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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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

John Thomas Writes Home to His Wife

On 9 Mar 1776, Gen. John Thomas sat down to write to his wife Hannah from “Dorchester Hills, in a small hut.” Gen. Thomas, who was a doctor in civilian life, had married Hannah Thomas (that was her maiden name, too) on 12 Sept 1761, according to Kingston, Massachusetts, records. They had three children:

  • Hannah, born 14 Nov 1762.
  • John, born 17 Jan 1766.
  • Nathaniel, born 23 June 1769.
The general’s letter, which began “Dear Mrs. Thomas,” described how on the night of 4-5 March he had led “about three thousand picked men, beside three hundred and sixty ox teams and some pieces of artillery,” onto the Dorchester peninsula to fortify its two tallest hills before daybreak.

Thomas described the British reaction:
About sun rise, the enemy and others in Boston, appeared on the tops of the houses and on the wharfs viewing us with astonishment, for our appearance was unexpected to them. The connonading which had been kept up all night from our lines at Lamb’s Dam [in Roxbury], and from the enemy’s lines likewise, at Lechmere’s Point [in Cambridge], now ceased from these quarters, and the enemy turned their fire towards us on the hills, but they soon found it was to little effect.

About ten o’clock we discovered large bodies of troops embarking in boats with their artillery, which made a formidable appearance. After some time they were put on board transports, and several of the ships came down near to the castle, as we supposed, with a design to land on our shore.

Our people appeared in spirits to receive them,. We were in a good posture of defence, and had two thousand men added to our number. The enemy viewed us critically, and remained in that situation that night. The next day they came to sail, and returned to town and landed their troops. On Friday, about two o’clock, P. M. they sent a flag of truce with a paper, a copy of which I enclose.
Thomas left out the nasty windstorm that had prevented the British troops from landing on Dorchester until the Continentals had had time to strengthen their defenses even more. The gentlemen carrying a white flag brought this letter from Boston’s selectmen.

Gen. Thomas told his wife, “I have had very little sleep or rest this week,…But now I think we are well secured.” He offered another reassurance in a postscript:
Your son John is well and in high spirits. He ran away from Oakley privately, on Tuesday morning, and got by the sentries and came to me on Dorchester Hills, where he has been most of the time since.
Oakley was the Thomases’ enslaved black servant. Ten-year-old John had evidently decided he had to be with his dad on Dorchester Heights in case the British attacked.

Gen. Thomas died of smallpox in Canada on 2 June. His son John lived to be eighty-seven.

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