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, May 25, 2010

“We Received Intelligence, by Express”

It’s been over a month since the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and I’m still working through questions related to that event. In the comments on this posting about Isaac (a.k.a. Israel) Bissell, I wrote, “Revere and Dawes didn’t take written reports out to Lexington, but Hancock and Adams knew and trusted them already.”

Charles Bahne emailed to ask about that because other researchers have written that Paul Revere and William Dawes did carry written messages from Dr. Joseph Warren. So I realized I should review the evidence and explain my conclusion.

On 19 Apr 1776, exactly one year after the battle, the Rev. Jonas Clarke of Lexington preached on the event. He was an eyewitness, had hosted Samuel Adams and John Hancock in the parsonage the night before, and was a figure of learning and authority in the town.

The following year, the Boston printing firm of Powars and Willis published Clarke’s sermon in a pamphlet subtly titled:

The Fate of Blood-thirsty Oppressors, and GOD’s tender Care of his distressed People.

A Sermon, preached at Lexington, April 19, 1776. To commemorate the MURDER, BLOODSHED and Commencement of Hostilities, between Great-Britain and America, in that Town, by a Brigade of Troops of George III, under Command of Lieutenant-Colonel SMITH, on the Nineteenth of April, 1775.

To which is added, a brief NARRATIVE of the principal Transactions of that Day.
That narrative has been published several times since.

Clarke’s narrative began:
On the evening of the eighteenth of April, 1775, we received two messages; the first verbal, the other by express, in writing, from the committee of safety, who were then sitting in the westerly part of Cambridge, directed to the Honorable JOHN HANCOCK, Esq; (who, with the Honorable SAMUEL ADAMS, Esq; was then providentially with us) informing, “that eight or nine officers of the king’s troops were seen, just before night, passing the road towards Lexington, in a musing, contemplative posture; and it was suspected they were out upon some evil design.”
(What’s boldface here was italicized in the original publication.)

A few paragraphs later, Clarke wrote:
Between the hours of twelve and one, on the morning of the NINETEENTH OF APRIL, we received intelligence, by express, from the Honorable JOSEPH WARREN, Esq.; at Boston, “that a large body of the king’s troops (supposed to be a brigade of about 12, or 1500) were embarked in boats from Boston, and gone over to land on Lechmere’s-Point (so called) in Cambridge: And that it was shrewdly suspected, that they were ordered to seize and destroy the stores, belonging to the colony, then deposited at Concord,” in consequence of General Gage’s unjustifiable seizure of the provincial magazine of powder at Medford, and other colony stores in several other places.
The phrase “by express” meant a messenger sent particularly to carry that news. Both passages use quotation marks, implying that Clarke was copying words directly from the messages he described. The first says that the Committee of Safety in Cambridge sent two messages, but only one was in writing. Did the “express, from the Honorable JOSEPH WARREN,” also bring a letter?

TOMORROW: Interpreting Clarke’s words in 1825.


AD said...

An interesting item in Peter Force's American Archives is this one ( http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/cgi-bin/amarch/getdoc.pl?/var/lib/philologic/databases/amarch/.2437 ) in which Hancock writes to Warren on April 24 about the outcome of the battle of Lexington and Concord. The impression it creates is that the communication system that worked so well on the eve of the battle had completely fallen apart in its chaotic aftermath.

J. L. Bell said...

That’s a great letter from John Hancock as he headed off to the Continental Congress. Clearly he was still upset about being pulled away from the action, or at least worried that people would think less of him for that. Reminds me again of Robert Lawson’s picture of him.