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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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sion Seabury’s Bright Ideas

On 11 Nov 1774, a man from Tiverton, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to John Hancock, the head of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress that was meeting outside Boston to organize resistance to the royal authorities. Seabury said:

While anxiously concerned for the Destresses of Boston & devising Methods for its Relief, the preceeding Inventions occurred to my Mind, about six Weeks ago: which yielded me an assurance that the Canon and Works on Boston Neck might be safely approached & taken without the Loss of a single Life on our Part.

I could not resist an Inclination I instantly conceived to communicate it for the Benefit of our suffering Brethren. The Invention was to me new & original as well as satisfactory. And altho’ I now understand that an Attack by a Line of Moveable Fascines has been thought of, & is now under Contemplation: Yet I am desirous of testifying my Ardor in the common Cause, by communicating my Method also.

I am, Sir,
Your unknown Humb. Servt.
Sion Seabury.
Seabury (1713-1801) was a Presbyterian living in Tiverton in 1760, according to other notes from Stiles. I haven’t found any trace of his letter in Hancock’s correspondence as a delegate to the Continental Congress, in the published records of the Provincial Congress, or in newspapers. But the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles copied this letter and its enclosure into his diary on 5 December. Here are Seabury’s brilliant ideas:
Inventions of Mr. Sion Seabury of Tiverton for the Relief of Boston in its present Siege.

1. A solid Timber Roller 7 or 8 feet Diameter & 8 or 10 feet more or less, to defend against the Canon on Bo[ston]. Neck. Sundry of these connected together by a Central Chain thro’ them all & Chains around them, will form an extended movable Breastwork for covering a Body of Men sufficient for seizing & possessing themselves of the Artillery & Fortifica. upon the Neck or elsewhere.

At the ends of the Line of Rolling Breastwork, may be a Range of Rollers following after, so as to guard the sides. A Mast or span at the open End, may keep the whole steady and at the same Time employ the Men in pulling aft as well as pushing forwards. The side Defence might be made with a Frame on small Wheels charged with Wool packs. The great Front Rollers may be made of Cedar or light Wood. (& perhaps in part filled with Wool or Wool-Rollers intirely.) Mr. Seabury thinks Wood only the best.

2. A Plank Breastwork to be carried to defend against Small Arms; and upon coming up to the Canon so that they are silenced or useless, to be raised up on the Top of the Front Line of Rollers, to cover the Men firing thro’ small port-holes to oblige the Engineers & Soldiery to abandon the Canon.

3. To blind and deceive the Enemy, (especially if the attack be in the Night) let several Bbs. [barrels] of Tarr or Pitch be set on fire between the Enemy’s Ships & place of Attack; this will render the Progress of the moveable Breastwork invisible to the Shipping, & be advantageous for the attack. These Tarbarrels might be fired on Water by Floats as well as on Land. The same Thing may be practised to render an Army invisible, should it in the Night march over Ice, or procede in Boats across the Water to Town. Exod. xiv, 19, 20.
A couple of things struck me about these documents. First, New Englander that he was, Seabury felt that citing Biblical verses would show the value of his idea. The verses he had in mind:
And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them:

And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.
It doesn’t seem to have struck Seabury that that anecdote was supposed to be miraculous, not something that could be recreated with some tar barrels.

Second, even in late 1774, more than four months before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, even before the exchange of fire at Portsmouth, Seabury was referring to the situation around Boston as a “siege” and trying to invent a military solution. Of course, he might have been a crackpot.

(The image above, showing the British army’s fortifications on Boston Neck later during the siege, comes from YankeeGhosts.com.)

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