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, September 25, 2013

The Real Story of “Granny Spencer”

Boston 1775 reader Bill Welsch left a comment on the “Granny” Gates posting asking about another Continental general said to be nicknamed “Granny”: Joseph Spencer (1714-1799).

Connecticut appointed Spencer its top general in the spring of 1775, making him the oldest commander around Boston. But then the Continental Congress, probably influenced by reports of the “Battle of Chelsea Creek,” ranked Israel Putnam higher in its army. Spencer went home in a pet, hurting his reputation. He returned to the army, but his documented contribution to the siege is almost nil.

In 1777 the Congress assigned Spencer to drive the British out of Newport, Rhode Island. He spent many months gathering troops, including militia called up from the nearby colonies, and then called off the campaign.

In 1850 Benjamin Cowell wrote in Spirit of ’76 in Rhode Island:
One of the old soldiers from Massachusetts who is still living, but nearly a hundred years old, told the writer that one morning, General Spencer coming out of his Quarters, found the following doggerell in large letters placed in full view:
“Israel wanted bread
The Lord sent them Manna—
Rhode Island wants a head
And Congress sends a granny”
This was enough; after this, the Major General was called “Granny Spencer” as long as he remained in Rhode Island.
How solid is that story?

The nickname is very solid, according to mentions in Revolutionary War pension applications both before and after Cowell’s book:
  • Benjamin Cole, 1832: “…the company belonged to the division of militia under General Spencer. The applicant says they used to call him ‘Granny Spencer.’”
  • Jonathan Waterhouse, 1833: “The Genl. was called Granny Spencer, a Coward…”
  • David Coy, 1853: “That the General commending at the time of his serving in that station he thinks was Spencer, who was at Providence and he thinks he was not a brave man as they used to call him Granny Spencer.”
In addition, in 1992 the New England Historic and Genealogical Register reported Daniel Matteson’s heirs applied for a pension by saying he “Served under General ‘Granny’ Spencer.” I bet a search of the files would yield even more references. And unlike the undocumented stories about “Granny Gates” (which I accepted myself until this month), Spencer’s nickname was not a fond one.

[As I wrote before, the image above comes courtesy of the Colonel Spencer Inn in Campton, New Hampshire. I have no idea if it’s an accurate portrait of the man.]

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