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, May 26, 2010

“Written Communications from Gen. Warren”?

In 1825, Elias Phinney published his History of the Battle at Lexington: on the Morning of the 19th April, 1775. Until then, Americans had remembered the men on Lexington common as being shot down without offering any threat or resistance to the British army; they were martyrs. Phinney still insisted that the redcoats had fired first, under orders from Maj. John Pitcairn, but he argued that the Lexington men had fired back, making them stalwart heroes and the event a “battle.”

Along the way, Phinney wrote:

Gen. [Joseph] Warren, ever watchful and active in devising, as he was undaunted in executing, the best measures for the safety of the country, had despatched two messengers, Col. Paul Revere and a Mr. Lincoln, with information to [John] Hancock and [Samuel] Adams. Revere passed over the ferry to Charlestown, procured a horse of the late Deacon [John] Larkin, and rode with all speed to Lexington, where he arrived a little after midnight. . . .

Shortly after, Mr. Lincoln, who had come by the way of Roxbury, arrived. They both brought written communications from Gen. Warren, “That a large body of the king’s troops, (supposed to be a brigade of twelve or fifteen hundred,) were embarked in boats from Boston, and gone over to Lechmere’s Point in Cambridge, and it was suspected, they were ordered to seize and destroy the stores belonging to the colony, then deposited at Concord.”
“Mr. Lincoln” is Phinney’s mistaken identification of William Dawes (shown above), based on the mistaken recollection of Lexington militia sergeant William Munroe fifty years after the fight. Obviously, Phinney wasn’t working with sources that named Dawes, such as Revere’s own accounts.

Phinney’s words echo what the Rev. Jonas Clarke published in 1777, quoted yesterday, but not exactly. Did both Clarke and Phinney copy from a document that doesn’t survive? If so, the differences between the two transcriptions raise questions. Either Clarke added words, or Phinney removed them. Was the estimate of British soldiers written as “12, or 1500” or “twelve or fifteen hundred,”?

I think it most likely that Phinney relied on Clarke’s published narrative, quoting the words he thought had come from “written communications from Gen. Warren,” cutting those that seemed out of place, and applying up-to-date rules for style. In other words, Phinney’s statement that Revere and “Lincoln” had carried written messages was his interpretation of Clarke’s statement, not based on actually seeing one of those documents or other independent evidence.

TOMORROW: Going back to the Rev. Mr. Clarke’s words from 1777.

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