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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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

“General Fry, that wonderful man”

Back on Friday, I listed all the New England generals whom Gen. George Washington found along the siege lines when he arrived in Massachusetts in July 1775. The next few postings have detailed what happened to all those men—except one.

Joseph Frye (1712-1794), appointed a Massachusetts general on 21 June, was working closely with Gen. Artemas Ward when they learned of the Continental Congress’s choice of generals. That list didn’t include Frye. Ward personally went out to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Watertown to talk to its leaders about sending a full list of its appointees to Philadelphia. At least that’s how Frye recalled the situation the following spring.

Frye agreed to stay on the job until his promotion came through. When Ward moved to Roxbury in late July to oversee the southern wing of the army, Frye went with him. In August, some Continental Congress delegates visited Ward’s divisional headquarters. Frye asked what happened to his commission.

The visitors answered that “in the letter sent to them in regard to him and others, his Christian name was not mentioned, and…they could not satisfy themselves it was he.” Was there any other military man in Massachusetts named Frye? Certainly not such a prominent one. Whatever the excuse, there was still no Continental appointment. Frye gave the delegates his résumé and stayed on.

Occasionally that summer, Washington’s general orders referred to “Frye’s brigade,” but officially he was still just the senior colonel, not a brigadier general. Washington did want another brigadier. He just didn’t particularly want Frye. That’s clear in a 31 August letter to the Congress in which he mentioned two candidates for that rank.

The first was an old colleague from the French & Indian War, Col. John Armstrong: “his general military Conduct, & Spirit much approved by all who served with him; besides which, his Character was distinguished by an Enterprize against the Indians, which he plann’d with great Judgment, & executed with equal Courage, & Success.”

As for Joseph Frye:
He entered into the Service as early as 1745, & rose thro’ the different military Ranks in the succeeding Wars, to that of Colonel, untill last June, when he was appointed a Major General by the Congress of this Province. From these Circumstances together with the favourable report made to me of him I presume he sustained the Character of a good Officer—Tho’ I do not find it distinguished by any peculiar Service.
The Congress got the message and commissioned Armstrong, but he served in the south.

On 12 October, Frye heard that headquarters didn’t expect to receive a new brigadier appointment in the near future. He left for his home in Maine, where he was laying out what would become Fryeburg. (Above is his surveyor’s compass, courtesy of the Virtual Museum of Surveying.)

Once the old colonel was a safe distance away, Washington wrote to Philadelphia on 2 November: “I must beg leave to recall the attention of the Congress to the Appointment of a Brigadier General—an Officer as necessary to a Brigade as a Colonel is to a Regiment, and will be exceedingly wanted in the new Arrangement.” The next month he passed on the name of Henry Babcock of Rhode Island. (That was before Babcock went mad.)

In January the Congress finally decided to make Joseph Frye a brigadier in the army at Boston. That news took a while to reach Maine. Frye arrived back at the siege lines on 15 February, and Washington gave Frye his commission the next day. On the 24th, he sent Frye a short note about chaplains. And that’s the only message to the man in the commander-in-chief’s correspondence.

Which is not to say that Washington didn’t write about him. On 7 March he told his former secretary, Joseph Reed, that Frye “keeps his room, and talks learnedly of emetics, cathartics, &c. For my own part, I see nothing but a declining life that matters [to] him.”

The day after the last British ship sailed from Boston, Frye sent in his resignation from the army, effective 11 April. Washington wrote to Charles Lee about that detail: “the choice of the day became a matter of great speculation, and remained profoundly mysterious till he exhibited his account, when there appeared neither more nor less in it, than the completion of three calender months.” In other words, Frye wanted to be paid for a full quarter of the year.

On 1 April, Washington told Reed:
General Fry, that wonderful man, has made a most wonderful hand of it. . . . He has drawn three hundred and seventy-five dollars, never done one day’s duty, scarce been three times out of his house, discovered that he was too old and too infirm for a moving camp, but remembers that he has been young, active, and very capable of doing what is now out of his power to accomplish; and therefore has left Congress to find out another man capable of making, if possible, a more brilliant figure than he has done
Washington was rarely that free with his opinions in official correspondence.

To be sure, Frye was more than two decades older than Washington. He had served in King George’s War and the French & Indian War, writing the standard account of the siege of Fort William Henry. He may have been better off staying retired. Still, he was healthy enough to live another eighteen years to the age of eighty-two.

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