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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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Joseph Snelling’s Delivery at Bunker Hill

Here’s another notable story of the Battle of Bunker Hill, told by the Rev. Joseph Snelling in his 1847 autobiography. It concerned his father, also named Joseph Snelling (1741-1816).

The elder Snelling was a bookbinder in Boston. He married Rachel Mayer in 1763 and evidently had a small shop of his own at the start of the war.

Snelling’s older brother Jonathan (1734-1782) was a merchant and officer in the Cadets. He dined with the Sons of Liberty as the Liberty Tree Tavern in Dorchester in 1769. But he signed the laudatory addresses to the royal governors in 1774, confirming himself as a Loyalist.

In contrast, Joseph the bookbinder “took an active part in our struggles for liberty, from the commencement to the close of the. American Revolution.” Or at least that’s what his son believed.

Joseph Snelling’s name doesn’t actually show up in the records of Patriot activities before 1775, so far as I can tell. According to his son, he continued to serve British officers and soldiers in his shop before the war: “the officers and soldiers were often in, paid honorably for the goods they purchased, and even treated the family with civility and respect.” The one possible example of prewar Patriot activity that Snelling’s son recorded was this:
At a certain time when the English had possession of Boston, our people at Watertown were in want of ammunition. My father hearing of this, volunteered with three or four others to convey it to them, if possible. Accordingly a scow was procured and loaded with arms and ammunition; and, to prevent suspicion, the whole was covered with boards. They then, in plain sight of English vessels, poled the scow to Watertown, and delivered the load to the people, who received it gladly.
There were trips to smuggle military material out of Boston before the war began. However, that story appears in the Snelling memoir after the Battle of Bunker Hill, when the family had moved out to Newton. Thus, that delivery may not have been from Boston, with a harbor patrolled by British warships, but from Newton down the Charles River, far from the enemy. (If it actually happened.)

As for Bunker Hill, the younger Snelling’s account is a combination of what he’d evidently heard from his father and what he understood about the battle, not always accurately. Thus:
On the afternoon before the battle of Bunker Hill, our people met at Cambridge, in order to make the necessary preparation for a battle which they were hourly expecting. My father was there with them. There was the brave General [Joseph] Warren, who came with his fusee and his powder-horn hung over his shoulder, and volunteered his services. When they were ready to start for Bunker Hill, Dr. [Peter] Thatcher offered a solemn and appropriate prayer to Almighty God, that their heads might be covered in the day of, battle, and they protected from their enemies.
According to our other sources, Warren wasn’t with the troops at Cambridge on 16 June 1775 but joined them in Charlestown the next day. The minister who prayed with those troops the evening before they went onto the peninsula was the Rev. Samuel Langdon, president of Harvard, not the Rev. Peter Thacher, who watched the battle from the far side of the Mystic River.

As for Joseph Snelling’s own experience:
Colonel Bradlee and my father were appointed to superintend the conveyance of five loads of provision to the fort for the refreshment of our people. Accordingly they engaged five ox teams, loaded with provision, and five men to drive them. In order to reach the fort they were obliged to cross a neck of land directly in front of the Glassgow frigate, and a floating battery, then lying in the river. These soon discovered the teams, and aimed their cannon at them, to prevent them from getting to the fort. As soon as the cannon balls began to whiz around them, the five teamsters left their teams, and fled with great precipitation.

Colonel Bradlee and my father then drove these five teams to the fort alone, which was the first time that my father ever drove a team. This was in the midst of the battle—but they were in more danger than the people at the fort. The balls flew thick and fast all around them, and I have heard my father say they were expecting every moment that their heads would be taken off, but a kind providence protected them; not a ball touched them, or one of their teams. Thus, agreeable to the prayer, their heads were covered in the day of battle.

When they arrived at the fort, they found our people almost exhausted, and suffering greatly with thirst—all their cry was water, water. Some hogsheads of beer were brought with the provision, by which they were greatly refreshed. The day was extremely warm, and our people, by the effect of the heat, the powder and smoke, resembled colored people. One man came to my father for refreshment, who had received a musket ball in the back of his head, which took out his eye without touching the brain—blood and water was then gushing from the wound. (Three months after this, the same man came to my father to receive his rations, his wound perfectly healed.)
A shorter version of this tale appears in Benjamin Woodbridge Dwight’s The History of the Descendants of Elder John Strong (1871); that refers to Snelling’s companion as “Col. Bradford, an associate commissary.” The Symmes Memorial, by John Adams Vinton (1873), doesn’t include the anecdote but says Snelling “joined the army…under Gen. [Artemas] Ward as a commissary.”

Joseph Snelling’s name doesn’t appear in the surviving records of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress or its Committee of Safety. However, a legislative act late in 1775 confirms that the Massachusetts government owed him money for somehow assisting its commissary general. (The General Court voted to recompense several other men as well, but not anyone named Bradlee or Bradford.)

In early 1812, the U.S. House considered a petition from Snelling “praying further compensation for services rendered as a clerk in the office of the Deputy Commissary General of Issues in the Revolutionary war.” The Committee of Claims responded “That the prayer of the petitioner ought not to be granted,” and it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that Snelling’s petition was exaggerated; its facts might simply not have met the threshold for further compensation.

But really the Snelling family lore does seem extraordinary. American accounts of the Bunker Hill battle talk about how the soldiers on the front lines didn’t receive any supplies. Young Robert Steele recalled a desperate search for water. If five ox carts (somehow driven by two men, one a complete novice) had brought in beer and other provisions after the fighting had started (given that one man was allegedly bleeding from a musket wound), then surely some soldiers would have taken note of that fact.

The Rev. Joseph Snelling clearly had a familial motive for telling this story, and a religious one: he wanted readers to understand that his father and Bradlee had been protected from enemy fire “agreeable to the prayer.” But it looks like there had been a lot of “memory creep” between the elder Joseph Snelling’s experiences delivering some supplies to the provincial army in 1775 and when his son wrote down this tale decades later.

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