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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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Escape from Connecticut?

The further the British officer’s story printed in the United Service Journal in 1835 goes on, the more melodramatic and less credible it becomes.

At first the narrative sticks pretty closely to the documented experiences of the officers of the 71st Regiment. They were still prisoners in Boston at the end of 1776. But with the Continental Army suffering reverses and rumors that Gen. Charles Lee was being treated badly in Crown custody (he wasn’t), their conditions changed. Instead of letting Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell walk around Boston on parole, the Massachusetts authorities sent him out to the county jail in Concord—conditions he complained about to Gen. George Washington.

The experiences of Campbell’s subalterns are less well documented. This account says that the narrator and a fellow captured officer, “Captain Menzies,” were marched out to Lexington, ”a pretty village, built round a large green or common, in which were a church, an inn, and a blacksmith’s forge.” The two men had already started to talk about escaping.
We had…gone so far as to provide ourselves with disguises; with sailors’ dresses, rough jackets and trousers, such as were worn by the fishermen along the coast, and would therefore, we trusted, some day or another, do us good service. Havresacks also had been procured, in which a change of linen and provisions might be stowed away; and, above all, we had purchased, with a view of guarding against the worst, clasp-knives, with blades six inches in length.
Confined upstairs in that Lexington inn (we know there was more than one tavern in the town, but let’s assume it was Buckman’s Tavern, shown above), the officers got the lieutenant, sergeant, and corporal in their guard drunk over dinner.
It was now past midnight; and the silence which prevailed elsewhere gave notice that the people of the house, and probably the troops on duty, were all fast asleep. . . . Menzies passed on tiptoe towards the door, into the staple of which, so as to keep the latch from being lifted, he quietly thrust a knife. Meanwhile I stole to the window, and threw it open.

The night was as dark as pitch; so dark indeed, as to render fruitless every endeavour to ascertain how far we were from the ground. There was not a star in the heavens; and over the village swept a low moaning wind, the sure prelude to a storm. In some respects all this was in our favour: the excessive darkness would help to baffle pursuit were we fairly in flight, and the wind would probably drown whatever noise we might make in descending. But to descend in total ignorance both of the spot which was to receive us and of the position of the sentinels, whom we could not doubt the officer had planted, was what we should have hesitated about doing had a less urgent necessity driven us on.
The author makes the jump, and in good literary fashion the narrative breaks there, to resume in the following issue.

The second installment of this account (which is the third in the magazine’s “Traditions of the American War of Independence” series) picks up from that moment with the narrator realizing he’s badly hurt his ankle. He and Menzies hide from pursuers in the woods, get separated crossing a deep stream and reunited, and overpower a suspicious rural couple. There are long passages on the narrator’s despair about his ankle and the experience of being alone in the forest. There’s a great deal of male bonding between the narrator and Menzies.

Alas, we have Lt. Col. Campbell’s letter listing all the officers who fell into the Bostonians’ hands in June 1776, and that list includes no captain named Menzies. (Maj. Robert Menzies died in the fight when the transport ships were captured.) So our author has either forgotten his companion’s name, disguised his identity, or made it all up.

Other details defy confirmation. The account quotes from a paper describing the two escapees for American pursuers: “One considerably taller than the other; dressed in frieze jackets and trowsers; supposed to pass themselves off as seafaring men.” I’ve found no runaway ad with those phrases, but the account doesn’t say that was a published advertisement, and it’s easy to excuse the author from remembering the exact words.

Likewise, the geography remains murky. The narrator apparently thought he was in Connecticut soon after escaping, yet mentions “Holleston,” “Providence River,” and “Daubeny.” Are those odd details the result of imperfect knowledge and memory, or was the writer just making things up?

And then things get really weird. The narrator and Menzies are recaptured by American “riflemen,” along with an old man named Simcoe accused of being a Loyalist. With the narrator’s ankle still painful, he’s put into a wagon for the ride back to Boston. But then Indians and the Loyalist’s son burst from the woods to rescue them, killing and scalping all the American guards. Finally, the narrator and Menzies make it to New York. By that point, it seems more clear, whoever was penning the account was simply looking to entertain a British readership.

And was that the only point of this account all along?

TOMORROW: Back to the fight in Boston harbor.


Chaucerian said...

I'm not really following the part about how one would become inconspicuous in Lexington, an inland agricultural town, by donning sailors' clothing.

J. L. Bell said...

And they combined those disguises with broad Scottish accents and genteel manners. According to the narrative, the two men succeeded in allaying suspicion in…absolutely no one who met them.