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, July 24, 2007

Handbills on the Wings of the Wind at Night

On 24 July 1775, according to American Archives, someone in the provincial camp at Cambridge wrote:

We have frequently thrown into their [i.e., the British military] lines, on the wings of the wind at night, hand-bills, and propose to send in a few tonight. These bills are blown into their camp, and get into the hands of their soldiers, without the officers being able to prevent it.

Major [Andrew] Bruce [of the 38th Regiment] complained, at an interview the other day, of such usage. We retorted his decoying our sentries from their posts, two rascals having left us a day or two before, by his or some other officer’s means.
In other words, there was a small trickle of deserters back and forth behind the two armies. The notion of provincial militiamen slipping off to the British lines surprises me, not because I see the American cause as obviously just and holy but because the countryside undoubtedly had more food and more opportunities for movement. One of the handbills that the provincials printed, shown above, even highlighted that difference. Yet some men saw better prospects inside Boston than outside.

That same 24 July 1775 letter also reported, “our sentinels have dispersed several hundred of those papers called ‘An Address to the Soldiers,’ amongst the Regular Troops, which, it is to be hoped, will be of good effect.” That broadside, downloadable through the Library of Congress here, made an appeal to the British soldiers’ values in the form of a letter from a veteran. It recalled how British soldiers had refused to serve James II during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It insisted that the current ministry sought “the Establishment of Popery and Arbitrary Power in one Half of their Country”—a reference to how the Quebec Act let Catholicism continue to be the state religion in Canada.

The “Address to the Soldiers” concluded:
Arts will no doubt be used to persuade you, that it is your Duty to obey Orders; and that you are sent upon the just and righteous Errand of crushing Rebellion[.] But your own Hearts will tell you, that the People may be so ill treated, as to make Resistance necessary. You know, that Violence and Injury offered from one Man to another, has always some Pretence of Right or Reason to justify it. . . .

Your Honour then, Gentlemen, as Soldiers, and your Humanity as Men, forbid you to be the Instruments of forcing Chains upon your injured and oppressed Fellow Subjects. Remember that your first Obedience is due to God, and that whoever bids you shed innocent Blood, bids you act contrary to his Commandments.
I am, GENTLEMEN,
your sincere Well-wisher,
AN OLD SOLDIER.

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