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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Monday, July 13, 2009

Mary Greenwood Crosses the Siege Lines

On 13 July 1775, Lt. Col. Joseph Reed, military secretary to Gen. George Washington (shown here courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania), provided a pass to a woman named Greenwood allowing her to travel through the siege lines into Boston. Reed sent this note to Gen. Israel Putnam, adding precautions that “she receive no papers from anyone,” according to a précis of the commander’s papers created by the Library of Congress.

This woman was Mary Greenwood. She had been born “in some Irish garrison town in 1725,” according to her son John’s memoirs. She and ivory-turner Isaac Greenwood recorded their intention to marry in Boston on 21 Jan 1757, and they raised their children in the North End. Isaac’s apprentice Samuel Maverick was the youngest person killed in the Boston Massacre.

Mary Greenwood left Boston on 16 June 1775 to hunt down her son Johnny, who was then fifteen years old and had run away from his uncle’s up in Maine. He has joined the provincial troops as a fifer, and was more than a little startled to see his mother. That’s a story in itself, which I’ll tell one day. For now, here is his later account of her passage into besieged Boston:

One day, as I was standing by my tent, who should I see but my mother coming toward me in company with Sergeant (afterward Major) Mills.

“Well, Johnny,” said she, “I am going at last to see your father, thank God! I hope you will behave like a soldier, and who knows but what you may be a general.”

She bade me good-by, and the sergeant who had the care of conducting her to the British lines went with her to a fort on Prospect Hill, or as the enemy, believing it impregnable, had called it, Mount Pisgah. It was nothing, however, but a common dirt fort made of ground and covered with sods of grass, mounting about eight or ten iron guns, from 9- to 18-pounders, nevertheless it was strong enough for them.
John Greenwood frequently ridiculed the British army’s prowess in his memoir, not always accurately. For instance, he claimed that at Bunker Hill, “The British had ten men to our one, as history will inform you; and I was an eye-witness.” An accurate count is impossible, but the best estimates today say the British troops numbered about 3,000 and the Americans about 2,400.

Back to Mary Greenwood’s trip into Boston.
She…asked them [American officers] what she should say if the English asked her any questions about them. Their answer was: “Tell them we are ready for them at any time they choose to come out to attack us.”

My mother was then taken to the lines and walked alone from the American to the British sentry, whereupon a portion of the guard came down from Bunker Hill and escorted her into the fort. There the commanding officer, Major [John] Small, an acquaintance and friend of my father, treated her with the greatest politeness (for every person who was acquainted with him knows he was a real gentleman) and waited upon her himself to her residence in Boston, whence she was desired to attend on Governor [Thomas] Gage.
Mary Greenwood reportedly told the British commander exactly what American officers had instructed her to say. Her son insisted that Gage was “frightened” by her remarks.

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