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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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Benjamin Russell, thirteen-year-old company clerk

When we left thirteen-year-old Benjamin Russell yesterday, he and some schoolmates had walked out of Boston behind Col. Percy’s reinforcement column on 19 Apr 1775, and stayed in Cambridge while the British troops continued west. At the end of that exciting day, the boys discovered that they couldn’t get back into Boston. And, we can presume, their families were discovering that they had disappeared.

Russell later wrote that he and his chums “could not inform our parents of the situation.” Of course, over the next several weeks people got passes to go into Boston, the two competing military authorities exchanged written messages, and friends and relatives sometimes met at the lines to share news.

Young Benjamin and friends knew how to write. They had just come from the Queen Street Writing School, after all. They were sleeping at Harvard College, where, Russell later recalled, Samuel Hall had set up a printing press issuing “streams of intelligence, and those patriotic songs and tracts which so pre-eminently animated the defenders of American liberty.” They surely could have gotten some pens and paper.

In fact, by late June, according to Russell’s account, the boys had been drafted as company clerks.

It fell to my lot to become the clerk of the company of Connecticut troops commanded by Captain [Daniel] Putnam, a nephew or son of the General [Israel Putnam, shown above]. We were stationed with other troops on Prospect Hill, where the General was in command.
Obviously, Benjamin and the other boys were having too much fun to tell their parents, and risk being told to do something else. They even got to watch some military action. When they heard cannonading on 17 June, they hiked over to Charlestown. According to eulogist Francis Baylies:
Several of the boys…crossed and recrossed the neck during the battle—that same neck over which an American officer told General Putnam no one could cross and live. General Putnam, who was a great favorite with the boys, in his eccentric movements on his “long-tailed Connecticut horse, often came near us,” says Major Russell, “and then we cheered him with an huzza for Old Put.”
But fun like that couldn’t last, as Russell explained:
One day [in August] I was returning from the Commissaries’ depot, with the weekly provisions of the company, having four men with me, and I met my father and uncle, who had just escaped from Boston. My father had not seen or heard of me since the 19th of April. He was so rejoiced to see me, that he was about to shake me for not writing to him.

One of the soldiers took fire—“Don’t shake that boy, Sir,” said he, “he is our clerk.”
Benjamin explained his situation. His father hauled him off immediately to Gen. Putnam. The general discharged the boy into his father’s custody—honorably, he said.

The next day, John Russell took his son to Worcester and indentured him to a young printer who had moved his Massachusetts Spy out there: Isaiah Thomas. (For Russell’s recollection of working for Thomas, see this posting.) Benjamin Russell didn’t officially enlist in the Continental Army until July 1780, at the age of eighteen.

1 comment:

Peter Ansoff said...

I wonder if Benjamin might have witnessed General Putnam's flag-raising on Prospect Hill on 18 July. Another item for the "to do" list!