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, December 31, 2008

Boston Discovers Universal Salvation

I’ve been following the religious evolution of two men who left the Old South Meeting-House congregation in the late 1760s: retired artillerist Richard Gridley (1711-1796) and blockmaker Shippie Townsend (1722-1798).

As soon as the Revolutionary War began in April 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress sent for Col. Gridley. He had proven himself as an artillery commander and engineer in the attack on Fort Louisbourg in 1745. Even the British army had recognized his ability, giving him a rank and a pension. Would he take command of the Massachusetts artillery regiment?

Gridley agreed to that post, on the condition that the congress would take over the payments on his pension. He thus laid out the first siege lines around Boston, fought and suffered a wound in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and became the first artillery commander of the Continental Army. In late 1775, Gen. George Washington arranged for Gridley to be made Chief Engineer but relieved of battlefield command. Henry Knox replaced him.

Townsend, in contrast, had become a Sandemanian, and therefore felt religiously obligated to obey the government in power—i.e., the king and his ministers in London. Many of his fellow congregants sailed away with the British military in 1776 and resettled in Canada. But Townsend stayed behind. In August, the Boston Committee of Correspondence complained that he wasn’t fulfilling his militia requirement. Eventually he and the few remaining Sandemanians convinced the authorities that they weren’t threats, that they could be as loyal to the new government as the old. The fact that Townsend’s son David was serving as a Continental Army physician probably helped.

Meanwhile, Gridley had been given responsibility for strengthening the defenses of Massachusetts’s ports. According to his biographer, “when engaged on the fortifications on Cape Ann,” the colonel heard the Rev. John Murray (1741-1815) preach in Gloucester.

Murray (shown above, courtesy of Wikipedia) was an English minister who had moved from the Anglican church through Methodism to an early form of Universalism—he believed in universal salvation, though he also believed in the Trinity and many other Christian traditions. Murray had settled in Gloucester in 1774, prompting some locals to suspect him of being a British spy. Gen. Nathanael Greene and Col. James Varnum of Rhode Island insisted on employing him as a chaplain during the siege of Boston, but he then returned to Gloucester.

Gridley became one of Murray’s supporters and friends. In 1790, after the colonel’s wife died, Murray and his second wife, the feminist author Judith Sargent Murray, visited the Gridley house in Stoughton. According to Gridley’s biographer, Murray later preached at the colonel’s funeral.

As for Shippie Townsend, he also became a Universalist—in fact, a leader of the Boston society. An 1890 history of the Old South Meeting-House, where I found the quotation started this series of postings, reported:

In 1785 its members purchased and enlarged the meeting-house in Hanover street, in which the Rev. Samuel Mather had preached for forty years. Shippie Townsend’s name headed the list of contributors, and he was chosen deacon.
Townsend thus helped take over the church of the minister whom he had debated back in 1768. Even more ironically, the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy, who had encouraged Mather to attack the Sandemanian faith back then, had finally published his own Universalist writings in 1784; he had been sitting on them for years, worried that such unorthodoxy would rile his congregation.

In 1793 the Boston Universalists invited Murray to become their minister, getting Judith Sargent Murray in the bargain. Among their acolytes was Townsend’s former apprentice and journeyman Jonathan Balch, who in 1798 interrupted a visiting minister at Mrs. Murray’s behest. The blockmaker’s son Dr. David Townsend also became an ardent Universalist, writing Gospel News in 1794.

Meanwhile, Townsend continued to publish his own pamphlets on religious and other topics:
  • Repentance and Remission of Sins Considered (1784)
  • The Master and Scholar Attending Catechising: or, An attempt to imitate Timothy’s catechism (1787)
  • Peace and Joy: being a Brief Attempt to Consider the Blessings of the Peace between Great-Britain and America, &c. (1788)
  • A View of a Most Magnificent Singing-Choir (1793)
  • The History of the Mother and Child: A new primer, attempting an easy, entertaining, and effectual method of teaching young children the alphabet (1794?)
  • An Attention to the Scriptures: for an answer to the important inquiry, whether unbelievers are under the law and under the curse? (1795)
  • Observations on the Religious Education of Children (1797)
Townsend’s name doesn’t appear in most of those publications, but his authorship seems to have been an open secret. The Universalist minister Nathaniel Stacy later credited “some of the writings of Shippy Townsend” for contributing to his own conversion. Not bad for a self-educated blockmaker.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shippie Townsend, Author

In the spring of 1768, a pamphlet was published in Boston with the title A Modest Account concerning the Salutations and Kissings in ancient Times: In a Letter to a Friend, Requesting the same: Wherein Mr. Sandeman’s Attempt, to revive the holy and charitable kiss, and the Love Feasts, is considered. The title page gave the name of the author as “Constant Rockman, M.A.”

In fact, that essay had been written by the Rev. Samuel Mather of the North Bennet Street meeting-house (shown here, courtesy of Reformation Art). On 17 May, he sent the pamphlet to Thomas Hollis, a British philosopher and Harvard benefactor, with a cover letter that said:

I beg leave now to put into your Hands...a Letter obtained from me thro’ Importunity from Dr. [Charles] Chauncey, my Friend and Neighbour, and some others: which I have publish’d under a fictitious Name, lest some Offence might be given by my writing on such a Subject; tho’, I think, there is not any Thing justly exceptionable in it.
Mather had chosen the pseudonym “Rockman” as a contrast to the leader of the sect he was opposing, Scottish preacher Robert Sandeman. As I described yesterday, Sandeman had established a small church in Boston following his father-in-law’s unusual view of Christianity, and then moved on to Danbury, Connecticut.

On 25 July, the Boston Gazette carried the first advertisement for a response:
THIS DAY PUBLISHED,
And to be Sold by NICHOLAS BOWES, opposite the Old
Brick Meeting-House in Cornhill.
[Price 6d.]
An INQUIRY
Whether the Scriptures enjoin the Kiss of Charity, as
the Duty of the Disciples of Christ, in their Church
Fellowship in all Ages.——Or, only allowed it to the
First Disciples, in Consequence of the Customs that
then prevailed.
Occasioned by a LETTER lately Published by CON-
STANT ROCKMAN, M.A.
Intitled “a Modest Account concerning the Salutati-
ons and Kissings in ancient Times,” &c.
Containing some Remarks thereupon.
Bowes added helpfully that customers could also buy the “Rockman” letter at his shop. Which was, incidentally, right across the street from where the Rev. Dr. Chauncy preached. It was a small town. (I haven’t even mentioned that young Henry Knox was working as an apprentice at Bowes’s shop.)

The Inquiry essay was written by Shippie Townsend, a leading member of the Sandemanian meeting. He was a successful blockmaker—the period equivalent, perhaps, of the owner-manager of a tool and die shop. He hadn’t been to Latin School or college, and he was taking on the latest in Boston’s most learned line of ministers, the Mathers. So Townsend started his “letter” this way:
Apprehending something in Mr. Rockman’s Letter, about which we were lately conversing, contrary to what the Apostle glories in, in 2 Corinth. iv. 2. And fearing lest some who are exercised about the will of God in this matter, may receive a wrong bias, from the slight and craftiness wherewith the scripture texts seem to be mentioned.

Having no acquaintance with Hebrew or Greek, and scarce any with the ancient Fathers, and no common place-books, I set down, having only the Bible before me, to see if by a plain literal reading the divine will, may not been seen with controversy.
In other words, Townsend presented his lack of higher learning a virtue. He might not know about ancient languages (or complete sentences), but he could read the plain words of the Bible.

The next year, a committee from the Old South Meeting-House visited Townsend and another lapsed congregant, Col. Richard Gridley, and asked them to return to that fold. Both men convinced their visitors that their new theological views were sincere and firm, as described back here.

In fact, Townsend had discovered that he liked writing about religious questions. Four years later, in 1773, he published another tract titled An Attempt to Illustrate the Great Subject of the Psalms. This time he didn’t need an earlier essay to prompt him; he just had some theological ideas to share. The war interrupted Townsend’s publishing career, but he would resume it in the 1780s.

TOMORROW: Townsend and Gridley end up in the same faith again.

Monday, December 29, 2008

People Who Prayed in Glas Houses

In 1728, a Presbyterian minister named John Glas was asked to leave his pulpit in Tealing, Scotland, because he had published some unorthodox religious views. He then started a small Christian sect that lasted for about a century. In Scotland his adherents were called “Glasites.” In North America they became known as Sandemanians after Robert Sandeman, Glas’s son-in-law and chief disciple.

In late 1764 Sandeman arrived in Boston, come to convert people to “a return to the religious practices of the primitive Christians,” in the words of Jean F. Hankins’s article on the movement in the New England Quarterly for 1987. The Religious Creeds and Statistics of Every Christian Denomination in the United States and British Provinces, published by John Hayward in 1836, described what set the Sandemanians apart from other Protestant congregations:

They differ from other Christians in their weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper; their love-feasts, of which every member is not only allowed, but required to partake, and which consist of their dining together at each other’s houses in the interval between the morning and afternoon service; their kiss of charity used on this occasion, at the admission of a new member, and at other times when they deem it necessary and proper; their weekly collection before the Lord’s Supper, for the support of the poor, and defraying other expenses; mutual exhortation; abstinence from blood and things strangled; washing each other’s feet, when, as a deed of mercy, it might be an expression of love; the precept concerning which, as well as other precepts, they understand literally; community of goods, so far as that every one is to consider all that he has in his possession and power liable to the calls of the poor and the church; and the unlawfulness of laying up treasures upon earth, by setting them apart for any distant, future, or uncertain use.

They allow of public and private diversions, so far as they are not connected with circumstances really sinful; but apprehending a lot to be sacred, disapprove of lotteries, playing at cards, dice, &c.
Sandeman started to hold religious services in 1765, first at blacksmith Edward Foster’s house, later in the long room of the Green Dragon Tavern and the North Latin School. He eventually moved on to Danbury, Connecticut, where he died in 1771.

By then there were regular Sandemanian meetings not only in Boston and Danbury, but also in Providence, Rhode Island, which worried the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles. Like other Congregationalist ministers, he distrusted any form of worship that didn’t fit into his established hierarchy.

To be sure, there were significant religious differences between mainstream New England Calvinism and the Sandemanian creed. Though Glas and his followers rejected good deeds as a way to salvation, they didn’t emphasize repentance from sins like Puritans and their revivalists. Sandemanian worship services seemed strange, with all that foot-washing and kissing. And though they praised charity and brotherhood, eighteenth-century Congregationalists liked the idea of private wealth; the new sect’s emphasis on communal meals, weekly collections for the poor, and a theoretical abjuration of individual property seemed to be taking Christianity too far.

There were other, non-religious reasons that most New Englanders distrusted the Sandemanians. In the 1760s folks were suspicious about anything from Scotland. And Glas’s belief that true Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics came out as support for the established government—i.e., the Crown.

Thus, in the late 1760s the Boston Sandemanians gained a reputation as friends of the royal government. By then the group included some notable men, most drawn away from Congregationalist meetings: The royal government’s favored printer, John Mein, was also linked to Sandeman, though not apparently a member of the church.

Among the most visible Sandemanians in Boston was Shippie Townsend, who had withdrawn from the Old South congregation by 1769, as discussed yesterday. Townsend even hosted Sandemanian services in his house in the North End for a while before the group bought property for their own church. And when a Congregationalist minister published a pamphlet meant to refute Sandeman’s preaching, Townsend took up his pen.

TOMORROW: A blockmaker becomes an author.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

“Withdrawn Irregularly from the Communion”

The records of the Old South Meeting-House (shown at the right, courtesy of the Freedom Trail Foundation) contain this note of a discussion on 9 May 1769:

Richard Gridley, Shippey Townsend having withdrawn irregularly from the Communion of the Church, and the Church having appointed a Committee consisting of their Pastors and Deacons to converse with them on said conduct, and to endeavour to convince them of their error, so that they might be induced to return to that Christian Fellowship, in which they had covenanted to walk, which Committee had reported that their conference had not had the desired success, said Brethren declaring that they acted on the principles of Conscience, and that they could not see their way clear to return, The Church upon mature consideration voted, to forbear any further Judicial attention to said Conduct of said Brethren and to leave them to God and their own consciences.
Both Gridley and Townsend had risen from the mechanical class into that of gentlemen, and were the sort of men whom the Old South congregation would have liked to keep. But both were exploring new religious ideas.

Richard Gridley (1711-1796) had commanded the New England artillery during the first successful siege of Fort Louisbourg in 1745. In the years before the Revolution he became, according to his enthusiastic late-nineteenth-century biographer Daniel V. T. Huntoon, “an admirer of [Jonathan] Mayhew and [Charles] Chauncy.” Those admired Boston ministers both combined support for Whig politics with private doubts about the orthodox Congregationalist theology. I have no clue about what church services Gridley might have been attending in 1769, but clearly he was no longer showing up at Old South.

The religious journey of Shippie Townsend (1722-1798) is easier to track because he was more public in his ideas. He had been admitted to full communion at the First (Congregationalist) Meeting in Charlestown in 1740, still in his teens. He married Mehetabel Whittemore at the same church, then moved the family to Boston and joined Old South. Townsend was a blockmaker; his workshop supplied the blocks-and-tackle and other equipment ships needed. John Hancock’s brother Ebenezer bought tackle from Townsend in 1767, and Dr. Joseph Warren treated his child in 1765. He was able to send his son David to Harvard (class of 1770).

In the early 1760s Townsend donated “two quintals of cod and a barrel of rice” to the Rev. Eleazer Wheelock’s school, which later became Dartmouth College. But soon he became interested in a new, unorthodox religious group: the Sandemanians.

TOMORROW: The Boston Sandemanians, and why they seemed so dangerous.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Inevitable Growth of the Government

For pleasant sightseeing without worry about the weather, visit the Historic Buildings of Massachusetts blog’s colonial grouping. And there’s an even larger helping of colonial architecture from Historic Buildings of Connecticut.

Because those sites feature new photographs, the buildings look really good—but not necessarily as they did in the eighteenth century. The websites’ descriptions are very good at pointing out which buildings have been altered, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

So here’s an image of Faneuil Hall at the end of the 1700s, courtesy of Boston College professor Jeffrey Howe’s Digital Archive of American Architecture. It was built as a central market space (ground level) and hall for town meetings (one story up), and militia arms were often stored in the attic.

And here’s Faneuil Hall today, after a thorough expansion by Charles Bulfinch in 1806. The original three bays on the ends became seven, the original three stories grew into four, and the tower was shifted. Otherwise, it was the exact same building, yep.

I can imagine crusty Bostonians of that time grumbling about why everything has to change so fast. Or did they? Historic preservation is a relatively recent addition to our value system, and maybe people were just glad to have more space for town meetings out of the weather.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Irregular Spellings Actually Fit the Historical Setting

I can’t believe this corner of the web came as a surprise to me: Johnny Tremain fanfiction.

Once one gets beyond the school assignments, there’s a lot of Johnny x Rab slash—no surprise there. But one writer asks, “Now that Johnny is back in Boston and reunited with Cilla will the war with Britain escalate and force them apart again?” And another: “Suppose Johnny’s hand was examined and healed by a doctor soon after his accident. Would this lead him off to take the path of a Tory, loyal to the king?”

And then there’s: “When a girl from a family who despratly needs money finds a job for the Boston Observer, things will start to happen.” I suspect that girl’s name might be Mary Sue.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Business in Portsmouth, 1775

On 25 Dec 1775, the white male property-owners of Portsmouth, New Hampshire—ignoring Christmas, like good descendants of Puritans—held a town meeting to select delegates to a Provincial Congress. The men they chose were Samuel Cutts, Samuel Sherburne, and Pierce Long.

One of the big issues at the meeting was the increasing cost of living in wartime:

That the great rise of Goods has given much uneasiness not only to the Inhabitants of this Town, (already being much distressed by being the Frontier & the total Loss of its Trade) but also to those of the Colony in general: Altho’ the Honorable Continental Congress have recommended that the Committees of the several Towns should regulate this matter, yet inasmuch as we have been informed, that Goods, altho’ high here, are higher at Newbury & Salem & higher still at Cambridge, wee are of opinion that it is too extensive as well as too delicate an affair to be in the power of any Town Committee to rectify. Wee therefore look up to the superiour Wisdom of the Congress intreating that they will take up the Matter on a general plan and afford such reliefe as the nature of the case requires.
In other words, prices were okay in Portsmouth, its shopkeepers could undersell those in Massachusetts towns, and the town didn’t want to take any measures to change that.

Portsmouth also didn’t want the New Hampshire Provincial Congress to go too far in assuming governmental powers. The town meeting attendees unanimously approved these instructions to their delegates the next day:
The precept sent to this town for the choice of Delegates, mentions our taking up a form of Government in this Colony. This we conceive to be a measure to be entered upon with the greatest caution, calmness, and deliberation. We are of opinion that the present times are too unsettled to admit of perfecting a form stable and permanent, and that to attempt it now would injure us, by, furnishing our enemies in Great Britain with arguments to persuade the good people there that we are aiming at Independency, which we totally disavow. We should therefore prefer the Government of the Congress till God, in his providence, shall afford us quieter times.
In fact, the town of Portsmouth (heretofore the biggest and most important in the province) was playing catch-up. The Provincial Congress had been meeting in Exeter since 21 December. And the delegates there were already at work on instituting a new government for New Hampshire, with a constitution adopted 5 Jan 1776.

New Hampshire was the first of the rebellious British colonies to establish a new constitution, even a provisional one. The state continued to govern itself by that document until the war ended, and then in late 1783 adopted its current, more detailed and formal constitution.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Cost of War

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (slogan: “Thinking Smarter About Defense”) just released a report by Steven M. Kosiak titled Cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other Military Operations through 2008 and Beyond. It makes a couple of striking points in comparing the U.S. of A.’s current war to those of the past, including the war for independence.

In real (inflation-adjusted) terms, the war in Iraq alone has already cost more than every past US war but World War II. Combined, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already exceeded the cost of the Vietnam War—the second most costly past US war—by about 50 percent.

On the other hand, to date at least, the financial burden imposed by these ongoing military operations is lower—measured as a share of the economy—than was imposed, for example, by the Korean or Vietnam Wars.
Here’s the data for such a comparison, created by ProPublica using figures from the Congressional Research Service in order to produce this visual representation. That analysis treats the current Iraq conflict separately from the war in Afghanistan, as well as from the previous war with Iraq. (The current administration prefers to bunch the first and second; future historians might bunch the first and third.)

Measured in terms of how much of the gross domestic product they consume, however, the current wars are much, much smaller than the World Wars or U.S. Civil War. I haven’t found an estimate of that measurement for the Revolutionary War; economic statistics for the nascent U.S. of A. are rudimentary. However, it’s clear that the conflict had a huge effect on the American economy, lasting into the late 1780s.

The C.S.B.A. report highlighted another way this conflict is set apart:
Prior to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only time foreign lenders had been relied upon extensively in wartime was during the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Army was financed in part by loans from France and the Netherlands. . . .

the fact that a substantial share of the national debt is currently owned by foreigners may increase the economic costs of borrowing, since a portion of the interest payments will be sent abroad. But the United States’ growing dependence on foreign lenders may also represent a strategic vulnerability.
The debt from the Revolution—that of the Continental government, that of the states, and that taken on by individuals who accepted those governments’ scrip—became a major economic and political issue of the 1780s. The war’s cost led indirectly both to a more powerful federal government in the U.S. and the fall of the Bourbon dynasty in France.

Some other comparatives measures of the wars’ costs:
  • The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) is the second-longest of the U.S. of A.’s wars, after the conflict in Vietnam. The Afghanistan war is now third in length, the Iraq war fourth.
  • The Revolutionary War remains the fifth worst in terms of American lives lost, with World War 2 being the U.S. of A.’s most deadly. It’s the second worst (after the Civil War) in terms of percentage of the U.S. population killed while in the military.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Constitution and Consensus

The Boston Review is running an essay by William Hogeland on the challenges (or lack thereof) of public history. It’s framed around a visit to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, an independent museum within Independence National Historic Park (i.e., the National Park Service isn’t getting the resources to create modern museums, even about something as crucial to the federal government as the Constitution, so the private and non-profit sector has stepped in).

Bill situates this museum in a long tradition of public commemoration:

From the Parthenon to Trafalgar Square, from the bronze Andrew Jackson of New Orleans to the gilded General Sherman of New York, from Arthurian legend to Serbian epic, history geared for a whole people usually celebrates founding moments, famous victories, hair’s-breadth escapes, tragic losses. It does not always promote fascism. It does tend, almost by definition, to rally nationalism. Thought and nuanced feeling get stifled by a thrill.

In a real democratic republic, where the whole people is supposed to be required to think, a different kind of public history is needed—lively and accessible, yet able to inspire without falsifying and to encourage consideration along with awe.
It’s notable that four of the six monumental examples in that opening are from societies or struggles that we associate with the rise of democratic republic: ancient Athens, the defeat of Napoleon, Andrew Jackson, William T. Sherman as liberator. There are, as Hogeland notes, many more monuments for dictators and monarchs, and dictatorial systems.
Those narratives encapsulate for the general public what scholars know as a “consensus” reading of American history (though many reject the category as simplistic). The term has various meanings and shadings, but refers generally, as its name suggests, to shared American values, transcending political divides and social conflicts and making us, for all our differences, one nation. Breathlessness about the Constitution is a fairly crude manifestation of the consensus approach, which involves more than simple admiration. It has been supported by many of our more sophisticated historians, who argue that the Constitution put into legal operation essentially American commitments and attitudes, which, despite flaws and setbacks, tend to endow more and more people with freedom and equality.

Consensus history thus gives intellectual underpinning to an American liberalism that many self-described conservatives espouse as well. No serious presidential candidate, whatever he plans to do in office, questions the historical consensus, which is ultimately positive, ready-made for the sound bite, and by definition widely accepted.
Indeed. Nor is a presidential campaign the right enterprise to open up a debate on those questions. That would be like an N.F.L. team asking whether participatory or spectator sports are better for society, and starting that debate during a game.
You wouldn’t know it by listening to campaign speeches or by visiting the Constitution Center, but there is no agreement about consensus history or the democratic purpose of the Constitution. A hundred-year war rages in history circles over what was really going on at the founding when it comes to equality, liberty, and law, and how those relationships affected the writing and ratification of the Constitution we live by every day.
I think it’s worth noting that museum exhibits in any field are rarely venues for such deep debates. Even when presenting conflicts and uncomfortable truths, they are by their nature the production of many minds trying to communicate to a broad range of visitors. The very nature of a public institution might require the result to reflect consensus thinking.

Bill reports that his Boston Review essays on “political agendas in public history” will become Inventing American History, to be published by M.I.T. Press in April ’09.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Calling Off the Alert

Back in November I posted an “Alert for Historical Hoaxing,” picking up Prof. T. Mills Kelly’s plans for a course titled “Lying About the Past.” One assignment for the class was “to create an online historical hoax that we will then turn loose on the Internet to see if we can actually fool anyone.”

That posting was, I suppose, my own experiment to see if publicizing the possibility of a hoax would make people more skeptical. It prompted some criticism of the whole project in my comments section, and some replies from Prof. Kelly.

Last week I received word from him that the project had run its course; the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about it. Alas, I can’t access or link to that story since the site’s subscription-only. But I now know the topic of the hoax was “Edward Owens, the Last American Pirate,” and it took the form of (fictional) undergraduate Jane Browning sharing her (fictional) research on Owens through a blog.

This seems like the best introduction to the project, the profile for blogger “Jane Browning.” Other aspects of the hoax included a handwritten will, a Wikipedia entry (check the pre-exposure version), and a YouTube channel.

A USA Today blog picked up the story, showing that it’s indeed possible for this hoax to fool someone. However, it’s also notable that that was only on the paper’s website, not the print edition, and that it was part of a general, barely examined round-up of pirate news. More discussion at Bavatuesdays.

It doesn’t look like anyone of us in cyberspace voiced skepticism about Edward Owens or Jane Browning before the class exposed the hoax themselves. So we can’t treat this as an example of how more eyes makes hoaxing harder. On the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to an undergraduate’s research, even with the sexy topic of pirates. So this isn’t an example of how easy it is to fool the masses, either.

I guess the scariest part of the experiment for me are the encouraging comments “Jane Browning” received on her blog. Whether they came from genuine believers or students helping to perpetuate the hoax, they have the same vacuous, cheerleader, you-against-the-world quality of comments about fanfiction or vacation snapshots or real blog posts.

Comments on Boston 1775 excepted, of course!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Learning About The Black Regiment

I’ll wind up this impromptu series of book reviews with a pointer to The Black Regiment of the American Revolution, by author Linda Crotta Brennan and artist Cheryl Kirk Noll. This nonfiction picture book for the middle grades was first published in 2004 and reissued earlier this year by Apprentice Shop Books.

This book was created largely to answer interest from schools in Rhode Island. It provides a simple but thorough history of the Continental Army’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment, organized by Col. Christopher Greene in early 1778. In order to fulfill its recruiting quota, the state’s legislature authorized Greene and his officers to sign up slaves who were willing the fight the British, granting them freedom and reimbursing their former owners.

Along with free blacks and Native Americans (there was a lot of overlap between those communities), the newly freed slaves made up a bit more than half of the regiment’s strength. Furthermore, while most of the Continental regiments had their smaller numbers of black soldiers mixed in with the white, the Rhode Islanders were grouped in all-black (or all-men-of-color) companies, making their numbers even more visible. The unit thus became known as “the Black Regiment.”

Apparently some whites objected to being assigned to that regiment. On 29 June 1780, Gen. George Washington wrote to Gen. William Heath, his commander in New England:

I think it will be best to march Colo. [Christopher] Greenes Regt. and the Levies when collected, to the Army [outside New York], and upon their arrival here, so arrange and model them, as to level the Regiments [i.e., to make them even in strength]. The objection to joining Greenes Regiment may be removed by dividing the Blacks in such a manner between the two, as to abolish the name and appearance of a Black Corps.
In early 1781, the regiment was merged with the 2nd Rhode Island to create a single regiment.

Brennan describes this history in crisp, clear prose. Unfortunately, she can’t quote first-person accounts from men of this regiment; she has only the names of soldiers to remind us they were individuals with their own stories. As a result, the “Black Regiment” really functions in the narrative as a single collective character.

The dramatic center of the book is the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778, when the Continental Army and New England militia units tried and failed to drive the British military out of Newport. The Black Regiment helped hold back a British and Hessian attack, allowing the Americans to retreat off the island. Later the integrated Rhode Island regiment was part of the victorious Continental Army at Yorktown, and some of its black soldiers served through the end of the war in 1783.

Noll provides a series of varied, well researched watercolor illustrations in realistic style. Alongside them are images of period documents and artifacts, helpful maps, timelines, and indexes. (One portrait of a black man reprinted in the book has since been revealed as a modern forgery. That was the topic of the second posting on Boston 1775, back in 2006.)

That amount of material makes for crowded pages, even with small type. The book’s design, and the lack of an individual protagonist to follow, may limit its appeal as entertainment. But for students wanting to learn more about American history, it provides a lot of solid information in an attractive package.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reviewing Let It Begin Here!

The January/February 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, landing on librarians’ desks now, contains my review of Let It Begin Here!: April 19, 1775, a new history book for young readers by author-illustrator Don Brown.

I praised the book for its quick pace and lively watercolor art. Brown describes the fighting from both sides’ perspectives, and avoids some common myths and misconceptions. Unaccountably, a summary page misquotes Thomas Paine and misspells his name (not so far off as to be wrong by eighteenth-century standards, but wrong by ours). So the second printing should be even better than the first. I do wish the book had a map.

In the same issue of the magazine, Kathleen Isaacs reviews Russell Freedman’s new Washington at Valley Forge, for older grades, as “a pleasure to read.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

Six Books on Two Battles, part 2

This posting continues my expanded response to a question Ed Roche of the Charlestown Militia Company asked in September:

What are the six books you would recommend to the public regarding Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill? Not scholars—the public.
For my caveats and commentary on the first three books, go back one day. And here are the second three titles. Clicking on the links and images will take you to Powell’s Books.

Allen French, General Gage’s Informers: New Material Upon Lexington and Concord, Benjamin Thompson as Loyalist, and the Treachery of Benjamin Church, Jr. (1932). This is an unusual title for this sort of list. It doesn’t provide a start-to-finish overview of a battle, a man’s life, or a political process. But it’s neat. French was a novelist and author of a once-over-lightly popular history of the siege of Boston. And then he got the research bit in his teeth. The Clements Library in Michigan had made Gen. Thomas Gage’s papers and other Revolutionary material available to scholars. French dug into that archive and others, and came out with documents showing:
  • Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., was definitely a spy early in 1775.
  • So was Benjamin Thompson, later Count Rumford; until then, the standard line on Thompson was that he would have been an asset to the American forces if only some people hadn’t been so suspicious and driven him away.
  • Gage had another, still unidentified spy near Concord feeding him detailed information about the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s arms.
  • Gage’s orders, including his draft orders, never mentioned arresting Samuel Adams, John Hancock, or other Patriot leaders—a long-held American misconception.
  • The whole day looked quite different through the eyes of Lt. William Sutherland, Ens. Jeremy Lister, Lt. Frederick Mackenzie, and Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie, all junior British officers. American historians hadn’t found or used those men’s reports before, which naturally produced one-sided analyses.
Just as interesting as those stories, I think, is watching a historian at work, tossing out and remolding established ideas in front of your eyes. And French knew how to turn that process into a story. (I don’t have a cover image because I’ve linked to the Scholar’s Bookshelf print-on-demand paperback, the only edition available today; it’s not pretty, but it’s fully functional.)

David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (1994). This was one of the books that got me intrigued about Revolutionary War history, though I also came away believing that scholars had already found everything significant about the Battle of Lexington and Concord that there was to be found. I know better now, but Fischer’s book is such a thorough and well constructed overview that it’s still the title to choose if you read only one on the topic. As Fischer notes, the story of 18-19 Apr 1775 is a rarity among events of historical significance: Revere’s ride easily fits the mold of a heroic narrative, and the whole episode has a dramatic unity. At the same time, the book covers more ground than Revere on his horse. Fischer and his research team pull out the stories of the many towns that mobilized, the experiences of the British soldiers, and the spread of the news down the coast and across the Atlantic. Finally, don’t skip the appendix on the tale’s historiography—i.e., how the story of Paul Revere’s ride got into history books, became part of the American legend, and has been treated by historians and popular commentators over the years.

Richard M. Ketchum, Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill (1974). Compared to the battle on the 19th of April, there are fewer books, especially scholarly-level books, to choose from about the 17th of June. It wasn’t always that way. In the nineteenth century, books about Bunker Hill seem to have been just as numerous, and a lot longer. Of the books now in print, Ketchum’s strikes me as having the best combination of dramatic narrative and sourcing (not notes for each statement or quotation, alas, but at least commentaries on sources). A book and magazine editor, Ketchum describes the struggles of both sides with an eye for drama and detail, and generally avoids the myths that have built up along the sides of Bunker Hill—though he can’t avoid including a lot of traditions that go back only to the early 1800s but seem reliable.

My runner-up for that last slot was John R. Elting’s The Battle of Bunker’s Hill (1975). I think it dug deeper into primary sources and military questions, challenging common beliefs about the battle, but at the expense of drama and scope. In any case, it’s no longer in print.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Six Books on Two Battles, part 1

Back in September, Ed Roche of the Charlestown Militia Company passed this question to NEREV, the email list for New England Revolutionary War reenactors:

What are the six books you would recommend to the public regarding Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill? Not scholars—the public.
So, in my unceasing wish to find easy material for blogging, I’m going back to the answer I posted then and offering a little more detail on each title.

But first, a couple of caveats. This is a narrow question, focused on two action-filled days of a long conflict. Which means I ruled out good books on political ideas and conflicts (Pauline Maier’s From Resistance to Revolution, John Tyler’s Smugglers and Patriots), social history (Gary Nash’s The Urban Crucible, Robert Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World), and even other dramatic events (Hiller Zobel’s The Boston Massacre, Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), not to mention books about the whole war or even the whole siege of Boston. And the books had to be fun to read as well as enlightening. (Sorry, Dirk Hoerder’s Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1765-1780.)

Second, on another day I might come up with a slightly different list.

So here we go with the first three titles. Click on the covers or titles to go straight to that page at Powell’s Books.

Ray Raphael, The First American Revolution (2002). This book describes the year of political, and occasionally armed, conflict in the New England countryside preceding April 1775. Okay, I’m cheating a little on the question’s timeframe, but I don’t think one can understand the mass mobilization on that day without understanding what the rural militiamen’s motivation and how they had organized themselves under the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. There was a political side to the Revolution, after all. Ray argues that British government had been overturned in most of Massachusetts before the first battle (which I agree with) and a new republican government launched (which I’m not so sure about). Ignore the two pages of John Howe myth and enjoy the argument for Worcester as the real center of the rebellion.

John R. Galvin, The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution (1989). Too many colons in the title aside, this book digs up the roots of the Massachusetts militia system before providing a detailed analysis of the military maneuvers of 19 Apr 1775. Alarm riders and minuteman companies had a history almost as old as English settlement in America, and the militiamen’s training was well adapted to their circumstances. Does Galvin know his tactics, strategy, and logistics? He was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe before becoming Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. (An equivalent book on the British forces? Maybe John Shy’s Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution, no longer in print.)

Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942). This book has an old-fashioned emphasis on a heroic narrative and a quaint past. The dark side of American history isn’t much in evidence here, and a number of poorly sourced legends got through the research Forbes and her mother did. But there’s a reason this book won the Pulitzer Prize and remains popular and respected today: it creates a vibrant, 360° portrait of mid-1700s Boston and of Revere, the hard-striving silversmith who put himself at the center of the Patriot alarm network. Forbes went on to write a certain “novel for all ages” called Johnny Tremain.

TOMORROW: The next three titles, of course.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Courting Indifference

I’ve been enjoying Caitlin GD Hopkins’s studies of early American gravestones at the Vast Public Indifference blog. Two easy ways to find those postings are to read the entries labeled gravestones and 101 Ways to Say “Died”. The 18th century track is fun, too.

Above all, there are Caitlin’s quotations from young printer John Boyle (1746-1819). Boyle kept a marvelously miscellaneous and gossipy “Journal of Occurrences in Boston” between 1759 and 1778. He probably started it in the early 1760s while apprenticed to John Green, then went back and filled in what he’d missed. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register published the whole in 1930-31. An entry that probably interests both Caitlin (for her interest in deathways) and me (for my interest in Gores) appeared on 3 Sept 1771:

This Morning (Tuesday) Mr. John Gore, Junr. intending an Excursion in the Country with his Friends arose vigorous and cheerful: being casually detained longer than he expected, his friends Set out without him, with the expectation that he would soon overtake them, but alas! his bounds were determined that he could not pass He was seized with an Apoplectic Fit at ten o’Clock, and expired at four in the Afternoon.
After looking at lots of colonial and Federalist gravestones, you’ll be ready to take this Vast Public Indifference quiz:
I’ll give you some names and you tell me whether they belong to people born in Connecticut between 1701 and 1800 or to Muppets who have appeared on Sesame Street.
1. Herbert Birdsfoot
2. Sherlock Doolittle
3. Hannah Hobby
4. Vincent Twice
5. Herman Bird
6. Orange Wedge
7. Alice Braithwaite Goodyshoes
8. Bathsheba Bird
9. Bathsheba Bugbee
10. Appleton Osgood . . .
Follow the quiz link for the rest of the list, and the answers.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Seeking a Peek at Hannah Mather Crocker

Hannah Mather Crocker (1752-1829) was a descendant of the leading Puritan ministers Increase and Cotton Mather, daughter of the Rev. Samuel Mather of the North Bennet Street meeting-house during the Revolution, and niece of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. Apparently she was actually in Hutchinson’s house on 26 Aug 1765 when an anti-Stamp Act mob attacked it.

Crocker inherited the Mather family’s scholarly library. In 1827 she finished writing a manuscript titled Reminiscences and Traditions of Old Boston, which assembled stories she’d heard and read about the town’s founding with some personal experiences. It was never published. Maybe, just maybe, because she was a woman?

The New England Historic Genealogical Society, which has preserved that manuscript, announced this month that Prof. Eileen Hunt Botting and Sarah L. Houser of the University of Notre Dame are editing it for publication in 2010. I’m intrigued by the prospect of recollections of the Revolutionary turmoil from a young female perspective.

The authors are now looking for “a portrait or any image of Hannah Mather Crocker” to be used on the cover or frontispiece of that book; Prof. Hunt asked anyone who might have such a portrait up in the attic to email her. There are well-known portraits of all her famous ancestors, but none of her. Maybe, just maybe, because she was a woman?

Crocker is linked to the even less documented figure of Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727). In Observations on the Real Rights of Women (1818), which Botting calls “the first book-length treatise on women’s rights in the United States,” Crocker wrote of Knight:

Among some of the early instructors of writing may be found Mrs. Sarah Knights, in the year 1706. She was famous in her day for teaching to write. Most of the letters on business, and notes of hand, and letters on friendship were wrote by her. She was a smart, witty, sensible woman, and had considerable influence at that period.
Seven years later, Madam Knight’s journal of a journey from Boston to New York in 1704-05 was published by Theodore Dwight, one of the Hartford Wits. Here’s an online edition.

The actual manuscript of Knight’s diary has never turned up, nor other significant documents from her. Dogged research has found evidence of a Sarah Knight in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but there’s still a leap of faith that she took a journey of this sort in 1704 and wrote this diary. Early on people suggested that the text was created by Dwight and his cronies. Why would those conservative Federalists wish to lampoon both Crocker as an author and a learned colonist whom she had written about? Maybe, just maybe,...

On the other hand, what might have made those early reviewers of The Journal of Madam Knight insist that no woman of 1704 could have written it, so it had to be the creation of a man? Maybe, just maybe...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Finding Nathaniel Gould’s Account Books

Last week the Boston Globe and New York Times both reported, in their different ways, on the discovery of the account books of Salem cabinetmaker Nathaniel Gould (1734–1781). Gould’s furniture is distinct and highly valued, but without his business records it’s been impossible for furniture historians to be sure of how many pieces he made and where they went. Now “three vellum-bound books...with lists of names, dates and prices scrawled on foot-tall sheets of rag paper” are answering lots of questions.

Had those account books been squirreled away in some descendant’s attic, or lost in the bowels of a small, underfunded local history association? No, they were in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, one of the country’s best and busiest. Specifically, in the papers of Salem lawyer Nathan Dane. In 1990 archivist Brenda M. Lawson catalogued them as “3 account books of client Nathaniel Gould (1758-81).”

In other words, these sources weren’t hidden at all. They just weren’t in a place where furniture experts would look for them. And the legal scholars who study the Dane collection had no reason to recognize their significance for folks in another field.

But Google’s search algorithm doesn’t care about scholarly disciplines as long as it finds the right characters. The M.H.S. put its finding aid for the Dane papers online in March 2005. Two years later, researcher Joyce King of Wakefield ran a Google search for Gould’s name, spotted the link, and told Newburyport furniture historian Kemble Widmer, “This may be important.” King and Widmer are publishing their findings in American Furniture.

Above is a desk and bookcase from Gould’s workshop, now featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s actually signed “Nath Gould not his work”—perhaps a signal that he didn’t get his own hands dirty on it, but offered genteel supervision to craftsmen working for him. Gould’s accounts show that he sold such a piece to Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead on 9 Apr 1775, nine days before Lee would be hiding in a cold field in Cambridge, fearing arrest by British officers.

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.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chaplain Martin’s Funeral Service?

I’ve been writing about the first casualty at Bunker Hill, and an anecdote which surfaced within fifty years of the battle of soldiers and a chaplain insisting on having a battlefield funeral over that body—and over Col. William Prescott’s objections. In 1826, early historian Samuel Swett wrote:

We related in the first edition of our Sketch, a remarkable anecdote of a Clergyman, who was on the battle-ground at Bunker Hill, and extremely desirous of saying prayers over the body of Asa Pollard, the first victim who fell. . . .

To those, who have taken trouble to peruse the newspapers of that period, it is perfectly well known, that the Clergyman, who was present and highly distinguished himself in Bunker hill battle, by valiantly fighting the foe, was the Rev. John Martin.

He was justly rewarded for his gallantry by a chaplaincy in a Rhode Island Regt.; and soon after the battle he preached a discourse from the following very appropriate text. Neh. 4.14. “And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your houses.”
Swett cited a short item from the 18 July 1775 New Hampshire Gazette, which said, “the Rev’d. Mr. JOHN MARTIN...fought gallantly at Bunker-Hill” and went on to quote the verse from Nehemiah. But that newspaper article said nothing about Martin serving as a battlefield chaplain or presiding over a funeral.

Furthermore, Swett was wrong in assuming that Martin had been given “a chaplaincy in a Rhode Island Regt.” On 28 June the Rhode Island Assembly appointed Martin to be a military surgeon, at £9 per month. Martin, an immigrant from Ireland, was apparently a man of multiple talents.

Finally, Swett had no way of knowing this, but the Rev. John Martin had left a detailed account of the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. In it he claimed to have done a lot of things on the field, but not a funeral. Therefore, we have no source at all for tying Martin to that battlefield anecdote, and a fairly strong indication that he wasn’t involved. Nonetheless, based on Swett’s book, for the next century authors wrote about “Chaplain Martin’s Funeral Service”.

TOMORROW: So what was the Rev. John Martin’s account of Bunker Hill, and how reliable was it?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Aaron Barr: Casualty on Bunker’s Hill

Yesterday I noted how George C. Gilmore’s research for A Memorial of the American Patriots who Fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1889) cast some doubt on the tradition that the first man killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill was Asa Pollard of Billerica. He was in Col. Ebenezer Bridge’s regiment, which indeed sent some of the first companies onto the battlefield, but that regiment’s records indicate that Pollard continued to draw pay for four days after the battle.

Looking at other muster rolls and similar records, Gilmore found a document contemporaneous with the battle stating that the first man killed was Aaron Barr of “Meryfield” (also spelled Myrifield, now Rowe), Massachusetts. Barr was in Capt. Hugh Maxwell’s company in Col. William Prescott’s regiment, which was also in the battle. There’s evidence that Maxwell oversaw the building of some of the redoubt on Breed’s Hill: his daughter later wrote that he used his experience as a town surveyor to complete Col. Richard Gridley’s fortification. Maxwell was definitely wounded in the battle.

Josiah Gilbert Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts, published in 1855, confirms that Barr was one of the first casualties of the battle—but it indicates that he could not have been the man whose head was taken off by a cannon. According to that book:

At the battle of Bunker Hill, Aaron Barr of Myrifield was the first wounded man brought into Cambridge, from the field. He belonged to Capt. Maxwell’s company. He was struck by a cannon ball in the morning, had his leg taken off, and died the same day.
So Barr wasn’t buried on the battlefield without his head, as Col. Prescott and other witnesses recalled.

Some authors have split the difference, saying Barr was the first man wounded and Pollard the first man killed. However, if both men were fatally wounded early in the fighting and died later, then we still don’t know whose head was taken off by that cannon ball. Pollard appears to be the more likely suspect, but I don’t know if we can say for sure. Like a lot of other details and anecdotes about the Bunker Hill battle, our earliest sources don’t appear until decades after the event.

TOMORROW: And then there’s the question of that chaplain.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Asa Pollard: Casualty on Bunker’s Hill

The last two Boston 1775 postings have been two similar descriptions of the first American death in the Battle of Bunker Hill—a man killed by a cannon ball. Apparently, neither Col. William Prescott nor the subordinate officer who told the same story to Prescott’s son stated that man’s name. But as the fiftieth anniversary of the battle arrived, people came out with new information.

Three days after the Newburyport Herald reprinted Prescott’s words from a newspaper in Maine, it added a scoop of its own:

We published in our last, a letter from a Major in the Revolutionary War, who was present at the battle of Bunker Hill, in which it will be recollected was an anecdote of the circumstances attending the death and burial of the first victim of that event. It was stated that his name has not been and probably will not be ascertained.
(Actually, the major who was quoted, Abraham Butterfield, wasn’t at the battle and didn’t claim to be; he was recording his memory of a conversation with Col. Prescott sometime in the 1790s.)
A gentleman, who was a spectator of the contest, however, has informed us, that it was generally understood at the time, that his name was POLLARD, the son of an inn-holder in Billerica, and that he came to his death by a cannon-ball discharged from the frigate Somerset. Of the correctness of this belief, our informant observes there can be but little doubt.
Of course, that gentleman didn’t claim firsthand knowledge, either. He’d seen the battle only from a distance (“as a spectator”), and recalled hearing about the first casualty at the time. But that was enough for Samuel Swett, who was expanding his 1818 essay on Bunker Hill to make a book. In a new footnote he identified the dead man as “Pollard, of Billerica.”

The anniversary of the battle was commemorated on the site in Charlestown, with a great many veterans (or would-be veterans) attending, and quite possibly Swett’s book for sale. A couple of weeks afterward, on 1 July 1825, the Newburyport Herald had yet more information for its readers:
The Concord Register confirms the account we published a few days since, that ASA POLLARD, of Billerica, was the first man killed on Bunker-Hill. He was killed by a cannon-ball before the battle had actually commenced on the part of the Americans. Being fatigued with his march and the labors of the night, preparatory to the battle, he was resting on the ground, when the ball struck his head, while in a horizontal position, and battered him literally to pieces.
So now history had the full name of the first casualty, right? Swett added that name to his 1826 edition, and many other authors have accepted that information and built on it. Abram E. Brown’s Beside Old Hearth-Stones (1897) stated:
Asa Pollard was the fourth son of John Pollard and Mary, daughter of Isaac Stearns, born November 15, 1735, at a farm located in North Billerica.
However, there are some discrepancies in the accounts of Asa Pollard’s death. To begin with, different sources say he was doing different things when the cannon ball hit. Was he lying on the ground to rest, working on the fortification, or (as this waymarking webpage says) going to get water?

Later in his book Swett added this juicy detail:
The heart of Pollard, the first killed, continued beating for some time after it was cut out of him by the cannon ball.
But didn’t Col. Prescott and the last Newburyport article above say that the first fatal cannon ball had taken off the man’s head?

Finally, according to George C. Gilmore’s findings in A Memorial of the American Patriots who Fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1889), the records for Pollard’s company say that he enlisted on 8 May 1775 and served one month and thirteen days—past the date of the battle. He was paid through 21 June. That implies that Pollard died of his wounds four days after the fight, which is a long time to live without a head or a heart.

TOMORROW: Another candidate for the first fatality.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Strolling by Candlelight in Portsmouth, N.H.

The Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is hosting its annual Candlelight Stroll this weekend, 13 and 14 December, from 4:00 to 9:00 P.M. Every building on the property will be decorated and staffed to celebrate the New Year according to its period. At the Mason-Pitts Tavern, here’s what will be happening in January 1790:

Join the Masons as they talk about the foundation of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire the previous July, and the ladies excitedly tell the story of the visit of President Washington in November 1789.

Join R. P. Hale on the 2nd floor with his Harpsichord and Hammer Dulcimer. Venture up to the 3rd floor to take in 18th-century songs and chants with Bob Killan as he plays his violin.
You can download a full program of Strawebery Banke Candlelight Stroll events for this weekend and the next from this page. Tickets are $18.00 for adults, $10.00 for children ages five to seventeen, $40.00 for families with two adults and unlimited children under seventeen. At least that’s how I interpret it.

“A Chaplain...Insisted on Performing Service”

Yesterday I quoted a gentleman in Machias, Maine, quoting Col. William Prescott on “The first man who fell in the battle of Bunker Hill.” A similar anecdote appeared in Samuel Swett’s lengthy essay on the battle, first published as an appendix in an 1818 edition of David Humphreys’s biography of Gen. Israel Putnam:

This fire [from H.M.S. Somerset] was for some time without effect, but the men venturing in front of the works, one of them was killed by a cannon shot. A subaltern informed Col. Prescott, and inquired of him what should be done. “Bury him,” he was told.—

“What,” said the astonished officer, “without prayers!” A chaplain, who was present, insisted on performing service over this first victim, and collected many of the soldiers around him, heedless of peril.

Prescott ordered them to disperse; but religious enthusiasm prevailing, the chaplain again collected his congregation, when the deceased was ordered to be taken and buried in the ditch. At this time a number of the men went off and never returned.
Swett later published this essay as a standalone book, and in that edition he named his source:
We did so [printed the anecdote] on the authority of Col. Prescott himself, and one of his Capts. as reported to us by Hon. Wm. Prescott, of Boston, the only son of Col. Prescott, and who has ever worthily supported the honour of his name.
So both versions of the story come ultimately from Col. Prescott. They apparently reached print through different routes, with slightly different details. I think in the end they basically confirm each other.

TOMORROW: Who was that first American casualty at Bunker Hill?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

“Besmeared with His Blood and Brains”

For more than a hundred and fifty years, American historians have been quoting Col. William Prescott on the first death at the Battle of Bunker Hill, without being able to cite the original source of this quotation and thus without knowing how reliable it might be.

Thanks to the Archive of Americana newspaper database, I found Prescott’s words were first published in the Machias [Maine] Star, probably in late May 1825. I’m quoting the reprint of that item in the Newburyport Herald, 7 June 1825. Originally the following letter was printed as a single paragraph; I’ve added breaks and their accompanying quotation marks:

As every thing relating to the Battle of Bunker Hill is of peculiar and increasing interest at the present time, I will communicate what I heard the venerable Col. Prescott relate, a few years before his death, respecting that event, in which he acted so important a part. I will endeavor to give it in his own words.

“The first man who fell in the battle of Bunker Hill was killed by a cannon ball which struck his head. He was so near me that my clothes were besmeared with his blood and brains, which I wiped off in some degree with a handful of fresh earth.

“The sight was so shocking to many of the men that they left their posts and ran to view him. I ordered them back, but in vain. I then ordered him to be buried instantly; when a man, who from his appearance I judged to be a subaltern [i.e., subordinate] officer, came up and throwing his arm around me exclaimed, ‘Dear Colonel, are you going to bury him without sending for a minister and having prayers?’

“I replied, ‘This is the first man that has been killed, and the only one that will be buried to-day. I put him out of sight that the men may be kept in their places. God only knows who, or how many of us, will fall before it is over. To your post, my good fellow, and do your duty.’[”]

Who it was that fell the first victim on that altar will probably never be known, otherwise his name ought to be handed down, with that of [Dr. Joseph] Warren, as long as Bunker Hill shall continue to be an eminence.—If that ball had fallen a few feet differently, it might have produced a serious effect on the result of that battle.

ABRAHAM BUTTERFIELD
Machias, May 23d, 1825.
The Maine newspaper referred to the writer as “Major Butterfield,...[who] is well known as a man of intelligence, and is a curious inquirer in such matters.” With the fiftieth anniversary of Bunker Hill coming up, editors knew readers would be interested in details of the battle.

Was Butterfield really in a position to hear the colonel’s story “a few years before” Prescott died in 1795? According to Sketches of Alumni of Dartmouth College, Butterfield was born in Townsend, Massachusetts, in 1769. Prescott was very important man in Pepperell, one town to the east. So I suspect Butterfield heard this story when he was a young man interested in military affairs, and carried the memory with him when he moved to Maine. He may not have recalled Prescott’s words exactly, but he probably had a vivid memory of the gory details.

TOMORROW: Another version of the same story.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Tea Party Reenactment at Old South, 14 Dec

Old South Meeting House will host its annual reenactment of the meeting that preceded the Boston Tea Party on Sunday, 14 December, starting at 5:30 P.M.

This year’s event will feature “Old South’s Tea Party Players, The Musick of Prescott’s Battalion, and wondrous new puppetry by Butterworth Productions.” The last is a new addition, probably because folks can no longer troop down to the waterfront to watch people through chests off the recreated tea ship, since that vessel’s still in dry dock.

For historical perspective, I quote from the minutes of a meeting of the Boston selectmen on 23 Nov 1785:

Mr. Nazro [a town official] is directed to acquaint the Persons who exhibit Puppet Shows that they immediately desist from such exhibitions, otherwise they may expect to be prosecuted therefor as the Law directs —
Tickets for the reenactment are $6 apiece, on sale on through the Old South website or by calling (800) 838-3006.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Whither the Revolution?

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic’s next annual meeting will have the theme “Whither the Revolution,” which is interesting because that group’s scope is usually defined as the period after the Revolution has settled down, ending at the U.S. of A.’s Civil War.

But this conference has the subtitle “How the Early Republic Retained and Remolded the Legacy of the Revolution,” and its organizers explain themselves this way:

For the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the program committee, mindful of Lincoln’s role in interpreting and reinterpreting the nation’s founding, has determined to seek explorations of the fate of the Revolutionary inheritance in the early republic. The years of Lincoln’s rise to political prominence focused attention specifically on the meaning of the founding generation’s legacy.

It would be appropriate to assess the power of the Revolution to mold the expectations and directions of the next three generations of Americans. In the varied areas of American life—political, social, intellectual, and economic—scholars should define where the Revolutionary tradition was sustained, where it was modified, and where it was replaced. One of the many understandings that might result from such an enterprise is determining whether Lincoln maintained, modified, or replaced the Revolutionary heritage.
This S.H.E.A.R. conference will take 16-19 July 2009 in Springfield, Illinois. The Program Committee has just extended the deadline for submitting papers, panels, and “sessions employing formats other than presentation of papers” to 14 December. All the information about submitting is on the S.H.E.A.R. webpage.

Monumental photo overhead courtesy of readontheroad’s Flickr page.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Consider Howland, Privateer Captain

Yesterday I wrote that I don’t know what American prisoner the British gave up for the young midshipman John Loring. But I know it wasn’t privateer captain Consider Howland, even though that man was originally supposed to be part of the deal.

Howland, born in Plymouth in 1745 and given an old family name, was master of the Washington, which sailed out on 2 Dec 1775. And was captured the very next day, as the Pilgrim Hall Museum explains.

Howland and his fellow prisoners were sent to Britain on board the same ship as Ethan Allen and other Americans captured while invading Canada. Many of them died of disease during the voyage, and others got pressed into service in the Royal Navy. Most of the rest were then sent back across the Atlantic to Halifax to be ready for a prisoner exchange.

Howland and some comrades escaped from jail there, but the British authorities recaptured him. In September 1776, when John Loring was probably annoying neighbors in Framingham, Howland, Allen, and some prisoners from the Battle of Bunker Hill were all locked in one chamber of the Halifax jail.

After the British military took the city of New York in a series of battles that fall, the Commissary of Prisoners had Howland and other captives brought south and incarcerated on ships moored off Brooklyn. At that time those ships were probably no worse than the other places they had been held—in later years the New York prison ships would become infamous.

Royal officials let Howland go on 25 Dec 1776, after slightly more than a year in custody. They ordered him to travel to Boston to be exchanged for Midshipman Loring—who was, oddly enough, the little brother of the British Commissary of Prisoners, Joshua Loring, Jr. (His wife, Elizabeth Loring, was becoming notorious as the mistress of Gen. Sir William Howe.)

However, when Howland arrived in Massachusetts, he discovered that the young midshipman had already been exchanged for someone else. In a letter dated 1 Feb 1777, the Commissary of Prisoners told Howland that he should still consider himself as on parole, bound by oath not to take part in the war. He wouldn’t be legally free until he was traded for a prisoner to be named later. After seven months Howland was exchanged for Capt. Gideon White, another Plymouth man who was loyal to the British.

In July 1780 Capt. Consider Howland received the command of the privateer Phoenix, a schooner that carried “2 carriage guns, 6 swivel guns & 12 men.” It was lost at sea that fall. His brother’s headstone in Plymouth contains the additional notice:

In memory of Consider Howland who was lost at sea Octr 1780 aged 35 years.