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, February 02, 2015

Another Dimension for Battle Road?

Last week the University of Pennsylvania library announced the purchase of a collection of manuscripts about the occult and alchemy.

The original collector was Charles Rainsford, a British army officer during the Revolutionary War (shown here). But he spent that period enlisting soldiers in the German states, as a ceremonial aide-de-camp to King George III, and suppressing riots in London. So ordinarily that news would hold limited interest for Boston 1775. But then I spotted a familiar name in Mitch Fraas’s announcement:
It was with excitement then that my colleagues and I read the catalog for the sale of some of the 12th Duke of Northumberland’s collection this past July. Amongst the treasures was a somewhat unassuming lot consisting of nearly 60 manuscript volumes from a single 18th century collector. These manuscripts had been left to the 2nd Duke of Northumberland by his friend Charles Rainsford (1728-1809).

Since 1809 they had sat on the shelves at Alnwick Castle, seeing only sporadic use. Rainsford was not only a British general and sometime governor of Gibraltar but an avid alchemist and occultist, fascinated by everything from the philosopher’s stone to Tarot to Rosicrucianism. The manuscript library he left to the Duke of Northumberland contained works he had collected in Gibraltar and on the continent but also a number copied out in his own hand from texts he had seen or borrowed.
The second Duke of Northumberland is better known around here as Colonel Percy, Gen. Thomas Gage’s second-in-command in Boston at the start of the war and officer in charge of the relief column and retreat from Lexington on 19 Apr 1775. As the first Duke of Northumberland’s son, he used the name and title of Earl Percy until he succeeded to the dukedom.

Now I know our Percy didn’t inherit these manuscripts from Rainsford until the early nineteenth century, and Rainsford may not have even have started to acquire them until years after the Revolutionary War. But let’s imagine that Rainsford and Percy started discussing matters of alchemy and the occult early in their careers and made some breakthroughs.

That would open up new dimensions of possibility to Percy’s withdrawal along the Battle Road. Alchemical weapons! Dead soldiers resurrected as unstoppable zombies! The ghost of General Wolfe brought back to lead the redcoats!

Hey, it’s no more outlandish than some parts of Sons of Liberty. 

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