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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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Meanwhile, Back in October 1775

Boston selectmen Timothy Newell reported that 237 years ago today the British garrison was on the alert, expecting a Continental attack:

Several nights past the whole army was ordered not to undress—the cannon all loaded with grape shot from a full apprehension the Provincials would make an attack upon the town. The streets paraded all night by the Light Horse.
Capt. John Barker’s journal entry for 28 Oct 1775 reveals the reason for this alert: men coming into town from the American lines were warning about it.
Several Deserters lately come in all agree that it is intended to attack us; we have been expecting it three or four nights past; a Man come in to day says they’ll attack to night. We shall see if they mean to put their threats in execution; if they do they must in all probability get a severe bearing. The Deserters all say the Rebel Army is very tired, ill off for cloathing and most things; they are not paid what they are promised and most want to go home.
Barker’s notes highlight what seems like a contradiction in the deserters’ statements. On the one hand, those men claimed the Continental Army was in poor circumstances, which might have spurred them to defect. On the other hand, they said that army was about the attack. Perhaps they were indeed worried about a Continental offensive, and didn’t want to risk their lives in it. Perhaps they were trying to make themselves more important to the British authorities when they arrived. Or perhaps they were actually spreading disinformation to keep the British military on edge.

In fact, in late October Gen. George Washington and other commanders were busy in meetings with the elected officials who had authorized the Continental Army:
Since our last [issue,] arrived in Town, the Honourable Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Lynch, and Benjamin Harrison, Esquires, from Philadelphia, a Committee from the Continental Congress; the Honourable Matthew Griswold, Esq; Deputy-Governor and —— Wales, Esq; of Connecticut; the Honourable Nicholas Cooke, Esq; Deputy-Governor and Commander in Chief of Rhode-Island; and the Hon. John Wentworth, Esq; President of the Provincial Congress of New-Hampshire.

As the Time for which the present Army is raised will expire in 2 or 3 Months, these Gentlemen, with the Members of the Honourable Council of this Colony, are appointed to meet and confer with his Excellency General Washington on the Subject of forming and establishing another Continental Army, for the Defence of the invaded Rights of the United Colonies.
Washington was trying to reshape the army to be as strong as possible, working under a looming deadline: at the end of the year, most of the soldiers’ enlistments would expire. As Richard Frothingham wrote in his History of the Siege of Boston, “Washington, during October, was occupied with making preparations for the winter, and in a new organization of the army. He was not in a condition to act offensively.”

The American meetings took place at Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, now the Longfellow National Historic Site. It will be open for guided tours only through this Sunday, and then close for the year.

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