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, January 18, 2009

The Galloupe House Fades from Public Memory

This is a late-1800s engraving of Benjamin Galloupe’s house in Boston’s North End, identified in 1887 as where Gen. Thomas Gage set up a staff headquarters during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Earlier histories, such as Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston, didn’t mention this house. After 1887 many books about Boston said Gage used it, perhaps the latest being Annie Haven Thwing’s Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston (1925), which was all about local landmarks.

The Galloupe house was taken down in the early 1900s, and its historical significance (if indeed it had any) soon disappeared as well. Two recent histories of the Battle of Bunker Hill don’t mention Gage making any North End building his headquarters for the day. Richard Ketchum’s Decisive Day (1962) says:

It must have been about nine o’clock [A.M.], with the council of war finished, orders issued, and subordinates off attending to preparations, when Gage left Province House to view the situation in broad daylight. (It was the one time he left headquarters, apparently; the rest of the day he was there to receive reports from Charlestown and from the lines at Boston Neck.)
Ketchum’s evidence for Gage leaving Province House at all is the terrific anecdote about Abijah Willard. However, as I discussed back then, that anecdote doesn’t seem to be 100% reliable, more’s the pity.

In contrast, Thomas J. Fleming’s Now We Are Enemies (1960) says:
In the North Church tower, from which the fateful signal to [sic] Paul Revere has been flashed sixty days before, Thomas Gage watched through a field glass. He had planned to direct the battle from Province House. But not even his natural talent for patience could bear the suspense...
General Gage in America by John Richard Alden (1948) doesn’t mention the Galloupe house at all. A. J. Langguth’s Patriots (1988) says Gage had an “advance headquarters,” location unspecified, but I’ve found that book less reliable than Ketchum’s.

So there we have it. Gage oversaw the battle from Province House, from the Galloupe house, from Old North Church—or maybe somewhere else entirely. That level of uncertainty is about what I expect when it comes to Bunker Hill. We’re much more eager to read about details than the chroniclers of the time were to write it down, so the intervening years have provided them.

I suspect Gage kept his headquarters at Province House while making a couple of trips to the North End to observe the fighting as much as he could. (The fire and smoke from Charlestown obscured much of the action.) He left the battlefield command to Gen. William Howe. Meanwhile, Gage had to worry about the possibility of a provincial attack over the Boston Neck, or a civilian uprising in the town, while so many of his troops were occupied to the north. (Similarly, in Cambridge Gen. Artemas Ward was keeping alert for a possible British attack down the Neck.) For that reason, sticking to a central headquarters makes sense.

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