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, November 20, 2011

Drummers Beating

In the eighteenth-century British army, drummers had the duty of whipping men convicted in courts-martial. This became a political issue when troops was stationed in Boston in 1768-1770.

From 1759 to 1843, His Majesty’s 29th Regiment had black drummers. Adm. Edward Boscawen bought the first batch of those musicians at Guadaloupe and gave them to his brother, the regiment’s colonel. At least three of those original men were still with the regiment in 1775.

When the 29th was sent to Boston in 1768, locals were surprised to see black soldiers whipping white ones. Within a week of the troops’ arrival, the 6 October Boston Evening-Post reported:
In the Morning nine or ten Soldiers of Colonel [Maurice] Carr’s Regiment for sundry Misdemeanors, were severely whipt on the Common. To behold Britons scourged by Negro Drummers, was a new and very disagreeable Spectacle!
Whigs played up this inversion in one of their one-sided dispatches to newspapers in colonies to the south about life in occupied Boston. In February 1769, however, they also reported that a black drummer was himself whipped because he “had adventur’d to beat time at a concert of music.”

The Continental Army was mostly modeled after the British army, and the drummers’ punitive responsibilities was one of the customs carried over. However, Americans drummers were more likely to be teenagers than those in the royal ranks.

That also caused a stir, as recalled by Israel Trask, an eleven-year-old boy who had accompanied his father to the siege of Boston. Recalling the spring of 1775, he said:
It was here I witnessed for the first time public punishment inflicted in the regiment. Five or six soldiers were condemned to be flogged for the crime, I believe, of being concerned in the mutiny at Boston. This incident was impressed on my memory with increased force from the interest made to exonerate Major [Ezra] Putnam’s son from his share of the duty of applying the cat to the naked backs of the criminals that fell to him as a drummer in the regiment. A year or two older than myself, he was, however, obliged to submit and take his share of the unpleasant duty with his colleagues.
Drummer Ezra Putnam, Jr., was actually sixteen years old. After the war he and his family moved out to the Ohio Territory, and in January 1791 he died in what became known as “the Big Bottom Massacre.”

4 comments:

RFuller said...

I recall reading somewhere, Zobel's work perhaps, about Thomas Walker, the tall black drummer of the 29th Regt. of Foot who stood watching the fight at the ropewalk the day before the "Boston Massacre".

One of the rioters saw him standing by, and challenged him, "Who says you can be here, blackamore?", to which Walker answered defiantly, "I suppose I may look on!"

I can imagine, that the ensuing fight and the rage at a Redcoat (well, yellow coat actually) who was black and did not "know his place", must have added fuel to the fire at the Massacre the next day...

Willie Anderson said...

Interesting post I never knew this was the case,thanks for posting!!

J. L. Bell said...

Drummer Thomas Walker’s race was definitely a factor in how people responded to him on 2 Mar 1770. A justice of the peace challenged his presence at the ropewalk on racial grounds, and ropemakers beat him badly enough that he was taken to the military hospital the next day.

That same magistrate, John Hill, was one of the three who gathered most of the depositions in Boston’s Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre report.

RFuller said...

Thank you, JL, for the link! As always, I learn a great deal when I come to your blog.