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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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“Supposing we should do essential service”

Yesterday I quoted a complaint from Philip Callbeck and Thomas Wright, royal officials from Charlottetown, St. John’s (Prince Edward) Island, about how American schooner captains had treated them in November 1775.

Gen. George Washington had sent those officers, Capt. Nicholasson Broughton and Capt. John Selman, up into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to intercept British military shipments. The commander’s orders had said nothing about landing at towns along the way or seizing officials.

As Callbeck and Wright noticed, Broughton and Selman felt totally justified in arresting them and grabbing their property, and in going after anyone else who seemed unfriendly. While the captains were motivated in part by profit, they also seem to have been sincere about seeing neutrals as enemies of the American cause.

Here’s how Selman described the cruise decades later in a letter to Elbridge Gerry:

…the people on short allowance [i.e., reduced rations] willing to do something, boarded two Jersey-men [ships from the Isle of Jersey? from New Jersey?], took the pilots out of them which was acquainted with the Island St. Johns.

Understanding by them that a number of cannon was there in the fortress and recruiting was going on for Quebeck, we with the advice of the officers, supposing we should do essential service by breaking up a nest of recruits intended to be sent against [Gen. Richard] Montgomery, who commanded our forces at Quebeck,

the winds came southerly, we went through the Gut of Canso with the two pilots aforesaid declaring to them should they run us ashore death to them would be inevitable, they behaved true and honest. The fall weather carried us safe into the harbour by the lead and anchored us about a mile and a half from the shore,

Broughton armed his boat with six men and took a southerly and westerly direction to the shore. I was to proceed to the northward, six men in my boat armed including the pilot, the people assembled on the Bank, the Pilot let me know the Governor Colbeck by a sign.

I went and took him and sent him on board the Franklin with Judge Wright, which as we were informed was the official officer, swearing those men in behalf of George the 3d for Quebeck. There were woollen goods &c. in the stores.

Commodore Broughton called the officers together for the purpose of their opinion—where the articles were for the recruiting service it was answered in the affirmative, they were taken and sent on board Broughton’s vessel and mine; the people being alarmed sent expresses over the Island. Governor Colbeck and Wright intercession to be restored to their families, had worked up the human pashions in the breast in their behalf they were allowed to go on shore that night and come on board the next morning; I verbally remonstrated against such conduct giving them the advantage, but on the morning they came on board and we put to sea. . . .

[Selman added this paragraph later in his letter:] at the island of St Johns there was a number of cannon in the Fortress, what with the alarm given and the weakness of our boats, having only one each from 13 to 14 feet long—could not obtain any scows or we should endeavored to brought them away at any risk, it was judged prudent to spike them and come away. . . .

Arrived at Gut of Canso, here another attempt by Colbeck and Wright for their return endeavoring to insinuate that we should be blamed by the Government, I tell them I would never give my consent they should go back. I think it was Wright said to me if we come acrost a Brittish Frigate I will have you hung to the yard arm. I let him know I would venter [i.e., venture, or take my chances], that (take care you are not hanged) our aim was to break up this recruiting business and the next was to such men as Governor Colbeck and Judge Wright might answer to redeem Montgomery or some others of his army provided he met with a defeat on the walls of Quebeck which he did, these were our reasons for their detention and bringing them to America. . . .

We arrived at Beverly with these goods brought in the two vessels Broughton’s and mine; when landed near Col. [John] Glover’s dwelling, Colbeck and Wright went to Head Quarters at Cambridge where they and their goods were released.
Released! After all their work! As Broughton, Selman, and their men saw the situation, they had stopped royal officials from sending more fighting men to Québec, disabled “a number of cannon,” and brought home some valuable prisoners. Even Callbeck and Wright’s long complaint indicated that the men from Marblehead had ransacked only the houses of royal officials.

True, Broughton and Selman hadn’t caught those ships from Britain, but those vessels had probably already gotten into the St. Lawrence before they arrived, so they had improvised other ways to support Gen. Montgomery’s invasion. And that was what the mission was all about, right?

Washington didn’t see it that way. He quickly released Callbeck, Wright, and their property. Furthermore, the generalissimo had already ruled that all of Broughton and Selman’s captured ships were illegitimate. So they and their crews saw no profit at all from this voyage.

At the end of December, the two captains went to Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge to have a serious talk about this situation.

TOMORROW: Oh, yeah, that’ll go well.

(Photo of cannon at Charlottetown, P.E.I., by Martin Cathrae, posted at Flickr with a Creative Commons license.)

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