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, January 03, 2015

“Sergeant Smith and His White Horse”

In Anecdotes of the American Revolution, published in 1845, the anonymous compiler John Lauris Blake included this story titled “Sergeant Smith and His White Horse”:

At the very first exhibition of American courage, which proved so fatal to the British troops in their excursion to Lexington and Concord, Sergeant Smith showed himself a skilful marksman. Learning from rumor, which seemed to have spread that night with a speed almost miraculous, the destination of the detachment, he arose from his bed, equipped himself with cartridges and a famous rifle he had used at Lovell’s fight at Fryeburg, saddled his horse, and started for Lexington meeting-house. Meeting with a variety of hinderances, and twice escaping narrowly from some straggling parties of the red-coats, it was late when he arrived on the ground, and the troops were already on their rapid retreat towards Boston.

Learning that the people were all abroad, lining the fences and the woods to keep up the fire upon the enemy, he started in pursuit, and in the course of a few miles, on riding up a hill, he found the detachment just before him. Throwing the reins upon his horse, and starting him to full speed, he rode within a close rifle-shot and fired at one of the leading officers. The officer fell; and the sergeant, retreating to a safe distance, loaded his rifle again, and again rode up and fired, with equal success. He pursued the same course a third time, when the leader of the retreating body ordered a platoon to fire at him.

It was unavailing, however; and a fourth, fifth, and sixth time, the old rifle had picked off its man, while its owner retreated in safety.

“D—n the man!” exclaimed the officer, “give me a musket, and I'll see if he bears a charmed life, if he comes in sight again.” It was but a moment, and again the old white horse came over the brow of a hill. The officer fired, but in vain; before the smoke of his charge had cleared away, he too had fallen before the unerring marksman, and was left behind by his flying troops.

When the day had closed, the wounded were collected by the neighbors upon the road, and every kindness rendered to them. The officer was not dead, and on being laid upon a bed where his wounds could be examined, his first question, even under the apprehension of immediate death, was, “Who was that old fellow on the white horse!”
Longtime Boston 1775 readers will recognize this anecdote as a rewrite of “The White Horseman,” a “legend” that appeared in the Boston Pearl literary magazine in 1835. There were no mounted riflemen active on 19 Apr 1775, much less fifty years earlier at “Lovewell’s Fight” in Maine.

In the first published version of this tale, the old fellow was named “Hezekiah Wyman.” There were men named Hezekiah Wyman in Middlesex County in 1775, and scholars have tried to identify one of them with the man in the story. But as this republication shows, back in 1845 authors didn’t view the details of the tale as historical. “Hezekiah Wyman” could become “Sergeant Smith” as long as the core of the story remained entertaining.


Charles Bahne said...

As you know, John, I've always been fascinated by the legend of Hezekiah Wyman; and your post today got me rereading the series you did about Hezekiah back in June 2010. And there on June 15, 2010, the subject of Lovewell's Fight in Maine (1725) also comes up. Can this be just a coincidence?

The search function on your blog indicates that today's post and the 2010 post are the only times you've mentioned the Lovewell incident since Boston 1775 began. And in your earlier thread about Wyman, the connection with Lovewell's Fight doesn't arise until 1895, or 50 years after the story in today's post...


J. L. Bell said...

Strange, indeed, but surely a coincidence. Seth Wyman's connection to "Lovewell's Fight" is well documented, but it came up in connection to another Wyman's shakier claims of a link to the marksman on the white horse. Meanwhile, this writer was eliminating the name of Wyman from the story in favor of the untraceable "Sergeant Smith."

I guess that "Lovewell's Fight" was just notable in New England lore back when massacres weren't such a bad thing, so the author of this anecdote invoked it as a fight that an old man of 1775 could conceivably have been part of.

Anonymous said...

Other myths of the American revolution: Peter Fransisco's fight

also "Myth on the Map"

Charles Ratzke said...

In the Wyman Genealogy Database Hezekiah Wyman is attributed to be the famous rider as noted in his profile. Note: "◦he set off for Lexington too late for the battle on the Common, but he came upon the retreating British and made them very miserable. Chapman's history quotes the first known article about him from the Boston "Pearl" written sometime before 1840. "His tall gaunt form, his white locks floating in the breeze, and the color of his horse distinguished him from the other Americans; the British called him "Death on the Pale Horse"_Once a bayonet charge drove him off,_but ere long he was returning to the charge and this time killed an officer. His powerful white horse, careening at full speed over the hills, with the dauntless old man on his back, was continually to be seen, and the British learned to read his appearance in their front and the report of his trusty musket."

Hezekiah Wyman finally joined the "old men of Menotomy" who hid behind stone walls in what is now Arlington Center and attacked the ammunition and supply wagons that were sent from Boston to help the retreating British.

In his will made in June, 1779, Hezekiah left his white mare to his son , Daniel. One of Daniel's sons, George Wyman, lived in the house that still stands at 195 Cambridge Street, opposite the Winchester Conservatories."


J. L. Bell said...

As you can see by hitting the "Hezekiah Wyman" labels on this blog, I've researched the men of that name and the myth attached to that name in detail.