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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Saturday, November 10, 2012

“Better…to lose four Spencers than half a Putnam

As I described yesterday, the biggest managerial challenge Gen. George Washington faced when he arrived in Cambridge on 2 July 1775 was sorting out the generals who would serve under him. The Continental Congress had made a list of major and brigadier generals, but its ranking didn’t match the set of commanders Washington found in Massachusetts or how they had organized themselves.

Fortunately, the commander-in-chief had some help in solving the problem. The nearby colonial governments did their part. After Nathaniel Folsom saw that the Congress had chosen John Sullivan to be the one general from New Hampshire (based on the enthusiastic recommendation of Congress delegate John Sullivan), he went home. And New Hampshire put him in charge of its militia.

Similarly, the Massachusetts government saved face for John Whitcomb, who hadn’t been that enthusiastic about serving in the army, by electing him to its Council. During a Continental Army inquiry in late July witnesses still called him “General Whitcomb,” but the official record referred to him as “Colonel John Whitcomb, who is styled by the foregoing deponents General.”

Joseph Spencer had stormed off to Hartford, Connecticut, to complain that the Congress had promoted Israel Putnam over him. He brought a letter signed by many Connecticut officers supporting him. But that action hurt his cause by making him look selfish and unprofessional.

On 11 July young officer Samuel Blachley Webb wrote to his stepfather, Congress delegate Silas Deane:
I have since been to Roxbury, and find the officers, many of them, heartily sick of what they have done, in particular, Maj. [Return Jonathan] Meiggs,—who says he was forced to sign what the others did—to keep peace; and says he had rather serve under Putnam than Spencer. You’ll find Generals Washington and [Charles] Lee, are vastly more fond, and think higher of Putnam, than any man in the army. . . . Better is it for us to lose four Spencers than half a Putnam.
In Philadelphia, Deane and his colleague Eliphalet Dyer were so embarrassed they agreed not to seek any promotion for Spencer from the Congress.

Back in Hartford the colony’s Committee of Safety handled the matter:
Samuel Huntington and William Williams were desired to wait on General Spencer, at Gray’s, the tavern where he was just arrived, and confer with him on the subject-matter of his dissatisfaction, &c., and endeavour to remove, &c., and reconcile him cheerfully to pursue the service; which they did accordingly.
Spencer rode back to the siege lines, arriving on 19 July. In later years, Washington probably wouldn’t have accepted Spencer’s behavior, but on that date the commander-in-chief had been on the job less than three weeks. Spencer was almost two decades older and had served in King George’s War and the Seven Years’ War. His name was on that official Continental Army commission. It was easier for Washington to overlook Spencer’s hissyfit than to make an issue of it.

Nevertheless, Gen. Washington probably didn’t harbor warm feelings about this brigadier. And Gen. Spencer made no particular contribution to the siege. Later in the war he commanded one campaign, an aborted attack on British positions at Newport, and then served in a single session of the Continental Congress.

[The image above comes courtesy of the Colonel Spencer Inn in Campton, New Hampshire. I have no idea if it’s an accurate portrait of the man.]

TOMORROW: Saving Gen. Thomas.

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