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, June 01, 2010

The Mythical Captain Roe

I’ve been quoting from “The White Horseman,” an item that appeared in The Boston Pearl and Literary Digest on 22 Aug 1835. The first scenes of this story focus our attention on an unnamed girl and her beloved, a young militia officer called Captain Roe. He is killed in the British volley on Lexington common.

Except that no captain was killed on Lexington common; Capt. John Parker was in command, and survived. No one named Roe was killed, wounded, or, so far as we know, standing on Lexington common. No American named Roe was killed in battle anywhere on 19 Apr 1775.

A couple of months ago some researchers suggested to me that “Roe” could be a corruption of the name “Munroe.” There was a militia officer named Munroe killed at Lexington: Ensign Robert Munroe. However, while the story’s “Captain Roe” is a young unmarried man, Robert Munroe was sixty-two years old with a wife and grown children.

Other details of the start of “The White Horseman” don’t match the historical record, either. “Cambridge boys” did not march to Concord before the British troops. “Many squads of Americans” did not rush west past the Lexington militia. The British musket balls hit far fewer than “nearly half” of those men.

In sum, “The White Horseman” is not historically accurate. The unnamed “Soldier of the Revolution” who wrote it didn’t even try to be as historically accurate as possible; it wouldn’t have been hard in Boston in 1835 to find the names of the first casualties at Lexington, or to read accounts of the fight assembled by Elias Phinney or others.

The Boston Pearl writer fictionalized the famous story of the shooting at Lexington with new characters, details, and dialogue, in order to lay out a sentimental tale of young lovers torn apart by the nasty redcoats. Which naturally raises the question of what other details from “The White Horseman” we’re meant to believe.

COMING UP: Hezekiah Wyman enters the scene.

7 comments:

Heather Rojo said...

I'm printing out this series for the annual Wyman Family reunion this September. Can't wait to see what you write tomorrow. I'm also a descendant of William Munroe you mentioned today. Since 1775 there have been generations of boys named Robert Munroe in honor of the one killed on the common, including my uncle Robert Munroe Wilkinson (1927 - 2005).

AD said...

Nice bit of research and a good read.

John L. Smith said...

Mr. Bell - as always, a well researched review and very accurate conclusions.

Peter Fisk said...

J.L., nice work as always. For some reason, I'm fascinated by the "White Horseman" story.

@Heather - I'm a fellow Wyman descendant -- 8G-grandson of Francis Jr. ... Also distant cousin to Robert Munroe's wife Anna Stone via Reed and Kendall lines, and possibly also Stone.

Speaking of Wymans, J.L., I'd like to put in a request for a look at Amos Wyman, who, with his wife Elizabeth, took Adams and Hancock into their home on April 19. I've read several conflicting accounts about that, including the question of whether it was even really necessary for Adams and Hancock to have fled to the Wymans' house. ... And did Hancock really send Elizabeth a cow in appreciation for her hospitality?

J. L. Bell said...

As far as I can tell, the story of Amos and Elizabeth Wyman offering Hancock and Adams a meal on 19 Apr 1775 first appeared in Samuel Sewall’s 1868 history of Woburn.

Although that was decades after the event, Sewall is generally reliable, and in this particular anecdote he seems careful. He notes that the cow story is local gossip, not documented, and that it may not have been necessary for Hancock and Adams to flee that far.

I’ve written about how the royal troops weren’t searching for Hancock and Adams. But those Patriot leaders and many of their colleagues thought the troops were, or at least thought the possibility was high enough to make flight worthwhile.

As for the cow, I don’t think it’s implausible. Hancock had a lot of money at this time, and he’d started to spend it in ways that would improve his popularity. But his papers are scattered and incomplete, so we’ll probably never know.

Greg said...

you mentioned that someone suggested Roe might have been a corruption of Monroe. There is an example of this in "The Life of John Warren" where a Deacon Monroe was mentioned as having been a tenant at the Warren house and called "Deacon Roe" by his contemporaries. With so many Munroes of various ranks and ages participating on April 19th this wasn't such a bad choice of fabricated name. Had the author simply said private Roe it would have been harder to dispute.

J. L. Bell said...

True, but a Private Roe wouldn’t have stood out as heroically as a slain captain, just as one militiaman in a company wouldn’t have stood out as mythically as a lone horseman.

This story, like a lot of historical fiction, boils down events that involved many people into actions by individual figures, who are easier to empathize with. “Captain Roe” stands for all the Americans killed at Lexington, “Hezekiah Wyman” for all the other Americans roused by that loss.