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, July 18, 2015

“A proceeding which we could not but regard as traitorous”

Yesterday’s installment from the 1835 United Service Journal article ended with the unnamed, and perhaps fictional or composite, author becoming a prisoner in Boston. He and comrades in His Majesty’s 71st Regiment had sailed into Boston harbor in June 1776 thinking the town was still held by the British.

The officers were reportedly put into the town jail for a night, but then the American “Governor” came to relieve them. The writer recalled this man as “Colonel Crofts,” and I’m trying to figure out if that’s an imperfect memory of Thomas Crafts, prewar political activist and colonel in charge of the Massachusetts artillery force in 1776.

Here’s the part of the account that first caught my eye, its description of days leading up to 18 July 1776 in Boston:
We gave our word of honour that we would not attempt to pass beyond a certain distance out of Boston, till the privilege of parole should be withdrawn, or an exchange of prisoners effected; and we became, in consequence, as much masters of our own time as was consistent with a moderate degree of surveillance. Besides, the kindness of Colonel Crofts did not end here: he caused excellent quarters to be assigned to us in the houses of certain families who were suspected of a leaning in favour of the royal cause; and he issued orders that our wants should be duly attended to, and the utmost respect paid to our persons. Here then, we were, prisoners at large, in a town famous, above all in the New World, for its hostility to the English, yet well treated both by the civil and military authorities; and with a fair prospect of spending our days among them till a war, just begun, should be brought, one way or another, to its close. . . .

Meanwhile we found what amusement we could in wandering over the town, and visiting the positions of Bunker’s Hill, Breed’s Hill, Dorchester, Charleston, and other points rendered memorable as the scene of recent operations. Among these, nothing struck us more forcibly than the site of the encampment which the Americans first occupied after the skirmish of Lexington. Many huts were yet standing in regular lanes or streets which crossed one another at right angles; and it was easy to perceive, that the same ingenuity which they were in the habit of exercising in the construction of their rude dwellings in the woods had been applied by the rebel heroes to the formation of their bivouac. We were forced to admit, while examining their lines, that in the use of the spade and the pickaxe—implements of war not less formidable than the musket and the cannon—our men would be no match for an enemy so skilful.

In this manner a whole month wore itself out, and listless indifference was beginning to mark the bearing of some, when an event befel which so far stood us in stead, that it furnished us, for awhile, with a subject of conversation. On the 17th of July, the British officers on parole received each a card from the Governor, requesting the honour of his attendance at a specified hour on the morrow, in the Town Hall. As rumours were already afloat touching the decided step that had been taken at Philadelphia, we were not without a suspicion as to the purport of this meeting; and we hesitated for a while, as to the propriety of giving the sanction of our countenance to a proceeding which we could not but regard as traitorous. Curiosity, however, got the better of scruples, which, to say the truth, were not very well founded; and it was resolved, after a brief consultation, that the invitation ought to be accepted.

Accordingly, at the hour appointed, we set out, arrayed in the full-dress uniform of our corps, and became witnesses to a spectacle which excited even in us feelings it would not, perhaps, be very easy to be defined. As we passed through the town, we found it thronged in all quarters with persons of every age, and both sexes. All were in their holiday suits, every eye beamed with delight, and every tongue was in rapid motion. King-street, Queen-street, and the other streets adjoining the Council Chamber, were lined with detachments from two battalions of infantry, tolerably well equipped; while in front of the jail, a brigade of artillery was drawn up, the gunners standing by their pieces with lighted matches; nor, to do them justice, was there any admixture of insolence in the joy which seemed to animate all classes.

Whether our lengthened residence among them, and the anxiety which we displayed never wantonly to offend their prejudices, had secured their esteem, or whether they considered it beneath the dignity of a grave people standing in a position so critical, to vent their spleen upon individuals entirely at their mercy, I do not know; but the marked respect with which we were treated both by soldiers and civilians could not be misunderstood. The very crowd opened a lane for us up to the door of the Hall, and the troops gave us, as we mounted the steps, the salute due to officers of our rank.

On entering the Hall we found it occupied by functionaries, military, civil, and ecclesiastical; among whom the same good humour and excitement prevailed, as among the people out of doors. They received us with great frankness and cordiality, and allotted to us such stations as enabled us to witness the whole of the ceremony, which was as simple as the most republican taste could have desired. Exactly as the clock struck one, Colonel Crofts, who occupied the chair, rose, and silence being obtained, read aloud the celebrated Declaration, which announced to the world that the tie of allegiance and protection which had so long held Britain and her North American colonies together, was for ever separated. This being finished, the gentlemen stood up, and each repeating the words as they were spoken by an officer, swore to uphold, at the sacrifice of life, the rights of his country.

Meanwhile, the town-clerk read from a balcony the Declaration of Independence to the crowd; at the close of which, a shout, begun in the Hall, passed like an electric spark to the streets, which rang with loud huzzas, the slow and measured boom of cannon, and the rattle of musketry. The batteries on Fort Hill, Dorchester Neck, the Castle, Nantucket, and Long Island, each saluted with thirteen guns—the artillery in the town fired thirteen rounds, and the infantry, scattered into thirteen divisions, poured forth thirteen volleys—all corresponding to the number of States which formed the Union.

What followed may be described in a few words. There was a banquet in the Council Chamber, where all the richer citizens appeared—where much wine was drunk, and many appropriate toasts given. Large quantities of liquor were distributed among the mob, whose patriotism of course grew more and more warm at every draught; and when night closed in, the darkness was effectually dispelled by a general and, what was termed then, a splendid illumination. I need not say that we neither joined, nor were expected to join, in any of the festivities. Having sufficiently gratified our curiosity, we returned to our lodgings, and passed the remainder of the evening in a frame of mind, such as our humiliating and irksome situation might be expected to produce.
According to a 21 July letter from Abigail Adams and the 25 July New-England Chronicle, Thomas Crafts did take a major part in the official reading of the Declaration of Independence, starting exactly at one o’clock on this date in 1776. The thirteen-gun salutes, the many toasts—they’re also in the published record.

But the 22 July Boston Gazette and 25 July Continental Journal said the “Sheriff of the County of Suffolk,” who was William Greenleaf, did the reading, as the Council had officially requested. An October 1841 letter from the sheriff’s son Daniel explained that he had asked Crafts to help out because he had a “weak voice,” and the colonel repeated each phrase in a bellow for the benefit of the crowd below.

In that case, the author of this account seems to have mixed up the two men, having the colonel read the Declaration inside the chamber and a “town clerk” then repeat it (as a whole?) to the crowd. Again, this purported reminiscence is a frustrating mix of nearly accurate detail and discrepancies.

TOMORROW: The story continues.


Unknown said...

"All the richer citizens"? Wouldn't someone who had lived through that era have said something like "All the better citizens"?

J. L. Bell said...

The writer isn't particularly complimentary about the people inside the chamber.