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, June 20, 2010

“An Attack Was Expected” in Roxbury

Earlier this year I had a few ideas about that note from Lt. Col. Robert Carr that Richard Ketchum quoted in Decisive Day but couldn’t explain.

To start with, the only Capt. Farrington mentioned in British Officers Serving in the American Revolution, 1774-1783, is Capt. Anthony Farrington of the Royal Artillery (son of Maj. Charles Farrington of the same service). So he was the British officer whom Carr asked to dislodge some American field-pieces—with an artillery barrage rather than an infantry attack.

As for “Brownes House,” Enoch Brown’s tavern was a landmark on Boston Neck, sitting between the British fortifications and the provincial lines. Gen. John Burgoyne proposed a parley there to Gen. Charles Lee in July 1775, but the Americans burned it down. So could this note refer to something happening near there, on the other side of town from the Battle of Bunker Hill?

Throughout 17 June 1775, each commander worried that, while so much of his army was engaged in Charlestown, the enemy would open a second front by attacking across the Neck. That danger kept Gen. Artemas Ward at his Cambridge headquarters, monitoring news from both wings. Gen. Thomas Gage was probably in his official residence, the Province House, doing much the same. (More discussion of his location here.)

I therefore wondered if Lt. Col. Carr was the officer in charge of the fortifications on the Neck—the “lines”—and not with his regiment in Charlestown. The fact that he wrote to Gage and not to Gen. William Howe, the battlefield commander, strengthens that hypothesis.

But is there any evidence of the provincials advancing field pieces along the Neck, and the Royal Artillery trying to “make them remove,” as the note says? Indeed there is. Here’s an extract from the journal of Samuel Bixby of Sutton, Massachusetts, printed in volume 14 of the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings:

About noon we fired an alarm, & rung the bells in Roxbury; and every man was ordered to arms, as an attack was expected.

Col. [Ebenezer] Larned marched his Regt. up to the meeting house, & then to the burying yard, which was the alarm post, where we laid in ambush with two field pieces placed to give it to them unawares, should the regulars come.

About 6 o. c. [o’clock] the enemy drew in their sentries, & immediately a heavy fire was opened from the Fortification. The balls whistled over our heads, & through the houses, making the clap-boards and shingles fly in all directions.

Before the firing had begun, the Genl. [John Thomas] ordered some men down the street to fall some apple trees across the street, to hinder the approach of their Artillery.

Lieut [John] Hazeltine picked up a 12 lbs ball—we were anxious to get their balls as though they were gold balls.
If Carr was commanding on the Neck, the American field-pieces he wrote about weren’t any of the cannon left behind on the Bunker Hill battlefield, but the couple used as an ambush in the Roxbury burying-ground. There might still be a mystery in why Carr was separated from his regiment, and who was commanding those men back on the beach at Charlestown.

Bixby’s last line above is another example of Americans stationed in Roxbury “contending for cannon balls.” However, I still haven’t found an example of a man hurt by not waiting until a ball had stopped rolling to try to pick it up.


AD said...

Makes sense. Nice bit of research and reasoning.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. I must admit that I didn’t set out to solve Ketchum’s mystery by hunting until I found a source to answer it. I stumbled across the Bixby quote when looking for other information and saw the possible connection.