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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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Men of Drury’s Company

Looking for documents about African-Americans in the New England ranks before Gen. George Washington’s arrival, I checked the new Harvard database of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Petitions. As I noted before, it contains many documents that don’t touch directly on slavery.

I found this petition to Gen. Artemas Ward signed on 5 June 1775 by more than two dozen men serving under Capt. Thomas Drury (1735-1790) of Framingham. They wrote:
the Subscribers, Soldiers in the Compy. Commanded by Capt. Drury, Humbly showeth—

that your Petitioners With the utmost Concern find themselves Shifted Out of Col. [John] Nixons Regt. into that of Col. [Thomas] Gardners, Contrary to Our Inclination and Repugnant to the promise made us at Our Inlisting

We theirfore Begg that your Excellency Would be Pleased to Continue us in the Regiment We Engaged to serve in—and not to be Removed for the Future Only to Serve the Malevolent Disposition of Our Captain.
New England soldiers viewed their enlistments as contracts to serve under particular officers. It appears that Capt. Drury had promised to serve under both Nixon and Gardner, but he was listed higher on the seniority list in Gardner’s regiment, so that’s the assignment he preferred.

Twenty-eight men didn’t want to make the switch. Maybe they trusted Col. Nixon, who was from their home town of Framingham, more than Col. Gardner from Cambridge. Those men were bold enough not only to go over Drury’s head but also to criticize his “Malevolent Disposition.”

In his Patriots of Color study, George Quintal identified three of the soldiers who signed this petition as men of color: later war records identify Blaney Grusha and Peter Salem as “Negro” and Joseph Paugenit as “Indian.” However, on this document there’s no indication that those soldiers were racially distinct from the other signers. (Salem and Grusha both signed with their marks, but none of the men had genteel, practiced signatures.)

In addition, Quintal’s study identified two more black men in the same company—Cato Hart and Jeffrey Hemenway. They didn’t sign this petition.

In fact, the Committee of Safety found that the company was split. On 14 June it determined:
A number of men belonging to the company of Capt. Drury, having petitioned that they might be permitted to join, some, the regiment commanded by Col. Gardner, and others, the regiment commanded by Col. Nixon; and the committee having considered their several requests, Voted, as the opinion of this committee, that said company be joined to such regiment as it shall appear the major part of said company are in favor of, when called upon for that purpose.
Three days later, Nixon’s and Gardner’s regiments both fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Both colonels were wounded, and Gardner died on 3 July. I don’t know if Drury’s men ever got around to voting, but the company remained in Nixon’s regiment.

Meanwhile, a new commander-in-chief arrived, and in his first report back to the Continental Congress he complained about “the Number of Boys, Deserters, & Negroes which have been listed in the Troops of this Province.” On Thursday I’ll talk about how Washington came to think differently.

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