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 27, 2010

“Numbers of Them Were Mounted”

As I described in my first posting about Hezekiah Wyman, the great power of his legend is how it describes the fear of the British soldiers each time they spot the white-haired farmer on his white horse, riding closer for another shot. To quote from “The White Horseman”:

“Ha!” cried the soldiers, “there comes that old fellow again, on the white horse! Look out for yourselves, for one of us has got to die, in spite of fate.” And one of them did die, for Hezekiah’s aim was true, and his principles of economy would not admit of his wasting powder or ball.
Descriptions of such British fears and the nickname “Death on the pale horse” remain in the story as retold more calmly in Henry Smith Chapman’s History of Winchester and David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride. That emotion is what made the tale stick in my mind the first time I read it.

But what evidence supports those statements? None of those tellings and retellings cite any specific accounts from British soldiers, prisoners, deserters, letters, memoirs, or newspapers. In fact, back in 1835 when the Hezekiah Wyman legend was first published as “The White Horseman,” historians had very few eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Lexington and Concord from the British side. Even now, we have several from officers, but almost none from enlisted men.

And to my knowledge, none of the surviving accounts mentions the soldiers fearing a man on a white horse. There’s a single statement about mounted provincials, from Lt. Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Regiment, first published in 1926:
Those Rebels who came in from the flanks during the march, always posted themselves in the houses and behind the walls by the roadside, and there waited the approach of the Column, when they fired at it.

Numbers of them were mounted, and when they fastened their horses at some little distance from the road, they crept down near enough to have a Shot; as soon as the Column had passed, they mounted again, and rode round until they got ahead of the Column, and found some convenient place from whence they might fire again.

These fellows were generally good marksmen, and many of the used long guns made for Duck-Shooting.
While acknowledging “generally good marksmen,” Mackenzie didn’t describe any of those men as noticeably deadly. He didn’t describe men firing with their guns laid across their saddles. He didn’t describe a white-haired rider on a white horse. In sum, there’s no British evidence for the parts of the story that make Hezekiah Wyman seem special.

As I’ve noted, there was a Hezekiah Wyman with a white horse who lived within riding distance of the fighting. But there’s no contemporaneous evidence or reliable family lore that he took part in the battle.

There are hints that the author of “The White Horseman” was aware of some Middlesex County oral traditions about 19 Apr 1775. But even if a story was going around about an old marksman striking fear into soldiers as “Death on the pale horse,” that was inspired by what Americans wished the British had felt. At most, the real Hezekiah Wyman would have been riding along with a bunch of other farmers on horseback, creeping down to a house or wall near the road, and shooting with “generally good” results.

In the end, I don’t see big contradictions or anomalies in the tale of Hezekiah Wyman to show that it must be fiction. But it’s not up to us to disprove any story we inherit from the past. The weight of the evidence has to be there for us to believe it. Barring new discoveries, I think the evidence for this tale is too light to shift it from literary legend to historical episode.

(Photo above by Alex Starr, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


Bob said...

As you've been dissecting this story so skillfully I've been struck by the parallels with the story of the Angel of Hadley. Although it's chronologically earlier than your chosen focus, that might be another one to look into in the same detail someday. It would make a great research paper in any event.


Charles Bahne said...

From Lt. Mackenzie's description, the mounted militiamen kept their horses beyond the range of the Regulars' guns, thus putting the horse's safety above that of its rider. This could explain why none of the other British eyewitnesses mention mounted rebels. It is also totally counter to the long-told story of Hezekiah Wyman, who supposedly fired while mounted, or at least beside (or behind) his horse. Thus I would say that Mackenzie's account, while it does mention mounted provincials, is actually one more coffin-nail into the myth of Hezekiah.

John, thank you for this masterful examination of the legend of Hezekiah Wyman, and for proving, quite clearly in my mind, that it is indeed a myth. Although fiction in its conception, it had semblances of truth attached to it. And once the story's origins (in a literary magazine) were forgotten, those semblances of fact were enough to falsely convince people of its truth. This has been an extraordinary series, John -- congratulations.

J. L. Bell said...

As it happens, I downloaded a couple of papers about the regicide legends just last week. I think the nineteenth-century versions of those tales fit the “legend” genre. But of course it’s also a fact that three (as I recall) regicides found refuge in New England. Where’s the line between fact and fiction?

One story says that a regicide’s gravestone was vandalized during a British army raid on New Haven, so there’s some Revolutionary link. However, I’ve heard the same said about Capt. Daniel Malcom’s gravestone on Copp’s Hill. And are those stones in any worse shape than other stones of the same period?

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the compliments, Charlie! Your and Chris Hurley’s generosity with documents was essential to my investigation.

I actually found myself a little more open to the possibility that Wyman rode out to fight on 19 Apr 1775 at the end of this journey than when I started. Or at least that his family described him doing so after his death four years later. But the wonderful story of the British soldiers eyeing the white horse in the distance, that I’ve had to discard.