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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Thursday, May 16, 2013

“Very barbarously broke his scull and let out his brains”

As I quoted two days ago, in the spring of 1775 five British soldiers testified to seeing one of their comrades with “the Skin over his Eye’s Cut and also the Top part of His Ears cut off” near the North Bridge in Concord. On 19 April, army officers were already interpreting that as a scalping.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress published a deposition, quoted yesterday, in which two men who buried the British soldiers at the bridge denied any of them had been scalped. Did that lay the controversy to rest, along with the dead men?

No, it didn’t, because the Rev. William Gordon of Roxbury acknowledged the attack in a letter published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 7 June 1775:
The narrative [from Gen. Thomas Gage] tells us that as Capt. [Lawrence] Parsons returned with his 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, tho’ not quite dead; all this is not fiction, tho’ the most is. The Rev. Mr. [William] Emerson informed me how the matter was, with great concern for its having happened.

A young fellow coming over the bridge in order to join the country people, and seeing the soldier wounded and attempting to get up, not being under the feelings of humanity, very barbarously broke his scull and let out his brains, with a small axe (apprehend of the tomahawk kind) but as to his being scalped and having his ears cut off, there was nothing in it. The poor object lived an hour or two before he expired.
In addition to appearing in a major American newspaper, Gordon’s account was also published in a New England almanac for 1776.

Thirteen years later, Gordon (working with a ghostwriter) adapted his letters into The Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America. Still presented as a series of letters written as the war went on, that book said:
The fire was returned, a skirmish ensued, and the troops were forced to retreat, having several men killed and wounded, and lieutenant Gould (who would have been killed, had not a minister present prevented) with some others taken. One of their wounded, who was left behind, attempting to get up, was assaulted by a young fellow going after the pursuers to join them, who, not being under the feelings of humanity, barbarously broke his skull with a small hatchet, and let out his brains, but neither scalped him nor cut off his ears. This event may give rise to some malevolent pen to write, that many of the killed and wounded at Lexington, were not only scalped, but had their eyes forced out of the sockets by the fanatics of New-England; not one was so treated either there or at Concord. You have the real fact. The poor object languished for an hour or two before he expired.
In 1775, Gordon named Emerson as the eyewitness he heard about the event from. In 1788 he credited “a minister present” with saving Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould’s life, and that could only have been Emerson. And in both cases Gordon acknowledged that “a young fellow” had indeed hatcheted one of the wounded British soldiers.

Thus, very early on an American source, sympathetic to the Patriot cause, acknowledged this attack on a wounded man at the bridge and condemned it. Both that author and his source were ministers, and they clearly wanted their condemnation of that act in the public record. It was therefore very difficult for Americans to maintain the position implied by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s report, that nothing had happened.

Instead, later American authors offered excuses for that act. Some wrote that the young local was acting in self-defense, or out of mercy. Others said he was a black slave or a children, implying that the respectable people of Concord should not be responsible. In fact, he was Ammi White, a young militiaman who remained in Concord for years.

TOMORROW: The British soldiers buried at the bridge.

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