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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Thursday, July 16, 2015

“This is a rough reception.”

I’ve been wrestling with the authenticity, if any, of a certain recollection of the Revolutionary War. It purported to be the account of a young officer in His Majesty’s 71st Regiment of Foot.

When the text first saw print in the February 1835 issue of the United Service Journal, a magazine for veterans of the British armed services, the editors prefaced it with these words:
We have this month the satisfaction of presenting to our readers the first portion of a narrative, which comprehends not only some striking historical details, but a good deal of stirring adventure. The original is contained in a series of letters addressed by the author to his sister, with which we have taken no other liberty than here and there to alter an expression, and to omit the customary head and tail pieces of epistolary communications. We do not know whether there be any members of the old 71st Regiment now alive, but if there be, the name of the writer, which we are requested to conceal, will be no secret to them. For ourselves we lament that any restrictions in this respect should be imposed on us, where none, we are quite sure, can be necessary. But all men have their prejudices.
That certainly suggests the editors had worked from original, contemporaneous documents. Of course, they could have lied. Or the officer or his sister or descendant could have sent them copies said to be accurate but actually augmented.

There are long sections of the document full of literary, even Romantic, descriptions that I don’t see in other officers’ letters to other sisters. Yet there are also accurate details that seem like they would only come from authentic source material, and errors unlikely to crop up if the writer was consulting books of history and geography to add verisimilitude.

In any event, the narrative begins:
On the 21st of April, 1776, the Frazer Highlanders—then numbered as the 71st regiment of the line—embarked at Greenock on board of a fleet destined for North America. . . . I had then the honour to rank as a lieutenant in the 7lst, having, like most of my brother officers, raised men for my commission. . . . The latter were excellent, nothing, indeed, could be superior for the recruits, having been collected chiefly from the lands of their chief, were, with few exceptions, young, able-bodied, and full of attachment to their superiors, whom, for the most part, they followed from motives of hereditary affection. But the former was, according to the criterion of the Horse Guards, bad enough. As a battalion, indeed, we knew nothing. Not only were we ignorant of the most common field-movements, but the very manual and platoon exercise was strange to us. . . .

[On board ship] The greater portion of every fine day was devoted to giving the men some knowledge of such portions of their duty as could be explained to them on board of ship. In the first place they were trained to obey the word of command when uttered in English—a language of which, when they first joined, they knew nothing. In the next place, they were taught to face, and wheel, and even to march, to handle their arms with gracefulness, and to fire; while occasionally an attempt was made to deploy from such a column as the narrow quarter-deck of a transport would admit of, into such a line as was compatible with a rolling sea. I must confess that the result of the latter manoeuvre was generally to set both men and officers laughing, and that, after repeated trials, it was laid aside. . . .

Time passed, and on the 16th of June, almost two months from the date of our embarkation on the Clyde, the look-out seamen, from the mast-head, greeted our ears with the joyful tidings of land on the larboard bow. . . . The shores of North America are, in almost all directions, singularly low and uninteresting, and the point towards which we were steering differed little in this respect from other portions of coast; for the land hung for some time cloud-like over the water, and when it did assume a definite form, it was that of low sand-hills loosely covered with pines. This, however, gradually changed its character, till Cape Cod, with its sharp promontory, had been left behind; after which the rocks and islets, which lie scattered in beautiful disorder through Boston Bay, rose one by one into view. By-and-by Long Island pushed itself forward, like an advanced guard to the town, which covered, in a somewhat straggling manner, the tongue of a peninsula; and, finally, we found ourselves under a dying breeze, and with a tide running strongly against us, in the centre of Nantucket Roads. There, at the distance of three quarters of a mile from a redoubt or battery that protected the island, we cast anchor; happy in the assurance that ere four-and-twenty hours should have run their course, we should be snugly settled beside our comrades on terra firma.

It had been remarked by some of us, while the vessel held her course, not without surprise, that matters were not altogether in the condition which we had expected to witness in such a place as Boston Bay. No light cruisers had met us as we approached the Cape, nor, as far as we could discern, were there any symptoms of a fleet either in the inner or the outer harbour. When we looked again to the telegraph station, we could discover no movement indicating the vigilance of those who kept it, or denoting that a strange sail was in sight. The might of the battery also slumbered, and our ensign received no salute. This was curious enough, for the customs of the Service required that, in time of war, no vessel should cast anchor in a British roadstead till her name should have been made known, and the object of her coming notified. . . .

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 [Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell]; “and devil take me if I don’t see into it.”
Yes, there will always be a Scotland.

The mention of a “telegraph station” is a big clue that not all of this text dates from the 1770s, whatever the magazine editors said. The word “telegraph” entered English in the 1790s. It originally referred to a sort of mechanical semaphore system, and Boston had one in the early 1800s—meaning a “telegraph station” might have appeared on a map of that time along with the other features named in the account. But if the writer had a map in front of him or her, why do we see “Nantucket Roads” instead of “Nantasket Roads”?

TOMORROW: The 71st Regiment lands at last.


sbh said...

I went ahead and read the entire first instalment of this piece as it appeared in the United Service Journal. It's an enthralling narrative, obviously written at some remove from the events described, which makes me wonder--is there any reason to suppose that the author was writing his sister in the 1770s, rather than at some later time? The introduction didn't say anything about the date of the alleged letters (at least as far as I can tell), only that the editor had "omit[ted] the customary head and tail pieces of epistolary communications" (which presumably would have given the dates, always assuming that they ever existed). If the author was writing his sister at some later date about his past experiences then anachronistic references could easily creep in through ordinary faults of memory.

That may just be wishful thinking on my part. The piece is so interesting I'd rather like it to be true as well.

J. L. Bell said...

At times the article is explicit in saying it’s not a contemporaneous account. For example, the narrator says he didn’t keep track of time passing while he was in captivity, and that in turn means he wasn’t sending him regular dated letters. But there’s a big difference in how reliable this article is as a historical source in whether it’s based on letters the young officer wrote shortly after regaining his freedom, or a couple of years after the war, or decades later. And there’s always the possibility that the whole “epistolary communications” remark was a ruse to make a fictional account seem authentic. It gets wild toward the end. And yet there are these details that seem convincing. I’m hopeful, too!

Mr Punch said...

I suppose "Nantucket" for "Nastasket" could be a mis-correction by the editor.

J. L. Bell said...

If so, the editor caught that “error” several times.