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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Monday, May 20, 2013

James Hall, American Soldier

Yesterday I shared the first half of an essay by Dan Lacroix about stories told in Westford and Cavendish, Vermont, about a man named James Hall, said to have deserted from the British column on 19 Apr 1775 after being hit by a provincial musket ball and playing dead.

How reliable are those accounts? For example, did Sgt. Hall really try to shoot “Minuteman Wright of Westford” at Concord’s North Bridge? Did John Gray of Westford really steal his “military cap with its ostrich feathers”? And what might those details say about the underlying story, that James Hall wasn’t one of the British dead interred in Concord? Here’s more of Dan’s report:

Prior to Henry B. Atherton’s 1875 newspaper stories, the only Westford men reported to have been at the North Bridge at the time of the skirmish were Lt. Col. John Robinson, Sgt. Joshua Parker, the Rev. Joseph Thaxter, and Oliver Hildreth. The earliest any of the eight documented Wright men who served that day is said to have arrived at the bridge is as the skirmish was ending.

Moreover, even the Lowell Daily Courier article questions the existence of John Gray, a man who continues to elude proper documentation. It’s likely that Atherton gained his knowledge of Westford’s eighteenth-century residents by listening to the stories told by the descendents of the dozens of Westford veterans who emigrated to the Cavendish/Ludlow region of Vermont after the war. But was that oral history reliable?

Further details of James Hall’s life in America after 1775 are supported by vital records, as well as a family document found in a carton of the personal papers belonging to his grandson James Ashton [Under-Lyne] Hall (1816-1845) many years after his premature death. In this more straightforward telling of the story we find that following the grazing of his shoulder James Hall deserted when he found it “convenient.” He then returned to Westford with John Hildreth and spent the next year working for him and his brother Ephraim Hildreth, 3rd. For a time he moved to neighboring Chelmsford and took up the blacksmithing trade with Phineas Chamberlain (1745-1813), whose house still stands today (shown above and in this report).

By 1779 James had grown so fond of his adopted country and its ambitions for independence that he took up the call for nine months’ service in the Continental Army. His time was spent in the Hudson Highlands at West Point with Col. Michael Jackson’s 8th Massachusetts Regiment, part of it during the “winter of the deep snow.” For this service he later received a pension.

One of the many transcribed period documents in Wilson Waters’s History of Chelmsford provides a further example of James Hall’s support for the cause: we find him listed in 1781 along with Chamberlain, his blacksmith mentor, and a class of men who provided financial incentive for another man’s service in the army.

Soon after, the lure of freshly established communities in Vermont drew James and his blacksmithing trade to Cavendish with other Westford veterans. He returned in January of 1784 to marry Thankful Hildreth, and brought her back to Cavendish that same winter. During the 1790s they returned to Massachusetts, residing in Acton and Westford, before settling one final time in Vermont shortly before the turn of the century. In 1822, while living with his son James Whoral Hall in Reading, Vermont, this veteran died at the age of 69.

Like so many of his fellow revolutionary soldiers, James Hall’s weather-worn memorial stone proudly establishes him as “A Soldier of the Revolution.” Not surprisingly, there is no mention of his service to the King, though it very prominently declares his Lancashire birth, as well as the fact that he “Emigrated” from mother England in 1774.
So was Pvt. James Hall of the 4th Regiment one of the three British soldiers killed in the fire at the North Bridge and buried in Concord? Or did his comrades simply think that he was killed, allowing him to take up a new life as a New Englander? If James Hall wasn’t buried in Concord, who was? Or were there two James Halls in the British column, one who died and one who deserted? Very interesting questions. Thanks, Dan!

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