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, September 08, 2011

Daniel Box, from Deserter to Brigade-Major

Maj. Daniel Box, chief administrative officer of a brigade of the Continental Army, was the chief accuser in the court-martial of Ens. Matthew Macumber in the fall of 1776.

In 1779 Gen. Nathanael Greene (shown here) wrote to Timothy Pickering that Box had also been useful in “exercising and forming companies independent companies previous to the commencement of the war.” But what does that mean?

Don Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution recently reported on the Revlist that Daniel Box appears as a sergeant on the muster rolls of His Majesty’s 43d Regiment of Foot from as early as December 1772 until 9 Dec 1774, when he deserted in Boston.

According to George Washington Greene’s biography of his grandfather, sometime in late 1774 Nathanael Greene went to Boston and “engaged a British deserter to go back with him as drill-master to the ‘[Kentish] Guards,’” the upper-class militia company he and his friends got chartered in October. G. W. Greene isn’t always reliable, but he appears to have guessed correctly that this man was Daniel Box.

After Gen. George Washington organized his army by brigades, on 15 Aug 1775 he appointed Box brigade-major for the Rhode Island and Massachusetts troops under Greene. Box threatened to resign a few months later, but was convinced to stay on. In August 1776, Washington announced that the Continental Congress had promoted Greene to major general, and that Box would continue in his role under a new brigadier, John Nixon.

Maj. Box’s personal history might help explain why he couldn’t exercise any authority over Ens. Macumber and his men in September. Box had no solid status within New England society. American officers knew that he was a deserter, and not a gentleman in England, so they might have held him in some contempt.

As for Box himself, he appears to have hit a glass ceiling within the British army, unable to advance beyond sergeant. Entering American society offered more opportunity to rise, even if it wasn’t always easy.

TOMORROW: Major Box and the Battle of Brooklyn.

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