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 24, 2015

Matching Up the Stories of the Fight in Boston Harbor

Last week I started quoting lengthy passages from an 1835 United Service Journal article about the capture of ships carrying men of the 71st Regiment of Foot in Boston harbor, said to be extracted from letters that a young Scottish officer wrote to his sister.

This week I quoted reports of that event written in 1776 by various participants, including the commander of those Crown forces. Some salient details match, but others are far off.

For example, Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell wrote about how a cannon shot from a shore battery was his first clue that Boston was no longer in British hands:
As we stood up for Nantasket road, an American battery opened upon us; which was the first serious proof we had that there could scarcely be many of our friends at Boston…
The 1835 account echoes that moment with more drama:
The men were clustering in the forecastle, and the officers leaning over the taffrail, with glasses turned towards the town, when a flash from the battery on the island, followed by an instantaneous report, caused us to look up. We had scarce done so, when a ball, after touching the water once or twice in its course, buried itself in a swell of the sea, just under our stern. We stared with astonishment one upon another, for the signal—if such it was—had been very awkwardly managed; but ere a Word had been exchanged, another and another gun was fired, the shots from which passed some ahead, some far over, and one right through the shrouds, so as to cut away several of the ratlins. “This is a rough reception,” said our commanding officer; “and devil take me if I don’t see into it.”
(When first quoting that passage I assumed the battery was part of Castle William, but it doesn’t have to be. The letter from a Massachusetts artillery officer specified it was on “point alderson,” or Point Allerton in Hull. Nearby Fort Revere, on a site first fortified in 1776 and decommissioned in 1947, is shown above.)

But the 1835 account is entirely missing what must have been a significant part of the Scottish ships’ voyage: four small American privateers had chased them toward Boston all the previous day. Campbell refers to that engagement, counting casualties from it. So does the artillerist’s letter and even Capt. Seth Harding’s battle report (though he left out the role of those ships in the final capture).

Instead, the 1835 account says that after that first shot from the battery, the two Scottish troop ships were attacked by ”a numerous flotilla, consisting of schooners, launches, and row-boats of the most formidable size, put off from the town.“ No contemporaneous report agrees with that.

The 1835 account says the British troops, once they realized their commanders had to surrender, destroyed their equipment to ensure it didn’t fall into Yankee hands:
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.
When American authorities searched the George, they found “31 small-arms,” “361 black shoulder belts; 74 bundles and 1 bag gun straps;” “7 bundles leather bullet pouches; 3 cartouch boxes;” and “2 bags with belts and knapsacks.”

So the troops captured on that ship didn’t destroy everything, but that does seem like a small number of muskets for so many soldiers. Gen. George Washington’s aide-de-camp Samuel Blachley Webb wrote in July that the commander-in-chief thought as much: “he is surprized that out of upwards of 400 Prisoners only 73 Arms have been sent on, as he supposed every man must have his Arms with him”.

However, so far I’ve found no statement from Massachusetts explaining that the prisoners had destroyed most of their arms. Webb seems to have suspected that local authorities had requisitioned those weapons for their own forces rather than sending them south to the Continental Army. So Massachusetts officials did have a reason to explain.

Finally, the 1835 story describes the American attackers’ last act this way:
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.
But an advertisement from 1776 show that within a couple of months all three of the captured troop ships were up for auction at Hancock’s Wharf. No period source indicates that the Americans burned any of those vessels.

As a result of those discrepancies with the fight in Boston harbor, the event of the 1835 narrative that prompted the most contemporaneous records, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the United Service Journal articles aren’t a reliable source. Not just the narrator’s flight from captivity and the Indian ambush in darkest Connecticut (which always seemed like a romance), but also the British officers listening to the Declaration of Independence and even their difficulties training the new Highlander soldiers aboard ship.

It’s possible that some 71st Regiment officer’s letters or anecdotes were the basis for those articles. But any eyewitness memories have been so built up with additional detail and drama—whether extrapolated, drawn from published sources, or made up—that it’s impossible to separate out what’s authentic from what’s wishful. Which is too bad, because those articles contain some really good storytelling.

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