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, April 22, 2016

John Howland and the Lexington Alarm in Providence

Yesterday I quoted Elkanah Watson’s description of how Providence, Rhode Island, responded to the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

According to Watson, the news arrived on the afternoon of 19 Apr 1775, his militia unit spent the whole night equipping themselves, and they marched off on the morning of 20 April, defying the governor’s proclamation that they not cross the border into Massachusetts.

Watson’s contemporary John Howland, born in October 1757, left his own memoir of that day. He was from a lower class than Watson, apprenticed to a barber instead of a merchant and attached to an ordinary militia unit instead of the Cadets. But Howland grew up to be president of the Rhode Island Historical Society and seems to have been more accurate about important points:
On the afternoon of the 19th of April, 1775, news arrived here that a battle was then going on, as the regulars had marched from Boston into the country. There were four or five boys of us on Mr. Thompson’s wharf, where some hands were unloading a scow load of salt. Mr. Thompson came down and said, “war, war, boys, there is war. The regulars have marched out of Boston; a great many men killed; war, war, boys.” He turned quickly and went up to the street. We all followed, and saw the officers of the companies and many others on the parade before Gov. Bowen’s, seeking intelligence.
Jabez Bowen was never governor of Rhode Island; in 1778 he became deputy governor, and served for several years. But Bowen was a leader of the Providence militia, so it makes sense that people gathered near his house for news.
The drums of the four independent companies beat, and the men paraded as soon as possible. It was sundown, and the officers of the company repaired to Lieut. Gov. [Darius] Sessions, requesting him to give them orders to march towards Boston, as without his orders their authority would cease when they should have passed Pawtucket bridge. He declined doing any thing in the case, having no power out of the colony, or in it, as the Governor [Joseph Wanton] who lived in Newport was above him in authority.

It was then concluded to send an express towards Boston, to know whether the enemy had returned or were yet in the field, and to act or march on further intelligence, orders or no orders. Mr. Charles Dabney, a member of the Cadet company, offered to be the express. A horse was procured and he set off. It was toward noon the next day before he returned, but an express from near the scene of action arrived, stating that the regulars were safe cooped up in Boston.

Before this intelligence arrived here, early in the morning Col. [James] Varnum, with his Greenwich company arrived, but would not stay. They continued their march some miles beyond Pawtucket, when receiving the intelligence they returned here. I viewed the company as they marched up the street, and observed Nathaniel Greene with his musket on his shoulder, in the ranks as a private. I distinguished Mr. Greene, whom I had frequently seen, by the motion of his shoulders in the march, as one of his legs was shorter than the other.
According to Howland, therefore, Varnum’s Kentish Guards were the only Rhode Island company that marched across the colony line on 20 Apr 1775. Watson’s unit, the Independent Company of Cadets, waited for word from their member Dabney about what the situation was. Before noon, Providence received news “that the regulars were safe cooped up in Boston,” so those Cadets probably never marched. Elkanah Watson just wished they had.

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