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, July 17, 2015

“Colonel Campbell reluctantly gave the word to strike”

If you kept track of the dates in yesterday’s extract from the United Service Journal in 1835, you noticed that the His Majesty’s 71st Regiment of Foot sailed from Scotland on 21 Apr 1776, after the Crown had evacuated Boston but before news of that event had time to reach Britain.

Therefore, when two of the ships carrying the 71st’s Highlanders reached Boston harbor, the guns of Castle William fired on them. Because that fort was now in American hands.

We pick up that account as the writer describes his British military companions coming to the same realization. Note, however, that the story starts with an anachronism that casts doubt on whether this memoir is authentic or reliable in its details. The U.S. of A. didn’t adopt the “thirteen stripes with the thirteen stars” as its national emblem until more than a year after the 71st Regiment reached Boston.
“By G–d,” exclaimed the skipper, “that is no union jack,”—and no union jack was it, sure enough. The thirteen stripes with the thirteen stars ornamented the flag-staff—a piece of coarse buntin having been slowly run up while the cannon were firing; and we were taught to our sorrow that we had laid ourselves in a position which admirably suited us to act as a mark for the inexperienced of the enemy’s gunners to practise upon.

Thick and fast came now the rebel shot, against which we had nothing in the world to oppose; for our miserable 4-pounders were too light to make an impression even on a fieldwork, and our distance from the shore was too great to permit of musketry being made available. Neither were our chances of escape at all satisfactory. The breeze had died wholly away, so that our sails, had we hoisted them, would have hung useless as gossamer-webs from the masts; while the run of the tide gave us the comfortable assurance that, in the event of our cable being cut, we should be carried directly ashore, under the very muzzles of the guns which now played upon us. . . .

Repeatedly the ship was hulled, and our mainmast, severely wounded in two places, threatened, should a third shot take effect, to go by the board; yet only three men had fallen, of whom one was a sailor. Though galled and annoyed, therefore, we did not think of surrendering; when, suddenly, a numerous flotilla, consisting of schooners, launches, and row-boats of the most formidable size, put off from the town. Onwards they came, and our glasses soon made us aware that they were all crowded with men; nor did many minutes elapse ere ample proof was given that most of the craft had cannon. They took up a position in line exactly abaft our beam; and while the shore battery raked us from stem to stern, they poured whole volleys of round and grape across our quarter.

Our commandant [Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell, shown above], so far from giving way under this accumulation of evils, seemed to take courage from it. He caused the ship’s guns to be traversed aft, and answered the enemy’s salute with admirable spirit, though, as the event proved, to but little purpose. But such a combat could not long be maintained. Seeing that our fire produced no visible effect, and perceiving that his men began to fall fast around him; warned also by the skipper, that the transport was so riddled as to render it impossible for her to float after the tide should have turned, Colonel Campbell reluctantly gave the word to strike; and our flag, which had hitherto floated both at the peak and from the mainmast head, was, with inexpressible mortification, hauled down. We shrugged up our shoulders as we gazed on one another, and felt that we were prisoners. . . .

Whether the smoke which, in a dead calm, rolled off heavily from the ship, obscured us, or whether, as in the bitterness of our chagrin, we were inclined to believe, the enemy saw, without regarding, our condition, I cannot tell; but for several minutes after all opposition on our part had ceased, they continued their fire. Shot after shot struck us, till there arose at last a wild cry, in which all ranks participated, that it would be better to perish like men, with arms in our hands, than thus stand idly to be mowed down by those who seemed determined to give no quarter. “Out with the boats!” was now heard from various quarters. “The island is not far off: let us make a dash at the battery; and if we cannot carry it, let us at all events sell our lives as dearly as we can.” But the utter hopelessness of such an attempt did not escape Colonel Campbell’s consideration. He therefore exerted himself to soothe his irritated followers, and sending most of them below, continued himself to walk the deck with the utmost composure.

When a fortress or a ship surrenders, it is in accordance with the laws of war, that all the arms, stores, and military implements contained in it, shall be handed over, exactly as they are, to the conquerors. Of this we were well aware; nor, when we hauled down our flag, was there the slightest intention on the part of any one on board to contravene the custom. But furious, at what they regarded as a wanton disregard of the dictates of humanity, our soldiers no sooner found themselves below, than they ran to the arm-racks. In five minutes there was not a musket there of which the stock was not broken across. The belts, cartouchboxes, and bayonets likewise were caught up, and all, together with the fragments of the firelocks, were cast into the sea.

Had Colonel Campbell been aware of what was going on, he would have doubtless put a stop to it; for he was a strict disciplinarian as well as a man of rigid honour; but the work of destruction went forward so rapidly, that long ere a whisper reached him there remained nothing further to be done. When, however, the enraged soldiers made a movement to throw the cannon likewise overboard, he withstood them; nor would he permit a particle of the spare ammunition in store to be injured. But his fair dealing in this instance was wasted: he saved the ship’s guns, it is true, but he did not succeed in creating a belief among the Americans that he was not a party to the destruction of the men’s muskets.

The enemy had continued their cannonade about a quarter of an hour, and several of our comrades had fallen under it, when they seemed to have discovered all at once, that our colours were not flying. The firing accordingly ceased; and a boat pushing ahead of their line, approached within hail to demand whether we had surrendered. We replied of course in the affirmative; upon which a signal was hung out for the flotilla to advance. The whole moved forward till they surrounded us on all hands, and sending their boarders over the chains, our decks were crowded with people, whose dress and language equally gave proof that they belonged to no regular service, naval or military. Such a cut-throat looking crew never indeed came together, except under the bloody flag of some fierce rover. There were landsmen in round frocks, with carving-knives stuck by their sides in place of daggers; there were militia men in all manner of dresses, armed with long duck-guns; and there were seamen—hardy and brave I do not doubt—but as ferocious in their bearing as if piracy were their profession, and life and death matters of no importance where interest came in the way. The latter were chiefly equipped with pistols and cutlasses, which they brandished with an air of insolent triumph, as uncalled for as it was unbecoming. . . .

Finally, they drove us, like a herd of oxen, on board of their small craft, and sent us, without a single article of baggage, to be towed in the schooners into Boston. This done, they plundered the transport of everything contained in it, whether of public property or belonging to individuals; and finding on examination that it would not float, they summed up all by setting it on fire.

As there was a strong tide against us, and the schooners overloaded with heavy cannon went much by the head, our progress towards the landing place proved slow; indeed the sun had set some time ere we gained the extreme edge of the Long Wharf. To say the truth, we experienced little mortification at the circumstance. Though not without curiosity as to the appearance of a town in which we had anticipated a very different reception, we were content to postpone its gratification, rather than become in open day, objects of impertinent remark to the rabble, who, we could not doubt, were assembled to greet us. Nor were we deceived in this expectation. The whole extent of the wharf was crowded with men, women, and children, all on foot to witness the arrival of the British prisoners, and all anxious to testify by their hootings and yells, how cordial was the abhorrence in which they held us. Through that crowd we were marched, our guards, as it appeared to us, being more anxious to exhibit the trophies of their own valour, than to protect the captives from insult; and having passed several streets, some of them tolerably capacious, we arrived ere long at a massy building which we were given to understand was the common jail. Into it the officers were thrust; while the men were moved off to a meeting-house hard by, where, under the close surveillance of a military guard, they passed the night. . . .

In this comfortless manner the night wore away, what little sleep any of us obtained being snatched upon the bare boards; but the morrow brought with it a change of circumstances considerably for the better. As if ashamed of the conduct of his subalterns, Colonel Thomas Crofts, the Governor of the place, sent his Aide-de-camp to assure us, that nothing but the lateness of the hour at which we arrived would have induced him to permit our being lodged in prison even for a single night; and that he was now ready either to release us on the customary terms, or to transfer us to a more commodious as well as respectable place of safe-keeping. We were at the same time invited to become his guests at breakfast; and offered every accommodation in the way of money and apparel of which we might stand in need.
There was no “Governor” in Massachusetts in 1776. The highest-ranking authorities were probably James Bowdoin, president of the Council, and Gen. Nathanael Greene, mopping up after the siege.

However, Thomas Crafts was the colonel in charge of the Massachusetts artillery force. That meant he was in charge of the cannon at Castle William and prominent in public affairs (as we’ll see tomorrow). So the account’s mention of “Thomas Crofts” is close enough to seem authentic, yet unlikely to have come from published historical sources. The colonel’s “Aide-de-camp’ might have been his young brother-in-law, Christopher Gore, who served as regimental clerk in that year.

Lt. Col. Campbell’s period as a prisoner is fairly well documented. Soon after he and the two transports full of soldiers were captured, he wrote letters to his superiors and family. One of Campbell’s dispatches was published in 1776.

This article from the United Service Journal is generally in accord with Campbell’s report. It’s conceivable that that was because the article’s author used Campbell’s letter and other available documents as source material. But there are also enough deviations and new details, such as the destroyed muskets and Col. “Crofts,” to suggest the writer was relying on personal memory. How reliable that memory was is another question.

TOMORROW: A town celebration.

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