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, May 17, 2010

Lydia Barnard: “She Captured a Redcoat”?

The first printed version of the legend of Lydia Barnard of Watertown grabbing a British soldier off a horse on 19 Apr 1775 struck me as entirely dubious. The second, said to be taken down in her own words, is more credible. At least two more versions appear to have been published by William Barnes Dorman around the turn of the last century; I suspect he was related to Benjamin S. Barnes, source of the second account, but I can’t prove that.

Dorman’s articles were titled “She Captured a Redcoat.” One appeared in the Magazine of the Daughters of the Revolution in October 1893, and the other in the Boston Herald and then Watertown’s Military History.

According to both of Dorman’s articles, Lydia Barnard noticed that the soldier had empty holes in his cartridge box—i.e., he’d been shooting his gun. Since he might have been shooting at her brothers, she gave him a good shaking until he surrendered.

One of Dorman’s articles quotes Lydia Spofford (her name after her third marriage) as recalling, “He begged like a Trooper for his life”; the other, “that she never saw a man that she thought she could not have handled.”

The Barnes version says that the soldier had stolen the horse from a Patriot named Col. Stedman, who got it back. One Dorman version says that the horse wasn’t Dorman’s, but British officers had taken his own the night before, so he got this one in recompense. Curiously, given that there was a war on, Dorman said the saddle “was thrown on the potato heap in the cellar.”

There are still holes and cracks in this tale. The earliest version said Lydia Barnard was a widow; her family account says her husband was still alive, and indeed Watertown records refer to him as late as January 1775. But he must have died before she remarried the next year.

The Barnes account says she claimed to have five brothers in the fight; The Hastings Memorial lists only four brothers—but she could have counted brothers-in-law as well.

(Incidentally, The Hastings Memorial says one of those brothers, Josiah Warren, “was Captain of Artillery in the Battle of Bunker Hill”; he was actually a lieutenant in Col. Thomas Gardner’s regiment, which performed better than the artillery.)

Nevertheless, this story seems to have come down only through Lydia Warren Barnard Wood Spofford’s descendants and their neighbors in Boxford. I’ve found no mention of it in earlier histories during the century between the battle and that town’s history. Its author was clearly wrong in claiming this soldier was the first prisoner of the Revolution; the Americans had captured other redcoats to the west, starting with some who lagged behind in Lexington, apparently taking the opportunity to exit the British army.

I’m generally skeptical of tales grandmothers and other relatives tell their grandchildren with no supporting evidence. Such caregivers might tell stories as moral lessons, not expecting them to be taken as history, but grandchildren are always such a trusting audience. So while I’m not ready to dismiss Lydia Spofford’s tale outright, I’m far from accepting it as authentic.

But I wouldn’t want to tell her that!

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