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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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Col. Sargent and Col. Sage

Earlier this week, I quoted from the records of the court-martial of Ens. Matthew Macumber, kicked out of the Continental Army in September 1776 despite first being cleared of plundering.

Other officers involved in that incident were also gone from the Continental Army in a few months, though not so ignominiously.

Col. Paul Dudley Sargent (shown here), who Macumber said had ordered him to empty Loyalist houses in New York, was home by spring 1777.

The head of the court-martial panel that originally convicted Macumber on a lesser charge, Col. Comfort Sage, did not reenlist at the end of the year.

I wonder if those officers departed because they sensed they had gotten on Gen. George Washington’s bad side.

Both gentlemen remained respected in their own communities: Sargent became a magistrate in Maine, and Sage a brigadier general of the Connecticut militia. Most of what we know about them came from the writings of their descendants, who of course would not have said much about Gen. Washington’s dissatisfaction.

TOMORROW: The career of Maj. Daniel Box.


banjoseth said...

History Lite. Speculation without investigation. Never a good thing to question the courage of dead patriots without a grasp of available evidence. Sargent was an aide-de-camp to Washinton at one time, a friend of Lafayette, and owner of privateers capturing British supply ships, which earned favorable comment in Washington's recorded correspondence. Sargent was ill in early '77 and went home to recover. He then resumed privateering, to the benefit of his country if not his pocketbook.

J. L. Bell said...

This criticism reads like it comes from the Sargent family or is based on their sources. At what point was Sargent an "aide-de-camp to Washington"? Arthur S. Lefkowitz's Washington's Indispensable Men lists all of the general's aides and secretaries and doesn't include Sargent. At what point did Washington praise Sargent's privateering venture? The Library of Congress's Washington Papers doesn't include a mention of Sargent after March 1777.

This posting clearly presents as speculation the possibility that Sargent and Sage left the army because they sensed Washington's dissatisfaction. It says nothing about their "patriotism," nor suggests that remaining in the Continental Army was the only way for people to serve the U.S. of A. The posting acknowledges the respect both Sage and Sargent maintained in their communities.

The fact that Sargent stayed in Massachusetts for the rest of the war and invested in privateering rather than reenlisting in the Continental Army doesn't appear to refute the hypothesis that he may have felt he'd hit a ceiling under Gen. Washington. Nor, absent a mention in his private correspondence, would there be any confirmation. But in considering Sargent and Washington as individual men, not two-dimensional heroes, it's worthwhile to consider that they might not always have agreed on proper conduct.

banjoseth said...

There were no mentions of Sargent in Washington's papers after '77 because Sargent had left his command by then. The letters I refer to have to do with the capture of the 'Zachariah Bayley' in '76. Is Arthur Lefkowitz an infallible source, or is it possible that the list you refer to could be incomplete? Have you consulted all the primary sources yourself? Were you looking over Lefkowitz's shoulder when he was writing the book? The suggestion that Washington was somehow dissatisfied with Col. Sargent is as groundless as it is insulting. "Gotten on Washington's bad side"... "Washington's dissatisfaction." What possible evidence do you have to base these remarks on? I think your partisanship on behalf of Macumber colors your history at least as much as any family feeling on the part of Sargent's descendants.

J. L. Bell said...

Logic tells us that Washington's pleasure about a privateering success in June 1776 doesn't answer a question of whether he was disappointed in an officer's behavior three months later. He may not even have known that Col. Sargent was one-eighth owner of the Yankee.

The evidence for Washington's disappointment in Ens. Macumber is clear in his letter about the incident and in his insistence that Macumber be retried. The question is whether Washington was also disappointed at some level in Macumber’s colonel and in the officer in charge of his trial.

The only person in this incident that I feel any bias for is Maj. Box, since he was an outsider. What interests me most about it is how officers in the Continental Army disagreed on the propriety of taking things from abandoned Loyalist houses in the fall of 1776. Washington was the boss, so his view prevailed, but clearly a lot of others didn't think Macumber deserved to be punished.

As for the questions about Arthur Lefkowitz's research, those are based on a fallacy, and rude besides. Historical inquiry doesn't proceed by repeating an unsourced statement and demanding that skeptics disprove it. It requires supplying evidence to back up such a statement.

For his book on Washington's staff Lefkowitz looked at all of the general orders and headquarters paperwork that named men as aides. If there's documentation that Sargent was one of those aides, then Lefkowitz was in error. But with no documents to cite, there's no basis for questioning his findings.

banjoseth said...

My primary objection is not and was never to your skepticism as to whether Col. Sargent occasionally shared the duties of aide-de-camp to Gen. Washington with his bosom friend the Marquis de la Fayette: it was your groundless speculation about the circumstances of Sargent's departure from the army. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is not a valid basis for making assumptions. Lots of people went home after Trenton. Some returned, some, like Sargent, continued to serve their country in other ways. To suggest Sargent's decisions were connected in any way with circumstances surrounding the court martial of an obscure subordinate is, to put it mildly, a stretch of the imagination.

J. L. Bell said...

It's worth considering that Lafayette arrived in the U.S. of A. in June 1777, by which time Paul Dudley Sargent had retired from the army. The basis of their close friendship and work together as military aides is therefore hard to see. That shows us the hazards of relying on family traditions, which usually present an ancestor in the most heroic light, rather than solid contemporaneous documentation.

I doubt that Gen. Washington took such a particular interest in Macumber's court-martial without noticing that the ensign twice stated that he was following Col. Sargent's orders to take things from empty houses. There doesn't appear to have been any testimony to the contrary. It seems reasonable that that might have colored Washington's view of the colonel (fairly or not), which might in turn have affected Sargent's perception of his prospects in the army. I never claimed that was how things played out, but I laid out the possibility because I thought it worth considering, and have seen no evidence to change my mind.

banjoseth said...

Again you focus on side issues. Naturally one prefers to know the truth rather than accept oral traditions if they happen to be unfounded, but the main point remains that you assume, on scanty evidence, that Sargent left the army BECAUSE of this trial. Essentially you are putting words in Washington's mouth. I imagine he probably had a lot of things on his mind that outweighed in importance whether any of his officers allowed looting. You don't think Sargent was the only one, do you, if in fact this was the case? Or that he himself might not have taken a cue from commanders higher up on the chain of command? There is so much that can't be known about the circumstances. I really think your basic assumption is without merit. Unless you can produce letters by Washington or by contemporaries reporting that he held Sargent in low regard, I don't think you have adequate basis to make such a charge. It certainly wouldn't hold up in a court martial!

J. L. Bell said...

Your sensitivity has caused you to misread what I've written. I never "assumed" that Col. Sargent or Col. Sage left the army because they sensed they had lost Gen. Washington's favor. I originally said "I wonder" if that happened. I've since repeated that it was "speculation" and "a possibility" worth considering, based on my study of Washington's relationships with New England officers during the siege.

You apparently don't want to consider that thesis at all, and have flailed at it in various ways. First insults. Then claims about Sargent that turn out to be unreliable. Then a groundless attack on another historian's work. And now a mischaracterization of what I've written. That hardly convinces me that you're interested in, or at this moment ready for, rational interpretation of the evidence.

Why, for example, are you suggesting that I haven't considered that other American officers, including higher-ranking ones, might have allowed or encouraged looting? Please look back at my comments and postings where I already wrote about the disagreement within the officer corps over looting.

One aspect of this incident that intrigued me all along is that Macumber was acquitted in his first trial. Clearly other officers didn't think he'd done anything wrong. Clearly Washington felt that he had, and clearly Washington outranked everyone else.

Did Macumber end up feeling he'd been unfairly treated as a scapegoat? I know of no sources with a definite answer, but I'm sure that was a possibility. Did Sage and Sargent look at that situation and decide that they weren't seeing eye to eye with the big boss, or that they'd lost his confidence? I'm not sure, but it seems worth thinking about.

banjoseth said...

Sargent may well have been on Washington's bad side over the looting in New York, as you have speculated, but it's worth considering that Sargent was much closer to the ground than Washington and may have felt pressure to establish his revolutionary bona fides. Although a New Englander, Sargent was as much an aristocrat as Washington, though the vast tracts of Connecticut land owned by his mother's family were farmed by tenants, not slaves. With unpopular royal governors in his background and a brother who evacuated Boston for Halifax and later fought in the King's Regiment, Sargent may felt pressured to take a stand. Although he had outfitted his regiment at his own expense (unlike Washington, who spent vast sums of money and mental energy tarting up Mt. Vernon while troops under his floundering command went without) Sargent was dealing with troops whose antipathy to the aristocracy informed much of their conduct, including toward their officers.

J. L. Bell said...

Those are interesting points to consider, thank you.

Eighteenth-century society was more deferential than today’s, and a lot of New Englanders seem to have expected their militia officers to come from their communities’ wealthier men. Early in the war, those soldiers even chose which officers to serve under; by 1776 Washington was trying to break down that system, but most of Sargent’s troops had probably enlisted specifically in his regiment rather than been assigned to it. So I’m not convinced there was an ingrained “antipathy to the aristocracy” among Sargent’s troops.

I do agree, however, that conflicting outlooks on how to treat Loyalists at this point was at the basis of this friction, with Gen. Washington on one side and a lot of his New England-based officers and soldiers on the other. Again, the fact that a panel of officers had acquitted Macumber of the looting charge seems significant to me. New Englanders might by and large have seen the New York Loyalists as aristocrats, or simply as disloyal, and therefore not entitled to have their property respected.

Yet another factor is that this was early in the war. Washington really didn’t know what was coming. His standards for soldierly behavior toward people thought to be cooperating with the enemy might have relaxed in later years.

banjoseth said...

If you think people in the eighteenth century were more deferential than today, you need to do more reading about the period! I recommend David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed" for an overview, or, for a New-England-centric view, Richard Bushman's "From Puritan to Yankee" charts the evolution from deference to defiance that preceded the Revolution by at least two generations. Tenants of the Winthrops (Sargent's maternal relatives) began contesting the family's title to land they farmed as early as the 1690s. The same story of defiance of the establishment is the background of "A Midwife's Tale" by Laurel Thatcher. Martha Ballard's husband was a surveyor working for grantees and was frequently set upon by squatters. It's perhaps easy to imagine the young Washington's reaction to being confronted by a mob of backwoodsmen objecting to Lord Fairfax's title to land they considered theirs!

banjoseth said...

Another interpretation is that Sargent may have felt no need to appear in sync with his men but might simply have been letting them loose. Not unlikely for a privateer. Sargent's 1/8th interest in the 'Yankee', by the way, the vessel that captured the much larger 'Zachariah Bayley', was leveraged into a quarter share in the privateer 'Boston', as the captured British three-decker became, (with co-owners James Swan, Mungo Mackay and Thomas Adams). This brings the conversation back where it began. It seems likely to me that Sargent thought he could contribute more to the war effort by stepping up his attacks on British shipping instead of continuing to suffer along with the infantry, whether or not he was chafing under a priggish and possibly unappreciative supreme commander.

J. L. Bell said...

I see you've gone back to being insulting. Clearly you're still feeling needlessly defensive about Col. Sargent, though why I'm not sure why it helps to hypothesize that he was so desperate to curry favor with his men that he set them to looting.

The logic in your statement is faulty. The shift in deference from the seventeenth to the late eighteenth century says nothing about whether “Eighteenth-century society was more deferential than today’s…," as I wrote.

In fact, your comment above criticizing George Washington for "tarting up Mt. Vernon while troops under his floundering command went without" provides evidence for my remark. We can make that sort of complaint about authority figures today. Who voiced that complaint in the 1770s?

There's much more study of change in social deference in American culture than the two books you cite, and they bear out my point comparing the eighteenth century to today. In particular, Richard Beeman addressed the topic in “Deference, Republicanism, and the Emergence of Popular Politics in Eighteenth-Century America” in the William and Mary Quarterly (1992) and in The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America. One hallmark of New England society, Beeman wrote, was the "consistency of its commitment to traditional notions of order and hierarchy" on the local level. That changed over time in the 1700s, but it's changed more since.

The frontier has always been a place where traditional hierarchy and deference fell away. Disputes over frontier lands in Maine or the Virginia backwoods produced different behavior from what was seen in long-settled communities.

I didn't bother to ask this before, but what's the source for the statement that Col. Sargent "outfitted his regiment at his own expense"?

banjoseth said...

I believe I cited three sources, not two. And I would say that people in the revolutionary and immediately pre-revolutionary periods were in general far less deferential than now. Uncivil online "flames" may be commonplace, even reflexive now, but the flames are figurative, not literal. We can debate whether modern day targets of popular ire deserve it more or less than their 18th c. counterparts, but you don't see the titans of Wall Street, for instance, getting their windows smashed or their houses looted and burned to the ground, or tax collectors getting waylaid on the highways, tied up and tarred and feathered. Tea partiers are just fancy dress fantasists compared to the real people they think they're emulating.

J. L. Bell said...

I didn’t treat “‘A Midwife's Tale’ by Laurel Thatcher” as a worthwhile citation of a source on New England attitudes in 1776 because:
a) It’s a study of a document that starts a decade later and focuses on a single community on the Maine frontier.
b) Its main discussions of “deference” involve Martha Ballard’s relationship to male physicians, not general attitudes.
c) The author’s name is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich; the omission of her surname left me with doubts about how carefully you’d read the book.

The eighteenth-century deference that historians discuss and debate isn’t a simplistic matter of political violence. Mobs are anomalous events that capture the eye. We’re talking about social and political relations between people on the same side of the conflict, and that requires looking at everyday interactions and political patterns. Pertinent questions include: What class of men did towns elect to office and militia commands? How often were men turned out of office? How did people of different classes behave toward each other in daily encounters and business?

In eighteenth-century North America, a gentleman had to labeled as such in legal papers or those papers were invalid. Communities chose selectmen and militia officers from among their richest men, and usually reelected the same town officials for years on end. Governors and generals were referred to as ”Your excellency,” local landowners as "Squire,” wealthy widows as “Madam”; those customs have been replaced by more egalitarian forms of address.

Tar-and-feather attacks on Customs officials in pre-Revolutionary New England actually reflect society’s deference to gentlemen. London established its Customs Commission for all of North America in Boston, and the gentlemen on that commission were very unpopular. However, mobs never tarred and feathered those men or their highest deputies. Instead, they meted out that degrading punishment exclusively on low-level Customs officials, sailors on Customs ships, and other working-class men. Mobs usually attacked gentlemen’s houses and other property instead of laying hands on the men themselves.

Such violence provides a lousy comparison to today’s democratic politics because the officials mobbed in pre-Revolutionary America were not subject to election. They were appointed by the government in London or its surrogates. Violence was thus often the only way locals could show their displeasure. Much as I agree with the phrase “fancy dress fantasists,” today’s Tea Partiers and Occupiers know they have the option of voting, and that snuffs out destructive violence of the Revolutionary sort.

There’s no question that deference to some traditional sources of authority broke down in the Revolution and early republic. But in 1776 respect for your town’s local Revolutionary bigwig was still strong. I think it was much more likely for Sargent, his officers, and his soldiers to be united in a loss of deference toward the New York Loyalists than for them to be divided by an "antipathy to the aristocracy" that included Sargent himself.

Finally, as for the claim that “This brings the conversation back where it began,” I don't forget that the first comment in this conversation was accusatory, insulting, and factually incorrect. I hope that any future remarks don’t replicate that beginning.