 1835 History of the Town of Concord reported:
Lieutenant Isaac Potter, of the marines, was taken prisoner, and confined some time at Reuben Brown’s. Colonel [James] Barrett was directed, April 22d, to give him liberty to walk round the house, but to keep a constant guard of three men, day and night, to present his being insulted or making his escape.
Maj. David Mason of the Massachusetts artillery regiment wrote “Lieut Potter of the Marines” in a notebook he was keeping in 1774-75, so their paths must have crossed.

As for the enlisted men, it’s typical of British military sources not to name them. Gage reported all the officers killed, wounded, and captured in his report to London, but simply gave numbers for lower-ranking men. Similarly, the officers traveled to this prisoner exchange on horses and a chaise while the enlisted men shared wagons. The American newspaper account might therefore be our best printed source on the private soldiers. For more information, someone might have to page through original manuscripts in the U.K.’s National Archives.

COMING UP: And the British military’s prisoners?

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