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, September 30, 2013

News from the Federal Government

Last week the Library of Congress issued this announcement about the possibility of a federal government shutdown because of the impasse in the House of Representatives:
September 27, 2013
Advisory: Possible Federal Shutdown
In the event of a temporary shutdown of the federal government, beginning Tuesday, October 1, all Library of Congress buildings will close to the public and researchers. All public events will be cancelled and web sites will be inaccessible.
Websites affected include the American Memory and Thomas services.

From the National Archives and Records Administration contingency plan (P.D.F. download):
All operations funded by annual appropriations will be suspended. In the event of an appropriations lapse, NARA will immediately suspend all appropriated activities. This includes programs – such as the NHPRC [National Historical Publications and Records Commission] grants program – that are funded by sources other than annual appropriations but are performed by employees funded from annual appropriations. . . .

NARA Federal Records Centers will remain open. Where a Federal Records Center shares occupancy with archival or other appropriated operations, the portion of the facility that is used exclusively for appropriated activities will be closed to employees and the public and will be secured. . . .

NARA public websites will remain online, but will contain a banner that indicates that the National Archives is closed. The website may be updated to indicate that NARA events have been cancelled, depending on the duration of the shutdown.
Founders Online is a National Archives site. It’s still in beta, meaning it’s being worked on, and that might mean it gets frozen or taken offline if the programmers are furloughed.

As of this moment, the National Park Service webpage about the possible shutdown is being revised. The agency’s contingency plan (P.D.F. download) says, “staffing will be held to the very minimum for the protection of life, property, and public health and safety. Only personnel absolutely required to support these activities will remain on duty.” The plan calls for more than 21,000 N.P.S. employees to be furloughed if the new fiscal year starts tomorrow with no appropriations.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

“Voucher for rations delivered at the Port of Williamston”?

Last month the Boston Globe reported on the opening of a vault in the Massachusetts State House. Officials found nothing earth-shaking inside, and the contents produced more small mysteries than they solved.
But perhaps the most intriguing item, provenance unknown, was a note inked in elaborate cursive script on a small piece of aged paper dated 1787: “Voucher for rations delivered at the Port of Williamston.”

Treasury staff members said they had no idea where the item was from or its significance. But that note and other historical documents from the safe are set to be examined this week by a specialist from the state archives.
That document is not among the items shown in the photo gallery accompanying the article, so I’m working with no more information than in those paragraphs. But here are some guesses.

Might “Williamston” be how this receipt writer spelled “Williamstown”?

Might “Port” actually be “Post” or “Fort”?

Why would Massachusetts have supplied food to a military post in Williamstown? There were forts built there when Englishmen settled the town in the 1750s, but they had long been put to other use by 1787.

That was the the year of the Shays Rebellion, however, when special militia regiments recruited in and around Boston marched west to confront an uprising of farmers and veterans. After a couple of skirmishes, the rebellion melted away (as did the militia, a few weeks later).

Some of the uprising’s leaders found refuge in Vermont, then an independent state. Militia officer Royall Tyler crossed the border to try to capture Daniel Shays in early 1787. He wrote home of “Driving 40 miles into the State of New York at the Head of a Party to apprehend Shay” and “closing the Pases to Canada.” Williamstown is at the border of Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont, so perhaps that was where Tyler’s militiamen were stationed and supplied for a while.

(Photograph courtesy of teacher Mr. Voelger.)

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Unpacking Bunker Hill

Don Hagist has an interesting article about Bunker Hill at All Things Liberty: The Journal of the American Revolution. While framed [!] as a discussion of Howard Pyle’s famous (and still missing) painting of a doomed British advance, the essay is really a fine dissection of some myths and misconceptions about the battle.

For instance:
Although British soldiers did use knapsacks (that didn’t look anything like Pyle’s), they didn’t wear them on that day. Why would they? The knapsack carried nice things like spare shoes, shirts and socks, great for a long campaign but silly to lug along when attacking a fort only a mile away from your barracks.

In preparation for the assault, General [William] Howe explicitly ordered the troops to march with only “with their Arms, Ammunition, Blankets, and provisions;” the latter two items because he correctly anticipated that they’d spend the night camped under the stars after the attack. Knapsacks remained behind in barracks like they usually did, to be brought up later in wagons when an encampment was firmly established.

Pyle can’t be blamed too heavily, though; authors have for years written that British troops hauled their knapsacks up Bunker Hill, one even doing so after presenting the order to carry only blankets.
A footnote elaborates:
The error appears as early as 1794 when Charles Stedman wrote that the troops were “encumbered with three days provisions, their knapsacks on their backs” and estimated their total burden at 125 pounds. Although Stedman served in America (but not at Bunker Hill) and is in many ways reliable, his estimate of the soldier’s burden is nearly twice other estimates for a fully loaded soldier – and the men at Bunker Hill were not fully loaded.
I still love that painting, but Don’s essay forces me to look at its details in a new way.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Real Story of “Boiling Water”

On 18 June 1756, early in the French and Indian War, Lt. Charles Lee wrote home to his sister Sidney from the New York frontier:

I have the honour to be adopted by the Mohocks into the Tribe of the bear under the name of Ounewaterika, which signifies boiling water, or one whose spirits are never asleep, by which I am entitled to a Seat and the privilege of Smoking a pipe in their Councils; but I do not flatter myself that I am so much indebted to my own merit for these dignities as to my alliance with one of the most illustrious families of the Six Nations.

My Wife is daughter to the famous White Thunder who is Belt of Wampum to the Senakas which is in fact their Lord Treasurer. She is a very great beauty and is more like your friend Mrs. Griffith than anybody I know. I shall say nothing of her accomplishments for you must be certain that a Woman of her fashion cannot be without many.

I must mention to you an instance of gratitude which a young Indian shew’d me lately. He is called Joseph and has liv’d with me a great deal. About a month ago, he says to me, Ounewaterika, you are my best Brother and I will make you a handsome present that you may remember me. I cou’d not conceive what he meant; but he immediately set out for Tikenderoga (the French fort) where he lay sculking for two or three days until he had an opportunity of knocking on the head a French Sergeant, and taking off his scalp, with which he hurried away to me and presented it to me elegantly dress’d up with ribbons. You may think that I am endeavouring to make my Letter Romantic but I give you my word and honour that it is every syllable facts.
Lee went on to become a lieutenant colonel in the British army, then a general in the American army.

Should we count “Ounewaterika,” or “Boiling Water,” as a nickname, like those of other prominent Revolutionary War figures I’ve been assessing?

In fact, some of Lee’s friends in England used “Boiling Water” as his nickname. Biographer John R. Alden quotes Sir Charles Davers writing to Horatio Gates sometimes in the late 1760s, “It would make the heart of so callous a bouger as I am to jump if I could meet you and boiling water, & Hall [John Hall-Stevenson] somewhere or other.”

I don’t have the expertise to know if “Ounewaterika” is a good transliteration of a Mohawk phrase, and if “Boiling Water” is an accurate translation of it. But biographers agree that it’s an excellent metaphor for Lee’s roiling, powerful, and dangerous personality.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Real Story of “Old Put”

When I wrote yesterday’s essay about Gen. Joseph Spencer’s nickname, I asked myself, “And now will someone ask about ‘Old Put’?” And sure enough, on the Boston 1775 Facebook page Peter Fisk asked about “Old Put,” the fabled nickname for Gen. Israel Putnam.

And my answer to myself yesterday was, “Well, of course Putnam was called ‘Old Put’! He was old. His last name was Putnam. Every author in the world says he was called ‘Old Put’!” But I was fooled by every author saying Gen. Horatio Gates’s men fondly referred to him as “Granny,” which is where this week started off. So I decided I should calm down and do the research to answer Peter’s question.

There are several contemporaneous references to Putnam as “Old Put,” almost all of them coming from the very top of the Continental Army: Gen. George Washington’s headquarters.

  • Mustermaster general Stephen Moylan to former military secretary Joseph Reed, 5 Dec 1775: “I would have given a good deal that you was here last Saturday when the stores arrived at camp. Such universal joy ran, through the whole as if each grasped victory in his hand, to crown the glorious scene there intervened one truly ludicrous, which was old PUT mounted on a large mortar which was fixed in its bed for the occasion, with a bottle of rum in his hand, standing parson to christen, while godfather [Thomas] Mifflin gave it the name of CONGRESS.”
  • Moylan to Reed, 1 Feb 1776: “The Bay is open, everything thaws except Old Put. He is still as hard as ever, crying out for powder—powder—ye gods, give us powder!”
  • Reed to Washington, 15 Mar 1776: “I suppose old Putt was to command the Detachment intended for Boston on the 5th Inst.—as I do not know any Officer but himself who could have been depended on for so hazardous a Service.”
  • Washington back to Reed, 1 Apr 1776: “The 4000 Men destind for Boston on the 5th; if the Ministerialists had attempted our Works on Dorchester, or the Lines at Roxbury, were to have been headed by old Put.”
  • Lt. Col. Joseph Ward, formerly aide to Gen. Artemas Ward, to John Adams, 9 May 1777: “Old Put—says, ‘Fact now is the time, I am for attacking the dogs without delay, drive them off that we me go home about our business’—thus he.”
So it’s hard to establish a nickname more solidly and officially than that.

Oddly, however, I didn’t stumble across any examples of enlisted men referring to their general as “Old Put.” The closest I found was veteran John Greenwood referring in his memoir to an operation ”planned by old Putnam.” More references might be buried in pension reminiscences or the like, but I was surprised, given how freely veterans spoke about his fellow Connecticut commander Spencer.

The Army and Navy Chronicle for 1837 yields one anecdote, credited to the New York Gazette, about that issue:
Original Revolutionary Anecdote.—

When the American army was stationed in Putnam county [New York], during the Revolutionary war, one of the soldiers saw a boat approaching, and he cried out, there comes “old Put,” a name familiarly applied to the gallant General Putnam.

A young upstart officer hearing this caused him to be put under arrest for speaking disrespectfully of the General.

On the arrival of General Putnam on shore, he inquired what that man was sent away for?

The officer said, he has spoken disrespectfully of your Excellency.

What did he say? inquired the General.

He called you “old Put.”

So I am old Put, said he; release him instantly.
That may be only a legend, but it certainly sounds true to Israel Putnam’s character.

TOMORROW: Might as well do a full week—the general with the most exotic nickname.

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.]

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Mystery of “Sir Jack Brag”

In a comment on yesterday’s posting, Sean Kelleher brought up another alleged nickname for Gen. John Burgoyne: “Sir Jack Brag.” How far back does that go?

The nickname appears in print for the first time in late 1842, in an issue of Graham's Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. The editor closed an issue with an article called “The Minstrelsy of the Revolution,” collecting a bunch of songs and humorous poems on Revolutionary subjects. That article said:
Burgoyne, more frequently than any other British officer, was the butt of the continental wits. His verses were parodied, his amours celebrated in songs of the mess-table, and his boasts and the weaker points in his nature caricatured in ballads and petite comedies. We obtained a manuscript copy of the song from which the following verses are quoted, from an octogenarian Vermonter who, with the feeble frame, shrill voice and silvered locks of eighty-seven, would give the echoing chorus with as much enthusiasm as when he joined in it with his camp-companions more than half a century ago.

THE PROGRESS OF SIR JACK BRAG.

Said Burgoyne to his men, as they pass’d in review,
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo, boys!
These rebels their course very quickly will rue,
And fly as the leaves ’fore the autumn tempest flew,
When him who is your leader they know, boys!
They with men have now to deal,
And we soon will make them feel—
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo, boys!
That a loyal Briton’s arm and a loyal Briton’s steel
Can put to flight a rebel as quick as other foe, boys!
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo—
Tullalo,tullalo, tullalo-o-o-o, boys!

As to Sa-ra-tog’ he came, thinking how to jo the game,
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo, boys!
He began to see the grubs, in the branches of his fame,
He began to have the trembles lest a flash should be the flame,
For which he had agreed his perfume to forego, boys!
No lack of skill, but fates,
Shall make us yield to GATES,
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo, boys!
The devils may have leagued, as you know, with the States,
But we never will be beat by any mortal foe, boys!
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo—
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo-o-o-o, boys!

We believe the “Progress of Sir Jack Brag” has never been printed. The only clue to its authorship with which we are acquainted is the signature, “G. of H.” It was probably written soon after the defeat of its hero at Saratoga.
The editor of that magazine was Vermont native Rufus Wilmot Griswold. In 1844 he reprinted the article under his name as part of “Curiosities of American Literature,” a supplement to a British book called Curiosities of Literature, by I. C. D’Israeli.

By the time Griswold published that song, however, the British novelist Theodore Hook had created a character named “Jack Brag.” His 1837 novel was about a social climber in London. According to a biography of Hook, he based this character on a contemporary acquaintance—which means Burgoyne wasn’t involved.

So one possibility is that the name “Jack Brag” was invented twice, once by Americans lampooning their British enemy and again by a British author lampooning socially ambitious countrymen. Another possibility is that the “Sir Jack Brag” nickname for Burgoyne was known widely enough for it to reach Hook’s ears, and he recycled it for his character. Finally there’s the possibility that Griswold or his informant attached the name of a recent British novel to the words of an old song (whose surviving lyrics don’t include the phrase “Sir Jack Brag”).

I think the song itself is authentic. Like a lot of eighteenth-century satires, it’s written in the voice of the person being caricatured so that he comes across as boastful and (since these lines were probably indeed written after Saratoga) ironically doomed. The result is an American propaganda song that suggests “The devils may have leagued, as you know, with the States”—an odd thing for an American veteran to sing with so much enthusiasm.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Legend of “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne

The past couple of posts have explored the geneses of commonly-stated nicknames for Gen. Horatio Gates and Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend.

During the discussion of those names on the Revlist, Richard Patterson wrote:
Not only is the evidence of Gates being called “Granny” somewhat suspect, but I believe that there are no references to Gen. John Burgoyne being called “Gentleman Johnny” before George Bernard Shaw refers to him as “Gentlemanly Johnny” in his play The Devil’s Disciple.
Shaw’s drama, which premiered in 1897, contains this exchange:
Richard. A thousand pardons. I thought I had the honor of addressing Gentlemanly Johnny.

Sensation among the officers. The sergeant has a narrow escape from a guffaw.

Burgoyne (with extreme suavity). I believe I am Gentlemanly Johnny, sir, at your service. My more intimate friends call me General Burgoyne.
The Google Ngram Viewer indeed shows no references to “Gentleman[ly] Johnny” as a nickname for Burgoyne before the twentieth century. The name seems to have flourished in histories written in the 1910s and 1920s—i.e., enough time for Shaw’s reference to sink into the popular culture with its origin forgotten. Now “Gentleman Johnny” is a standard way to refer to Burgoyne, especially in the titles of biographies about the general.

In Inventing George Washington, Edward Lengel describes the early twentieth century as a period of “debunking” in American historiography, when authors delighted in breaking down the almost saintly descriptions of the nation’s Founders published during the Victorian period, especially around the Centennial. Part of that movement was based on new sources and more clear-eyed analysis, but the debunkers created some myths of their own.

That was the period when alliterative (or near-alliterative) nicknames like “Gentleman Johnny,” “Champagne Charley,” and “Granny Gates” appear to have become received wisdom in history books. Those authors may have been particularly fond of such references as a way to cut the Revolution’s military and political leaders down to size, to make them seem more human. Even if those nicknames were really bunk.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Legend of “Champagne Charley” Townshend

Charles Townshend (1725-1767) was the British Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-1769s responsible for the Customs duties on tea, glass, lead, paper, paper, alcohol, and painter’s colors that became known as “Townshend duties.” Many modern histories say he was nicknamed “Champagne Charley” or “Charlie,” but that phrase arose nearly a century after his death.

Townshend did like champagne. His taste became notorious after he delivered a striking speech in the House of Commons on 8 May 1767. Unabashed gossip Horace Walpole recalled:
It was on that day, and on that occasion, that Charles Townshend displayed in a latitude beyond belief the amazing powers of his capacity, and the no less amazing incongruities of his character. He had taken on himself, early in the day, the examination of the [East India] Company’s conduct; and in a very cool sensible speech on that occasion, and with a becoming consciousness of his own levity, had told the House that he hoped he had atoned for the inconsideration of his past life by the care he had taken of that business. . . .

He returned about eight in the evening, half-drunk with champagne, and more intoxicated with spirits. He rose to speak without giving himself time to learn, and without caring what had been in agitation, except that the motion [proposed in the afternoon] had given an alarm. The first thing he did, was to call God to witness that he had not been consulted on the motion,—a confession implying that he was not consulted on a business in his own department; and the more marvellous, as the disgrace of which he seemed to complain or boast of, was absolutely false. There were sitting round him twelve persons who had been in consultation with him that very morning, and with his assistance had drawn up the motion on his own table. . . .

before he sat down, he had poured forth a torrent of wit, parts, humour, knowledge, absurdity, vanity, and fiction, heightened by all the graces of comedy, the happiness of allusion and quotation, and the buffoonery of farce. To the purpose of the question he said not a syllable. It was a descant on the times, a picture of parties, of their leaders, of their hopes, and defects. It was an encomium and a satire on himself. . . .

Such was the wit, abundance, and impropriety of this speech, that for some days men could talk or inquire of nothing else. “Did you hear Charles Townshend’s champagne speech?” was the universal question. For myself, I protest it was the most singular pleasure of the kind I ever tasted. The bacchanalian enthusiasm of Pindar flowed in torrents less rapid and less eloquent, and inspires less delight, than Townshend’s imagery, which conveyed meaning in every sentence. It was Garrick writing and acting extempore scenes of Congreve.

A light circumstance increased the mirth of the audience. In the fervour of speaking Townshend rubbed off the patch from his eye, which he had represented as grievously cut three days before: no mark was discernible, but to the nearest spectators a scratch so slight, that he might have made, and perhaps had made it himself with a pin.

To me the entertainment of the day was complete. He went to supper with us at Mr. [Henry Seymour] Conway’s, where, the flood of his gaiety not being exhausted, he kept the table in a roar till two in the morning, by various sallies and pictures, the last of which was a scene in which he mimicked inimitably his own wife, and another great lady with whom he fancied himself in love, and both whose foibles and manner he counterfeited to the life.
When Walpole wrote that everyone was asking, “Did you hear Charles Townshend’s champagne speech?” one suspects that Walpole himself was asking that question and spreading that phrase.

It spread far enough that another politician, Sir George Colebrooke, later insisted:
Mr. Townshend loved good living, but had not a strong stomach. He committed therefore frequent excesses, considering his constitution, which would not have been intemperance in another. He was supposed, for instance, to have made a speech in the heat of wine, when that was really not the case. . . .

He had a black ribbon over one of his eyes that day, having tumbled out of bed, probably in a fit of epilepsy, and this added to the impression made on his auditors that he was tipsy, whereas it was a speech he had meditated a great while upon, and it was only by accident that it found utterance that day.

I write with certainty, because Sir George Yonge and I were the only persons who dined with him, and we had but one bottle of champagne after dinner...
Colebrooke’s version matches a lot of the details in Walpole’s, just with more sympathy for Townshend. The term “champagne speech” stuck, especially as Walpole’s memoirs were reprinted in the 1800s and quoted by historians.

In 1866 the English music hall performer George Leybourne introduced the song “Champagne Charlie”, which became a big hit. The next year Punch magazine headlined a short article “Champagne Charley,” beginning:
It is with a gentleman’s reluctance that Mr. Punch has brought himself to print the above vulgarity. But he heeds no sacrifice of feeling when he can instruct. He has just lighted upon an amusing passage in that most entertaining book, Mr. [J. Heneage] Jesse’s Memoirs of George the Third, and it is a triumph of art to be able to append a morsel of readable stuff on such a peg or such a name for a time:—

“Exactly a hundred years ago Charles Townshend delivered one of the most brilliant speeches over heard in the Commons. He had previously spoken with calmness and judgment, then went to dinner with two friends, and re-appeared in the House about eight, half drunk with champagne, and more Intoxicated with spirits. But whatever may have been the source of his inspiration, there flowed from his lips such bursts of impassioned eloquence, such flashes of wit, such bitterness of invective, so varied a torrent of mingled ribaldry and learning, of happiness of allusion, imagery, and quotation, that everybody was enchanted. For some days, says Walpole, the universal question was, ‘Did you hear Charles’s champagne speech?’”

Now, if Townshend had been called Champagne Charley, the words, instead of being intolerable (luckily the cleverest of the burlesque writers, and a respected contributor to Mr. Punch, has wittified the tune) would have been worth remembering. As it is, they inspire Mr. Punch with a desire to kick the person who uses them. When shall we escape the Cad-lyrics of the music-halls?
Note how Mr. Punch managed to express disdain for popular music-hall songs and yet give a good plug for one written by a contributor.

That magazine item appears to have glued the nickname of “Champagne Charley” to Townshend even though it obviously referred to a modern song (and therefore a “vulgarity”) and said Townshend did not have that nickname in his lifetime.

TOMORROW: General John Burgoyne, Gentleman.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Legend of “Granny Gates”

The Revlist, an email discussion group for Revolutionary War reenactors and researchers, has been busy investigating some fabled nicknames from histories of the war.

Jack Kelly, author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards & Pyrotechnics, got off the first shot by writing:

Many historians refer to the fact that Horatio Gates was called “Granny” by his men—e.g., John Ferling [in Almost a Miracle]: “His appearance led his troops to refer to him as ‘Granny Gates,’ though they did not mean it in a derogatory sense.”

The only primary source I can find is a quotation from 1864 by a 102-year-old veteran Samuel Downing who at that time said Gates was an “old granny” looking fellow and claimed (improbably) that [Gen. John] Burgoyne called Gates “Granny” at the Saratoga surrender.
Downing was quoted in The Last Men of the Revolution, which is transcribed here. Specifically, he said:
Gates was an “old granny” looking fellow. When Burgoyne came up to surrender his sword, he said to Gates, “Are you a general? You look more like a granny than you do like a general.”

“I be a granny,” said Gates, ”and I’ve delivered you of ten thousand men to-day.”
In fact, Gates was a former British army major, and he and Burgoyne appear to have had a collegial, if understandably awkward, conversation. It’s possible that Downing or other Continental soldiers heard other British officers grumble about Gates’s appearance and then decided to ascribe those comments to Burgoyne, with a witty reply from their general.

Don Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution found the nickname in John Neal’s novel Seventy-Six, or Love and Battle:
This led to an alarming agitation in the public mind; and then there had been a serious disagreement brewing at the North, which finally led to the reproof of General [Philip] Schuyler, one of the most indefatigable men that ever lived, and one of the truest hearts that ever beat for America, by Congress; and the appointment of General Gates to the command of the Northern army—Granny Gates, as he was called, a talkative, pleasant old gentleman, who is remembered now rather for his good fortune than his generalship.
Google Books preserves an 1840 London edition of that novel, but Neal originally published it in 1823, working from Portland, Maine. Did he base that comment on hearing old Revolutionary veterans talk about Gates? He didn’t say so explicitly. But clearly he wasn’t being complimentary.

I found a description of an 1855 letter by an American veteran, Cpl. Nathan Knowlton, writing that British officers referred to Gates as ”Granny Gates” at Saratoga.

(In addition, Google Books kicked up a curious 1892 memoir of New York recalls the cottage of “‘Granny’ Gates, a niece” of the general. But all Gates’s family by that name were back in England. Was that how folks in the neighborhood misremembered the general’s own house?)

The evidence for Gen. Gates’s “Granny” nickname is therefore very weak. There appear to be only three mentions of that name, all dating from many decades after the war. The earliest is a novel, and its popularity could have affected the stories that veterans later told about Gates.

Furthermore, none of these examples show American soldiers fondly calling their general “Granny.” Two are about the disrespectful way that British officers referred to their erstwhile colleague and conqueror at Saratoga, and the third is just as derogatory. Somehow in twentieth-century accounts of the Revolution those sparse references got turned around to become how Continental soldiers viewed Horatio Gates.

TOMORROW: Gentleman Johnny and Champagne Charlie.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Top Ten Turning-Points?

All Things Liberty recently featured new co-editor Don Hagist’s list of “Top 10 Battles of the Revolutionary War.” The only certainty about that sort of list is that it won’t please everybody, and indeed I was among commenters asking about other “turning-point” battles that didn’t make the cut.

In a lot of those Revolutionary War lists, I’ve observed, most of the turning-points turn one way—usually for the Americans. But surely the Crown forces enjoyed some turning-points as well. Otherwise, the Americans wouldn’t have needed to turn anything. Don’s list does include some British triumphs, though not a couple that I think are significant.

It turned out, as Don explained his thinking in comments, that he went looking for battles that changed the course of campaigns. In other words, the arrival of the British in New York in 1776 and their victories at Brooklyn and White Plains all furthered a successful campaign, but the turning-point came at Trenton, where the Continentals finally slowed the British advance.

Thus, Don’s list included the first British attack on Charleston, South Carolina, in 1776, when their campaign was defeated; but not the second in 1780, when they took over America’s principal southern port, captured 5,000 Continental soldiers, and established a second garrison within the U.S. of A. that lasted to the end of the war.

I realized I approach turning-points differently, looking for events that changed people’s thinking about the war. But before I continue quibbling, I have to acknowledge that Top Ten lists require cutting things out. It’s all very well to complain that a movie critic left your favorites off her Top Ten Films of the Year, but to play the same game you have to cross out as many items as you add.

So I’ll start by striking the first battle off Don’s chronological list: the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Obviously significant in starting the war, it was nevertheless not a turning-point. It just solidified what each side thought about the situation. For months Gov. Thomas Gage knew his political authority stopped at the gates of Boston; the siege militarized the isolation that already existed.

Before 19 Apr 1775, Massachusetts Patriots were already convinced that the royal authorities were out to destroy their ability to defend themselves. The royal forces already believed most New Englanders were a swarm of rebellious zealots. I’m not sure the actual fighting changed many minds. Some provincial militiamen were pleasantly surprised they could shoot regulars, but they’d been hearing stories about their region’s triumph at Louisbourg for months. After the battle, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s communications didn’t emphasize the battlefield victory but the new set of grievances, which they said confirmed what they’d been warning about the Crown all along.

I think the Battle of Bunker Hill (#2 on Don’s list) was a turning-point—even though the immediate result in the field also looks small. The British took control of a second peninsula in Boston harbor, but one that the provincials had occupied for less than twenty hours, and then sat on it for nine months. But that bloody fight made both sides rethink things. The Americans were scared, then gradually reassured about their ability to inflict damage on a regular army. The British commanders became convinced that there was no reason to stay in Boston. It took months for the London government to approve their plans to leave, and then winter came on, but the Battle of Bunker Hill really decided the first campaign of the war and changed people’s thinking.

Unfortunately, I think Gen. George Washington came away from hearing about Bunker Hill with the wrong thinking. As I wrote back here, he thought the key to the war would be another Bunker Hill—another big battle with lots of enemy casualties that would make the London government pull back. He kept proposing that strategy to his generals around Boston, he hoped the fortification of Dorchester Heights would lead to such a battle, he waited for the same thing at Brooklyn, and so on.

Which brings me to the Battle of Brandywine on 11 Sept 1777. That battle didn’t fit Don’s “turning-point” criteria because it was part of Gen. William Howe’s successful campaign to take Philadelphia; he never had to turn around. The battlefield isn’t part of our National Park Service system, probably because the Americans lost. (It’s a Pennsylvania state park instead.) But boy, did it change people’s thinking!

Brandywine was the battle Washington wanted: a direct confrontation with Howe. Huge numbers in the field. The British attacking the Continental position, leaving themselves open to heavy casualties. And it all went horribly wrong. Howe surprised Washington by sneaking around to the left. The Continentals had to fall back. Within weeks, the Crown forces were in Philadelphia.

Now when a country loses its largest city and capital to the enemy a year and a half after declaring independence, that’s bound to change people’s thinking. Combined with the news of Saratoga (#6 on Don’s list), Brandywine made some members of the Continental Congress rethink whether Washington should remain commander-in-chief. And frankly, when they had hastily evacuated to Lancaster and York, who could blame them? Washington himself was rethinking. We remember the winter at Valley Forge for Gen. Steuben’s training of the Continental core, but that was also when Gen. Washington came around to his “Fabian” strategy. That’s why I see Brandywine as a very big turning-point.

Of course, that won’t please everybody.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Revolutionary Talk at the State House, 24 Sept.

On Tuesday, 24 September, I’m going to be testifying at the Massachusetts State House about a search for weapons of mass destruction.

Well, not testifying, really. As part of a series of noontime brown-bag seminars hosted by the State Library, I’ll deliver an illustrated lecture on the question “What Were the British Soldiers Looking for in Concord in 1775?”

One unlikely incident in that story took place on the lower side of Boston Common, at the corner of West Street and what is now Tremont. The Boston militia train, or artillery company, had a gunhouse there, containing two of their four small brass cannon.

That little armory shared a fenced yard with the South Writing School, where 200 or more boys studied six days a week under the eye of Master Samuel Holbrook. These days we might think twice about putting an elementary school next to an artillery depot, but…simpler times.

In September 1774, there were also several British army regiments encamped on the Common “near, very near” the gunhouse, according to local diarist Thomas Newell. Gen. Thomas Gage even ordered soldiers to guard that locked building.

And yet on the morning of 16 September, those two cannon disappeared.

State House employees are the primary audience for this free talk, but I believe members of the public are welcome as long as there’s room in Room 442. Follow this link to find out how to reserve a slot.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New Terms and New Reading on the “Battle of Chelsea Creek”

Last week I attended Victor Mastone’s lecture at the Boston Public Library about his team’s investigation into the “Battle of Chelsea Creek,” a latter-day name for the amphibious fight over Hog Island, Noddle’s Island, and the Chelsea shore on 27-28 May 1775.

Mastone started by saying that his position as Director of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources was more impressive if you assumed he had any staff to direct. But for this National Park Service project he oversaw a team of people from different disciplines to explore how the north of Boston harbor looked in May 1775, and how the Royal Navy managed to lose a ship to a military force that didn’t even have a navy. The presentation was very visual, so I can’t do justice to it here, but I came away with three new verbal gems.

K.O.C.O.A. analysis. The N.P.S. has taken this term for examining battlefields from the U.S. military. As the Gettysburg park website explains, K.O.C.O.A. stands for:
  • Key terrain
  • Observation and fields of fire
  • Cover and concealment
  • Obstacles (both natural and man-made)
  • Avenues of Approach
Note how adding the adjective “key” to the first term allows for a pronounceable acronym.

Viewshed. Wikipedia says: “A viewshed is an area of land, water, or other environmental element that is visible to the human eye from a fixed vantage point.”

Bathygraphic. Describing or charting the depth of a body of water at different points, just as topography studies the height of features above sea level.

The team’s Technical Report on the Chelsea Creek fight, hundreds of pages long and no doubt containing lots of maps, is downloadable through this state webpage. Team member Craig J. Brown wrote his master’s thesis on applying K.O.C.O.A. analysis to that landscape, and it’s available here. Finally, Brown, Mastone, and Christopher V. Maio published an article about the event in the latest New England Quarterly.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Smuggling in Boston, Before the Revolution and 18 Sept.

One of the sources John Tyler used for Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution (1986) are the records of Ezekiel Price’s marine insurance office. Merchants were happy to lie to the Customs office about where their ships were headed, but they didn’t want to invalidate their insurance policies with misinformation. Many of the voyages that Price underwrote were therefore clearly going outside imperial bounds.

Tyler also reported that written evidence survives for smuggling by Thomas Hancock, the governor’s rich uncle; Shrimpton Hutchinson, the other governor’s cousin; Whig organizer William Molineux; fence-sitting merchant John Rowe; ropemaker Benjamin Austin; future tea consignee Richard Clarke; and Massacre victim Edward Payne, among others.

In 1766 the Boston Customs office tried to search the storehouse of Daniel Malcom, an incident that still shows up in histories of American search-and-seizure laws. There’s strong evidence that Malcom really was a smuggler, even aside from how he refused to let the Customs men onto his property.

The most prominent merchant accused of smuggling before the Revolutionary War was, of course, John Hancock. The fortune he inherited from his uncle was certainly based in part on illegal trade (as well as government contracts). But the case that John Hancock himself oversaw serious smuggling is still unproven.

Peter Andreas’s Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America is the latest book to ply this region.  It covers the period from colonial times to the present, with smuggling dominated in different eras by molasses, slaves, drugs, booze, and people.

Andreas, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Brown University, will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Wednesday, 18 September. There will be a reception at 5:30, and Andreas is due to speak at 6:00. This event costs $10 for people who aren’t M.H.S. members, and reservations are required. But if his book’s theme holds true, you can probably find someone to sneak you in.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mr. Este and Miss Smyth

Yesterday I described how Thomas Paine and Sir Robert Smyth bonded in Revolutionary France, first as British supporters of that country’s republican government and then as victims of its most radical regime. I also mentioned how Smyth’s wife Charlotte exchanged flirtatious letters and poetry with Paine when he was in prison, though that might have just been to keep his hopes up. In 1796 Paine lived with the Smyths while he recovered his health.

Also at the Smyths’ house was a young British gentleman whom Smyth had met in their French prison, Charles Este. The British peace ambassador James Harris, later Earl of Malmesbury (shown here), thought Este was worthy of suspicion, writing home to London on 28 Nov 1796:
It will not be foreign to the subject of this despatch to inform your Lordship that the author of a little pamphlet, addressed to me, and which I forwarded to your Lordship by the last messenger, is a man of the name of Este, son to a well-known clergyman of that name, who is, I believe, editor of a newspaper called the Telegraph. He is living here with Lady S * * * *, wife to the notorious Sir R. S * * * *; two more of his brothers, I understand, are lately arrived from England; they are all in close connexion with T. Paine, who at present is very much distressed in circumstances, has little or no influence in the country, and who declares himself to be highly discontented with the new Constitution.
The Rev. Charles Este did most of his journalism for a gossipy London newspaper called The World, but in 1796 he was indeed one of the investors in a short-lived paper called the Telegraph. Back here I guessed that American newspapers using that name in the 1790s took their inspiration from Revolutionary France.

Robert Smyth left France before the end of the century and, according to Paine’s December 1800 letter now on display at Iona College, the younger Charles Este and the Smyths’ younger daughter, Charlotte, had gotten married by that time. Charlotte was only seventeen that year, Charles twenty-five.

Paine’s letter evidently helped to get young Charles Este released from jail since the man went on to a long business career in France. Though trained as a doctor, he followed his father-in-law into banking, with more success. He also reportedly claimed the unused French title of Baron d’Este and started calling himself Charles-Edouard, though still maintaining ties to Britain.

The Este-Smyth family ties get more complex. Months after her father’s death in 1802, Louisa Smyth, the older daughter, married Charles Este’s younger brother Michael Lambton Este, usually called Lambton. He was then secretary to the British diplomat Charles Lock. Later he handled the same job for Lord Horatio Nelson, and finally he returned to Britain for a long career in medicine.

But that marriage didn’t last. In fact, it didn’t even get started according to a later court case about Louisa’s estate:
On the 31st of March 1803 the marriage was solemnized according to the rites of the Church of England, at the Chapel of the British Ambassador at Paris; but as it was intended that the marriage should also be solemnized in accordance with the French law the parties continued to live separate; this latter ceremony, however, never was performed in consequence of circumstances which transpired, and on the 26th of April 1803 the contracting parties separated, and Louisa C. Smyth shortly afterwards went through the forms of marriage with Thomas Raikes Este, by whom she had several children…
That’s right—Louisa married the third Este brother. And that marriage seems to have lasted nicely.

Some reference books say Louisa Smyth married Charles Este, and others get Charles mixed up with his father, who himself gets mixed up with his namesake uncle. Indeed, my whole recreation of the Paine/Smyth/Este saga is only tentative, given how I’m dealing mainly with conflicting secondary sources.

And remember Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who renounced his title alongside Sir Robert Smyth? His half-sister Cecilia Oglivie married Charles Locke, Lambton Este’s employer—who feuded with Lord Nelson, Lambton Este’s next employer, over his affair with Lady Hamilton. And the Este brothers’ little sister Harriet? In June 1801, still a minor, she married Nathaniel Wells, son of a St. Kitts planter and his enslaved mistress Juggy. These people were just a fount of gossip! And all from one favor-seeking letter by Thomas Paine.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Paine, Prisons, and Poetry

Yesterday’s posting left Thomas Paine and Robert Smyth, former baronet, in Revolutionary Paris at the end of 1792. Both Englishmen by birth, they were enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution.

Unfortunately for them, in February 1793 the French government declared war on Britain, as well as the Dutch Republic. It was already at war with Austria, Prussia, Brunswick, Sardinia, Spain, and Portugal, and perhaps some smaller Germany and Italian states I haven’t tracked. So there were rather few foreigners in France who didn’t fall under suspicion.

The Jacobin faction took power in June 1793 and began to arrest lots of people. Sometime in the fall of 1793, Smyth was confined at the College des Écossais or “Scots College,” shown above. While there he became friends with a couple of British teenagers: James Millingen (1774-1845), then working for a bank and later a respected archeologist, and Charles Este (1775-1841), son of a prominent London clergyman and theater critic who had come to France in 1789 to study medicine.

In December the Jacobin government stripped Paine of his seat in the National Convention because he was a foreigner. He was soon in prison as well, and came close to being executed. The American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, didn’t intervene for him as a citizen of the U.S. of A., and Paine later blamed President George Washington for that neglect.

While in jail, Paine received some encouraging letters in English from a woman who signed her notes “From a Little Corner in the World.” Paine replied as “the Castle in the Air.” He may have fallen in love with his correspondent. At the very least he sent back poetry that that included verses like these:
I gazed and I envied with painful goodwill,
And grew tired of my seat in the air;
When all of a sudden my Castle stood still,
As if some attraction was there.

Like a lark from the sky it came fluttering down,
And placed me exactly in view,
When whom should I meet in this charming retreat,
This corner of calmness, but You.
Also, this poetic argument for why he didn’t believe in the Old Testament God:
Their country often he laid waste,
Their little ones he slew;
But I have shown a better taste
In choosing Y, O, U.
That latter verse was published in Jack Fruchtman, Jr.’s Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom.

After Maximilian de Robespierre and the radical Jacobins were deposed in July 1794, the French government started to treat foreigners more gently. Smyth petitioned the government for release in September. A new American diplomat, James Monroe, got Paine out of jail in November.

Only then, according to the standard biographies, did Paine discover that the lady writing to him was Smyth’s wife Charlotte. Most authors don’t believe that she and Paine had a sexual affair, even if she was calling herself a “Little Corner” while he was a “Castle,” and even if he wrote to her more passionately than to practically anyone else.

Paine remained on excellent terms with Robert Smyth. In one of his published essays he referred to the man as “a very intimate friend of mine.” He lived with the Smyths in 1796 while recuperating from his months in prison. As France’s war with Britain raged on, Paine wrote letters that allowed Robert Smyth to return home before he was arrested again. He recommended Smyth to American businessmen. Paine even sent Smyth another poem about love:
’T is that delightsome transport we can feel
Which painters cannot paint, nor words reveal.
Nor any art we know of can conceal.
And so on.

After Britain and France signed the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, Robert Smyth returned to Paris to restart his business. But he died in April of that year, “of a sudden attack of gout” according to the British historian John Goldworth Alger. Despite his father’s 1792 renunciation of all hereditary titles, eighteen-year-old George-Henry Smyth took up the family baronetcy.

TOMORROW: The Smyths and the Estes.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Revolutions of Sir Robert Smyth

In 1774, Thomas Paine emigrated to Pennsylvania with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin and a fervent wish to help the American colonists resist the royal government.

That same year, Sir Robert Smyth (1744-1802) was first elected to Parliament, representing the boroughs of Cardigan. Sir Robert had inherited a baronetcy (a hereditary knighthood), but we all remember that knights and baronets are technically commoners and therefore eligible for election to the House of Commons, right?

In Parliament, Smyth “generally voted with the court,” or the Tory government, according to Horace Walpole. He supported Lord North’s American policy, speaking in favor of the Quebec Act and delivering “a reply to [opposition member Edmund] Burke…laughing at his metaphors.” His opponent challenged the results of Smyth’s election, however, and he lost his seat at the end of 1775.

In 1780, Sir Robert returned to Parliament as the member from Colchester, a seat he held for ten years. He had shifted from voting with Lord North to being a strong opponent of him and the American war. Smyth instead appears to have aligned himself with the younger William Pitt.

As shown above, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Smyth’s wife Charlotte and children in 1787, a portrait now at the Metropolitan Museum. The children were:
  • Louisa, born 1782, according to Debrett’s Baronetage.
  • Charlotte, born 1783.
  • George-Henry, born 1784, and heir to the baronetcy, which is why he gets the top position among the children and all the attention.
In 1790 Smyth stepped away from Parliament. He moved even further to the left and moved his family to Paris, going into business there. Smyth was part of a small community of British gentlemen who were big fans of the French Revolution.

Another of those men was Thomas Paine. He’d left the U.S. of A. in 1787 with big plans for building an iron bridge in England, but then got inspired by the events in France. When Burke criticized the French Revolution, Paine replied with his Rights of Man, moving back and forth between London and Paris as British government agents threatened him. On one of those trips, Lafayette entrusted Paine with the key to the Bastille, which the marquis wanted to go to George Washington.

In 1792, Paine moved to France one step ahead of an indictment for seditious libel. Britain convicted him in absentia while France elected him to four seats in its new National Convention—even though at the time he didn’t speak French.

The Convention was the legislative successor to the Assembly, part of the French constitutional monarchy that fell apart in late 1792. The country was then at war with Austria and Prussia. Louis XVI was arrested. Lafayette fled the country. In September the Convention declared France to be a republic.

On 18 Nov 1792, according to a story that appeared in London newspapers, “the English arrived in Paris [i.e., the British expatriate community] assembled at White’s Hotel, to celebrate the triumph of victories gained over their late invaders by the armies of France.” Paine was staying in that mansion, also known as the Hotel d’Angleterre, and attended the dinner.

The other diners included Sir Robert Smyth and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, younger son of an Irish duke and a former British army officer who had been wounded at Eutaw Springs, South Carolina. The newspaper report credited them with a couple of actions:
Among several toasts proposed by the citizens, Sir R. Smith and Lord E. Fitzgerald, was the following: “May the patriotic airs of the German Legion (Ça ira, the Carmagnole, Marseillaise March, etc.) soon become the favourite music of every army, and may the soldier and the citizen join in the chorus.” . . .

Sir Robert Smith and Lord E. Fitzgerald renounced their titles; and a toast proposed by the former was drank:—“The speedy abolition of all hereditary titles and feudal distinctions.”
Thus, the baronet Sir Robert Smyth was now, he declared, simply Citizen Smyth.

TOMORROW: Imprisonment, flirtation, and young Charles Este.

Friday, September 13, 2013

“Among the persons taken up on suspicion of conspiration…”

Yesterday’s posting about the new institute devoted to Thomas Paine at Iona College noted that its library has hosted a series of exhibits drawn from the Thomas Paine National Historical Association’s collection. Here’s a link to the most recent.

That webpage shows a letter from Paine, written in both English and French, seeking help from the French writer and politician Dominique-Joseph Garat (1749-1833) at the end of 1800. Paine evidently wanted Garat to approach Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836) for a favor. A year before, Sieyès had engineered a coup that deposed the Directory government, expecting to be in charge of the new government.

Sieyès underestimated his military partner in that coup, a general named Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte gained the title of First Consul, with much more power than the other two Consuls or any legislature. The constitution Sieyès wrote and Bonaparte rewrote omitted a declaration of citizens’ rights. Sieyès himself got a position of prestige but very limited power.

On 24 Dec 1800, royalists tried to kill Bonaparte with a horse-cart bomb. The First Consul insisted that the assassin were Jacobins and seized the opportunity to arrest scores of his leftist opponents.

That was the situation when Paine wrote to Garat on 27 December, as this English transcription says:
I begin by saying that the Citizen Seiyes knows very well the Citizen Robert Smyth. I have dined in company with Seiyes at the house of Smyth, the corner of Rue Choiseul on the Boulevard. Seiyes knows also Madame Smyth and her two daughters. They are also well known to the Banker Perregaux, who is the Banker of Smyth.

Robert Smyth purchased a house (national property) No 2 Rue Cerutti. One of his daughters is married to a young man, Charles Este, who has been in France since he was 14 years of age, under the protection of Smyth, and who was pupil of the Surgeon Dessault. It is of this young man I am going to speak.

He occupies the house in Rue Cerutti. Madame Smyth lives in the same house with her daughters. As Este is a perfect master of the French language he does business for some American merchants and American Captains of Vessels who do not understand French.

Among the persons taken up on suspicion of conspiration Este is one. His papers among which are those belonging to several Americans and certificates of purchases in the French funds, for himself and for Americans, are all seized, and also all the letters and papers of Madame Smyth which regard her domestic affairs. . . .

The detention of Este, in the situation he is in business is not only injurious to him, but to several Americans, whose commercial papers and interests are in his hands; and so confident am I of the innocence of this young man, that I offer myself as a caution for (??) his appearance at any time the Minister of Police shall call for him.
The French government released Charles Este because he remained in Paris as a banker for many years.

Now how did Paine get involved in the affairs of the Smyth family? I went digging, and found a story even more convoluted than the French Revolution.

TOMORROW: “Citizen Robert Smyth” and the American Revolution.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The College Where You Can Minor in Paine

This summer Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, established the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies, even offering undergraduates the possibility of minoring in “Paine Studies.” At one point in his well-traveled life Paine lived nearby, and the city is home to the Thomas Paine National Historical Association.

However, that organization fell on hard times, and its collection was in danger, as the Associated Press reported:
…many of the prize pieces spent recent years locked in a huge safe in a back room at the historical association’s 1925 building in New Rochelle as members tried to protect them from deteriorating conditions, said Gary Berton, a former president.

“I was horrified,” said Brad Mulkern, now the president and executive director of the association, recalling his first visit to the building. “The roof had holes in it, it was leaking through the ceiling. ... I just couldn’t believe stuff that was so priceless was so exposed. I mean, this is Thomas Paine, the man who called for revolution!”

The association’s board sold some valuable pieces to raise money for repairs, which brought complaints and an investigation by the state attorney general’s office. Eventually, the collection was sent to the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan.
It took a legal decision to clear the material to go to Iona, which was building a modern library to house such documents and other artifacts.

The library’s Thomas Paine National Historical Association collection now includes “over 300 items created in the 18th and 19th centuries comprised of monographs, pamphlets, booklets, periodicals, tokens, letters, and ephemera, as well as the only surviving personal effects of Paine.” In other words, his eyeglasses, his death mask, and locks of his hair. The library has also hosted a series of exhibitions of this work since 2011.

TOMORROW: Peeking in on the current exhibit.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Surfeit of Historical Talks in Boston This Week

Liz Covart has taken to starting each week at her Uncommonplace Book blog with a list of historical events coming up in Boston. This week several caught my eye.

Wednesday, 11 September, 12:00 noon, at the Massachusetts Historical Society
A brown bag lunch seminar with Jill Bouchillon of the University of Sterling speaking about her research on “Friendship in Colonial New England, 1750-1775.” She argues that colonial New Englanders understood friendship differently from us, and hopes to support that argument by examining how people wrote about friendship in pre-Revolutionary newspapers, books, and magazines.

Wednesday, 11 September, 6:00 P.M., at the Boston Public Library
Victor T. Mastone, Director and Archaeologist of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources, discusses the “Battle of Chelsea Creek,” the latter-day name for the skirmish on Noddle’s Island and the Chelsea shore on 27-28 May 1775. The shoreline and topography of the area have changed greatly, but archeologists are using geographic information system (G.I.S.) analysis to better understand the fight.

Thursday, 12 September, 5:30 P.M., at the Boston Public Library
Stephen Hornsby discusses his new book Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the Making of the Atlantic Neptune. This talk is no doubt in conjunction with the Norman B. Leventhal Center’s exhibit of maps and engraved plates from that monumental British atlas; the library recently shifted to the second half of that exhibit, with new items on display.

Thursday, September 12, 5:30 P.M., at the Massachusetts Historical Society
Prof. Bernard Bailyn, whose books have won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes, speaks on the theme “History Matters: Reflections on Efforts to Make It Come out Right.” All the preceding events are free; this one costs $10 for people who aren’t members of the M.H.S. and reservations even for people who are. Call 617-646-0560 or register online.

Monday, September 09, 2013

The Transformation of the Royall House

Last week the Boston Globe reported a story long in the making: the transformation of Isaac Royall’s mansion in Medford, one of many surviving Loyalist-owned Georgian houses built in the towns outside Boston, into the Royall House and Slave Quarters, a unique site exploring the history of slavery in New England.

The article said:
Working with a board member named Julia Royall — an eighth generation descendant of Isaac Royall — he [co-president Peter Gittleman] began the cumbersome process of refashioning the 105-year-old museum from “just another rich person’s house,” as Julia Royall puts it, to a historical house that tells the intertwined stories of wealth and bondage in New England, and enables the voices of the enslaved to be heard.

Slowly, the board of directors was reshaped and the museum’s mission statement rewritten, shifting from one that was focused on the lives and wealth of the Royall family to one that explored the meaning of freedom “in the context of a household of wealthy Loyalists and enslaved Africans.”

An archeological dig was commissioned in 1999 in collaboration with Boston University. It discovered a wealth of household items used by the Royalls and their slaves, some of which are now exhibited in the museum. Museum staff — almost all volunteers — began to approach foundations and granting agencies for money to help bring the story of slavery to life.

This summer has been a turning point. In June, the Royall House and Slave Quarters received the prestigious 2013 Massachusetts History Commendation from Mass Humanities. The museum also received a $100,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation to develop programs for elementary schoolchildren focused on Northern colonial slavery.

“This has been a story that was forgotten,” said Pleun Bouricius, assistant director of Mass Humanities. “How many 18th-century house museums are there? Many. There was a huge interest about two-thirds of the way into the 20th century in preserving these houses. But the study of history has changed. The way we think about society has changed. And it’s become really important to tell the stories of many more people, to show what the economy floated on, who did the work.”
This weekend the Globe editorialized:
With good reason, tourists from New England roll their eyes when they visit Southern plantations, only to hear tour guides rhapsodize about hoop skirts and parasols but say little about the slaves who also lived there. It’s only right to apply the same critical eye to landmarks closer to home.
Which means visiting the Royall House and Slave Quarters and making field trips there.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

A New Look at Benjamin Thompson

This week HistoryTube.org announced [trademark symbol and all]: “A portrait of Benjamin Thompson, one of the most prominent scientists of the late 18th century, will be exhibited in the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown® galleries to help tell the story of Loyalists.”

The announcement included a biography of Thompson that I thought could benefit from some translation. It said:
In the 1770s he lived in Concord (earlier called Rumford), New Hampshire, and became an officer in the 2nd Provincial Regiment.
After Thompson at age nineteen married a rich widow, Gov. John Wentworth made him a major in the New Hampshire militia.
He developed close associations with prominent British officers, incurring the wrath of citizens opposed to British rule.
He enticed deserters from the British army to his farm, worked them very hard, and alerted the royal authorities to come collect them when they started to miss army life (probably just before he had promised to pay them). He had an affair in February 1775 with Patriot printer Isaiah Thomas’s wife. By May, Thompson was sending Gen. Thomas Gage spy reports written in invisible ink.
Thompson made the decision to leave America and had a successful career as a scientist and inventor in Britain and on the Continent, known principally for his work in thermodynamics.
Thompson slipped behind the British lines soon after Dr. Benjamin Church was detected as a spy. In November 1775 he wrote a detailed report on the American army for Gen. William Howe, then sailed for England. Thompson worked his way into the household and office of Lord George Germain, possibly through sexual favors, and by 1780 was a top bureaucrat in the British government. He returned to America as a British army officer very late in the war, then went back to Europe for good.

Thompson was indeed an inventive scientist, as well as a capable and visionary administrator in Bavaria. He co-founded the Royal Institute in London. He and his one legitimate child, Sarah Thompson, left some substantial bequests to American institutions, causing them to be remembered well—until Thompson’s early spy reports were identified in the 1920s.

I don’t know if this portrait had previously been linked to Rumford; I don’t recall ever seeing it before. The HistoryTube.org article concludes:
The 18- by 24-inch oil-on-canvas painting by an unknown artist dates to 1785, a fact revealed during conservation. The portrait was acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation specifically for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which will replace the Yorktown Victory Center by late 2016.
Rumford was a brilliant, fascinating figure, but I hope no one visiting this new museum takes him to be a typical American Loyalist, or typical in any way.