The Comcast cable-television repairman is outside my house now, so this seems an appropriate time to discuss the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams, which debuted on Sunday. This television drama shows some of the signal events of the American Revolution in Massachusetts through the eyes of John and Abigail Adams—even when they weren’t there.
The first episode quickly offers some exciting action: shortly after arriving home in Boston on 5 Mar 1770, John hears church bells ring. He rushes away from his family to fight a fire, hears the shots of the Boston Massacre, and comes upon bodies in the snow and British soldiers drawn up before the Customs house. It’s all very dramatic.
Here’s what John actually recalled seeing on that night, in the autobiography he wrote in the early 1800s:
The Evening of the fifth of March, I spent at Mr. Henderson Inches’s House at the South End of Boston, in Company with a Clubb, with whom I had been associated for several Years.No dead bodies or even blood. Soldiers, but not those involved in the shooting. And John didn’t leave Abigail at the alarm; rather, he left his gentlemen friends and hurried home to her. (Incidentally, Samuel Adams appears to have been another member of that club, in case people wonder where he probably was during the Massacre.)
About nine O Clock We were allarmed with the ringing of Bells, and supposing it to be the Signal of fire, We snatched our Hats and Cloaks, broke up the Clubb, and went out to assist in quenching the fire or aiding our friends who might be in danger. In the Street We were informed that the British Soldiers had fired on the Inhabitants, killed some and wounded others near the Town house. A Croud of People was flowing down the Street, to the Scene of Action.
When We arrived We saw nothing but some field Pieces placed before the south door of the Town house and some Engineers and Grenadiers drawn up to protect them. Mrs. Adams was in Circumstances [i.e., pregnant], and I was apprehensive of the Effect of the Surprise upon her,...alone, excepting her Maids and a Boy in the House.
Having therefore surveyed round the Town house and seeing all quiet, I walked down Boylstons Alley into Brattle Square, where a Company or two of regular Soldiers were drawn up in Front of Dr. [Samuel] Coopers old Church with their Musquets all shouldered and their Bayonetts all fixed. I had no other way to proceed but along the whole front in a very narrow Space which they had left for foot passengers. Pursuing my Way, without taking the least notice of them or they of me, any more than if they had been marble Statues, I went directly home to Cold Lane. My Wife having heard that the Town was still and likely to continue so, had recovered from her first Apprehensions, and We had nothing but our Reflections to interrupt our Repose.
In the second episode the Adamses are at their home in north Braintree (now Quincy) when a horseman brings news that the British army has marched on Concord. John immediately rides out, once again leaving Abigail and the children. He meets dead and wounded militiamen, then his physician and friend, Dr. Joseph Warren.
Here’s what John wrote in his autobiography about that outbreak of war in Massachusetts:
...the Battle of Lexington on the 19th of April, changed the Instruments of Warfare from the Penn to the Sword. A few days after this Event I rode to Cambridge where I saw General [Artemas] Ward, General [William] Heath, General Joseph Warren, and the New England Army. There was great Confusion and much distress: Artillery, Arms, Cloathing were wanting and a sufficient Supply of Provisions not easily obtained. Neither the officers nor Men however wanted Spirits or Resolution. I rode from thence to Lexington and along the Scene of Action for many miles and enquired of the Inhabitants, the Circumstances.So John didn’t visit the battlefield until days after the battle. Dr. Warren was involved in the fighting on 19 April, but many miles from the Adams homestead. There were no casualties from Braintree and nearby towns. We don’t actually know what John Adams did on 19 April; he wasn’t keeping his diary. (Both these quotes come from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Electronic Archive.)
At one point in the second episode John tells the Continental Congress that his family is living only “five miles” from “the might of the British army.” The Adams homestead is more than eight miles from Castle Island, where the nearest redcoats were stationed. But that farm seems to shift around a bit for the sake of television drama. At one point Col. Henry Knox rides past the Adamses’ front door with some of the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga. The Knox Trail is well mapped, and north Braintree was miles out of the way.