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.

Follow by Email

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

“Wild conduct and insanity of our late commander”?

On 21 Apr 1776, less than two weeks after Col. Henry Babcock had helped to drive away the British warship Scarborough away from Newport, as I described yesterday, his fellow Rhode Island colonel, William Richmond, wrote to naval commander Esek Hopkins:

Before this can come to hand, you must have heard of the confusion we have lately been in, occasioned by the wild conduct and insanity of our late commander, who is now under an arrest at Providence, and, we judge, must be discharged from the service: in consequence of which, the command, at present, devolves upon me—a heavy task.
[ADDENDUM: Hopkins’s own letters on 16 and 17 April show that he thought Babcock ranked as a general. Was that the admiral’s mistake, or had the colonel written to him with that title?]

The General Assembly of Rhode Island met in Providence in early May 1776 and concluded:
Whereas, it hath incontestably appeared to this Assembly that Henry Babcock, Esq., Colonel of a Regiment in the service of this Colony, is at times deprived of the perfect use of his reason, and thereby rendered unfit to command; it is voted and resolved, that the said Henry Babcock be, and he is hereby dismissed from the command of said Regiment; and that office is hereby declared vacant.
On 7 May, Gov. Nicholas Cooke sent this act to Continental Congress delegate (and former governor) Stephen Hopkins, along with “an act discharging the inhabitants of the Colony from allegiance to the British King.” (The legislature wasn’t quite ready to use the term “independency.”)

In June 1776 the legislature reimbursed Capt. Benjamin Peirce for expenses in traveling from Newport to Providence “for the Trial of Col. Henry Babcock.” Alas, I haven’t been able to find records of that trial with details of what had caused the colony to remove Babcock from his command.

But here’s a weird clue. Gen. George Washington got the news of Babcock’s arrest in early April, and he wrote back to Gov. Cooke from New York on 28 Apr 1776:
Colo Babcock's misfortune is truly pitiable. the incontestable Proofs which he has given at Cambridge and since, of a Distempered Mind, must to every one acquainted with him, shew how unfit he must be to Command the forces of your Colony.
So Babcock had given “incontestable Proofs...of a Distempered Mind” when he was in Cambridge, seeking the post of brigadier-general under Israel Putnam. Yet Washington had both passed on Putnam’s recommendation to the Congress and, when Babcock was leaving Massachusetts on 7 Dec 1775, gave him letters to carry to Cooke. All I can think is that Babcock’s breeding, intelligence, and major fawning skills made Washington overlook signs of his irrationality.

TOMORROW: Clues to Babcock’s mental problems.


Mr Punch said...

It's not clear that Washington overlooked Babcock's irrationality, is it? He wanted the position filled, but didn't endorse Putnam's recommendation, and made it pretty clear in his formal communication that he didn't. (Is it possible that he communicated with members of the Congress by a back channel as well?)

Washington may have felt he had to be circumspect about Babcock less as a matter of social deference/class solidarity that for essentially diplomatic reasons. This was 1775; there was no United States; Washington was a Virginian commanding (mostly) New England troops; and Babcock was very well connected in both Connecticut and Rhode Island.

J. L. Bell said...

I think Washington had an ambivalent response to Babcock in December 1775. He didn’t sign onto Putnam’s recommendation of Babcock as brigadier, and at least in hindsight he found the man unreliable.

Nevertheless, Washington had Babcock carry letters to Gov. Cooke for him. If Babcock had kept those letters, or turned them over to the British, the consequences would have been embarrassing at least, dangerous at worst.

Also, in forwarding Babcock’s name to Congress and writing about how important it was to have a brigadier, Washington was clearly inviting them to adopt Putnam’s recommendation. His letter didn’t put forward another name with more enthusiasm. Given the communications of the time (obviously Washington couldn’t just put in a phone call to Philadelphia), the commander would have been playing a risky game to say one thing in an official dispatch and then hope that a contrary message would get through another way.

I think that in the end Washington treated Babcock with deference precisely because he was a gentleman—well connected, educated (Babcock knew Benjamin Franklin), traveled (he’d studied military skills in London, where Washington had never been). Babcock had also been a colonel in the French & Indian War, an experience Washington shared and respected. On paper, Babcock looked like a great candidate. And all of Washington’s values would lead him to treat another gentleman with respect, setting aside private worries.

At the time, Washington was reorganizing the Continental Army with a lot of New England officers: Putnam, Greene, Thomas, Knox, &c. I don’t think he felt extra pressure for another. He did want a brigadier to help Putnam (who I think was out of his depth), and Putnam liked Babcock, so it looks like the commander was willing to go along.