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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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Col. Jonathan Burnham Wins the Siege Through Music

One of the more curious analyses of the siege of Boston comes from Jonathan Burnham (1728-1823), a colonel in the New Hampshire militia.

As many of the Connecticut troops prepared to go home in December 1775 at the end of their enlistments (as discussed back here), Gen. George Washington asked Massachusetts and New Hampshire to mobilize militia regiments for a couple of months to fill the gap. Burnham was in charge of bringing the New Hampshire troops down to the siege lines.

Decades later he published a folksy memoir which said:
In a few days the committee of safety that set at Portsmouth, in recess of Congress, sent for me to bear two letters, rec’d from Gen. Washington and Gen. [John] Sullivan. The contents that they expected the British would give them battle, and for the committee to send me to Mistic [Medford] with thirty one companies of New Hampshire Militia.

We marched that day and three days after were in Mistic with four companies from the fort, and twenty seven companies to follow on. The committee delivered me two letters to carry to the two Generals at Winter hill and Cambridge. I mounted my horse and rode to headquarters and delivered my letters. Washington smiles and says “New Hampshire forever” and orders Sullivan to mount his horse and ride with Col. Burnham to Mistic and open all your stores to New Hampshire Militia without weight or measure, And go to the good men in Mistic who will be glad of Col. Burnham’s men, for they are afraid that the British who burned Charlestown will come and burn Mistic And Says to Col. Burnham “do your best for the honor of Newhampshire and kill the British if they dare come.”

But they were affraid of my Brigade—Toward the last of January ’76 I received orders from Gen. Washington that he would meet Newhampshire Militia tomorrow at Winter hill to review them. I mounted my horse at 9 o’clock, Formed my Brigade and marched to Winter hill with my band of music, Fifty fifes and drums that the British might hear and see we were come to Winter hill to try our skill, Which gave the British a fright to quit Bunker hill in the night, and the British army and fleet made a quick retreat. And the Boston people were glad to see it.
As Burnham told it, the British military evacuated Boston not because Gen. William Howe had already convinced the government in London that there was no value in holding Boston, and not because of the cannon the Americans moved onto Dorchester Heights in March, but because of a parade of New Hampshire militiamen at the end of January. I’ll give Burnham the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he might have told this tall tale with a wink.

What does Col. Burnham’s story have to do with my talk tonight at the Concord Museum about the Ephraim Moors powder horn? I’ll present evidence that Moors was a young militia private who came to Massachusetts in one of those thirty-one New Hampshire regiments.

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