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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Friday, November 30, 2007

What the Americans Found on the Nancy

Yesterday I described the capture of the British brig Nancy by a New England privateer in late November 1775. When the Americans discovered the weapons on that ship, “jubilant” is not too strong a word for their reaction. Gen. William Heath wrote in his diary on 30 Nov 1775:

Intelligence was received from Cape Ann, that a vessel from England, laden with warlike stores, had been taken and brought into that place. There was on board one 13 inch brass mortar, 2000 stand of arms, 100,000 flints, 32 tons of leaden ball, &c. &c. A fortunate capture for the Americans!
Those weapons were soon moved to Cambridge, and Col. Stephen Moylan wrote:
Such universal joy ran through the whole camp as if each grasped victory in his hand; to crown the glorious scene, there intervened one truly ridiculous, which was Old Put [Gen. Israel Putnam] mounted on the large mortar, which was fixed in its bed for the occasion, with a bottle of rum in his hand, standing parson to christen, while god-father Mifflin gave it the name of Congress.
Thomas Mifflin (shown above, courtesy of the U.S. Army Transportation Museum) was then Quartermaster-General of the Continental Army. In June 1776, he would be succeeded by none other than Col. Moylan.

Dr. James Thacher, an army surgeon, later explained the reason for such excitement:
Before our privateers had fortunately captured some prizes with cannon and other ordnance, our army before Boston had, I believe, only four small brass cannon, and a few old honey-comb iron pieces, with their trunnions broken off. . . . Had the enemy been made acquainted with our situation, the consequences might have been exceedingly distressing.
By the day after Heath heard about the Nancy, news of the capture had filtered into Boston, where selectman Timothy Newell recorded:
A large Brigt. with ordnance stores, a very valuable prize from London taken by Captn. [John] Manly in a Schooner Privateer from Beverly.
Lt. William Feilding wrote to his relative and patron, the 6th Earl of Denbigh, on 12 Dec 1775:
In my last I informed your Lordship the apprehension we were in for fear of the Ordnance Brigg was taken and am sorry to Acquaint your Lordship that by Accounts from the Rebels, she was Taken a few days before the Boyne sail’d. . . .

The Captain [of a privateer captured in the first week of December] says he saw the sea Morter (which was on Board the Ordnance Brigg) at Cambridge Common the Thursday before he was taken; and that from the Information of the Master, he was sent out to sea for a Powder Ship, which we have heard nothing of as yet. A deserter who came in a few days since, Says he saw all the Ordnance Stores safe Lodg’d at Cambridge last week.
On 19 Jan 1776, Feilding added that British officers expected the Americans to mount their new mortars on high ground at Phipps’ Farm, across the Charles River from Boston, “and endeavour to Burn the Town.”

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Lee Captures the Nancy

As engineer Col. Archibald Robertson prepared to leave London for the theater of war in Massachusetts in July 1775, he asked Viscount Townshend, Master-General of the Ordnance, to arrange for a convoy of warships to protect the “several Ordnance transports with Artillery stores and men” from rebel attacks at sea.

However, Gen. Frederick Haldimand, who was just back from Boston, assured his army superiors, including Gen. Jeffery Amherst, that there were no American cruisers to worry about and plenty of Royal Navy ships around Massachusetts Bay. So the British military added no special protection to this transport fleet. Robertson felt a little vindication when he spotted “a Rebel privateer” as he arrived in Boston on 8 November in a fleet of twelve ships.

That ship may or may not have been the Lee, commanded by Capt. John Manley (1733-1793) of Marblehead. Before the war it had been the schooner Two Brothers, owned by Thomas Stevens; it had been renamed in honor of Gen. Charles Lee.

In any event, on 29 Nov 1775, Capt. Manley’s Lee captured one of the ordnance brigs from London, the Nancy, off Cape Ann. Col. Robertson’s fear had been realized.

In January 1776, Manley was named commodore of the small fleet of privateers Gen. George Washington had urged New Englanders to create; later he received the third U.S. naval commission as captain when the Continental Congress got around to adopting the same idea. During the war Manley and his crews captured ten British vessels and helped in seizing five more, while being captured and imprisoned three times. The engraving above comes from the Surface Navy Association’s Hall of Fame. (We hope his sword was in its scabbard.)

TOMORROW: What the Nancy was carrying.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Visual and Textual Worlds of Children

I’m taking the opportunity to pass on a call for papers from the American Antiquarian Society:

Home, School, Play, Work: The Visual and Textual Worlds of Children
Conference: 14-15 Nov 2008, at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

The Center for Historic American Visual Culture and the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture at the American Antiquarian Society seek papers that explore the visual and textual worlds of children in America from 1700 to 1900.

We welcome proposals that address the creation, circulation, and reception of print, manuscript, and other materials produced for, by, or about children. Submissions may address any aspect of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century textual, visual, or material culture that relate to the experience or representation of childhood.

Suggested topics include popular prints for or of children, board and card games, children’s book illustration, visual aspects of children’s books and magazines, early photography and children, performing children (theater, dance, the circus), dolls and puppets, child workers in art and printing industries, images of children and race, representations of childhood sexuality, the architecture of childhood spaces (schoolrooms, nurseries), children’s clothing, children’s appropriation of commodities, children’s handiwork (samplers, dolls, toys), and theories of visuality or textuality and childhood.

Please send a one-page proposal for a 20-minute paper and a brief C.V. to Georgia B. Barnhill, Director of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture, by 10 Jan 2008.
See this page for Barnhill’s email address, more detail, and any updates.

The A.A.S. has a significant collection of early American children’s literature. The organization’s founder, Isaiah Thomas, contributed to this field by reprinting many of John Newbery’s pioneering British children’s books—albeit not with Newbery’s formal authorization. The A.A.S. reading room was also where Esther Forbes, author of Johnny Tremain, did much of her research alongside her principal assistant (her mother).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tempting Away British Musicians in 1778

Gen. John Burgoyne led a British army south from Canada in 1777, but met defeat at the Battles of Bennington and Saratoga. The thousands of prisoners of war became known as the “Convention Army,” after their terms of surrender. For about a year these troops were held in camps outside Boston while the two governments argued over who was breaking that agreement.

That reversed the geographic situation from that of 1774-76, when there were thousands of British soldiers inside Boston. During that earlier stretch, officers struggled to keep enlisted men from deserting to the provincials outside town. In 1777-78, disaffected British soldiers slipped into Boston in order to defect.

Among the officers in Burgoyne’s army was Lt. Thomas Anburey of the 24th Regiment. In 1789 he edited his letters home into a book titled Travels Through the Interior Parts of America, 1776-1781, which spends as much time on natural history as political disputes. He closed his letter dated 20 May 1778 with these anecdotes about deserters from among the Crown’s regimental musicians, who were mostly drummers and fifers:

I am sorry to inform you that the Americans are too successful in enticing our soldiers to desert; a few days since the whole band of the sixty-second regiment, excepting the Master, deserted in a body, and are now playing to an American regiment in Boston. . . .

You will be pleased with a noble and animated saying of a little drum-boy, not ten years old: this boy’s father, who belonged to our regiment, some time since deserted into Boston, and has been as nigh as he could venture with safety to our barracks, to entice or seize his son, and take him with him; but finding it in vain he sent an American to entreat him to go to his father, when the little fellow replied, “No; tell my father, if he is such a rascal as to desert his King and country, his son won’t; he has fed at their expence, and will die in their service.”
If this anecdote is true, this “drum-boy” was the youngest I’ve read about in the British service. Since drums were an eighteenth-century army’s signal corps, commanders wanted reliable men in that job. But of course if this boy was already traveling with his father’s regiment, they’d want to get some good out of feeding him. And he was apparently more loyal to his regiment than to his father.

The rope-tension drum shown above is available from Cooperman.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Veterans Moving West

At the Northwest History blog he shares with Bill Youngs, Prof. Larry Cebula has written an interesting essay about Revolutionary War veterans who ended up moving west—as far west as Oregon, in the case of William Cannon (1755-1854). Larry writes:

The life and the grave of William Cannon illustrate the speed of the conquest of the American West. A man who grew up in the Virginia of Washington and Jefferson and served his country in the Revolution also settled on the Pacific coast and helped bring one of the last major parts of the west under American control.
Among the individual men I’ve researched, the one buried furthest west from Massachusetts is Thompson Maxwell (1742-c. 1833). He was born in Bedford of a couple who had emigrated from Ireland, and started his military career by 1760, during the French & Indian War. Maxwell married and moved to New Hampshire in the 1760s. He later claimed to have been involved in the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill; there’s some evidence to put him at each of those events, though it’s not definite and the combination seems like an awful lot to believe. But Maxwell definitely served in the Continental Army for much of the war. Settling in Buckland, Massachusetts, he served as his town’s delegate to the state’s constitutional convention and General Court.

Then Maxwell moved west to Ohio—perhaps because his farm failed, perhaps because he wanted more. At age seventy he served in yet another war. Unfortunately, he was part of the garrison at Fort Detroit that Gen. William Hull surrendered to the British in August 1812. Maxwell was paroled because of his age, but did not receive a warm welcome back home. He later stated:
a mob, irritated by Hull’s pusillanimity, misjudging my patriotic efforts, and denouncing all parties concerned in the late disasters at Detroit, rally and gather about my habitation, burn my house, destroy my property, and, barely clothed, I escape for my life through a corn-field by night. . . .

[The following February] I am advised to leave the army. I was unjustly accused by Capt. Robinson, as a dangerous enemy and a tory, etc., in Hull’s surrender.
Later Maxwell returned to the army and became “barracks master” at Fort Detroit in the late 1810s. He died near Detroit, over ninety years old.

Maxwell and even Cannon might not be the farthest-flung Revolutionary War veterans, however. What about men who had sailed on privateers during the war, then joined the China Trade that American merchants developed after they were cut off from the markets of the British Empire? Are they buried along the Oregon coast, in east Asia, or deep in the Pacific?

For that matter, what about the British soldiers who fought in the Revolution and might then have been posted to imperial posts in India, South America, Africa, or practically any other part of the growing Empire?

(Thumbnail photo above of a New Hampshire historic marker from Marc Nozell via Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution license.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Charges "to a Dog" and "to Trouble"

Baron Frederick William Augustus von Steuben arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 1 Dec 1777 with his young French aides and a servant. In Europe the baron had been told that the American army wore scarlet, so he had secured uniforms in that color for himself and his companions. The locals immediately assumed they were British officers.

That confusion explained away, the Europeans headed south to Boston. Steuben's teen-aged translator, Peter Stephen Duponceau, later wrote to his granddaughter about their stay in that town:

We lodged as boarders at the house of a Mrs. Downe, the widow of a British officer, a respectable lady, with two beautiful and amiable daughters, the oldest Miss Betsy, about 19, and the youngest Miss Sally 16 years of age. There were no other boarders in the house but Baron Steuben and his family, and we were kindly and hospitably treated.

The bill at parting was very moderate, but there were two items in it which excited the anger of the good Baron, and made him ejaculate more than once, diable! diable! and Tertifle! The first of these charges was “to a dog,” which, in my opinion was a very just, and correct one. The Baron had brought with him his favourite dog Azor, a fine large Italian grey hound, who ate as much as any one of us. Why the charge was objected to, I cannot well conceive; it is probable that in Germany dogs go every where scot free.

The other charge was rather extraordinary, but under the circumstances a very just one. It was “to trouble.” I cannot recollect how much the charge amounted to, but it appeared to me very moderate. Only fancy to yourself an old German Baron, with a large brilliant star on his breast, a German servant attending him, and three French aid-de-camps, and a large spoiled Italian dog. None of all that company could speak a word of English except your grandfather, who was not a grave old man, as he is at present, but loved his share of fun when it went round.

We gave trouble enough to the good lady, and though I see in her charge much naiveté, I cannot perceive in it a symptom of avarice. As she had a little of what is, I do not know why, called Yankee cunning, she would have dropped these charges, and obtained her end by swelling a little, the more usual ones. . . .

In Mrs. Downe’s family to which came frequently female visitors,...I did not fail to take advantage of my fortunate situation, being the only person in our company who could speak the language of the country; I interpreted it as true as in duty bound, between the Baron and the old lady, and transmitted sometimes a few compliments from him to the young ones, but I left my brother beaux to shift for themselves. There they stood, or sat like Indians, and could talk only by signs. But the ladies had not studied Hieroglyphics, and I had the field all to myself. O! those were delightful times!
Italian greyhound portrait courtesy of Italian-Greyhound.net and Pet Action Shots.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Transport Ship to Point Shirley

As winter approached, the British authorities inside besieged Boston tried to remove civilians who didn’t want to be there and would only add to the difficulty of keeping the garrison and Loyalist families fed and warm. Selectman Timothy Newell recorded one of their actions in his journal on 24 Nov 1775:

A transport Ship carried about 400 of our Inhabitants to Point Shirley [in Winthrop]. One poor Dutch woman attempted to carry with her about 60 dollars. Morrison the deserter seized them and carried them to the town Major. Ten dollars was stopped by him.
This was the third time that Newell complained about John Morrison.

On 28 November, Gen. George Washington reported to the Continental Congress:
About 300 Men, Women and Children of the poor Inhabitants of Boston, came out to Point Shirley last Friday, they have brought their Household furniture, but unprovided of every other necessary of Life: I have recommended them to the attention of the Committee of the Honorable Council of this Province, now sitting at Water Town.
The Council was the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature. With the royal government broken down, it had taken executive authority in the province. And now it was responsible for the poor refugees from Boston.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Looking Back at the Latest WMQ Reviews

Here are links to pertinent book reviews in the latest issue of the William & Mary Quarterly. Check out the contents page, or click below to bring them through as PDF files:

The full names in the lines above are the reviewers, the surnames the book authors who did the hard work. None of the Bells are relations.

And of course I must mention that the July issue’s reviews include Barry Levy’s evaluation of Children in Colonial America, edited by James Marten. (“J. L. Bell persuasively analyzes the central role that independent children played in patriotic Boston mobs before the Revolution”—have I mentioned that before?)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Samuel Adams’s Marital Advice

On 22 Nov 1780, Samuel Adams sent a letter from Philadelphia to Thomas Wells of Boston:

when I was last in Boston…I then consented that you should form the most intimate Connection with the dear Girl whom I pride myself in calling my Daughter. I did this with Caution and Deliberation; and having done it, I am now led to contemplate the Relation in which I am myself to stand with you, and I can [hardly] forbear the same Stile in this Letter, which I should take the Liberty to use if I was writing to her.

The Marriage State was designd to complete the Sum of human Happiness in this Life. It some times proves otherwise; but this is owing to the Parties themselves, who either rush into it without due Consideration, or fail in point of Discretion in their Conduct towards each other afterwards. It requires Judgment on both Sides, to conduct with exact Propriety; for though it is acknowledgd, that the Superiority is & ought to be in the Man, yet as the Management of a Family in many Instances necessarily devolves on the Woman, it is difficult always to determine the Line between the Authority of the one & the Subordination of the other.

Perhaps the Advice of the good Bishop of St. Asaph on another Occasion, might be adopted on this, and that is, not to govern too much. When the married Couple strictly observe the great Rules of Honor & Justice towards each other, Differences, if any happen, between them, must proceed from small & trifling Circumstances. Of what Consequence is it, whether a Turkey is brought on the Table boild or roasted? And yet, how often are the Passions sufferd to interfere in such mighty Disputes, till the Tempers of both become so sowerd, that they can scarcely look upon each other with any tolerable Degree of good Humor.
I dug this quote out of the hard drive because I liked Adams's remark about turkey. I was delighted to see that he wrote this letter 227 years ago today.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Peter Duponceau Meets Samuel Adams

Peter Stephen Duponceau was born in France in 1760 as Pierre Etienne du Ponceau. His family, genteel but impoverished, pushed him into a church career because of his proficiency as a scholar, but in his mid-teens he ran away to Paris.

In 1777, du Ponceau met Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, a former officer of the Prussian army and out-of-work courtier. Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane were trying to recruit Steuben for the Continental Army, believing him to have been a general for Frederick the Great. Steuben initially turned them down because they didn’t offer enough money, but then a sex scandal gave him a strong reason to get out of Europe. Du Ponceau was expert in English, enamored of republicanism, and up for adventure, so the baron took him on as a translator and aide.

As it turned out, du Ponceau made a terrible military officer: utterly inexperienced, near-sighted, comically absent-minded, and sickly. He was, however, committed to the new U.S. of A. He settled in Philadelphia after the war, Americanized his name, and became a very good linguist and lawyer.

In 1836 Duponceau began to relate his Revolutionary experiences in letters to a colleague named Robert Walsh and then to his granddaughter. These letters have been reprinted in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Here is Duponceau’s recollection of his conversations with Samuel Adams in early 1778:

I shall never forget the compliment paid me by Samuel Adams on his discovering my Republican principles. “Where,” said he to me, “did you learn all that?”

“In France,” replied I.

“In France! that is impossible.” Then, recovering himself, he added, “Well, because a man was born in a stable, it is no reason why he should be a horse.” I thought to myself, that in matters of compliment they ordered these things better in France.
Adams, as a good traditional Yankee, viewed France as a big barrel of papist despotism.
Speaking of Samuel Adams I remember something of him that let me into the little jealousies that then existed between some of the great men of the day. I sat next to him at a dinner given by Govr. [John] Hancock to Baron Steuben, and happened, by mistake, to call him Mr. John Adams.

“Sir,” said he, looking sternly at me, “I would have you know that there is a very great difference between Mr. Samuel Adams (striking his breast and laying a strong emphasis on the word Samuel) and Mr. John Adams.”

I was afterwards on my guard addressing people by their Christian names.
John Adams also occasionally had to deal with people who thought he was Samuel. Although Duponceau recalled this mix-up as an example of “little jealousies,” the Adams cousins, who weren’t shy about expressing their resentments, almost always had good things to say about each other.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Break the Pope's Neck?

A recent query on the Revlist prompted me to look up information about a game from the 1700s winningly called “Break the Pope’s Neck.” (As we say in my family whenever we learn of some obtuse habit of our ancestors, those were simpler times.)

Philip Vickers Fithian, living on a plantation in Virginia as tutor in a wealthy family, described young adults playing this game in his journal entry for 9 Aug 18 Dec 1773. It sounds like quite the party:

When the candles were lighted, we all repaired, for the last time, into the dancing-Room; first each couple danced a Minuet; then all joined as before in the country Dances, these continued till half after Seven when Mr. Christian retired; and at the proposal of several, (with Mr. Carters approbation) we played Button, to get Pauns for Redemption; here I could join with them, and indeed it was carried on with sprightliness, and Decency; in the course of redeeming my Pauns I had several Kisses of the Ladies!

Early in the Evening came colonel Philip Lee, in a travelling Chariot from Williamsburg.

Half after eight we were rung in to Supper; The room looked luminous and splendid; four very large candles burning on the table where we supped; three others in different parts of the Room; a gay, sociable Assembly, and four well instructed waiters!

So soon as we rose from supper, the Company formed into a semicircle round the fire, and Mr. Lee, by the voice of the Company was chosen Pope, and Mr. Carter, Mr. Christian, Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Lee, and the rest of the company were appointed Friars, in the Play call’d “break the Popes neck.” Here we had great Diversion in the respective Judgments upon offenders, but we were all dismissed by ten, and retired to our several Rooms.
The illustration up top, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg, shows the more formal part of such an evening—in Britain, judging by the skin color of the servants.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, Fithian didn’t explain the rules of “Break the Pope’s Neck,” but I found a description in an 1833 book by Ashburnham native Asa Greene called The Life and Adventures of Dr. Dodimus Duckworth:
The play of breaking the Pope’s neck, consists in twirling a plate on the edge, and letting go your hold; when if it fall bottom upwards, the Pope’s neck is held, to all intents and purposes, so far forth as the amusement is concerned, to be fairly broken. Again the neck is to be set: this consists also in the twirling and letting go of the plate, when, if it fall with the right side up, it is held to be well and truly set.

If, therefore, when ordered to break the Pope’s neck, the operator should set it instead; or if, when ordered to set it, he should proceed to break it rather—he is mulcted in a fine; and pocket-handkerchiefs, pen-knives, combs, and such-like articles are levied upon—redeemable, however, at a certain price, according to the will of the judge who is appointed to decide upon the causes. The play, therefore, though it is called breaking the Pope’s neck, consists equally in setting it; and derives most of its interest from the redemption of the forfeits.
Perhaps Mr. Lee as the “Pope” chosen at the Virginia party had the responsibility of calling which way the plate should land and/or deciding what were fair forfeits and exchanges for people who didn’t succeed. As Fithian’s excitement about kisses during “Button” showed, the goal of these games wasn’t so much winning as achieving fluid social interaction, particularly with the opposite sex.

The name “Break the Pope’s Neck” obviously reflects the general British anti-Catholicism of the time, and became politically incorrect in later decades, like colonial America’s “Pope Night” processions and bonfires. But New Englanders in the middle of the 1800s still recalled it as a game they played as children.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Supplying the Troops

The shortages in besieged Boston were somewhat alleviated on 19 Nov 1775, as selectman Timothy Newell recorded in his journal:

A large ship arrived from Plymouth in England with almost every kind of provisions dead and alive, hogs, sheep, fowls, ducks, eggs, mince meat &c. Ginger-bread &c.

Memorandum 25 Regiments of Kings troops now in this distressed town.
The British military was in the position of many other occupiers, having to supply their soldiers’ needs from thousands of miles away. Eventually that expense proved to be a major reason why British society turned against the war.

Around the same time, the Continental Army command was feeling pleased with news that on 2 November Gen. Philip Schuyler had taken St. John’s in Québec, only about twenty miles from Montréal. This thrust north was the first time that the American army tried to project its force outside of its home territory. Commander-in-chief George Washington and the Continental Congress hoped that the people of Québec would support and supply the troops from the colonies to the south. Unlike Britain, they had no real plan for delivering supplies and reinforcements to the distant army; everyone thought the campaign would be short and successful.

On 13 November the American forces under Gen. Schuyler, Gen. Richard Montgomery, and Col. Benedict Arnold had taken Montréal and come within sight of Québec City. However, that was about as far as they got. The American army struggled through the winter that followed, losing men to battles and smallpox and not gaining any more territory. Gradually the British army and locals pushed them back. On 18 June 1776, the Continental Army withdrew from its foothold at St. John’s, leaving the town in flames.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Serious Flaws with a George Washington Comic

Yesterday I started to list my misgivings about George Washington: The Life of an American Patriot, a comics biography scripted by David West and Jackie Gaff and illustrated by Ross Watton. I discussed how the book’s text and art were both slanted to make Washington’s enemies look bad and to make him look even more impressive than he was.

More troubling than that one-sidedness, however, is the book’s depiction of non-white North Americans. Here’s a list of all the black people pictured in the comic pages:

  • A man in livery weeps at the death of Washington’s father.
  • A young man holds surveying equipment and gazes up while Washington writes in his notebook (as shown here).
  • A man holds Washington’s hunting hounds.
  • Men work in a grain field under Washington’s supervision.
  • A man drinks from a canteen while sitting on the ground while behind him two white American soldiers face the British ranks at Monmouth.
  • One man holds Washington’s horse and another opens the door for him when he arrives in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention.
  • A white boy grabs a black boy’s sleeve and informs him who George Washington is.
In every case the black male (there are no black females) is lower in the panel than the surrounding white people. In every case but one (a field hand), the black male is bowed, crouched, or seated. Such poses were a convention of art for centuries, carrying a message of black subservience. Given the artist’s knowledge of art history, evident in how he modeled some panels on classic paintings, it’s hard to believe he hadn’t been exposed to that visual language.

There’s no picture of Washington’s enslaved manservant William Lee riding alongside him in the foxhunt or on campaigns. There’s no picture of a black soldier bearing arms; the one panel that might show a black soldier has him seated on the ground, facing away from the action while white men face the British ranks.

This absence of African-Americans from the artwork is matched by the absence of slavery and Washington’s own slaves from the text. A caption to a nineteenth-century stock image in the introductory material describes slavery in passive, impersonal language: “Plantations were large farming estates that grew up in the Southern colonies. The estates were mainly worked by slaves brought over from Africa.” On page 35, the book says that a British commander “told the Americans that he’d destroy their land if they resisted.” Actually, the Crown’s main threat during the Southern campaign was to free Americans’ slaves.

Page 40 shows George and Martha Washington at dinner, yet there’s no enslaved servant waiting on. That doesn’t reflect how they lived. George’s main activity for most of his adult life was as a plantation owner, managing an enslaved labor force. The book’s shyness about the Washingtons’ slaveholding actually misses the chance to show how they eventually provided liberty to their slaves. Of all the American Patriots with fortunes invested in enslaved labor, George Washington did best by the issue.

Akin to the book’s portrayal of blacks is how it depicts Native Americans. Page 17 shows Native allies of the French scalping British soldiers. The opposite page shows a French-allied Native aiming a musket at the reader, one of the very few images that break the frame this way.

On page 30, after the Revolutionary War has begun, a British-allied Native attacks a fallen American’s body, again facing out of the frame and thus threatening readers as well. The caption explains, “Settlers who had invaded Indian lands were being massacred.”
The lower panel above contains the book’s only sympathetic remarks about Native Americans, and they’re undercut by the top image. The art never depicts an American in such threatening poses.

Those elements of George Washington: The Life of an American Patriot add up to, I’m sorry to say, a racist book. The text basically ignores the issue of slavery in the midst of a fight for liberty, and the blacks who surrounded Washington his entire life. The artwork, which in a comics history carries at least half the message, communicates white superiority, black subservience, and Native violence. Washington surely deserves better.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

George Washington Gets the Comics Treatment

The finest looking history comic I found in my recent perusal of local libraries is George Washington: The Life of an American Patriot, created in 2005 by David West Books, a British book packager, and published in the U.S. of A. by Rosen. The scripters are Jackie Gaff and West himself, and the illustrator is Ross Watton.

Watton’s name doesn’t appear in the Library of Congress data for this book, but he contributed a great deal to it. The illustrations are handsome, the layout varied and lively, and the historical details in the art above average. For example, the book correctly shows the Royal Artillery in blue coats with red trim (facings). One of the few obvious anachronisms I saw was a French tricolor; Lafayette didn’t design that flag until the French Revolution. Some of the images are based on famous paintings, such as the full-length portrait of President Washington on page 42, based on Gilbert Stuart. Watton obviously knows his art history.

The book describes Washington’s life mostly in captions, with little dialogue—a contrast to the Graphic Library books’ approach, heavy on speech balloons. It focuses on his military experiences in the French & Indian War and Revolutionary War, with only a couple of pages at the end about the Constitutional Convention and his eight-year Presidency.

The book includes a very good map of the British colonies of North America and another of America’s growth. There are a few antique prints and stock photos in the pages before and after the comics pages. At 48 pages, it’s 50% longer than the Graphic Library titles I discussed earlier.

Two things bothered me about this book, however, and bothered me a great deal. One is its bias: at first pro-British Empire, later pro-U.S. of A., and always pro-Washington. The text starts, “The great American general and politician George Washington...” I happen to believe that Washington was indeed great, but I prefer authors to describe what he did and let me reach that conclusion myself.

The book tilts the scale by leaving out many of Washington’s blunders, such as Fort Necessity in 1754, and less appealing traits, as in his ambitious quest for a British army commission after that. It says, “George’s first military success came quickly”—but it actually took more than eight months after Washington arrived in Cambridge before his forces drove the British military from Boston.

As for the British Empire, here’s the book’s version of the European settlement, from page 5: “The first British colonists reached North America in 1607. . . . Other European countries, including France and Spain, also founded North American colonies.” You wouldn’t think that the Spanish had been governing large swaths of North America for a century before the first British arrived.

Page 17 says the reason for the Seven Years’ War was “the French threat,” and that at the end of that conflict “Virginia’s frontier was at last safe from invasion.” You wouldn’t know that Virginians—including George Washington—were pushing into Native American territories, some of them claimed by the French. “Invasion” was a two-way street.

Then the Revolutionary War begins. Page 23 says of the Hessians, “Like all mercenaries, these Germans served in a foreign army. They fought for money or just for the love of war.” This is accompanied by a picture of a Hessian bayoneting an American as he tries to surrender. There’s no equivalent discussion of the motives of foreigners who came to fight for the Americans, such as Steuben and Lafayette, nor of the French monarchy’s reason to support American independence.

When Charleston is besieged in early 1780, the text says, “The city bravely held out until May” (p. 32). Bravery doesn’t come up when the book mentions cities besieged by the Americans: Boston, New York, Newport. The British forces “invade” parts of what was, arguably, the British Empire on pages 26, 29, and 32. Only on page 30 do Americans “invade” other lands; the book never mentions the 1775-76 Canadian campaign that Washington helped plan.

The language describing battles is also far from neutral. Page 32 tells us: “Maddened by the resistance, some British soldiers set houses on fire. They claimed villagers were shooting at them from windows”—hinting that those “maddened” soldiers were lying. Later, “In Virginia, [Benedict] Arnold and his British soldiers were raging across the countryside. They set fire to crops and destroyed Patriot supplies.” When American troops do the same—“[Gen. John] Sullivan had his men burn Indian villages and crops” (p. 37)—there is no “raging” involved.

The art magnifies that one-sided depiction. Every time the book depicts a death up close during the Revolution (pp. 23, 25, 30, 31, 33, 36), it shows Americans killed by the British or their allies. (In three of those pictures the wounded man says, “Aaargh!” in fine comics fashion.) There are pictures of Crown corpses, but not of any British men actually being killed. Instead, pages 27 and 29 show Americans taking British troops prisoner.

There are almost no pictures drawn from the British troops’ perspective. There are many pictures from behind the American lines. And in some of those the British or their allies come straight out of the frame, aiming their guns and swinging their swords at us readers. That one-sided portrayal negates what I thought was one of the potential strengths of the comics format—the ability to show both sides of an argument.

But that’s not the worst of it.

TOMORROW: The worst of it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

People Turned Out of Their Houses

On 16 Nov 1775, winter was approaching, and the British commanders besieged in Boston had to worry about moving their troops out of tents and into buildings, about firewood for warmth and cooking, and about food. Boston selectman Timothy Newell described the situation in his journal, recording every development as another injustice by the Crown:

Many people turned out of their houses for the troops to enter. The keys of our Meeting house cellars demanded of me by Major [William] Sheriff by order of General [William] Howe.

Houses, fences, trees &c. pulled down and carried off for fuel. My wharf and barn pulled down by order of General Robinson [actually Gen. Archibald Robertson of the Corps of Engineers].

Beef, Mutton, Pork at 1/6 pr. pound, Geese 14/ Fowls 6/8 L.M. [lawful money]
This the first time in his diary that Newell described the military forcing Bostonians out of their homes. It isn’t entirely clear whether those people owned those buildings, rented them, and were housed by the town in, say, the almshouse (which the military command had tried to empty). In any event, the army’s move was legal because of the war. Even the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permits Congress to enact laws taking possession of homes for the use of troops in times of war.

I get the sense that the British army actually preferred to house its troops in large buildings, where they would be easier to supervise—hence the demand for the keys to the cellar of Newell’s meeting-house on Brattle Street.

Then comes the matter of firewood, a real crisis for the people left in Boston after coastal vessels had stopped bringing in cordwood. Among the other structures torn down and burned during the siege were Old North Meeting-House, John Hancock’s fence, and George Robert Twelves Hewes’s little shoemaking shop. The army also chopped down Liberty Tree for symbolic reasons, and pulled down the spire of the West Meeting-House so that spies couldn’t use it for signaling. It’s possible that Gen. Robertson had Newell’s wharf and barn removed (as opposed to being converted into a barracks) for similar security reasons. But the wood also certainly went into a fire.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

First New England History Festival, 24 Nov 2007

On the evening of Saturday, 24 November 2007, the first New England History Festival will take place at the Hibernian Hall in Watertown, Massachusetts. It looks like organizers are trying to create a forum for non-academic historians and researchers to share their work with each other and the public.

Among the scheduled topics pertinent to Revolutionary New England:

  • Bill Rose, speaking in the uniform of a French admiral about “Why We Don’t Speak French – Salt Water in the American Revolution.”
  • John Horrigan, the event’s producer, on 29 May 1780, “New England’s Dark Day,” and other meteorological anomalies.
  • D. Michael Ryan, a Park Ranger at Minute Man National Historical Park, signing his new book Concord and the Dawn of Revolution: The Hidden Truths.
In addition to the talks and displays, the organizers promise “trivia, exhibits, concessions, prizes, souvenirs.” The admission is $5.00 for the public, but free for students, senior citizens, and historical society members. The event starts at 6:00 P.M. and runs until 10:00.

Comics Week at Boston 1775 resumes this weekend.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Comics and Historical Conflicts

History books discuss two basic types of conflict:

  • The arguments and disputes of the period, such as whether Parliament had the right to levy taxes on colonists or whether Ebenezer Richardson deserved to be convicted of murder for shooting Christopher Seider.
  • The arguments and unanswered questions of historiography. These can be factual: Who shot first at Lexington? Who leaked Thomas Hutchinson’s letters to Benjamin Franklin? Were tea prices rising or falling? Or they can be matters of method and interpretation: Does it make more sense to study the elite or the populace? How important were the immediate political issues compared to deeper economic or cultural divisions? What’s the best way to interpret John Adams’s memoirs?
After looking at Michael Burgan’s two Boston Massacre books for Capstone Press and other recent history comics, I think the comics form can do a good job conveying the first type of dispute—perhaps even better than traditional prose books. But comics creators have a much harder time introducing readers to the knottier questions that historians address.

In writing a prose history for young readers, an author usually feels a lot of pressure to tell “what actually happened.” That can mean coming down on one side or other of the disputes of the period, implying that one side was clearly right.

Take the question of smuggling in Boston. There was a lot of it, to be sure, but how much? Which merchants were involved? How many Customs officials looked the other way, or tilted their prosecutions for political reasons? In his traditional school-library book, Burgan simply assumes that the Customs service’s case against John Hancock for smuggling in 1768 was solid. The text says that Hancock “had ignored the duties he was supposed to pay on cargo that his ship [Liberty] carried.”

I don’t think the situation was that clear. That case was hotly contested, and the Crown eventually dropped its prosecution. This book’s bald description of Hancock’s activity implies that he and his fellow Patriots were self-interested, deceptive hypocrites when they protested Customs enforcement. They were definitely self-interested, and some were definitely smugglers, but the evidence on Hancock himself is vague.

Burgan’s Graphic Library comic, in contrast, sums up the dispute over smuggling and duties by showing a merchant and a Customs official arguing the case. That reflects how comics, like drama, work best when characters act out a conflict in front of us. It also results in a better picture of how the situation in Boston looked at the time.

As I discussed yesterday, both of Burgan’s volumes misstate how violence began on King Street on 5 Mar 1770. But both books also state that a particular soldier fired the first shot of the ensuing Massacre and shouted “Fire!” to his fellow soldiers. The comics volume even names him—he was Pvt. Edward Montgomery. Most short accounts of the Massacre, for either adults or children, omit that important detail.

As for question of historical research and debate, comics have a problem in depicting that. They’re like historical fiction, showing us one version of the past. They can show characters voicing different perspectives, but they still carry the message that the events in the panels are based on what actually happened. But what if we don’t really know?

One example of how this works shows up in Xavier Niz’s Paul Revere’s Ride. He has apparently accepted David H. Fischer’s suggestion (in another book titled Paul Revere’s Ride) that Lexington militiamen emptied their muskets before entering Buckman’s Tavern and thus produced the shots that caused British officers to release Revere after capturing him. Fischer made clear that was an educated guess, a theory. But once the comics artists portray that moment, it looks as definite as the two lights in Old North Church.

I can imagine a comic using a Rashomon approach to a historical controversy, showing different characters’ perspectives on, say, the first shots on Lexington green. But even Rashomon eventually gave us strong hints about “what actually happened.” Similarly, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may end with the rule, “Print the legend,” but it had shown us the facts behind the legend—i.e., “what actually happened.” We like stories to be definite.

Actual history writing has a lot more ambiguities. One example of the difficulty of conveying such uncertainty in the comics format is the Graphic Library’s Molly Pitcher book. It tells the story of a woman named Mary who helped her husband on the battlefield and eventually helped to work one the Continental artillery’s guns.

Only in the afterword does writer Jason Glaser discuss how people have identified multiple women as the source of the Molly Pitcher legend, producing conflicting stories. And that afterword doesn’t mention, as a regular Boston 1775 reader did in comments on this posting, that most historians think the legend is more significant in showing how we want to remember the Revolutionary War than in showing how it actually happened.

In essence, the comics Molly Pitcher tells readers a dramatic story of a young woman on the battlefield, showing her actions and words. And then it tells them that that story may never have happened that way. It could have gone even further and said that story may never have happened at all. But haven’t the kids just seen those events play out before their own eyes?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Comparing Comics and Standard Treatment

school-library textCapstone Publishing, the publisher of the Graphic Library comics-style treatment of the Boston Massacre I’ve mentioned the last two days, is also the publisher of a traditional school-library book on the same topic, through its Compass Point imprint. In fact, the two volumes have the same generic title, the same price, and the same author, Michael Burgan. That makes it possible to directly compare their two approaches to explaining history to elementary-school students.

The traditional book is said to be for grades 4-6; the comics treatment has a “Reading Level” of grades 3-4, but an “Interest Level” of 3-9. Both volumes include a glossary, resource list, and index.

Both books list historical advisors from the Boston area. The content advisor for the Compass Point title was Prof. Alan Rogers of Boston College. The consultant for Graphic Library was Susan Goganian, until recently director of the Old State House Museum, which looks down on the site of the Massacre. Interestingly, each contains material not in the other, meaning that Burgan didn’t simply adapt his prose book to create the script for the comic—he went back to his research.

The Compass Point volume is a standard school-library title, telling history in prose with supplemental art. Its illustrations include period documents, old prints, stock photographs, and a few images touched up by the production staff. This art tends to reinforce the text, sometimes adding a little new information but just as often raising unanswered questions. For example, the book shows the signatures of attorneys from the Boston Massacre trials but doesn’t give their names, and the text (like many popular accounts) mentions only John Adams. No child on Earth could decipher Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s signature.

The Compass Point book includes a new map of colonial Boston and Britain’s Atlantic territories from XNR Productions, and an overhead view of the Massacre site adapted from a picture in E. H. Goss’s biography of Paul Revere. In contrast, the Graphic Library volume has no maps. This graphic ingredient isn’t necessary in The Boston Massacre, but it’s sorely missed in the same series’s Paul Revere’s Ride.

Choosing illustrations from existing documents and images, as is standard in school-library books, brings some pitfalls because the available material might not be entirely appropriate. For example, page 16 of the Compass Point book says, “In 1765, [Boston] patriot leaders had formed the Sons of Liberty.” Opposite that is a printed broadside from the Sons of Liberty—but from New York in 1769. I don’t think the “Sons of Liberty” in Boston were ever as formally organized as groups in New York.

Old prints are often handsome and dramatic but decades younger than the events they depict. Such illustrations, such as the late-1800s painting on the cover above, are artistic recreations based on the same documentary sources that we have (or fewer). However, since those pictures look historic, they can seem to carry more authority than they really deserve when they appear in a school book.

graphic novelIn contrast, all the illustrations in the Graphic Library series are in modern comics style. (The Massacre title’s inking style reminds me of Jack Kirby’s comics, meaning that almost all the men come out looking like Jack Lord.) Readers will easily understand that these panels represent illustrators’ interpretations of events.

Similarly, as a comics scripter Burgan had to make up most of the book’s dialogue. The Graphic Library series follows a rule that all speeches taken directly from historical sources appear in pale yellow balloons instead of white. I like that way of alerting readers about what is documented, letting them consider what isn’t.

Of course, some language has to be compromised. Page 16 of the Massacre volume shows Pvt. Patrick Walker asking for work and being told, “The only work I’d have for a lobster is cleaning my boots.” The actual response that soldier received was too rude for a classroom. In his prose history, Burgan could finesse that problem: “Walker traded insults with the owner” (actually with a ropewalk worker, not the owner). But a comics panel needs to put words into the man’s mouth, and the result is a watered-down exchange with no yellow balloons.

In scripting the comic, Burgan apparently sought out visually dramatic detail, and that led him into some errors. Page 10 says, “Samuel Adams trained his dog to snap and snarl at the British troops.” I quoted all that we know about Adams’s dog Queue back here. His descendants said that dog became conditioned to snap at soldiers after they attacked him, not after Adams trained him to do so.

In both books, Burgan simplifies the start of the argument on King Street that led up to the Massacre. The Compass Point volume says, “a few young men approached [Pvt. Hugh] White and began to taunt him.” The Graphic Library title says, “a barber named Edward Garrick taunted British private Hugh White.” Actually, White called Garrick over and hit him upside the head because he disliked what the young fellow had said about a passing officer.
The comics art compounds that inaccuracy by portraying Garrick as an aggressive adult. Similarly, the artists show the protesters outside Theophilus Lillie’s store eleven days earlier as rock-throwing men, not (as they really were) rude boys. Showing teenagers in the middle of those historic events would not only have been accurate, but would offer more interest for the book’s young readers.

Such errors aren’t inherent in a comics treatment, of course. Better advice or research could have pointed the artists in the right direction early on. (Such pointers would have had to come before the drawings were completed; a manuscript is much easier to correct than finished art.) But this situation is a good reminder of how in comics the art is far more than supplemental and carries much more weight, good or bad.

TOMORROW: How these two books address controversies.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Historical Comics' Anachronistic Art

Yesterday I wrote about some of the potential of comics to make historical experiences come alive for young readers. Today’s topic is how to screw up that process through lazy research.

Just as artwork can convey meaning more quickly and powerfully than prose, pictures of historical events can produce wrong impressions. Furthermore, while prose can say, “This is what happened, as best as we can tell from our sources,” realistically rendered art carries the implication that events did happen this way. In comics the visual elements usually provide at least half the meaning, particularly at the emotional level, so it’s especially important to make the artwork as historically accurate as possible. That means the same level of research should go into the art as into the words.

It doesn’t look like the teams behind Capstone’s Graphic Library of historical books has worked that way. During the pre-Revolutionary turmoil covered by the series’s Boston Massacre volume, British settlers had been living and building in Boston for more than a century and a third. We have pictures of what the center of town looked like, where men met to discuss business and politics. It did not look like a frontier village with small, unpainted houses.
(I also wonder if the guy with his Kirbyish mouth wide open is supposed to be shouting, “Down with the Stamp Act!” and the calm gentleman on the right is supposed to be saying, “I can’t believe Parliament taxes our newspapers...” This book has a number of panels that look slapped together.)

The artist for Graphic Library’s Paul Revere’s Ride seems to have looked up the Paul Revere House in the North End before drawing it in this panel. But that house was never this close to the waterfront. Even after global warming it won’t be this close to the waterfront.

Using good historical art references can also avoid anachronistic styles of clothing and hair. Contrary to what Rachel on Friends believed, not everything from the past falls into “the colonial period.” (To be fair, Rachel also acknowledged “yore.”) This set of protesters from the Graphic Library Boston Tea Party look like they walked out of Little House on the Prairie.

From the same book, here’s the man accused of trying to make off with tea during the protest. His name was Charles Conner. Contrary to what we might assume from this portrayal, he lived in the 1770s, not the 1970s.

And lest we think the books’ visual errors are no more consequential than facial hair in a time when British men were almost universally clean-shaven, loading a cannon alone as shown below (from the Molly Pitcher volume) is a good way to get your arms blown off.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

What Comics Can Convey about History

There are several American Revolution titles covered in the Graphic Library from Capstone Press, a large series of nonfiction comics created for the late elementary-school grades. These books are often marketed to schools and libraries with the argument that reluctant readers will stick with them longer than traditional prose books. And that may well be so.

I would go beyond that and say that comics, executed well, can convey some information more quickly or forcefully than prose. They can immerse readers in a historical moment, helping us think about the past as an experience rather than as a set of facts.

For example, in this panel from Paul Revere’s Ride (script by Xavier Niz and art by Brian Bascle) the art quickly portrays the rush of Revere’s gallop away from British scouts in Cambridge.
The blurred background as a way to convey speed is, I understand, a technique developed in Japanese comics.

This pair of panels from The Boston Tea Party (script by Matt Doeden, art by Charles Barnett III and Dave Hoover) conveys the need for quiet as men boarded the tea ships by offering a panel with no words at all:
A traditional book would have to say something like, “The men boarded the ships quietly,” but as soon as you’re using words to describe not saying anything you’re already behind.

Finally, here are a couple of panels from The Boston Massacre (script by Michael Burgan, art by Charles Barnett III and Bob Wiacek).
That most cliché aspect of American comics, the rock-’em-sock-’em fight scene complete with sound effects, does quite nicely at depicting the brawls that led up to the Massacre. That said, when I was writing my article on Ebenezer Richardson, I never imagined him looking like Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker.

Unfortunately, in the Graphic Library titles that I’ve looked at, the examples of poor execution outnumber the moments of potential. Some of the problems are faults with the comics themselves, such as a mismatch between art and text. Is this Richardson really calm enough to say, “They shouldn’t have joined such a lawless mob”?

But there’s a bigger problem that extends across this whole series.

TOMORROW: What else? The bigger problem.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Comics Week at Boston 1775

Comics Week at Oz and Ends looked like so much fun that I’m going to post a series of remarks on comics depicting the American Revolution. School-library publishers are commissioning many new history books in comics form, and comics publishers are finding wider audiences for serious non-fiction. I’ll review several recent examples of both types of books.

But first, five years ago, Scott Shaw! used his Oddball Comics column at Comic Book Resources to share a few strange comic books from the Tomahawk series. This adventure comic, launched in 1950, was set in Revolutionary times, but apparently in the same version of the war as the Liberty Boys of ’76 series of dime novels: an endless backwoods struggle between a small band of Patriots and an always defeated, never exhausted company of redcoats and Natives, with many moments of freaky strangeness.

In the 1950s this comic book capitalized on the popularity of Westerns and the Davy Crockett mania: note the heroes’ coonskin caps. By the early 1960s, science fiction was taking over, making what was never historically accurate into a boiling stew of weirdness.

Shaw!’s postings start with a tale of Tomahawk, his band of fighters, and a dinosaur pining for its long-lost Viking master. Somehow that story also involves a missing blacksmith and the latest attack from redcoat soldiers and their Iroquois allies. Follow the “Next” link for four more Tomahawk tales, or as many as you can stand.

Here’s a bit of art for the flavor.

For artwork and snarky humor, Oddball Comics can’t match up to the similarly themed Stupid Comics from Mister Kitty. Alas, I found only one Revolutionary War panel there, from the mid-1960s Super Green Beret.

Friday, November 09, 2007

British Raid on Lechmere’s Point

The British army raided east Cambridge 237 years ago today, seeking cattle to increase their meat supply as winter approached. Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded the basics:

Several Companies of Regulars from Charlestown went over to Phips’s farm to take a number of Cattle feeding there. The Provincials came upon them and soon drove them on board boats after an engagement—it is said several are [blank—wounded?] and none killed, but they supposed many of the Provincials killed.
Capt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment put a lot more detail into his diary:
To day a party of about 250 Light Infantry embarked at 11 o’clock in the flat bottom’d Boats: they landed on a Peninsula call’d Lechmere’s farm, which in spring tides is an Island; it is between Cambridge and Charlestown and within cannon shot of the Rebels Works on Prospect Hill.

The Rebel Guard made their escape all but one; we brought off 12 or 14 head of Cattle; after the Party was reimbarked then a very large body of the Rebels waded to the Peninsula and fired on our Men, but without doing any execution, at the same time we firing Cannon at them from this side and from the ships and some Gondolas.

While our People were on the Ground they did not dare to pass; there was some firing between them and our advanced Guard; this was all done without the loss of a Man on our side, and I think must mortify them a good deal, braving them in a manner right under their noses and under their Cannon, which indeed they seem’d to manage but badly, taking an amazing time to load.
On the 13th, Barker added, “By a Deserter from the Rebels we hear they had 9 Man killed and several wounded on the 9th.” However, the Continental Army still viewed this skirmish as a victory because they perceived themselves as having driven the British back.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Gimme That Old-Time New England

While looking up stuff about the Brattle Street Meeting-House that Deacon Timothy Newell was struggling to preserve from the British military, I stumbled across Historic New England’s online, searchable library of Old-Time New England articles. O.T.N.E. was the organization’s main periodical back when it was called the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. The issues available online now extend back to 1950, though there were thirty-nine volumes preceding that.

All the articles come in PDF form for downloading, rather than for reading online. Here are direct links to some about eighteenth-century matters that caught my eye:

The Province House (shown above in the 1830s) was the mansion in central Boston provided for Massachusetts’s governor if he didn’t have a Boston home of his own. The Foster-Hutchinson House was the mansion in the North End owned by one particular governor, Thomas Hutchinson. The Codman House in Lincoln doesn’t have the same political significance, but is the only one of these three that still exists and can be visited, thanks to S.P.N.E.A.—whoops, to Historic New England.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Free Public Reading from My Dearest Friend

On 19 November 2007, the Massachusetts Historical Society and Harvard University Press will launch a new edition of the letters of John and Abigail Adams with an unusual public event at Faneuil Hall. Apparently taking a cue from performances of A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters, the event will feature three modern political couples reading from the book:

The event starts at 7:00 P.M., and is free and open to the public.

There have been previous editions of the Adams letters, but My Dearest Friend is said to be “the first collection of their letters that is selected from the entire forty years span of their correspondence,” and to contain “several letters never before published.”

These letters provide an especially revealing look at the two Adamses, making their relationship more vivid and approachable, for a variety of reasons:
  • John Adams seems to have been unusually frank in expressing his emotions, judging by how his diary compares to those of other men. His private letters can be equally open—which occasionally got him in trouble.
  • Abigail Adams was unusually smart, knowledgeable, and politically minded for a woman of the time—though even she felt inadequate when she compared herself to Mercy Warren.
  • The Adamses happened to live apart in some momentous periods: during the Continental Congresses, when John was first a diplomat in Europe, and at times during his Presidency. That means issues and news they would have normally discussed over the dinner table got put down on paper for us to read.
  • Unlike other families, the Adamses rarely threw anything away. Martha and George Washington’s private papers seem to have gone into the fire. In contrast, John and Abigail’s descendants actually started the process of publishing their letters.
Folks can also enjoy this correspondence through the M.H.S.’s Adams Electronic Archive, which includes all the letters in searchable form and images of the surviving manuscripts.