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, April 18, 2015

Jeremiah Lee’s Very Bad Night

Jeremiah Lee was a non-battlefield casualty of the fight on 18-19 Apr 1775. On the one hand, that’s appropriate because he was central to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s effort to build up an artillery force, which prompted the British army march tp Concord. On the other hand, Lee’s death was probably unnecessary.

Lee was a Marblehead merchant, militia commander, and member of the congress’s Committee on Supplies. He was the conduit for its payments to the Salem painter David Mason as he collected and mounted cannons.

On 18 April, Lee attended a joint meeting of the Committee on Supplies and the Committee of Safety at a tavern in Menotomy, the western village of Cambridge that’s now Arlington. When the meeting broke up, he and two other men from Marblehead, Elbridge Gerry and Azor Orne, decided to stay the night. Richard Devens of Charlestown later wrote:
After we had finished the business of the day, we adjourned to meet at Woburn on the morrow,—left to lodge at Newell’s [the tavern], Gerry, Orne, and Lee. Mr. [Abraham] Watson and myself came off in my chaise at sunset.

On the road we met a great number of B[ritish]. O[fficers]. and their servants on horseback, who had dined that day at Cambridge. We rode some way after we met them, and then turned back and rode through them, went and informed our friends at Newell’s. We stopped there till they [the officers] came up and rode by. We then left our friends, and I came home, after leaving Mr. Watson at his house.
Likewise, Gen. William Heath wrote of himself in the third person: “on his return home, soon after he left the committee, and about sun-setting, he met eight or nine British officers on horseback, with their swords and pistols, riding up the road towards Lexington.”

The province was abuzz with rumors that the London government had ordered Gen. Thomas Gage to arrest leaders of the rebellion—and those rumors were pretty much true. The committee men were naturally nervous. Gerry sent a warning west to John Hancock and Samuel Adams, then staying at Lexington. Nonetheless, Devens and Watson had passed through the British officers twice with no trouble.

Later that evening, a long column of British troops passed by the tavern on the way to Concord. Lee, Gerry, and Orne got out of bed to watch. Suddenly they perceived some soldiers from that column coming toward the front door. Half-dressed, the three men dashed out the back and threw themselves down in a field, hoping the stalks of the previous year’s crop would hide them. Heath wrote that he heard they suffered “some injury from obstacles in the way, in their undressed state.”

The three men remained on the ground for about an hour before they decided it was safe to return to the building. Lee, who had just turned fifty-four, took sick from the cold and stress. He died on 10 May, his family and friends blaming the events of that night.

Here’s the sad irony: those British troops weren’t seeking to arrest anyone on the Committee on Supplies. Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders for that march say nothing about arresting Provincial Congress members or searching buildings before the column reached Concord. None of the several British officers who left detailed accounts of the night wrote about such a search on the way west. Heath wrote that he’d heard the troops “halted” outside the tavern, which they might have done just to get water from a well, but he didn’t say they went inside.

In his 1828 biography of Gerry, James T. Austin wrote that British troops had searched Newell’s tavern on the night of 18 April. Of course, saying that made Gerry’s decision to hide outside in the fields seem more smart than scared. And although Austin claimed, “even the beds in which they had lain were examined,” he had to acknowledge that nothing, not even “a valuable watch of Mr. Gerry’s, which was under his pillow,” had been disturbed. No eyewitness accounts from 1775 said troops had gone into the tavern, and the Massachusetts Patriots hadn’t shied from complaining about British actions that day.

I therefore suspect that Lee, Gerry, and Orne could have stayed inside their bedroom the whole night without being disturbed. And Lee might have lived for many more years.

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