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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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Revisiting “When Was John Crane Wounded?”

In 2006, I wrote about how Maj. John Crane of the Continental artillery was wounded in the foot during the fight over Manhattan Island in 1776.

In 2007, in response to a query from a Boston 1775 reader also named Crane, I tried to pin down the date of that wounding. I figured it had to be after 3 September, when Gen. George Washington gave orders to Crane, according to a letter the commander wrote the next day. And it had to be well before 23 September, when Col. Henry Knox wrote to Crane’s wife with an update that he was “in a fair way to do well” (not, apparently, her first news of the wound).

Last weekend I came across a mention of Crane’s wounding in the diary that Gen. William Heath published after the war. He wrote:

They [the British] ran a ship past the city [New York] up the East River: she was several times struck by the shot of a 12 pounder, which was drawn to the river’s bank. Major Crane of the artillery was wounded in the foot, by a cannon shot from this ship.
So Heath’s entry might pinpoint the date of Crane’s wound—except that its date is 2 Sept 1776, one day before Washington told the Congress that he’d sent Crane to attack that ship.

So what gives? Heath edited his diary for publication, so it’s not really a contemporaneous source, like Washington’s letter. I suspect that Heath added the details about Crane to his 2 September entry at some later date, possibly the next day, possibly years later. The most likely sequence of events seems to be:
  1. 2 Sept 1776, after dark: A forty-gun ship of the Royal Navy slipped into Turtle Bay, receiving fire from a shore battery to no effect.
  2. 3 September, morning: Washington sent Maj. Crane, known for his excellent sighting, with two twelve-pounder cannons and a mortar to oppose the ship. That day, Crane hit it several times, forcing its captain to withdraw closer to Long Island. Either that morning or the next day, the ship fired back a ball that struck Crane in the foot.
  3. 4 September, morning: Washington wrote to Congress, having seen the ship withdraw but not yet aware of Crane’s injury.
And eventually Heath edited his diary entry about the ship getting into the East River, adding what he felt was pertinent information about Crane’s marksmanship and wound.

At least we’re narrowing down the answer.


Anonymous said...

2 December 1793 my 5x great-grandfather John Crane wrote to Congressman George Thacher seeking assistance in being awarded a pension. He wrote "I was wounded on the fifth day of September 1776..." The letter was on display in Washington, DC 1998-1999.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that reference. I found the catalogue for the exhibit at Anderson House which quotes that letter. It confirms that Hesth's journal entry must have been edited to add mention of Crane's wounding later, but my guess of the exact date was off by one day.

I wonder if there's more correspondence about the matter in the National Archives or Sen. Thacher's papers.

J. L. Bell said...

A further observation on this letter: Dr. WIlliam Eustis later wrote that Crane accepted a pension only months before he died. But this letter indicates he sought a pension twelve years before he died.

Also, I should have referred to Thacher as "Rep. Thacher" or perhaps "Judge Thacher."

Anonymous said...

According to letters in the Gilder Lehrman collection, he started trying to collect his pension in 1786 (so much for "let them not say I ate their bread, too")! Due to accounting irregularities, it took a very long time for the pension to be awarded. Since he relocated to Passamaquoddy in 1784 it seems he had no such problem with his bounty lands...