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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Sunday, April 04, 2010

“There is a spirit prevailing here…”

As we move toward Patriots’ Day, the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord, I’ll focus on events and documents about the start of the Revolutionary War.

This is “A Letter from a Gentleman in the Province of Massachusetts, to his Friend in London.” It was dated 21 Jan 1775, printed in a British newspaper, and reprinted early the next year in Almon’s Remembrancer. The writer was obviously trying to convince influential people in Britain to urge their government to back down from the political confrontation by describing how ready the New Englanders were for a fight.

The town of Boston is a spectacle worthy of the attention of a deity, suffering amazing distress, yet determined to endure as much as human nature can, rather than betray America and posterity. General [Thomas] Gage’s army is sickly, and extremely addicted to desertion. What would they be if things were brought to extremities? Do you think such an army would march through our woods and thickets and country villages to cut the throats of honest people contending for liberty?

The neighbouring colonies of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, are arming and training themselves with great spirit, and it they must be driven to the last appeal, devoutly praying for the protection of heaven.

There is a spirit prevailing here, such as I never saw before. I remember the conquest of Louisburg in 1745; I remember the spirit here when the Duke d’Anville’s squadron was upon this coast, when forty thousand men marched down to Boston, and were mustered and numbered upon the common, compleat in arms, from this province only in three weeks; but I remember nothing like what I have seen these six months past.
Jean-Baptiste-Louis Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld de Roye, Duc d’Anville, was the commander of a French expedition to regain Louisburg and attack Boston during King George’s War in 1746. D’Anville’s fleet, according to various sources, included from 54 to 97 ships, carrying between 7,000 and 13,000 fighting men. But everyone agrees this was the largest fleet ever sent to North America up to that time.

Bad weather and disease slowed the voyage to Nova Scotia. Then the duke died of a stroke. (There are medical urban legends about that.) His second-in-command tried to commit suicide. The third-in-command, knowing bad luck when he saw it, decided to return to France.

The French fleet never came to Boston, but it did prompt the big militia mobilization that the letter-writer remembered. (A century later the same event prompted Henry W. Longfellow to write “A Ballad of the French Fleet” in the voice of the Old South Meeting-House’s minister.)

Gov. William Shirley (shown above, courtesy of blupete.com) sent some of those Massachusetts troops up to Nova Scotia as reinforcements. And in 1747 those men were beaten by a smaller French force in the Battle of Grand-Pré. But New Englanders generally chose not to remember that part, and certainly not to remind their friends in London about it.

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