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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Friday, September 02, 2011

The Trial of Matthew Macumber

On 19 September 1776, an officer with the delightful name of Col. Comfort Sage presided over the court-martial of Matthew Macumber, accused of “plundering and robbery, and also of mutiny.”

Macumber was an ensign (equivalent of second lieutenant) in the 16th Regiment under Col. Paul Dudley Sargent (1745-1828) from Maine. He pled not guilty.

Here’s part of the trial testimony, taken from Force’s American Archives.
Major [DANIEL] BOX. Last Tuesday, about two o’clock, I saw a number of people plundering down on Harlem Plain. I took a party and went down on the Plain, and met Ensign Macumber, with a party of upwards of twenty, all loaded with plunder, such as house furniture, table linen, and kitchen utensils, China and delf ware. I ordered him to lay it down, or carry it back to the place he took it from. He said he had his Colonel’s order for what he had done, and that he would defend the plunder as long as he had life. I asked him if he knew me, and told him who I was, and told him how express the General’s orders were about plundering. I told him if he did not deliver up the plunder, I should fire upon him, and jumped over a fence, and my little party followed. On this the prisoner and his party surrounded me, and the prisoner gave orders for the party to make ready; they did so, and told me they would die by the plunder, and Macumber, the prisoner, declared the same. When I found I could do nothing, I left them and went up and got a party, and went down. The prisoner seeing me coming, left his party and put off across the fields, loaded with something. I disarmed the party, and made them prisoners. The prisoner ordered his party to make ready, before I jumped over the fence.

Sergeant THAYER. I was one of the party with Major Box, on Tuesday, and met Ensign Macumber, as has been related. Major Box told the prisoner’s party to lay down their plunder; they all refused, and the prisoner said that he had obeyed the Colonel’s orders, and that he would carry the plunder to his Colonel. On Major Box presenting his pistol at the Ensign, he ordered the men to form themselves. The men were clamorous, and the Ensign was quieting them. He said he had orders from his Colonel, and had obeyed them, and would obey them to the spilling his blood; which I took to mean that he would defend his party and the plunder. The Major went off, and we returned soon after; but I know nothing more of the prisoner. There was women’s clothing among other articles of plunder.

WILLIAM THOMAS. Says he was one of the party, and confirmed Sergeant Thayer’s testimony.

SAMUEL BROWN. Confirmed Sergeant Thayer’s testimony, and adds that the prisoner told Major Box, after he had ordered his men to form, that he would see which had the strongest party, or that the ground should drink his blood. Several of his men said they would blow out Major Box’s brains, if he cocked his pistol again.

WILLIAM CORNISH. Confirms Brown’s testimony, and adds, that from every appearance, he doubts not the prisoner’s party would have fired upon them had they attempted to have rescued the plunder out of their hands.
Then came the witnesses for the defense.
JOHN PETTY. Just before we entered the town of Harlem, Ensign Macumber stopped the party and expressly ordered us not to plunder. I was posted as a sentry, and know nothing of the party plundering. I was one who drove the cattle off, and did not join the party who had the plunder.

GORDON SPENCER. After we got into Harlem, Ensign Macumber took some of the party and went off with them. After he was gone, some of the men broke into the house. I went and found the Ensign, and told him of it. He said it was against his orders, and bid me go and tell them to leave the house. Before we met Major Box, Ensign Macumber had told the men they should carry all the plunder to Colonel Sargent.
The court was cleared, and the officers on the court-martial panel discussed the case with “mature consideration.” Their verdict on Macumber:
the prisoner is not guilty of plundering or of robbery, nor of mutiny, but that he is guilty of offering violence to and disobeying Major Box, his superiour officer. And the Court sentence and adjudge that the prisoner ask pardon of Major Box, and receive a severe reprimand from the commanding officer at the head of the regiment he belongs to.
The records of all such proceedings were sent up to the commander-in-chief’s office.

TOMORROW: Gen. Washington is not happy.

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