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, September 04, 2011

The Retrial of Matthew Macumber

On 21 September 1776, Col. Comfort Sage reconvened a court-martial to consider the case of Ens. Matthew Macumber. Just the day before, that panel had found Macumber not guilty of disobeying orders by plundering, but guilty of defying an officer who had tried to stop him. But then Gen. George Washington had ordered the court to reconsider the sentence.

It seems to me that everyone knew the generalissimo really wanted a reconsideration of the verdict. Which left little doubt about what verdict he preferred. But how could the same panel (minus two members) justify a reversal?

They called a new witness for the prosecution:
Captain [NATHANIEL?] RAMSAY being sworn, deposes. Last Tuesday, in the beginning of the afternoon, I was crossing Harlem Plains; I saw a number of men loaded with plunder. I went up to them and told them they had been acting exceeding wrong, and would have to answer for their conduct; they said they had acted in obedience of their officers’ orders. Presently Ensign Macumber came up, and I renewed the conversation with him; he told me he had gone out by orders of his officer, and that he had a right to take any thing outside of our lines.

Ensign Macumber had at this time a knapsack full on his shoulder, out of which stuck two waxen toys, which I took hold of, and jested with him on his having such a pretty sort of plunder; he made me no reply, but ordered them to proceed with what things they had; they had a large chair full, consisting of poultry and some house furniture; some were loaded with kettles and kitchen furniture.

Just upon this, Major [Daniel] Box came up, and spoke to the foremost of the party, who told him they had got the plunder at Harlem; on which the Major, with a pistol in his hand, ordered the man to lay it down; the man hesitated and looked round on his party; upon this, Major Box ordered the whole party to lay down their plunder, or he would shoot the first man that refused; immediately on this, Ensign Macumber called out to his men, “my lads, stand to your arms and form,” and said to Major Box, “we’ll see who has the strongest party,” or words to this effect; the men instantly formed; on this, Major Box asked the Ensign if he knew him; the Ensign replied, yes, that he knew him to be Major Box. The Major replied that he was so, and that he came with express orders from his Excellency to act as he did, and to prevent plundering; the Ensign told him that he had acted by orders of a superiour officer.

Major Box said, I must put you under an arrest, and ordered a man to take his arms. Macumber said he would not be disarmed, but would go with them and his plunder to his General, who might act with them as he pleased, and that he would spill his blood before he would give them up there. At this time his men were exceeding mutinous; several of them cocked their pieces and brought them nearly to a present at Major Box. The Major asked for the Ensign’s name, and went off.

The men were exceeding abusive to the Major, and Ensign Macumber ordered them to be quiet. I have no doubt but if any attempt had been made to disarm the prisoner, his party would have fired; and I was so apprehensive of this, that I stood on my guard.
Dramatic as this testimony was, it didn’t provide significant new information about Box’s confrontation with Macumber. (Well, I guess the wax dolls was a new detail.) Witnesses the day before had already described how Macumber had defied Box, claiming that his colonel’s orders justified the taking of that property, and also how Macumber had tried to restrain his men from going too far.

But the new testimony would be enough to justify a new verdict. Macumber, who may have sensed what was coming, offered no additional witnesses.

Following “the maturest consideration of the further evidence,” the panel rendered its new decision:
the prisoner is guilty of plundering and of mutiny, and the Court annul the sentence of yesterday, and are of opinion that the prisoner be cashiered for said offence; and he is accordingly cashiered.
Washington endorsed that decision, and apparently decided to make an example of the incident. His general orders for 25 September said:
Colonel [Paul Dudley] Sargent is to send to the Provost-Guard the soldiers who were with Ensign Macumber, and charged with plundering at Harlem.
Washington also passed on details of the case to the Continental Congress, which on 30 September resolved:
That General Washington be directed to call upon such of the Members of the Court-Martial as sat upon the trial and concurred, in the acquittal of Ensign Macumber, to assign their reasons for their first judgment; that those reasons, together with the names of such of the said Members who were for the acquittal, be returned to Congress:
The officers on the court-martial panel had to send a letter justifying their original decision. I haven’t seen it, but I suspect the task was a reminder that they had displeased Gen. Washington.

(The doll above comes from the collections of Colonial Williamsburg.)


Chaucerian said...

And the carrying of the wax doll is significant because, as I'm sure the General would say, the doll would be among the "things of no earthly use to him." I wonder what the General's response was to stealing, say, firewood or something else of obvious and immediate utility.

Liberty Atheist said...

Is there any information on Matthew Macumber after he was cashiered from the Army?

J. L. Bell said...

I found a couple of references to men named Matthew Macumber later in the war. As I recall, one mustered with a militia unit during one of the attempts to push the British army out of Newport, and one was an officer on a privateer out of Philadelphia. I saw no hints that either or both were the same as this man. So he’s a mystery now.