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, October 27, 2007

Old South Meeting-House Dragooned

On 27 Oct 1775, Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded what became one of the most notorious events of the British army’s 1774-76 stay in Boston, though it didn’t involve killing or imprisoning people. Rather, the British military took over Boston’s largest house of worship and put its interior to a particular use:

The spacious Old South Meeting house, taken possession of by the Light horse 17th Regiment of Dragoons commanded by Lieut. Colo. Samuel Birch. The Pulpit, pews and seats, all cut to pieces and carried off in the most savage manner as can be expressed and destined for a riding school. The beautiful carved pew with the silk furniture of Deacon Hubbard’s was taken down and carried to [blank]’s house by an officer and a made a hog stye. The above was effected by the solicitation of General [John] Burgoyne.
Some writers have interpreted this use of the Old South as a deliberate attempt to desecrate that particular meeting-house because it had become associated with the Patriot cause. It had hosted the tea meetings of 1773 and most of the orations commemorating the Boston Massacre of 1770. However, Newell recorded that the dragoons had first tried to use his Brattle Street Meeting-House instead, but it didn’t have the right architecture.

Thus, while Burgoyne no doubt appreciated the dramatic irony of carpeting Old South with dung (as was planned for the Brattle Street building) and turning it into a stable, the meeting-house’s primary appeal was probably that it was the largest interior space in Boston, with no pillars to get in the way of the horses. As winter approached, the dragoons and mounted officers needed a place to exercise themselves and their steeds.

According to the published history of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, young businessman John Winslow “buried the communion plate of the Old South Church in the cellar of his uncle’s home to prevent its falling into the hands of the British.” This is the same fellow who reportedly identified Dr. Joseph Warren’s body in 1775.

After the British military left, the Old South congregation took over King’s Chapel, the Anglican church at the other end of School Street. After all, much of that church’s congregation had left town. In 1783, they moved back into their own building.

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