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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Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Horse for the Rev. Dr. West

In early October 1775, the Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth (New Bedford) came to Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge with a deciphered copy of a letter Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., had tried to send into Boston.

West had seen that the symbols Church had used to write his letter (shown back here) came in the same frequency pattern as the letters of the alphabet in ordinary prose—i.e., Church had used a simple substitution cipher, one symbol for each letter. West presumably then tried replacing the most common symbol with E, the next most common with T, and so on, looking for common letter groupings. By that method the minister uncovered the complete text.

After West delivered his work, the commander called his generals together for a council of war. The documents showed that Dr. Church, director of the Continental Army’s medical wing, member of the Massachusetts House, and top-level organizer of the Boston Whigs, was secretly sending information to the enemy. This was obviously an intelligence crisis.

At some point in those discussions, news came that the Rev. Mr. West had lost his horse.

When I read that fact in the start of the correspondence that followed, I thought that loss was a result of West’s legendary absent-mindedness. But it turns out losing the horse wasn’t his fault. Even so, the letter he wrote to Washington from Plymouth on 11 October suggests a certain insensibility to how he was coming across:
Sire, When I was at Head quarters the other Day, my good friend mr [Robert] Pierpoint informed your Excellency, that I had lost my horse, and proposed that I should have one of the provincial horses presented to me to supply my loss: the manner in which mr Pierpoint introduced the Subject gave Me a great deal of pain and uneasiness: because I thought it had the Appearance of a design to beg a favor of the Gentlemen of the Army; when therefore Colonel [Joseph] Read offered to Send me an horse to ride home; I was under so much confusion as not to know certainly whether the horse was only lent me to ride home, or whether it was designed to be presented to me for my own: Mr Pierpoint thought that the horse was presented to me as a gift, but I judged from Several things that it was only lent me to ride home; and accordingly had fully determined as soon as I had gotten home to send the horse back by the first opportunity: But several Gentlemen of my Acquaintance upon hearing the Account of the matter judgd that I had a just right to have Satisfaction made me by the continent for my loss, inasmuch as I had preached in the camp five Sabbaths and a fast, and expected no reward for my Services, they thought that I had a right to be made whole by the continent for any Damage I might suffer while I was doing duty in the camp

Colonel [James] Warren of Plymouth Speaker of the house of representatives was so full in this sentiment, that he advised me to present a memorial to your Excellency; and to represent the matter with proper light; not doubting but that your Excellency would judge it proper that the continent should make good the damage that I have sustained. It is in consequence of his Advice, that I have now written this letter to your Excellency. In order, that your Excellency may form a true judgment of the matter, I must briefly state the fact which is thus—Mr. [Samuel] Spring, who is now gone chaplain to Quebec, had liberty granted him by Dr [Nathaniel] Cogswell to take his horse and ride him to Newbury port and to sell him for Nine Pounds, he thro a Mistake took my horse and sold him in the journey to a man belonging to Salem; hearing of this I went to Salem, and when I came there was told that the horse was gone off, the stable door being left open—diligent search was made but he could not be found: Now as there is no person, of whom I can legally demand satisfaction for my loss, except mr Spring, and as it is very uncertain when he will return from Quebec, and as I stand in need of an horse every Day almost when I am at home, if your Excellency thinks my request to be rational and that the publick ought to make good the Damage that I have sustained; I should be glad to have liberty granted me to keep the horse that Colonel Read lent me, till I have proper satisfaction made me by mr. Spring for the loss I have suffered. If your Excellency will send a line to me by the bearer of this Mr. Joseph Howland to let me know whether I must return the horse back by the first opportunity, or whether I may keep him till I am otherwise satisfied it will lay a peculiar obligation upon your Excellencys most humble and obedient Servant Samuel West
And all in rather bad handwriting crowded into uneven sloping lines.

When this arrived, Gen. Washington was still dealing with the fallout from Church’s treachery, anticipating the arrival of three Continental Congress delegates come to review his progress, considering an attack on Boston, trying to launch schooners from Beverly, and looking ahead to the dissolution of his army at the end of the year. But West wanted an answer about that horse.

TOMORROW: The reply from Washington’s headquarters.


EJWitek said...

Besides demonstrating Dr West's inability to function in the real world, this letter, I think, also displays a devout Colonial Congregationalist minister wrestling with a moral dilemma. The last thing Dr West would wish to do was to accept a horse to which he was not entitled, yet he had just lost his own horse through no fault of his own. I can just see the theological and moral wheels turning in Dr West's head. And, for him, the moral dilemma would far surpass any other issue.
There is little doubt that West was a man of formidable intellect and a brilliant conversationalist. Yet he once had to sue his parish for back salary.

J. L. Bell said...

West clearly feels he needs a horse, and hopes that he’s owed one, but he seems to be casting about for a moral justification. Should he receive the horse as compensation for preaching to the army and/or deciphering the letter? As compensation for losing his horse—though in that case the fault may belong to the unknown person who left open the stable? If Samuel Spring took the wrong horse, why can’t West take Dr. Cogswell’s remaining horse? West doesn’t seem to have figured out the moral issues in his own mind, just the need for a horse, and that makes his request all the more exasperating.

Chaucerian said...

Bearing in mind that we are all in the hands of the esteemed J.L. Bell and depending on his decisions whether to give us all the relevant history at once (which he never does), I nevertheless think I have a diagnosis.(Certainly it is clear that the Rev. Dr. West's family were astonishingly caring people.) I eagerly await the next postings.

J. L. Bell said...

This time I’ve put down about all I have on the Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth. He seems to have been a difficult man, but a well meaning one, and later generations appear to have smoothed his difficulties into quaintness.