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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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

On the Lines in Charlestown

Yesterday’s posting quoted four accounts of the brief panic inside Boston—inside Faneuil Hall, to be exact—at news of a Continental Army raid on Charlestown Neck on 8 Jan 1776. Here are two recollections from men who were involved in that event as teenaged soldiers, one on the American side and one on the British.

First, Continental fife-major John Greenwood (1760-1819) wrote that the raid was “planned by old [Israel] Putnam,” (shown here) with the immediate goal of setting fire to a few houses remaining in that part of Charlestown, “inhabited by a parcel of stragglers, such as sutlers, mechanics, and camp women.”

Greenwood added that the attack a larger secondary goal:

The reason for this frolic being undertaken was that, as General Washington had many spies in Boston and could ascertain everything the British were about, he had learned that on the very evening in question they were about to enact a new play in derision of the Yankees, called the “Blockade of Boston.” . . .

one of the actors was representing a Yankee sentinel, rigged out like a tailor with his paper measures hanging over his shoulders and his large shears sticking out of his pocket, etc., resting or leaning upon his gun and conversing with a countryman who had a newspaper. . . . My father and mother were in the house (Faneuil Hall) at the time and witnessed the scene.
On the other side of the Charlestown siege lines from young Greenwood was nearly-as-young Lt. Martin Hunter (1757-1847). He eventually became a general and a knight. In his memoir he recalled:
A farce called “The Blockade of Boston,” written, I believe, by General [John] Burgoyne, was acted. The enemy knew the night it was to be performed, and made an attack on the mill at Charlestown at the very hour that the farce began.

I happened to be on duty in the redoubt at Charlestown that night. The enemy came along the mill-dam, and surprised a sergeant’s guard that was posted at the mill. Some shots were fired, and we all immediately turned out and manned the works. A shot was fired by one of our advanced sentries, and instantly the firing commenced in the redoubt, and it was a considerable time before it could be stopped. Not a man of the enemy was within three miles of us, and the party that came along the mill-dam had effected their object and carried off the sergeant’s guard.

However, our firing caused a general alarm at Boston, and all the troops got under arms. An orderly sergeant that was standing outside the playhouse door heard the firing, and immediately ran into the playhouse, got upon the stage, and cried “Turn out! Turn out! They are hard at it, hammer and tongs.”

The whole audience thought that the sergeant was acting a part in the farce, and that he did it so well that there was a general clap, and such a noise that he could not be heard for a considerable time.

When the clapping was over he again cried, “What the deuce are you all about? If you won’t believe me, by Jasus you need only go to the door, and there you will see and hear both!”

If it was the intention of the enemy to put a stop to the farce for that night they certainly succeeded, as all the officers immediately left the playhouse and joined their regiments.
Hunter’s description of the reaction inside Faneuil Hall was at best secondhand, but it shows how even British officers were struck by this incident.

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