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 21, 2012

Peter Lowell: “asked permission to retire”

Yesterday I quoted from the account of the Battle of Bunker Hill in an 1852 history of New Ipswich, New Hampshire, focusing on the experiences of Capt. Ezra Towne’s company. Citing “Lt. [Josiah] Brown’s relation to his grandson,” that book includes this anecdote of Bunker Hill in a footnote:
One Peter Lowell, not a native of New Ipswich, who had always been the greatest braggart in the company, upon reaching the “Neck” where the shot were flying, was suddenly taken with a severe belly ache, and asked permission to retire; no one listened to his complaint for some time, but at last Capt. Towne, fearing his disorder might become contagious, gave him leave to go—but Peter was afraid to go alone, and asked that some one might accompany him.

This was asking quite too much, and Capt. Towne, drawing his sword, told him if he did not instantly scamper he would run him through. Peter took to his heels and was never seen in camp afterwards. It was said he never stopped running till he reached home.
According to Capt. Ezra Towne’s August payroll, Peter Lowell was formally discharged in July—the only man taken off the rolls that way.

A later history of New Ipswich was also eager to assure readers that Peter Lowell wasn’t from that town, even if people there were still telling this story about him. He actually came from nearby Camden, which in 1776 changed its name to Washington.

Triangulating from genealogical webpages suggests that Lowell was born in Groton in 1752. He was one of the first settlers in the area that became Washington but by 1787 moved to Lempster, where he died in 1840.

In 1833, the U.S. government granted Peter Lowell a pension as a Revolutionary War veteran, accepting that he had served eleven months in the Continental forces. That means he must have gone back into the service after 1775 and stuck around for a while. Not that people in New Ipswich paid attention.


Anonymous said...

It's strange that nothing in his records mentions his strange behavior and despite not having a written record of his discharge he was able to be granted a pension.

J. L. Bell said...

Federal authorities recognized that a lot of Revolutionary War veterans no longer had all or even any of their paperwork by the 1830s, so they let men document their service through affidavits from themselves and others.

I haven't seen Lowell's file, but I assume it contains some testimony about his service later in the war. If that added up to enough time, he wouldn't have needed to ask men from Towne's company to testify about his first couple of months, and he had an obvious reason not to.

Charles Bahne said...

Reminds me of all the stories of ancestors who fought "at" Bunker's Hill. Of course there was no fighting at Bunker's Hill, only at Breed's Hill and the rail fence. The men who were on Bunker's Hill were the slackers, trying to avoid the fighting elsewhere, and being urged by their officers to join the real battle.

R. Doctorow said...

Here's a partial transcript of Peter Lowell's pension application [# S13785] taken Aug 29, 1832 in Sullivan County, NH, when Lowell was 80 years old, a resident of Lempster. He filed his claim just eleven weeks after the "last and most liberal" (HeritageQuest info page) of the AWI pension acts were passed: Veterans who had served less than 2 years, but not less than 6 months, were eligible for pensions of less than full pay.

(Punctuation modernized; a couple of words [in brackets], escape my transcription abilities):

"That on the first of May in the year 1775 he enlisted in Capt. Ezra Towns' Company; Colonel James Read's Regiment; [McCleary?] being Major of the said Regiment; General Warren's Brigade. He was in the battle of Bunker Hill, and after the battle he was stationed at [Winter?] Hill near Boston, and after remaining there about three months, was ordered to Prospect Hill on account of the breaking of the small pox among the troops. He remained there about three months and then had a furlough in account of ill health for about one month, at the end of which month his term ended, said term being eight months..."

As for his place of birth, he states " he was born in Groton, in Massachusetts, in the year 1752."

Lowell's pension goes on to claim earlier service:

"Declarant in the year 1775, in April, joined a company commanded by Jonathan Brockway, and was present at the engagement at Concord, and remained with said company one month, on the lookout, and to be in readiness to appear when his services were called for; and at the end of said month he enlisted for 8 months as aforesaid."

Does any of his claim match what the rest of the unit did? Is there any record of him serving at Concord? Or was he cutting this out of whole cloth?

J. L. Bell said...

My original reading of the incomplete evidence was that Lowell had embarrassed himself at Bunker Hill, but them pulled himself together and managed eleven months in service later in the war. An uplifting little tale.

But it looks like Lowell managed eleven months for the pension only by strrrrrrretching his brief service under Capt. Towne, who according to anecdote sent him home as sword-point on 17 June and according to contemporaneous record officially discharged him in July.

As for Capt. Jonathan Brockway, a quick search found that he commanded a company raised in 1777 (without Peter Lowell on the payroll), but I can't find a link between him and the Lexington Alarm. Of course, New Hampshire units weren't close enough to participate in the actual fighting that day, anyway.

Peter Fisk said...

There's probably some exaggeration on both sides. I would wager that the account of Lowell's cowardice at Bunker Hill had been embellished through multiple re-tellings before it was written in the book, and I suspect that Lowell exaggerated his service on his pension app.