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, June 30, 2014

Hope and Pain on Bunker Hill

Yesterday I quoted the start of a 12 July 1775 letter from Richard Hope, surgeon for the British army’s 52nd Regiment in Boston. That was actually Dr. Hope’s second report on the Battle of Bunker Hill to relatives back in England. He had sent another letter (probably now lost) immediately after the battle, and he had some corrections to make.
I doubt not but my Sister Sukey has given you and the rest of my friends a particular account of the action, to whom I wrote immediately after; but I erred very largely in my list of the killed and wounded on our side, as I only made it from my own conjecture and observation and no other returns had then been given on to the Commander in Chief of the losses of the several Regiments; I mentioned our having lost in killed and wounded five hundred men, sorry am I to contradict that report, for on a minute examination I find our numbers are more than double.

General [William] Howe who commanded that day had about two thousand men and six pieces of cannon; the rebels had upwards of six thousand in their Redoubt and breastworks; all the houses of Charlestown were lined with men, and during the engagement they received three different reliefs of a thousand each time; yet did our small army charge with so much bravery, as to gain a compleat victory: and put the rebels to a total rout in spite of their superior numbers, and advantageous situation, who left their cannon behind them and part of their wounded.

As the men posted in the houses began to fire on our troops which galled them horribly as they advanced, General Howe was obliged to send orders to our ships and a battery of twenty four pounders at Boston to burn the town; this was soon effected, and the enemy found the place too hot for them, so they joined their party in the redoubt, who pelted our men with such a continued heavy fire, that it was more like the report of thunder than of muskets.

The 52nd. Regiment had three Captains killed in the field, the Major and two Subalterns are since dead of their wounds, and three Captains and two Subalterns remain very badly wounded, three of them in much danger; We had about thirty killed on the spot of our private men, and eighty wounded, a fourth part of whom will die, forty seven of the worst cases with the whole sick of the Regiment were for want of room in the general Hospital forced on me; this is quite unpresidented to oblige a regimental Surgeon to bear the charge in time of war of wounded soldiers, and this injustice will be above forty pounds out of my pocket, a noble recompence for nineteen years service; then the fatigue is so great that I have not had five hours rest any night since the action; so that thro’ weakness of body, uneasiness of mind, and being half starved, I am brought low enough.

This victory is of important consequence, otherwise the enemy would have soon burnt Boston and annoyed our fleet, but we had too many men fell to be able to pursue the fugitives, or to thin them in their retreat, and the only advantage we have gained by the conquest is a spot of ground to encamp on which we have stronly [sic] fortified, about two miles from it the rebels have an amazing redoubt on the top of a very high hill with every kind of work for defence, that it would take twenty thousand to enable the General to attack it.

In short our little army is so much reduced by the two battles, that if Britain does not arouse from her lethargy and send out three parts of her fleet and a reinforcement of at least twenty thousand men, she may bid adieu to her empire in the western world, and we that are already here engaged in her cause, must fall victims to it; and I would not give a hundred pound for an estate of a thousand a year on the life of any man in this army. It would pierce a heart of stone to hear the daily shrieks and lamentations of the poor widows and fatherless left desolate and friendless three thousand miles from home in a land of wretches worse than savages, for even savages exceed them in humanity.
Like the 22 June letter from Loyalist Samuel Paine, Dr. Hope’s account provides a very high estimate of the number of provincials involved in the battle. Instead of two British advances stopped late by musket fire followed by a third successful charge, Hope described “a continued heavy fire” from the rebel positions.

Paine wrote of expecting the king’s troops to “advance into the country, laying waste & devastation wherever they go.” In contrast, Dr. Hope felt that the provincials’ new fortifications on Winter Hill and Prospect Hill were much too formidable to attack. In fact, he warned that Britain might soon lose its “empire in the western world.”

That difference between the Paine and Hope letters might be due to the time elapsing between them as the new situation became clear to the royal authorities. However, after reading several of the army surgeon’s letters, I think that his temperament was involved. Whether in Québec or Boston or New York, Dr. Hope always found something to complain about. His letters home express a lot of pain and very little hope.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dr. Richard Hope’s “great contusion”

A month ago I was in London, visiting the British Library and the National Archives (as well as friends).

One set of documents I looked at in the latter institution was a collection of fifteen letters from Dr. Richard Hope, surgeon attached to His Majesty’s 52nd Regiment of Foot from 1756 to 1776.

These are private letters, and there’s no official reason for them to have been deposited in the National Archives. It looks like a man who worked in the Public Record Office from 1866 to 1912 once owned the letters and simply left them there. Their catalogue designation is PRO 30/39/1.

So far as I can tell from Google, only one author has cited Hope’s letters: Geoffrey L. Hudson in a study of British military medicine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This, therefore, might be the first time anyone’s quoted the doctor’s account of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Almost a month after the fight, on 12 July, Dr. Hope sat down to write to one of his relatives “at Eastcot near Harrow on the Hill” in Ruislip. He began:
When you read in the Papers an account of the late battle on Charlestown hights it will give you satisfaction to get intelligence that I am in the land of the living. I could not escape quite scot free, but being obliged to advance in the very front of the works I had a hair breadth escape of being shot thro’ the thigh. Luckily for me the ball struck on a large bunch of keys that I had that day contrary to custom put into my breeches pocket, which changed the line of direction: one of the keys was almost buried in my thigh and occasioned a great contusion that makes me very lame; yet I quitted not the field nor missed any part of my duty.
TOMORROW: Dr. Richard Hope describes the battle.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ambrose Bierce on “Bunker’s holy hill”

Here’s an example of poetry inspired by the Battle of Bunker Hill from Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), published in 1886:
Liberty

“‘Let there be Liberty!’ God said, and lo!
The skies were red and luminous. The glow
Struck first Columbia’s kindling mountain peaks
One hundred and eleven years ago!”

So sang a patriot whom once I saw
Descending Bunker’s holy hill. With awe
I noted that he shone with sacred light,
Like Moses with the tables of the Law.

One hundred and eleven years? O small
And paltry period compared with all
The tide of centuries that flowed and ebbed
To etch Yosemite’s divided wall!

Ah, Liberty, they sing you always young
Whose harps are in your adoration strung.
(Each swears you are his countrywoman, too,
And speak no language but his mother tongue.)

And truly, lass, although with shout and horn
Man has all-hailed you from creation’s morn
I cannot think you old—I think, indeed,
You are by twenty centuries unborn.
Rob Vellela at the American Literary Blog clued me into this poem back in April.

It’s not eligible for the current Boston 1775 Poetic Challenge because:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Following the Drums Along the Mohawk

American Heritage Living History Productions and the Historical Society of Rockland County, New York, are teaming up to offer an overnight guided bus tour on the theme of “Drums Along the Mohawk.”

Taking place on the weekend of 9-10 August, the tour starts on Saturday morning by taking on passengers at two spots: West Nyack and New Paltz. The bus will stop at twelve historic sites, including the homes of Gen. Philip Schuyler and Gen. Nicholas Herkimer and the Van Schaick Mansion. There will be guides on the bus and at the sites.

On Saturday evening, guests will view a performance of the Drums Along the Mohawk outdoor drama at the Gelston Castle Estate in Mohawk, New York. Based closely on Walter D. Edmonds’s novel, this drama tells “the story of a newlywed couple thrust into the brutal conflict of the American Revolution during the year 1777.” Bring your own lawn chair or blanket to sit on while watching the show.

The price for the entire tour is $279 per person, single occupancy; $244 per person, double occupancy. That ticket includes the bus transportation, admission to all sites and stops, lodging at the Knights Inn in Little Falls, and meals (except a bring-your-own lunch for Saturday to eat on the bus). The deadline for reserving a space through the Historical Society of Rockland County is 30 June. Call 845-634-9629 or see this page for more information.

Other performances of the Drums Along the Mohawk outdoor drama this summer are scheduled for 2, 3, and 10 August. Tickets are $10-15, but you have to get yourself to Mohawk, New York, on your own.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Bunker Hill Poetic Challenge

The last two postings have shared some verses inspired by the Battle of Bunker Hill and published in 1775 by Ezekiel and Sarah Russell, printers of (at that time) Salem. Now it’s your turn.

The publisher of Nat Philbrick’s book Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution has offered to send a free copy of the new paperback edition to a Boston 1775 reader. It’s an energetic retelling of the first campaign of the Revolutionary War, and if you’ve already got a copy it can make a fine introduction to the subject for someone else.

In thinking about how to give that book away, I got inspired by the Russells and decided to offer this challenge:

Post up to fourteen lines of original rhymed, metrical verse on the subject of the Battle of Bunker Hill as a comment to this blog posting. Limericks would be especially welcome. Sonnets would be especially impressive.

Verses based on postings from the preceding several days would show you’ve been reading, but the lines could be about any aspect of the Battle of Bunker Hill: the whole fight, small incidents, personalities, historiography.

The entry deadline will be the end of 1 July 2014.


On 4 July, the Boston 1775 staff will choose the most moving or entertaining entry and award that poet his or her own copy of Philbrick’s Bunker Hill, to be sent direct from the publisher.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“Warren step’s beyond their path”

When Ezekiel and Sarah Russell put together their “ELEGIAC POEM” about Bunker Hill, they didn’t stint. Their customers didn’t get just sixty woodcut coffins and four columns of poetry.

The Russells also provided “An ACROSTIC on the late Major-General WARREN Who was slain fighting for the LIBERTIES of AMERICA”:
J ust as JOSEPH took his flight
O nward to the realm of light,
S atan hurl’d his hellish darts,
E vil angels played their parts;
P iercy, Burgoyne, Howe, and Gage,
H over about infernal rage:

W ARREN step’d beyond their path,
A w’d by none, nor fear’d their wrath;
R an his race to joy and rest,
R ose amongst the loyal blest;
E nter’d in the rolls of fame,
N orth and Devil mist their aim.
To squeeze full value from that poem, it was also reprinted in an almanac for the following year.

The image above shows John Norman’s frontispiece for Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s play about Bunker Hill published in Philadelphia in 1776, another early portrayal of Dr. Warren as a martyr.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Russells’ Poetic Broadside on Bunker Hill

After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Ezekiel Russell print shop in Salem issued “AN ELEGIAC POEM” on the battle. That broadside probably appeared toward the end of 1775 since a note on its bottom said Russell’s almanacs for the following year were “now in the press.”

The Russell broadside is a useful snapshot of how New Englanders wanted to remember the battle in 1775:
THE NEVER-TO-BE-FORGOTTEN
TERRIBLE AND BLOODY BATTLE
FOUGHT AT AN INTRENCHMENT ON
BUNKER-HILL,

Now justly called (by the Regulars) BLOODY-HILL, situated two miles from the head-quarters of the Regulars at BOSTON, and one mile northward from the centre of the town of CHARLESTOWN, in NEW-ENGLAND, in AMERICA, which was wantonly and inhumanly set on fire and consumed, previous to the engagement: This town contained one large meeting-house, about three hundred dwelling-houses, a great number of which were large and elegant, besides one hundred and fifty or two hundred other buildings, whereby about six or seven hundred of its distressed inhabitants are now forced from their dwellings, and obliged to seek new habitations for themselves, many of whom having left, on this calamitous occasion, their houses, cloaths, furniture, and in short every thing that was valuable, depend at this time entirely on the benevolent charity of their kind and simpathizing brethren and friends in the country; who have the unfeigned and hearty thanks of all such as have been relieved: May whole kindness, shewn to the distressed people who have been obliged to take refuge from that or any other town, be rewarded an hundred fold in this world, and in the world to come may they receive life everlasting, is the sincere and fervent wish of every true Friend to the RIGHTS and LIBERTIES of the AMERICAN COLONIES!—

We are sure an attempt to delineate the horrible and shocking situation the distressed souls were in, that still remained in that unfortunate town, at the time the cannonading began, would melt the stoutest heart, and give a shock to the human imagination, which would very far surpass the compass of this sheet; but the relation of this wicked and cruel affair may perhaps hereafter afford matter of speculation to the Historian, and serve to fill many pages in the history of AMERICA.—

What soul but must be filled with horror at viewing the aged and decrepit ones begging for the assistance of the youth, who were now flying through the red-hot cannon balls and smoke occasioned by the flames of their dwellings? What heart but must melt at beholding the Women with their helpless little ones around them, in the greatest confusion seeking a refuge from the devouring jaws [of] destruction, and from the violent fury of their cruel and barbarous enemies? It is said this diabolical transaction was executed by orders from that arch-traitor and worst of villains T[homas] G[age], whom posterity will forever curse, so long as his name shall be remembered.—

This bloody battle was fought about four o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday the seventeenth of JUNE, one thousand seven hundred and seventy five, between an advanced party of seven hundred Provincials, and fourteen regiments and a train of artillery, of the Ministerial forces, the former of whom after bearing about two hours, with the utmost fortitude and bravery, as severe a fire as perhaps ever was known, and many having fired away all their ammunition, they were over-powered by numbers, and obliged to leave the intrenchments, with three pieces of cannon, and retreat about sun-set to a small distance over Charlestown-neck.—

By the returns made in the Provincial and Ministerial Armies it appears, that there were of the Provincials one major-general, one colonel, one lieutenant-colonel, two captains, three lieutenants, and ninety privates, killed, among which number, to the inexpressible grief of our whole army, is that honorable, renowned, and magnanimous Hero, MAJOR-GENERAL JOSEPH WARREN, Esquire, who commanded on this occasion, as also the brave and intrepid Colonels [Thomas] GARDNER and [Moses] PARKER; there were one lieutenant and two hundred and fifty privates wounded: Total killed and wounded three hundred and twenty four.—

On the side of the Regulars there were one lieutenant-colonel, four majors, eleven captains, thirteen lieutenants, one ensign, one hundred and two serjeants, one hundred corporals, seven hundred and fifty-three rank and file, killed; one quarter-master, three majors, fifteen captains, nineteen lieutenants, six ensigns, and five hundred and four wounded; Total of killed and wounded, fourteen hundred and fifty.—

The above account, which contains in substance as accurate a detail as can be collected from the different advices received from Boston and elsewhere, of the transactions of both armies on that ever-memorable seventeenth of June, is here annexed to the proceeding Poem, and printed in this form at the request of a great number of Friends to the AMERICAN CAUSE, to whom (but more especially those belonging to the Continental Army, who may have this sheet very cheap) it is recommended to preserve, not only as a token of gratitude to their deceased Friends, we mean those immortal and heroic WORTHIES, who lately so nobly bled in defence of the RIGHTS, LIBERTIES, and PRIVILEGES of NORTH-AMERICA: This sheet may be thought necessary to keep in eternal remembrance the heroic BATTLE of CHARLESTOWN, where a few hundreds of Americans several times repulsed eight times their number of Ministerial Troops of Great-Britain.
This broadside greatly overstated the number of British involved in the battle and the number of those troops killed, apparently by double-counting the wounded. It also understated the number of Americans engaged, their casualties, and the number of cannon they left on the field (five).

Evidently in 1775 the people of Massachusetts recalled Dr. Warren as leading the American forces, but in later years authors repeated Col. William Prescott’s story that the doctor had refused a command position. The broadside’s description of the British attack as lasting “two hours” is an interesting contrast to Samuel Paine’s account of an assault taking about an hour.

After that far-from-brief introduction came an all-too-long set of verses. Just a taste:
ADIEU to wanton songs and foolish joys,
  To idle tales that fill the ear,
A mournful theme my heart employs,
  And hope the living will it hear.
A horrid fight there hap’d of late,
  ’Twas on June seventeen,
When a great number met their fate
  In fighting on the green.
Yes, hundreds of poor souls are dead,
  In battle they were slain,
Both sides met with a heavy stroke,
  T’ rehearse it gives me pain.
You can read the whole poem, and view the broadside, at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website.

As I noted back here, Isaiah Thomas reported that the Russell shop printed a lot of ballads decorated with coffins like this one. Thomas first stated that Russell’s wife Sarah composed the elegiac verses, but later penciled in a note that “a young woman” working in the shop did so. (I still think it was Sarah.)

TOMORROW: But wait, there’s more!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reports of Lt. Col. James Abercrombie’s Death

The highest-ranking British officer to be killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill was Lt. Col. James Abercrombie, commander of a special battalion of grenadiers. Sometimes Salem Poor is credited with shooting Abercrombie rather than the most popular target among the British officers, Maj. John Pitcairn (who never scaled the wall of the redoubt as stories claimed).

A contemporary source suggests instead that Abercrombie was a victim of friendly fire. This passage is from the Scots Magazine, August 1775:
A private letter mentions the following particulars of the death of Lt-Col. Abercromby. This gallant officer, who on a slight repulse almost maintained his ground, by his example immediately recovered the troops, who returned with impetuosity to the charge.

In this tumultuous onset he unfortunately received a ball near the groin, (supposed accidentally from some of his own soldiers), which came with such power from its proximity, as to force a toothpick-case, which he had in his waistcoat pocket, along with it.

From the lodgement of the ball it could readily be extracted: but part of the toothpick being got so far, it baffled the art of the surgeons, and began to mortify. In this state amputation was thought necessary; but he died in the operation.
Abercrombie died on 23 June. Some sources say he died in the house used by Capt. John Montresor of the Royal Artillery.

Another letter from Boston quoted in British periodicals told a different story about Abercrombie. The 27 July 1775 Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser (and probably London papers earlier) stated that a letter described the officer telling the people around his deathbed:
My friends, we have fought in a bad cause, and therefore I have my reward, as the rest have had that have gone before me. Had I fell in fighting against the enemy, I had died with honour, but posterity will brand us for massacreing our fellow subjects; therefore, my friends, sheath your swords till you have any enemy to engage with.
Lt. Col. Abercrombie supposedly died two hours after saying that.

I find the Scots Magazine report a lot more convincing.

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.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Samuel Paine: “all the Horrors of War, Death & Rebellion”

Here’s another eyewitness account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, from a different perspective. Samuel Paine was a Loyalist who moved from Worcester to Boston in June 1775 “after passing thro’ too many Insults and too Cruel Treatment.”

On 22 June, Paine wrote to his brother in London with an update on the war:
After the Concord Expedition Affairs took a turn. A Large Army was immediately raised, & every Passage to the Town of Boston invested, the Prov’l Congress, conducted Extremely well, put their Army on Pay, by issuing a Large Sum of Paper Currency, and they appeared very formidable, having Plenty of Artillery. In various Rencontres with the King’s Troops they got the Better, were flush’d with Victory & held a British Soldier in the highest Contempt, but the surrender of the Important Fortress of Ticonderoga to the American Arms, heightened their Enthusiasm.

In this situation of their Minds last Friday night, being very dark, Many Thousands took Possession of a High Hill in Charlestown (called Bunker’s) that commanded the whole of this Town, & before Morn’g they had compleated a Redoubt, & such Intrenchments as did Honor to the Engineer, & this Town lay Exposed to a fire which must have ruined it unless prevented. As soon as it was discovered from Cops Hill, near the ferry on which is a fine Battery, the Lively, Glasgow, & Battery began to play, and a most furious Cannonade began upon the Rebels, which they return’d seven Times upon the Town. Instead of Quitt’g their post large Reinforcements were sent from Cambridge Head Quarters of their Army. Matters here began to be Serious.

About 1 o’clock all the Grenadiers & light Infantry of the whole Army, reinforced to about 3,000 under the Conduct of the Gallant Lord Howe [actually his brother, Gen. William Howe], & [Col. James] Abercromby Embarked from the Long Wharf, with 12 Brass Pieces & landed at a Point of Land back of Charlestown, in full view of the Rebels, who still kept their Post. The Troops being annoy’d from some Houses in Charlestown, the ships threw Carcases into it, and in a few min. the whole Town was in flames, a most Awful, Grand & Melancholy Sight. In the Mean, the Troops marched on toward the Hill for the Intrenchments, under a most heavy fire of Artillery, on both sides.

Never did I see such a Day; I was on Beacon Hill in full Prospect. In about thirty Min’s the Troops were nigh the works exposed to an amazing Fire of small Arms, for by this Time, the Rebels amounted to 10,000. In a few min’s we heard the shouts of the British Army, whom we now saw Entering the Breast Works & soon they entered, and a most terrible slaughter began upon the Rebels, who now were every one shifting for himself. The Troops pursued them over the Neck, beyond [Robert] Temples House, & were Masters of the Field of Battle. The Troops have suffered Extremely, there being about 24 Officers killed & near 60 wounded and about 700 Rank & File killed & wounded.

The Rebels lost a vast many, among whom was Doct. [Joseph] Warren, a noted Rascal, & Willard Moore of Paxton a Lt. Col. We have about 30 Prisoners here, some of whom are to be Executed. After the firing ceased I went over, & Good God, what a Sight, all the Horrors of War, Death & Rebellion. The British Army is encamped upon the High Hills in Charlestown, in fine Spirits, [and] will advance into the Country as soon as possible, laying waste & desolation wherever they go.
In fact, the British military was so spent by the battle that they didn’t make another large attack for the rest of the siege. Nor did they execute any of the American prisoners, though many died of their wounds in the Boston jail. But Paine’s predictions reveal one aspect of the emotional response to the bloody battle.

Paine’s letter is also notable for how much strength it ascribes to the provincial forces: up to 10,000 men, capable of “a most heavy fire of Artillery.” American veterans tended to downplay their numbers, and the artillery support was small and sporadic. Paine also didn’t describe the three waves of the British advance as most American witnesses did.

The recipient of this letter, Dr. William Paine, served as a British army surgeon for most of the war. In the late 1780s, however, he returned to Worcester and eventually cofounded the American Antiquarian Society with Isaiah Thomas. The society published this letter in 1909.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Memory of Peter Brown after Bunker Hill

Coming back to the Battle of Bunker Hill, one of our very best accounts of the event comes from an American soldier from a Westford company named Peter Brown. On 25 June 1775 Brown sent a detailed description of that fight to his mother. That document is now at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which offers a digitized version for everyone.

I quoted from Peter Brown’s letter in 2011, adding (based on the M.H.S.’s page about him) that we have few other details of his life beyond this document.

In February of this year a commenter dubbed lifford gave me a pointer to a history of Lunenburg which has more to say about Peter Brown. So I used that tip, and of course Google Books, to get beyond the common name “Peter Brown” and find more information.

It appears that Brown’s letter first appeared in print in the June 1875 issue of Potter’s American Monthly. A correspondent from Belfast, Maine, named John L. Locke prefaced the document this way:
The original of the following letter, rusty with age and worn by frequent handling, has the following address on its back: Mrs. Sarah Brown, Newport, Rhode-Island. The writer of the letter was Peter Brown, son of Wm. Brown, of Newport, R.I. He was married to Miss Olive Dinsmore, of Boylston, Mass., Oct. 24, 1781. At the close of the Revolution, in 1783, Mr. and Mrs. Brown went to Lunenburg, Mass., and in the locality known as “Flat Hill” commenced house-keeping operations. His grandson, Wm. Lifford Brown, now occupies the place. Of their 8 children, 4 were sons, and 4 were daughters. Mr. Brown died in Lunenburg, July 15, 1829, aged 76 years. He and all his family except one who died in Boston, were buried in the South Cemetery in Lunenburg.

The original letter, of which this is an exact copy, is now in possession of Mrs. Charlotte Lewis, of Lunenburg, who is a lineal descendant of Peter Brown, the writer.
Later that year the New England Historical Genealogical Society reprinted Brown’s letter and Locke’s preface in an appendix to a collection of Centennial Orations Commemorative of the Opening Events of the American Revolution. That publication was mostly a reprint from the society’s Register in 1875, but the Brown letter was added to the appendix late and therefore never got included or indexed with the Register volumes. Only 275 copies of the standalone collection with the letter were printed.

Then we come to lifford’s source, George A. Cunningham’s “History of the Town of Lunenburg.” Cunningham died in 1875, so he must have prepared that genealogical study before the publications above, but his work was never published. Until recently it appears to have existed only as a typescript at the Lunenburg Historical Society.

Then a grant allowed the society to digitize the document, and it’s now available (with a poor O.C.R. transcription) through archive.org. As pages 97-98 show, Brown served in various town and church offices in Lunenburg after the war. He and his wife Olive had eight children (the youngest of which I see was named Lifford).

Finally, Find-a-Grave has catalogued Peter and Olive Brown’s grave, as shown above. Its inscription reads:
In memory of
Mr. Peter Brown,
who died July 15, 1829,
Æt. 76.

In memory of
Mrs. Olive,
wife of Mr. Peter Brown,
who died April 20, 1828,
Æt. 70.

He was a soldier in the revolution,
was one of those who persued
the British in their retreat from
Concord to Boston, was in the
Battle on Bunker’s Hill. He was an
honest man and a devoted Christian.

She was a faithful wife,
an affectionate Mother,
and a sincere Christian.

Their surviving children, William & Mary,
have erected this stone to the memory
of their Parents.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What Kind of Man Was James Winthrop?

James Winthrop (shown here) was a son of Prof. John Winthrop of Harvard College, one of the most respected New England men of his generation. James benefited from that connection with some appointments, first at Harvard and later within the Massachusetts government. But he doesn’t appear to have ever been content.

In 1786 John Quincy Adams wrote to his mother about Winthrop:
…the librarian, Mr. W.…is a man of genius and learning, but without one particle of softness, or of anything that can make a man amiable, in him. He is, I am told, severe in his remarks upon the ladies; and they are not commonly disposed to be more favorable with respect to him. It is observed that men are always apt to despise, what they are wholly ignorant of. And this is the reason, I take it, why so many men of genius and learning, that have lived retired and recluse lives, have been partial against the ladies. They have opportunity to observe only their follies and foibles, and therefore conclude that they have no virtues. Old bachelors too are very apt to talk of sour grapes; but if Mr. W. ever gets married, he will be more charitable towards the ladies, and I have no doubt but he will be more esteemed and beloved than he is now, he cannot be less.
Winthrop never married.

A Harvard library finding aid for a small set of James Winthrop papers states:
When his father died in 1779, James hoped to succeed him as Harvard’s Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. Samuel Williams was chosen instead, though, and it has been speculated that Winthrop’s intemperance and eccentric personality were the primary reasons he was overlooked. Although he participated in a scientific expedition with Williams and Stephen Sewall in October of 1780, he also attempted to damage Williams’ reputation as a scholar on several occasions.

Winthrop was widely known for making malicious comments about others, and as a result he appears to have been unpopular among his colleagues at Harvard. In 1787 he was removed from the librarianship as the result of a newly instituted rule preventing faculty members from holding civil or judicial office. This rule is believed to have been instituted for the sole purpose of removing Winthrop [a register of probate] from the staff.
The position of Hollis Professor became vacant shortly thereafter, but Winthrop was unwelcome. He eventually bequeathed his father’s impressive collection of books to tiny new Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

After leaving Harvard, Winthrop wrote some prominent essays against ratifying the new Constitution and some analyses of the Book of Revelations. He served many years as a low-level judge. In James Bowdoin and the Patriot Philosophers, Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel wrote: “Regarded as an intriguer, drunkard, and cynic, he was the misfit son of a gifted father, and tolerated out of respect for his ancestors.” But I suspect that the root of Winthrop’s problem wasn’t drinking or intriguing but just not being able to get along easily with people.

For that reason, I’m inclined to think that Winthrop’s writings about the Battle of Bunker Hill are reliable so far as they go, and frustrating because he didn’t grasp what people would be most interested in hearing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

More about Bunker Hill from James Winthrop

In 1818, the same year he responded to a map of Bunker Hill published in the Analectic Magazine as quoted yesterday, James Winthrop wrote another letter about the battle published in the North American Review. That second letter was dated 18 June—i.e., right after the battle’s anniversary.

Winthrop was also responding to a statement in Henry Dearborn’s recently published account of the battle, which said that American soldiers had prepared the rail fence “by the direction of the ‘committee of safety,’ of which James Winthrop, Esq. who then, and now lives in Cambridge, was one, as he has within a few years informed me. Mr. Winthrop himself acted as a volunteer on that day, and was wounded in the battle.”

Winthrop insisted that wasn’t right:

I lived in Cambridge all the summer of 1775, and among others was present at the battle of Bunker Hill, on the 17th of June, in that summer. The army was then upon the state establishment [i.e., the Massachusetts army was not yet part of the Continental Army]. About one o’clock, or a little after it, an alarm was given in this vicinity. James Swan, Esq. was then resident here. We two armed ourselves and went down together to Charlestown. A little beyond the College, General Joseph Warren overtook us. We were both known to him and exchanged the passing compliment. But as he was on horseback we did not join company.

When we passed over Bunker Hill, we went immediately to that part of the lines, where the rail-fence stood. There were two fieldpieces there, but no artillery-men with them. Generals [Israel] Putnam and Warren were in conversation by one of them. We spoke with them, and then passed on toward the redoubt. The two generals were standing, and General Putnam had hold of the briddle of his horse; there were then very few, if any men at the fence. When we got to the redoubt, we did not enter, but spent a little time in viewing the situation of the ground and of the enemy. We supposed, from the position of the British troops, that their intention was to advance between our intrenchment and the Mystic river, and that it would become necessary to have that part of our line well guarded. We expressed our opinion, and some of the people about us desired us to go and see if any sufficient force was there. We two accordingly went over to the rail-fence, and being arrived near the place where we had seen the two generals, and where the fieldpieces were still standing, the firing commenced. I did not see either General Putnam or General Warren afterwards on that day.

I have not now the command of dates, but think it was only a few days after this, when the army was taken into continental pay, and General [George] Washington took the command. [Artemas] Ward, Putnam and [William] Heath were general officers, and continued to be generally respected. I never heard any blame cast on General Putnam, and it was about fifteen years after this that he died in peace.

It is altogether a mistake, that either I, or my brother [John Winthrop], was ever on the Committee of Safety. About a month after the battle, if I rightly recollect, the government [i.e., the official Massachusetts General Court] was organized according to the charter, and the Committee of course ceased.
Winthrop’s second letter was thus in basic agreement with his first, which isn’t surprising since he wrote them around the same time. Once again he didn’t provide a complete account of the battle as he’d seen it. He didn’t describe the actual fighting. He didn’t describe the retreat off the peninsula. Dearborn wrote that Winthrop was wounded at the battle, but Winthrop’s own letter says nothing about that.

The North American Review letter was mostly about who was in command of the American forces and what Israel Putnam did. Those were hotly debated questions in the early 1800s, with Putnam’s descendants being particularly keen to make their views known.

The fact that Winthrop was disclaiming the distinction of being on the Committee of Safety and not talking about his wound suggests he might have provided a broad and honest perspective of the battle, rather than puffing himself up. Then again, Winthrop may have bragged to Dearborn and felt pressure to openly disclaim those lies once they became public. Winthrop’s reputation wasn’t the highest—but was his problem being deceitful or too honest?

TOMORROW: Assessing James Winthrop.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

James Winthrop Lays Out the Battle of Bunker Hill

Here’s another account of the Battle of Bunker Hill from an American participant. In early 1818 the Analectic Magazine published the map of the battle shown above (image courtesy of Maps of Antiquity). Before publication that magazine’s editors had run it by, among others, James Winthrop (1752-1821), librarian at Harvard College from 1772 to 1787 and later a Massachusetts judge.

The next issue of the magazine published a letter from Winthrop commenting on that map. Apparently, after it was published, he’d found he had more to say:
As far as I can recollect, I believe the plan to be generally correct. The railed fence was, I think, as far as a quarter of a mile from the curtain belonging to the redoubt. There was room for a body of troops to enter that way, which was one circumstance that discomfited our men. There was no such grove as is represented on the plan. There were two or three trees near the fences, and, I believe, not more than that number. I remember two field pieces at the rail fence which covered our left.

When I first got there, generals [Joseph] Warren and [Israel] Putnam were standing by the pieces and consulting together. Very few men were at that part of the lines. I went forward to the redoubt, and tarried there a little while. Mr. James Swan [1754-1830] and myself were in company. Finding that a column of the enemy were advancing toward our left, and not far from Mystic river, we pointed them out to the people without the redoubt, and proposed that some measure should be taken to man the fence, which, when we passed, we had considered as slightly guarded. We two, in the style of the times, were appointed a committee for that purpose. We went directly to the rail fence, and found a body of men had arrived since we had left it. Possibly three hundred would not be an estimate far from the truth.

As soon as we had got to the middle of the line, the firing commenced from the redoubt and continued through our left. The field pieces stood there, and nobody appeared to have the care of them. After an obstinate dispute, our people were driven from the redoubt, and the retreat was rapid from our whole line. I saw one or two young men, in uniform, try to muster a party to bring off the field pieces, but they could not succeed.

In coming down Bunker’s Hill, at the place where the British [later] built their fort, I met a regiment going up, and joined company, still in hopes of repelling the invaders. I have since learned that it was Col. [Thomas] Gardner’s regiment. He being badly wounded was removed, and his regiment was not deployed.

When the firing commenced from the redoubt, the smoke rose from the lower part of the street. A man near me pointed to it as “the smoke from the guns.” This shows that the fire was in a line with the redoubt and the middle of the rail fence. By laying a ruler from the middle of the rail fence, as marked upon the plan, and over that side of the fort next the main street, it will cross the northern side of the square where the court-house stood. After the destruction of the town, the places of the court-house and meeting-house were cleared of the ruins to form the present square. An irregular mass of buildings was also removed in front of the present hotel, and extended that corner of the square to its present magnitude. As well as I can conclude from this statement, I am inclined to believe the plan nearly correct.
Not the most dramatic account, is it? All the actual fighting got subsumed into the phrase “obstinate dispute.” Later reference books said Winthrop was wounded in that battle, but, if he was, he wrote nothing about that.

However, Winthrop wrote a little more a couple of months later.

TOMORROW: Let’s try this again, Judge Winthrop.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Capt. Bancroft’s “severe struggle to escape out of the fort”

I’ve been quoting the account of the Bunker Hill battle set down by a grandson of Capt. Ebenezer Bancroft reportedly around 1826. When we last left the captain and his Dunstable men, the British had made their third advance on the Breed’s Hill redoubt and had flanked it on the west side, overwhelming the provincial defenses.

Capt. Bancroft is quoted as saying:
As I was loading my gun the last time, and just withdrawing the ramrod, an officer sprang over the breastwork in front of me and presented his piece. I threw away the rammer which was in my hand, and instantly placed the muzzle of my gun against his right shoulder, a little below the collar-bone, and fired, and he fell into the trench. This was my twenty-second fire that day. The wound it gave was in the same place as that by which Pitcairn died, and as near as I can recollect the person I shot answered the description of that officer who was found mortally wounded in our trench.
Bancroft thus became yet another claimant for the honor of having killed Maj. John Pitcairn as he entered the redoubt. In an article published in the first Journal of the American Revolution collection, I argue that British sources show that Pitcairn was mortally wounded before he reached the redoubt, and none of those American stories is likely to be accurate. Bancroft may have killed another, less notable officer.

Whomever he shot at, Bancroft now had an unloaded gun with enemy soldiers swarming in from all sides.
I had then a severe struggle to escape out of the fort, the gateway of which was completely filled with British soldiers. I held my gun broadwise before my face and rushed upon them, and at first bore some of them down, but I soon lost my gun, a remarkably long one, which I had taken from the French at Chamblee, in the old French war.

I leaped upon the heads of the throng in the gateway and fortunately struck my breast upon the head of a soldier, who settled down under me so that I came with my feet to the ground. Directly as I came to the ground a blow was aimed at me, with the butt of a gun, which missed my head but gave me a severe contusion on the right shoulder.

Numbers were trying to seize me by the arms but I broke from them, and with my elbows and knees cleared the way so that at length I got through the fort. The last man I passed stood alone, and the thought struck me that he might kill me after I had passed him. As I ran by him I struck him a blow across the throat with the side of my hand. I saw his mouth open, and I have not seen him since.

A shower of shot was falling all around me as I ran down the hill. One struck my hat, several marked my clothes, one struck me in the left hand, and served off the forefinger. Our men were all in advance of me, and I was almost, if not entirely, alone, from the time I left the fort till I came to Charlestown Neck, on which there was not a man to be seen.

I thought it might be some protection from the fire of the floating batteries, to go behind the buildings, but on turning the corner I found Col. [Samuel] Gerrish with a body of men posted there. I said to him, “Colonel Gerrish, are you here? I hope to God you will be killed, but I will not stay to die with you,” and took the street again.

By this time I grew very faint with fatigue and loss of blood. There was a horse tied by the side of the common, and I made towards him. Colonel James Varnum saw me and came to me. He took me by the arm and led me to the horse. While he was with me, the ball of the last cannon I heard that day passed within a foot or two of me and struck the ground, at a short distance before me. We found the owner of the horse by him, and he cheerfully offered him to me to ride to Cambridge.
Many people criticized Col. Gerrish for his behavior on 17 June 1775, but he remained in the army until August, when he was court-martialed and cashiered for how he behaved in a lesser confrontation with the enemy.

Though Bancroft lived and died in Massachusetts, his grave (shown above, courtesy of Find a Grave) is located in New Hampshire. That’s because the sliver of Dunstable containing the cemetery where he was interred was later found to be across the state border.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Capt. Bancroft and the Sight of the Enemy

Yesterday I started quoting from the reminiscence of the Battle of Bunker Hill credited to Ebenezer Bancroft, captain of a company from Dunstable, Massachusetts.

According to Bancroft, Col. William Prescott had given him charge of two cannon left in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill by the artillery company of Capt. Samuel Gridley. Bancroft had fired a couple of times, causing no damage but, he later claimed, nonetheless affecting the battle:
By this time the British had landed. They learned that we had cannon on the right or most westwardly part of the fort, which was probably the reason they did not attempt to flank us on that quarter till the close of the action. We were not able to use these cannon in the action because the enemy advanced and the firing commenced before we had time to dig down the bank far enough to use them against the enemy. Still as the few shots that were fired gave the enemy notice that we had artillery and prevented their attempting to turn our right flank, it must be regarded as a very important circumstance, for had they attempted it, they would have succeeded, and we should not have had more than a shot or two at them. I was fully persuaded that the moment they attempted this point, we could no longer maintain our fort, and the event showed that I was not mistaken, for it was not more than four minutes after they turned this flank before we were obliged to retreat.

The British troops had begun their march. They were steadily and confidently advancing directly in our front. Our men turned their heads every minute to look on the one side for their fellow soldiers who had gone off with the tools and for the reinforcements, which were expected, and on the other to see a sight to most of them new, a veteran enemy marching on firmly to the attack, directly in their front. It was an awful moment.

The enemy had advanced perhaps half the way from their station toward us, and our men seeing no reinforcements began by a simultaneous movement to draw off from the east side of the redoubt. This in my opinion was the very crisis of the day, the moment on which every thing depended. Col. Prescott hastened to them, and I followed him. We represented with earnestness that they must not go off, that if they did all would go; that it would disgrace us to leave, at the bare sight of the enemy, the work we had been all night throwing up; that we had no expectation of being able to hold our ground, but we wanted to give them a warm reception, and retreat. It is but justice to these men to say that they cheerfully took their places again, and maintained them as bravely as any that fought on that day.

As the enemy were advancing within gunshot, Col. Prescott and the officers gave orders to the men to take particular notice of the fine coats [of the officers and sergeants], and aim as low as the waistband, and not to fire till ordered. A firing of eight or ten guns commenced before orders, at the left of the redoubt, but was immediately stopped. We wished the fire to be held till the enemy were within six rods.

Our first fire was shockingly fatal. There was scarcely a shot but told. The enemy were thrown into confusion and retreated a short distance. Their lines were broken, and it was some minutes before they had conveyed their dead and wounded into their rear. A scattering fire was still kept up by our men.

They formed again and advanced, and were a second time driven back in the same confusion. They formed a third time and flanked us. A body of reinforcements which had come up in the rear of the redoubt, gave them a fire. At this moment, as I understood, Gen. [Joseph] Warren fell. Our ammunition was now nearly expended, which the enemy probably learned by those who had fired away all their powder, throwing stones, which were abundant in the trench. We were soon surrounded on all sides. The enemy had advanced on each side of the point of the redoubt, and were pouring into the gateway. The day was over, and we had nothing more but to retreat as well as we could.
Did Bancroft survive? (Well, of course he did since we have this recollection. But how?)

TOMORROW: Out of the redoubt.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Capt. Ebenezer Bancroft and the Embrasures

With the anniversary of Bunker Hill coming up, I’m going to share some accounts of that battle, said to be from eyewitnesses. And in most cases I’m sure they really are from eyewitnesses.

The first comes from Ebenezer Bancroft (1738-1827) of Dunstable, Massachusetts, who was a captain in the provincial army. It was reportedly “written from dictation in 1826” by Bancroft’s grandson John B. Hill of Mason, New Hampshire, and printed for the first time in The Granite Monthly in 1878.

That magazine said it had taken the text from proofs of Hill’s Sketches of Old Dunstable, which was never published as a stand-alone book. Instead, Hill’s material was appended to a much shorter address that nevertheless gets top bibliographic billing: Bi-Centennial of Old Dunstable, by S. T. Worcester.

Here’s the start of Bancroft’s account:
On the night of the 16th of June, 1775, my company was ordered out with the detachment to take possession of the heights of Charlestown. This detachment consisted of three regiments commanded by Col’s [William] Prescott, [Ebenezer] Bridge and [James] Frye, and amounted in all to between 1000 and 1200 men. These regiments were principally from Middlesex county, Col. Prescott from Pepperell, Col. Bridge from Chelmsford, Col. Frye from Andover. I was that evening on a court-martial and could not get liberty to go with my company, but in the morning of the 17th General [Artemas] Ward granted me permission to join my company, though the court-martial was not through.

Soon after I reached the hill our men left work and piled their intrenching tools in our rear, and waited in expectation of reinforcements and refreshments, but neither reached us, if any were sent. The reinforcements halted at Charlestown Neck. Whilst I was standing by the redoubt before the action began, a ball from the Somerset passed within a few inches of my head, which seriously affected my left eye so that it finally became totally blind.

When the works were planned no calculation was made for the use of cannon, and of course no embrasures were left for them. But on the morning of the 17th two ship cannon were sent up and a platform with them. About ten o’clock the British troops began to make their appearance at the wharves in Boston.

General [Israel] Putnam, who had been incessant in his exertions through the morning to bring reinforcements, now rode up to us at the fort and says: “My lads, these tools must be carried back,” and turned and rode away. An order was never obeyed with more readiness. From every part of the line volunteers ran and some picked up one, some two shovels, mattocks, etc., and hurried over the hill.

When the pile of tools was thus removed I went through the lines to form an estimate of the number of men in the redoubt, at the same time stating that those who had gone with the tools would come back, though I was by no means confident that they would. I estimated the number then left in the redoubt at 150, but was afterward informed by one of the captains of Col. Frye’s regiment that he counted them, and the whole number, including officers, was 163. I was not certain that any reinforcements after this time came into the redoubt; thus the number of our effective force was very materially reduced. General Putnam had given his orders and gone, and nobody seemed to think it belonged to him to stop the men and execute the order in a proper way.

The artillery-men had all gone with the tools, and Col. Prescott came to me and said, “If you can do anything with the cannon I wish you would. I give you the charge of them.” I directed the men to dig down the bank in order to form an embrasure, which they were forced to do with their hands, for the party that had carried off the intrenching tools had not left us a single shovel or mattock. Men never worked with more zeal. Many of them dug till their fingers bled. To loosen the earth I loaded the cannon and fired into the gap, and they dug again, and I fired a second time. Both these balls fell in Boston, one near the meeting-house in Brattle square, the other on Cornhill, as I was afterward informed by Boston gentlemen.
The first time I read a retelling of that anecdote, it sounded like the provincials fired point-blank into the earthen wall to create the embrasures, and I recall at least one author expressing doubt that anyone would ever do that. Bancroft’s (or Hill’s) words suggest that the men started the excavate the openings by hand, and he fired the cannon through the narrow hole they opened in order to make it easier for them to widen. As to whether those shots reached all the way into central Boston, that still seems dubious.

TOMORROW: What effect did those cannon have on the battle?

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Jersey Prison Ship Records on Ebenezer Fox

As I wrote yesterday, on 5 May 1781 two Royal Navy ships captured the pride of the Massachusetts navy, the Protector, and its crew, including young Ebenezer Fox of Roxbury. (The picture here shows him over fifty years later.)

The National Archives in London holds three volumes of bound muster rolls from the Jersey prison ship, then in New York harbor, and those confirm that men from the Protector began arriving on that hulk on 8 May. Even more were listed on 9 May. Those prisoners were credited to the two vessels that had captured the Massachusetts ship, H.M.S. Roebuck and Medea (which Fox recalled in his memoir as the Mayday).

In all, the Jersey rolls list 127 prisoners from the Protector. Only Capt. John Foster Williams is identified by rank. Junior officers like Lt. George Little and Midn. Edward Preble don’t have any special designation; they appear in the midst of the ordinary seamen—including Ebenezer Fox, signed in on 8 May.

And almost immediately those muster rolls show the Protector’s men being transferred off the prison ship, and thus off its books. The first to go were two sailors discharged to the Falmouth on 11 May, possibly having enlisted in the Royal Navy.

Williams and Little were put aboard the Rainbow on 9 June, prisoners bound for England. It’s not clear how many other men listed as discharged to the Rainbow were prisoners and how many had been drafted or enlisted as sailors. In early 1782, Williams was exchanged from the Mill Prison in Britain.

In all, men from the Protector were discharged to eight different British vessels, mostly in small numbers. In addition, one was identified as a British deserter and sent back to his army regiment, and four are listed as, I believe, “Esc[aped].” (At first I’d wondered if that notation might be “Ex[changed],” but Fox’s mention of men disappearing in the night confirms there were escapes.) By the end of June 1781, only 27 of the original 127 were still listed as receiving rations aboard the Jersey.

Ebenezer Fox was not one of those remaining names. On 30 June, the Jersey’s commander had discharged him to the 88th Regiment of the British army. Two other men enlisted in that regiment the same day; five others had already signed up, the earliest on 28 May.

Thus, Fox’s experience of the Jersey prison ship, which took up almost a quarter of his 1838 memoir of the war, lasted less than two months. To be sure, he was on that ship for more days than most of his comrades from the Protector, but he didn’t hold out for a very long time. Furthermore, while he dwelled on the unhealthy conditions in that prison, during those two months none of the Protector men is listed as dying.

Clearly Fox played up the horrors of the Jersey to justify his eventual decision to join the enemy army. In Forgotten Patriots, Edwin G. Burrows showed that some of the anecdotes Fox told in those chapters occurred after he had left the ship and must have been borrowed from other men’s memoirs.

Thus, while the Jersey’s muster rolls confirm that Ebenezer Fox was held captive aboard that notorious ship before enlisting in the 88th Regiment and heading for Jamaica, they also reveal that Fox glossed over one very important detail.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ebenezer Fox on the Jersey

Ebenezer Fox was a teenaged sailor aboard the Massachusetts warship Protector when two Royal Navy vessels captured it off the coast of New Jersey on 5 May 1781.

In his 1838 memoir Fox told this story of what happened next:
About a third part of our ship’s crew were taken on board of their vessels, to serve in the capacity of sailors, without regarding their remonstrances; while the remainder of us were put on board of a wood coaster, to be conveyed on board the noted prison ship called the “Jersey.” The idea of being incarcerated in this floating Pandemonium filled us with horror; but the idea we had formed of its horrors fell far short of the realities which we afterwards experienced.
The next few chapters of Fox’s memoir describe life aboard the Jersey, an old hulk anchored in New York harbor. In fact, that topic takes up almost a quarter of the book (excluding appendixes). Citing other reminiscences for support, Fox painted a horrible experience for the prisoners of war confined there:
The miseries of our condition were continually increasing: the pestilence on board spread rapidly, and every day added to our bill of mortality. The young, in a particular manner, were its most frequent victims. The number of the prisoners was continually increasing, notwithstanding the frequent and successful attempts to escape: and when we were mustered and called upon to answer to our names, and it was ascertained that nearly two hundred had mysteriously disappeared without leaving any information of their departure, the officers of the ship endeavored to make amends for their past remissness by increasing the rigor of our confinement…
The British authorities kept offering a way out: enlisting in the royal military forces. Fox wrote of how he and his comrades resisted that enticement at first, but their conditions made it more appealing:
To remain an indefinite time as prisoners, enduring sufferings and privations beyond what human nature could sustain, or to make a virtue of necessity, and with apparent willingness to enlist into a service, into which we were satisfied that we should soon be impressed, seemed to be the only alternatives. . . .

…a recruiting officer came on board to enlist men for the eighty-eighth regiment, to be stationed at Kingston, in the island of Jamaica. We had just been trying to satisfy our hunger upon a piece of beef, which was so tough that no teeth could make an impression on it, when the officer descended between decks, and represented to us the immense improvement that we should experience in our condition, if we were in his Majesty’s service: an abundance of good food, comfortable clothing, service easy, and in the finest climate in the world, were temptations too great to be resisted by a set of miserable, half-starved, and almost naked wretches as we were. . . .

The recruiting officer presented his papers for our signature. We hesitated, we stared at each other, and felt that we were about to do a deed of which we were ashamed, and which we might regret. Again we heard the tempting offers, and again the assurance that we should not be called upon to fight against our government or country; and, with the hope that we should find an opportunity to desert, of which it was our firm intention to avail ourselves when offered—with such hopes, expectations, and motives, we signed the papers, and became soldiers in his Majesty’s service.
One goal for my trip to London earlier this month was to find out more about Ebenezer Fox’s experience. That included going to the British National Archives to examine the muster rolls of the Jersey, which I’d learned about from Todd Braisted’s Facebook feed.

TOMORROW: What the Jersey rolls say about Ebenezer Fox.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

James Madison in Virginia

In February the Colonial Williamsburg podcast featured an interview with the actor now portraying James Madison, Bryan Austin. He portrays the future fourth President as a young lawyer.

In other news, this Charlottesville article cheekily titled “The Full Montpelier,” about the ongoing work to restore that Virginia estate, including “filling out the inside of the Madisons’ former mansion and erecting replica structures of the former slave quarters,” as well as establishing events.

And surprises are still lurking under the ground:
[Matt] Reeves is ecstatic because his team of 11 full-time archaeologists and 17 students from James Madison University has been excavating the foundation of an 18th century brick building a stone’s throw away from the palatial columned mansion that most of us think of when we imagine Montpelier.

No doubt, the wall in the front yard is a striking find in its own right, but something even more unexpected occurred around 2:30pm the previous day as the archaeologists dug out a layer of Virginia dirt to reveal the structure. Instead of taking a 90-degree turn as they had predicted—and which would have been typical of a structural foundation—the wall turned at a 45-degree angle.

“It’s totally different than anything else. It’s not square, and we have no idea what it is,” said Reeves. “It’s going to be cool, that’s all we know.” And so, they keep digging.
The article quotes Montpelier director Kat Imhoff as saying, “There’s this feeling that Madison is the Robin to Jefferson’s Batman, but it’s so not true.” To which I can only reply, what would be wrong with that?