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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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Burying the Bodies at the North Bridge

At the end of 19 Apr 1775, the people of Concord faced a big problem. Massachusetts was, of course, now in armed rebellion against the royal authorities holding the province’s capital. There were dead and dying royal soldiers in town. But Concord shared those problems with other towns.

The big problem specific to Concord was that one of those British soldiers had not only been shot but had obviously suffered a major head wound inflicted at close range. An inhabitant named Ammi White, born about 1754, had struck a wounded and defenseless man with his hatchet. The town’s minister, the Rev. William Emerson, had apparently seen him do this. See D. Michael Ryan’s article for more detail.

Concordians dug a grave for the soldiers who died near the North Bridge, put the bodies inside, and covered them up. But then Gen. Thomas Gage had a “Circumstantial Account” of the battle published in Boston, and (as quoted yesterday) it said that one soldier at the bridge had been “scalped, his head much mangled, and his ears cut off, though not quite dead.” So that required a response.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress published its own report complaining about British soldiers’ behavior, particularly later in the day. That narrative also stated:
A paper having been printed in Boston, representing, that one of the British troops killed at the bridge at Concord, was scalped, and the ears cut off from the head, supposed to be done in order to dishonour the Massachusetts people, and to make them appear to be savage and barbarous, the following deposition was taken that the truth might be known.
We, the subscribers, of lawful age, testify and say, that we buried the dead bodies of the King’s troops that were killed at the North-Bridge in Concord, on the nineteenth day of April, 1775, where the action first began, and that neither of those persons were scalped, nor their ears cut off, as has been represented.

Zechariah Brown,
Thomas Davis, jun.

Concord, May 11th, 1775.
Those men gave their oath to magistrate Duncan Ingraham. As a merchant captain, he had been part of the genteel mob that attacked Loyalist printer John Mein in Boston in 1769. He retired to Concord in 1772 and two years later acted friendly enough with British army officers to have a Patriot mob attack him—symbolically, by attaching a sheep’s head and guts to his chaise.

By May 1775, however, Ingraham was firmly among the Patriots. The deposition he helped create deflected Gage’s specific charges: scalping and cutting off ears. Brown and Davis didn’t say anything about whether they’d noticed if one of those soldiers had suffered a terrible head wound. As with many other depositions that the Massachusetts Whigs collected in the 1770s, I think this testimony was the truth but not the whole truth.

TOMORROW: Did that bury the controversy?


Citoyen david said...

9, May 1775 (Tuesday)
Report read which in Congress opinion was a falsehood and a committee is appointed to consider thes false accounts; “When Capt. Parsons returned with the three companies over the bridge, at Concord, they observed three soldiers on the ground, one of them scalped, his head much mangled, and his ears cut off, though no quite dead.” .. “Resolved, That Col Barrett be, and hereby directed, to make strict inquiry..”
“Journal of the Second Provincial Congress” by William Lincoln (page 209)

Committee of Correspondence

J. L. Bell said...

Col. James Barrett was, of course, the provincial officer in charge of the troops at the North Bridge, as well as the owner of the farm that was the principal target of the raid on Concord. So his inquiry might not have been seen as disinterested.