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, April 19, 2013

The Death of Luther Blanchard

As I described yesterday, Luther Blanchard was an eighteen-year-old fifer when the Revolutionary War broke out. He was wounded in the fighting at the North Bridge in Concord—but not badly enough to keep him from continuing to march with the Acton militia company throughout the day.

Furthermore, Luther Blanchard was well enough to enlist on 24 April as a private in the company of Capt. William Smith of Lincoln, assigned to Col. John Nixon’s regiment. That regiment was in the thick of the fight at Bunker Hill in June. Luther was listed as a corporal in his company on 1 August. On 30 September, he was “reported dead.” His older brother Calvin returned from Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition against Québec months later to learn that Luther had died.

Nineteenth-century historians provided contradictory timelines for Luther Blanchard’s death. Samuel Adams Drake’s Middlesex County history of 1879 stated:
Though the wound that day appeared slight, and only briefly detained him from his company, it became the cause of his death soon after.
D. Hamilton Hurd’s Middlesex County history of 1890 stated exactly how soon, citing a Blanchard descendant as its source:
He followed on in the pursuit of the British on their retreat to Boston, fifing with all the vigor of his manly strength, which grew less as the excitement of the day began to tell upon his wasted forces. The wound, which he did not think serious at first, grew worse as he proceeded, and on reaching Cambridge he was obliged to be taken to a hospital, where he died.
Finally, according to Lucie Caroline Hager’s Boxborough: A New England Town and Its People (1891):
The wound appeared slight, but he died three days later in consequence of it. His body was brought to Littleton and laid in the old cemetery there. Today the spot is unmarked and unknown.
But clearly Luther Blanchard didn’t die in April 1775. He was not only alive in August but healthy enough to be a corporal. Unfortunately, neither Continental Army records nor the published vital records of Littleton offer any more information.

In 1895, the Blanchard family erected a memorial which said: “Luther was the first man hit by a British bullet at the old North Bridge, and died in the service of his country a few months later.” (The monument shown above courtesy of Find a Grave appears to be a later one.)

In a small book about Luther and Calvin Blanchard published in 1899 by a descendant, writer Alfred Sereno Hudson argued that the wound at the North Bridge had indeed been fatal:
Calvin Blanchard always stated in unequivocal terms that his brother Luther died from the effects of that wound; and, repeatedly, did his son Simon state what he had so often heard from his father’s lips about his uncle Luther.
The family also understood that Luther died in a building of Harvard College. Hudson says that the college buildings were used as a hospital, but in fact by the fall of 1775 they were used only as barracks. The hospitals were kept a distance from the bulk of the men. Of course, one doesn’t have to be a hospital to die, and people from rural Massachusetts might think of all Cambridge as Harvard.

Curiously, the family’s 1895 memorial inscription doesn’t say that Luther Blanchard died of his original wound. It simply said he died while in the army. There was a dysentery epidemic in 1775 which killed many soldiers and civilians. Overall more Revolutionary War soldiers died in camp than in battle. So while it’s possible Luther’s April wound was indeed the cause of his death, it may be more likely that he died of an unrelated disease and his family came to blame the old wound.

In any event, the teen-aged fifer at the North Bridge did not live to see twenty.

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