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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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Samuel Gerrish “unworthy an Officer”

As I described yesterday, Col. Samuel Gerrish of Newbury was the first infantry officer to receive a Massachusetts commission in May 1775, but then ran out his string with a series of embarrassing actions and lack of action.

On 17 August, the Continental Army court-martialed Gerrish on the charge “That he behaved unworthy an Officer.” With Gen. Nathanael Greene presiding, a panel of officers found him guilty and ordered him “to be cashiered, and render’d incapable of any employment in the American Army.” Gen. George Washington approved that sentence on 19 August.

Washington’s private letters show that he was pleased with that outcome and, whatever incident was behind the formal charge, linked it to Gerrish’s behavior at Bunker Hill. To his overseer Lund Washington the commander wrote:

The People of this Government have obtained a Character which they by no means deserved—their Officers generally speaking are the most indifferent kind of People I ever saw. I have already broke one Colo. and five Captain’s for Cowardice, & for drawing more Pay & Provision’s than they had Men in their Companies. . . .

in short they are by no means such Troops, in any respect, as you are led to believe of them from the Accts which are published, but I need not make myself Enemies among them, by this declaration, although it is consistent with truth. I daresay the Men would fight very well (if properly Officered) although they are an exceeding dirty & nasty people. had they been properly conducted at Bunkers Hill (on the 17th of June) or those that were there properly supported, the Regulars would have met with a shameful defeat; & a much more considerable loss than they did. . .

it was for their behaviour on that occasion that the above Officers were broke, for I never spared one that was accused of Cowardice but brot ’em to immediate Tryal.
Likewise he told Richard Henry Lee that he “Broke one Colo. and two Captains for Cowardly behaviour in the action on Bunker’s Hill.” Gen. William Heath later told John Adams that Gerrish’s fault had been “Backwardness in Duty on the 17th. of June.”

According to Swett, judge advocate general William Tudor later said that Gerrish “was treated far too severely.” (At the time, however, Tudor’s main complaint to his mentor John Adams was that the courts-martial were unfair to him because of all the work he had to do.)

Samuel Gerrish went back to Newbury. Loammi Baldwin took over the leadership of the regiment. However, not everyone had lost respect for Gerrish since his town elected him to the Massachusetts General Court the next year.

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