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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Friday, June 19, 2015

“Backwardness in Colonel Scammans”?

On 12 July 1775, five days after confirming the court-martial sentence of Capt. John Callender, Gen. George Washington issued orders for the trial of another Continental Army officer:

A General Court Martial of the Line to sit at Head Quarters, in Cambridge, to morrow morning at Nine OClock, to try Col. Scammons of the Massachusetts Forces accused of “Backwardness in the execution of his duty in the late Action upon Bunkers-hill”. The Adjutant of Col. Scammon’s regiment, to warn all Evidences [i.e., witnesses], and persons concern’d to attend the court.
The regimental adjutant was a man named George Marsden.

Col. James Scamman (also spelled Scammans, Scammon, and Scammons) commanded a regiment made up of men from Maine and New Hampshire. While the fight raged on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown, he had led his men to Cobble Hill, on the west side of the Charlestown Neck, and stayed there for a while. Then when he finally moved them onto the Charlestown peninsula, Scamman went no farther than the brow of the taller Bunker’s Hill before ordering everyone to turn around and retreat.

In his defense, Scamman said had been ordered “to the hill,” and at first he thought that meant Cobble Hill because people feared British regulars would land at nearby Lechmere’s Point. Some of his witnesses, such as Drummer Henry Foss, backed him up on that.

However, it’s clear that other men in Scamman’s regiment supported the complaints against him. Those soldiers were already split over whom they’d signed up to fight under—Scamman or his lieutenant colonel, Johnson Moulton. In their testimony, some junior officers hinted that the colonel didn’t move as quickly as he should have, or noted that other provincials moved on to Breed’s Hill even as Scamman said that was too dangerous. For example:
Ensign Joshua Trafton deposed, about two of the clock (afternoon) we marched from Cambridge to Lechmere’s-Point, where we found Gen. [John] Whitcomb who expressed much surprise at finding Col. Scammans take post there. We remained on the Point fifteen minutes and then marched to a small hill below Prospect-Hill. We continued on the small hill about half an hour or more; during which time Col. Scammans sent two Serjeants to Bunker’s-Hill, to know if his regiment was wanted.

We took the nearest road to Bunker’s-Hill, as I suppose; and before we got to the top of the hill, Colonel ordered a retreat. I cannot say whether the breastwork was forced or not at that time. We saw many men retreating down the hill who said they had spent all their ammunition; some told us that the enemy had retreated and begged us to push on. As we turned off the small hill, a regiment marched by us towards Bunker’s-Hill. As we marched from Cambridge we heard the regulars were landing at Lechmere’s Point and at Charlestown. Col. Scammans made the greatest despatch from the small hill to Bunker’s-Hill.

I saw no other instance of backwardness in Colonel Scammans, except his long stay at the small hill, which appeared to me unnecessary. As we retreated a number of men advanced up in an irregular manner.
Shortly after this Scamman accused Trafton of “abusive Language” and later of “offering to strike his Colo,” both charges apparently involving Trafton’s disdain for the colonel. But the court-martial boards went easy on the junior officer—suggesting they thought his disrespect for Scamman had a solid basis.

TOMORROW: The main witness accusing Col. Scamman of backwardness was none other than the regimental adjutant, George Marsden.


csccat said...

Where are the records of this court martial located? Thanks

J. L. Bell said...

Scamman published the records of his court martial in early 1776 in an attempt to salvage his reputation, and they've been printed several times since. Here’s one example.