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, June 20, 2015

George Marsden: “half-way up Bunker’s hill with Col. Scammans”

The last witness in the July 1775 trial of Col. James Scamman for “Backwardness” during the Battle of Bunker Hill was his regimental adjutant, George Marsden.

The record of Scamman’s court martial states:
Adjutant Marsden was sworn at the desire of the complainants and deposed that we were three-quarters of an hour on the little hill and continued about twenty minutes after we heard of the firing on the hill in Charlestown. I went half-way up Bunker’s hill with Col. Scammans when I left him and went to the breastwork, where I got before the enemy forced it; the confusion was so great when we got to Bunker’s-Hill we could not form the regiment.
On Monday, 17 July, precisely one month after the battle, the court-martial board deliberated and acquitted Scamman of the charge against him. The chaos of the battle and the lack of clear lines of command meant there wasn’t enough proof to find him guilty of disobeying orders.

Nonetheless, Scamman’s reputation suffered. Junior officers like Ens. Joshua Trafton treated him with disrespect. At the start of 1776 he wasn’t offered a commission in the reformed Continental Army. His name had even come up in the secret correspondence of Dr. Benjamin Church, who told his contact inside Boston, “the cowardice of the clumsy Col. [Samuel] Gerrish and Col. Scammon, were the lucky occasion of their [the provincials’] defeat.”

After that correspondence became public, Scamman sent the record of his court martial to the New-England Chronicle in the hope of vindicating himself. But he couldn’t let that record speak for itself; he added comments about how particular testimony justified his actions or should be disbelieved.

In regard to Adj. Marsden, Scamman wrote:
It is observable that the Adjutant would insinuate by his deposition that the regiment arrived at Bunker’s-Hill time enough to reinforce the breastwork before it was forced by the enemy, but if the public will only consider that those regiments which were stationed only two miles distance, did not arrive seasonable enough, and that the deponent had heretofore perjured himself by his desertion from the enemy, and by his common deportment discovers no regard to the Deity, his deposition will have but little weight with them.
So Marsden was a deserter? (As well as having “no regard to the Deity,” whatever that might have meant to New England Congregationalists.) That’s interesting.

A genealogy titled George Marsden, Revolutionary Patriot; His Family, Friends & Descendants, published in 1961, states this family understanding:
George Marsden was born in Leeds, England in the year 1737, the youngest son of an English gentleman. Upon the death of his father, his older brother inherited the estate, titles, etc., and George was procured a commission in the British army as was customary at that time for the younger sons of an English family. Soon thereafter, he was sent to the Colonies by way of Nova Scotia, to fight the French and Indians. He performed his duties with exceptional valor and bravery, and it was a great disappointment to his fellow officers when, early in 1775, he tendered his resignation as an officer in the British army, joined the Colonies against, the motherland and thereby became a rebel in the eyes of his friends and his family.
Was that what Scamman meant by referring to Marsden’s “desertion from the enemy”?

TOMORROW: How George Marsden really came to the American army.

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