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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Monday, March 28, 2011

“Those who would listen to such things heard tall tales”

In stating that Gen. George Washington “leaked word to the enemy…that he had eighteen hundred barrels of powder” in August 1775, as quoted back here, James T. Flexner cited a page from the previous multi-volume biography of the man.

Back in 1951, Flexner’s predecessor Douglas Southall Freeman (shown at right) wrote in George Washington: Planter and Patriot:

If Washington could not procure from these sources of intelligence [deserters and refugees] much information of real value concerning British plans, he could not fail to be pleased at the success of efforts to keep secret the shortage of powder. The public, in fact, overconfidently exaggerated the size of the supply instead of presenting the scarcity as worse than it was. False reports circulated of large importation and of great stores. Ezekiel Price had heard in July that 1800 barrels of powder had reached Philadelphia; the next month, from its printing house across the salt marshes, the [10 Aug 1775] Boston Gazette had boasted that “the needful” was “not wanting”; Ezra Stiles was told he might rely on it that the Colonies had fifty tons.

This, in a sense, was a triumph of the American intelligence service. So was the deception of the British. Royal officers were being misled and, in some instances, were deceiving their own people at home. Those who would listen to such things heard tall tales of the magnitude of desertion from American ranks, and of the unexplained “arrest” of Charles Lee by his own commander’s order. London newspaper readers were soon to be regaled with reports that on August 7, the British, 5000 strong, had attacked “the rebels” and after slaughtering a host had captured [Israel] Putnam and Lee, 2500 other prisoners, a vast number of carefully specified cannon, 6000 stand of small arms, and £100,000 in specie. If these absurdities later were found in newspapers that were smuggled across the Atlantic, they would amuse the Americans who meantime did all they could not only to confuse the enemy but also to create discontent in British ranks.
Freeman thus provided Flexner with no direct evidence of Washington managing a disinformation campaign about the powder supply—no secret orders, letters, or reminiscences of double agents. And the circumstantial evidence strikes me as very thin.

Down in Newport, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles did indeed write on 15 August: “I am told so that I rely on it, that our Army now have Fifty Tons of Powder.” Nineteenth-century manuals for ship’s officers say that a barrel of gunpowder held one hundred pounds, so those “Fifty Tons” would have filled a thousand barrels. (According to Gen. John Sullivan, the Americans’ actual count was 38.) But Stiles was:
  • a sucker for any news that he wanted to hear, and
  • not a British army officer in Boston.
We’re still missing evidence of a disinformation campaign as opposed to the typical fog of war.

Flexner specified “eighteen hundred barrels of powder.” That convincingly specific figure came from Ezekiel Price’s diary on 2 July:
Mr. E[dmund]. Quincy reports that eighteen hundred barrels of powder is arrived at Philadelphia or New York, and that General Washington is to be at the camps Tuesday next.
Price wrote about powder to the south, not the siege lines around Boston. Furthermore, Price recorded that rumor before he knew Washington arrived at Cambridge, and over a month before that commander realized there was a powder shortage. Those imaginary 1,800 barrels have no link to Washington at all.

Freeman did credit “the American intelligence service” with keeping the gunpowder shortage secret—“in a sense.” He hinted that “Royal officers were being misled”—but he never stated who did the misleading or how. All of Freeman’s examples of false rumors among the British involved matters other than gunpowder. And he acknowledged there were similar false rumors all over the American lines, though he didn’t call that confusion a triumph of the British intelligence service.

TOMORROW: Printing the legend.


Chaucerian said...

In a way, I love it when others remember things the way I do. The number 1800 is very significant -- but is it +1800? -1800? barrels? tons? kittens, horses, a signification of the future? Here the number was remembered but its whole context was lost. That, often, is the way I think. But I do expect better of historians.

J. L. Bell said...

There is one book out there (a biography of Washington for kids) that turned “eighteen hundred” into “eighteen thousand.”