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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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Mystery of Captain Smythe

When Frank Moore compiled his Diary of the American Revolution volumes in the 1850s, most of his sources were newspapers, but he also listed ten manuscript sources—five sets of letters and five diaries. Moore identified all those writers by full name except for one diarist he called “Captain Smythe, of the Royal Army.”

That man’s diary was the source of the anecdote about Martha Washington naming a tomcat after Alexander Hamilton, an obviously satirical passage that doesn’t carry weight as historical evidence for anything besides British army officers telling jokes about their American rivals.

Moore quoted several other passages from “Smythe’s Journal.” Writing for an American audience, he was primarily interested in passages about the American side of the war. Thus, Moore quoted Smythe at length on “little Hamilton, the poet and composer to the Lord Protector Mr. Washington,” but nothing about life in British-occupied New York.

There’s more than enough to make one wish to know who the man was and where the rest of the journal is. But Moore didn’t say. Apparently, nobody knows. Some people have even suggested the writer was a pseudonym.

As for internal clues, the first passage that Moore quoted from Smythe was dated 17 June 1776, about a letter from John Hancock to the Patriot authorities in New York that appeared in the New-York Gazette that day. At the time, the British army was sailing from Halifax to New York harbor, so it’s unlikely that an officer in the royal army could have seen that letter on 17 June. The date in the journal may have been the publication date, which Moore kept attached to that item.

The other items Moore quoted from “Smythe’s Journal” are linked to these dates and places:
  • 1 Mar 1777 in New York.
  • 1 Apr 1777 in New York.
  • 29 May 1777, around New York.
  • 1 July 1778, no place clues.
  • 8 Nov 1778, around New York.
  • 13 Aug 1779, no place clues.
  • 1 Jan 1780, no place clues.
  • 10 Mar 1781, around New York.
  • 16 Sept 1781, in New York.
Again, no personal remarks about participating in battles, travel, or other activities that could help to identify the diarist. All the diary entries tells us is that this British captain spent a lot of time in New York and thought the British army was classier and likely to win. That doesn’t really help narrow down the pool.

TOMORROW: One candidate.

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