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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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mrs. Stark’s Story of the Evacuation

A Facebook discussion with folks at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford led me to this page from the Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark (1860), preserving a story that Elizabeth (Molly) Stark (1737-1814) told her descendants about the end of the siege of Boston.

The anecdote starts with Gen. George Washington and the American forces getting impatient at the British military’s slow departure from Boston in March 1776 and ordering an assault on the town.
He ordered a strong force to enter the town by way of Roxbury neck, while at the same time a force, under the command of Colonel Stark, was directed to pass over on rafts and carry the battery on Copp’s hill.

The wife of Colonel Stark was at this time in the camp on a visit; and was directed by him to mount on horseback, after the embarkation of the troops, and remain in sight to watch the result. If the party were fired upon, she was directed to ride into the country, spread the alarm, and arouse the people.

The troops effected their passage over the river unmolested. She observed them land, advance up the height and take possession of the battery. The enemy’s rear guard were then embarking at the end of Long wharf.

The troops, on entering the works, found the guns loaded, and lighted matches lying beside them, indicating that mischief had been intended; but, for some reason, the design had not been carried out. . . .

The wife of General Stark has often related this incident.
In this case, we know from Gen. John Sullivan’s 19 Mar 1776 letter that the Continental Army didn’t assault Boston at the end of the siege. Seeing the British ships leaving on 17 March, a small party scouted the fortifications on Bunker’s Hill, found them abandoned, then got news from the men who ran the ferry across the Charles River. Gen. Israel Putnam led a force across the river onto the western side of the Boston peninsula. There was no real need for anyone to be ready to “spread the alarm, and arouse the people.”

In fact, Washington’s general orders had already called for Col. Stark to lead his regiments south to Norwich, Connecticut, on 15 March, thought he may not have left until the following day.

In addition, Gen. Washington’s description of what the British left behind in Boston and detailed inventories don’t mention loaded cannon with lighted matches found on Copp’s Hill.

Elizabeth Stark’s story thus appears to be what I call a “grandmother’s tale,” supposedly an eyewitness account of the Revolution passed down to young relatives that, either in the telling or the retelling, portrays the actions of one family’s ancestors as braver, nobler, or more important than contemporaneous accounts say.

Was there any real basis for this story? Perhaps at some point Elizabeth Stark did sit on horseback, watching her husband and his men carrying out some mission, and transferred that anxious moment to the significant day at the end of the siege of Boston. Unfortunately, there are a lot of stories told about her now, and very little documentation for them.

TOMORROW: How this story appears to have grown in the 1900s.

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