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, October 07, 2011

Benjamin Russell’s Busy Day

I’ve previously quoted Joseph T. Buckingham’s account of how young Benjamin Russell (shown here as a dignified publisher and politician) experienced the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Russell wrote his own account as well; it doesn’t seem to have been published, but Francis Baylies summarized and quoted from it in his eulogy for Russell in 1845.

Benjamin was born in September 1761, so he was nearly at the end of his career at Master James Carter’s writing school in April 1775. Baylies’s account:

In the morning, soon after the opening of the town school (which was kept in Scollay’s Buildings [later Scollay Square, now gone]), martial music was heard, and the Regulars were seen in motion. They were soon paraded in Long Acre [Tremont Street], and the line extended from the head of the Mall [Park Street] to the head of Queen [Court] Street, facing which was the school-house. Lord Percy, mounted on a white horse, was busy in arranging the column. . . .

When these movements were seen, Master Carter sent out one of the boys for information. It came full soon. The British had fallen on the Americans at Lexington, killed several, and sent for a reinforcement. [It seems too soon for Bostonians to have heard about the shooting at Lexington, but they did know of the departure of an earlier column of royal troops, so Percy’s mission was clear.]

Master Carter then said: “Boys, war has begun; the school is broken up.” This announcement was received with three cheers, and the boys, having gained their own freedom, sallied forth to see whether the men would gain theirs.

They followed in the rear of the column, when the British took up the line of march, and at Roxbury, through the courtesy of the Provost Marshal, (an unwonted quality in such characters,) they were permitted to pass the fortifications, and followed as far as the Colleges in Cambridge. The boys being wearied, rested on the Common, and Lord Percy’s column proceeded through West Cambridge to Lexington.

The boys remained in play on the common until near sunset, and as the firing then appeared to be near, they ascended a rising ground and saw the British army, followed by the Americans, in full retreat. They heard the whistling of the bullets, but…knew not what it meant, until they were informed by Farmer Hastings, of Cambridge [probably Jonathan Hastings, not a farmer but steward of Harvard College], that they were in danger.

They descended, regained the Cambridge road, and began to think of eating, for since breakfasting they had taken no food. On an examination, they found their pockets nearly as empty as their stomachs, but through the kindness of Mr. Hastings, they obtained a supper, and lay down to their rest in one of the colleges, and amidst the din of arms they slept the sleep which heaven in its mercy sends to the weary and the young.
According to Russell himself, the boys awoke with “nothing to regret except that, owing to the closeness of the siege, we could not inform our parents of our situation.”

TOMORROW: Do the Russells ever find young Benjamin?

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