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, December 14, 2008

John Martin Tells His Tale of Bunker Hill

On 30 June 1775, two weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Rev. John Martin showed up at the house of the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport (shown here courtesy of Yale University). Stiles knew of Martin as a fellow clergyman, one who had come to Rhode Island from Ireland. Martin had stories to share about Bunker Hill, in writing and in conversation, and Stiles wrote them all down in his diary.

I’ve said before that Stiles was a sucker. But he was also a learned man, and president of one of New Haven’s finest universities, so historians gobbled up all the details he recorded and incorporated them into several accounts of Bunker Hill published in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Then Harold Murdock published an essay called “The Remarkable Story of the Reverend John Martin” in 1925, first in the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings and then in a book titled Bunker Hill: Notes and Queries on a Famous Battle. He noted some oddities about Martin’s story that Stiles and the historians relying on him had overlooked. I’ve discussed Murdock before, noting his Anglophilian snobbery, but in this case he was on the money. Alas, his essay is still under copyright, so I can’t just quote the whole thing, but we can retrace Murdock’s steps.

Let’s start with Stiles’s recounting of what Martin told him, which starts on this page of the diary. I suggest playing a little game. Read that long 30 June entry with some chocolate at your side. Treat yourself to:

  • one bite every time Martin does something very brave or intelligent.
  • two bites every time Martin performs someone else’s job for him.
  • three bites every time a British cannon ball comes crashing down very near Martin.
At the end, do you have any chocolate left? In the whole house?

Murdock found that narrative unbelievable. And then he drew scholars’ attention to Martin’s next notable appearance in Dr. Stiles’s diary, in May 1777:
12. I went to Providence, where this day where Rev. Mr. Martin of Ireld. was taken up by Gen. [Joseph] Spencer for a Spy & as havg. a Commission from G[en]. Howe.

13. At Providence waited on Gen. Spencer who told me Mr. Martin had been over to the Enemy in the Jerseys & returned. One Dennison of Stonington informed the General that Mr. Martin had a Majors Commission & offered him a Captaincy. The General sent him off to Windham.
Apparently one army wasn’t enough for the talent of John Martin.

Murdock concluded that Martin was a fraud. He got some details about the Bunker Hill battle right, probably because he’d talked to people before going to Newport. But other details are unique to his account, and therefore as unreliable as his loyalties. Subsequent writers stopped citing Martin’s account of the battle. Still, the whole tale is quite entertaining.

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