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, July 06, 2012

“Great but fruitless interest for the commission in the artillery”

Yesterday I quoted a few phrases from Alexander H. Everett’s address on the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He spoke in Charlestown “at the request of the young men, without distinction of Party,” according to his lecture’s title page. (Makes you wonder what political dispute had disrupted previous years.)

Here’s a choice passage from Everett about the American artillery, comparing its performance to the fabled British failure:

But where in the mean time are the reinforcements of artillery? Where is Major [Scarborough] Gridley with his battallion? Is he too slumbering in the lap of some beauteous Delilah? Ah, gallant, learned Rumford! could your thorough science, your vigorous and energetic action have done justice to the orders of the veteran hero of Louisburg, there would have been no want of amunition: powder enough would have found its way to the redoubt, and the day might still have been ours. But America must pay the penalty of Col. [Richard] Gridley’s parental partiality, as Britain does of Gen. [Samuel] Cleveland’s superannuated gallantry.—
Col. Richard Gridley, commander of the Massachusetts artillery, had insisted that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress make his youngest son, Scarborough, a major in the regiment. But, as Everett hinted, Scar Gridley wasn’t up to the challenge of the Battle of Bunker Hill. (I’ll discuss that tomorrow.)

Who did Everett think would have done a better job? “Gallant, learned Rumford!” Everett relied on Samuel Swett’s History of Bunker Hill Battle, published about a decade before. Swett in turn appears to have talked to Massachusetts governor John Brooks (1752-1825, shown above), who reported that he’d been on Breed’s Hill on the morning of 17 June 1775 and was sent back to Gen. Artemas Ward’s headquarters ask for reinforcements. Swett wrote:
Maj. Brooks was retained at Cambridge by Ward, till the last reinforcements were sent to Charlestown, when he marched with the two remaining companies of his regiment, and met at the neck the Americans retreating. Benjamin Thompson, better known as Count Rumford, attended him as a volunteer. He was assisting the army by his mathematical learning, his estimates and surveys, but had solicited an appointment in vain, and had made great but fruitless interest for the commission in the artillery which was bestowed on Maj. Gridley.
Some authors later wrote that Brooks and Thompson (1753-1814) were schoolmates, others that they were both teen-aged medical trainees under Dr. Simon Tufts. Thompson did briefly go to school in Medford (Brooks’s home town), but he studied medicine under Dr. John Hay of Woburn, not Tufts. Supposedly Brooks and Thompson maintained a friendly correspondence all their lives, but I’ve never seen a citation for any of those letters.

According to modern biographer Sanborn C. Brown, there’s evidence that Thompson was in Woburn on 15 June, and thus less likely to be in Cambridge two days later. Still, authors of the nineteenth century accepted Brooks’s statement that Thompson was tagging along during the Battle of Bunker Hill, having fruitlessly offered to help the American artillery corps.

By the 1800s, Thompson had become famous and respected in Europe as Count Rumford, government administrator and scientist. Why hadn’t the Massachusetts army accepted his services? Why had his home town’s committee of correspondence kept him confined on suspicion of being a Tory? “America must pay the penalty” for that stubbornness, Everett said.

Neither Thompson’s contemporaries behind the American lines nor the nineteenth-century authors knew that in early May Thompson had sent Gen. Thomas Gage a spy report written in invisible ink. Was Thompson really angling for a high rank in the provincial artillery at the same time? Was he hanging around Gen. Ward’s headquarters and accompanying Maj. Brook to the front lines? If so, that wouldn’t have been good for the Americans.

4 comments:

J.J. said...

As an alumnus of Tufts, I am curious about Simon Tufts. I assume he must be related to Charles Tufts, the man who donated the land in Medford and Somerville for the building of Tufts University, but I wonder how.

J. L. Bell said...

There were a number of physicians named Tufts practicing in and around Medford in the Revolutionary period, and I have trouble sorting them out. I'm sure the same family was involved in building the university, but whether Charles was a direct descendant of any particular Dr. Tufts I'm not sure.

Mike Welch said...

The History of Woburn says that Thompson went to learn mathematics with a Mr Hill in Medford at the approximate age of 10. Perhaps that is where they met.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve seen an 1842 article saying that Brooks and Thompson met while the former was studying under Dr. Simon Tufts after turning fourteen. Thompson would have been thirteen or more at that time. That article doesn't say Thompson was also learning from Tufts.

Later authors said either that both Brooks and Thompson were studying under Tufts or that they had met while Brooks was attending the district (i.e., town) school.

Unfortunately, Hill is such a common name and word that I can't find any mention of a Medford schoolteacher named Hill.

So the specifics seem hard to pin down. There was probably only a small population of wealthy farmers' sons north of Boston thirsting for advanced education, so it's possible that Brooks, Thompson, and Loammi Baldwin found each other even when they weren't all learning from the same masters.