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, May 14, 2013

British Corpses at the North Bridge

I’m returning to the Battle of Lexington and Concord for another series of essays. Later this week I’ll post some work by another researcher that I’ve been hoping to share for years. But first I want to lay the groundwork for that.

In the middle of the morning on 19 Apr 1775, three British army companies were holding the North Bridge in Concord while three others had marched to James Barrett’s farm to search for cannon, gunpowder, and other military stores.

The soldiers around the bridge were from the light infantry companies of the 4th, 10th, and 43rd Regiments. On a rise above them was a mass of provincial militia.

Aroused by the sight of smoke from the center of town, those provincial companies began to march down to the bridge. The king’s soldiers became alarmed. Some fired at the advancing men. The provincials fired back.

Lt. William Sutherland of the 38th Regiment, who had volunteered to accompany this mission, later wrote that he was wounded and withdrew under fire, “leaving two of those that turned out with me dead on the Spot, one of which I am told they afterwards Scalped.”

That claim of scalping came from the British soldiers who were at Barrett’s farm and marched back across the bridge some time later, after both sides had withdrawn from that spot. Capt. John Gaspard Battier of the 5th’s light company recorded this testimony:
Corpl. Gordon, Thos. Lugg, Wm. Lewis, Charles Carrier & Richd. Grimshaw in the presence of Captn. Battier of the 5th. Light Company do solemnly declare, when they were returning to Join the Grenadiers they saw a Man belonging to the Light Company of the 4th. regiment with the Skin over his Eye’s Cut and also the Top part of His Ears cut off
That’s one of the very few accounts of this battle that the British army gathered from its enlisted men.

News of that atrocity spread among the redcoats. Capt. Edward Thoroton Gould, taken prisoner in the afternoon, later testified that he’d heard the report “From a captain that advanced up the country.” Lt. Sutherland included it in his report for Gen. Thomas Gage, signed on 26 April. Ens. Jeremy Lister, writing after 1782, recalled seeing four soldiers’ bodies mutilated, clearly an exaggeration.

Soon after the battle Gen. Gage published a broadside offering a “Circumstantial Account of an Attack…on his Majesty’s troops,” which stated:
When Capt. [Lawrence] Parsons returned with the three companies over the bridge, they observed three soldiers on the ground; one of them scalped, his head much mangled, and his ears cut off, though not quite dead; a sight which struck the soldiers with horror.
Sutherland remembered two soldiers “dead on the Spot” while Parsons and his men saw three. The officer in charge of the British men at the bridge, Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie, later reported three privates killed, though he didn’t write when and where they died or where he’d last seen their bodies. Laurie didn’t write about a scalping—he reported only what he’d personally seen, and that attack allegedly happened after he’d led his surviving men back to Concord center. But plenty of other soldiers saw a mutilated corpse of one of their comrades.

TOMORROW: Burying the evidence.

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