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, November 17, 2016

Lt. Machin and the Cape Cod Canal

On Saturday I’m going to Sandwich to speak to the Cape Cod Sons of the American Revolution about The Road to Concord. So I decided to look for something interesting about Revolutionary Sandwich.

That led me back to one of my favorite characters from the siege of Boston: Thomas Machin. As I’ve written, Machin came to the town in 1774 as a private in His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot.

Machin left town on the night of 26 July 1775, “when sentry on the fire boat in the river near the neck.” He took his fellow regular’s musket while he slept, got into a canoe, and headed for the American lines.

In Cambridge, Machin was debriefed by Gen. George Washington himself. He then helped John Trumbull sketch the British fortifications; when he defected, two British officers wrote in their diaries that he knew something about that topic. Machin then probably worked in quartermaster Thomas Mifflin’s department. In January 1776, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Continental Artillery—one of the American army’s few engineers.

After the siege, Washington ordered Machin to stay in the Boston area to help fortify the harbor against any new British attack. But in May the Massachusetts legislature got a new idea:
It is represented to this Court that a navigable canal may without much difficulty be cut through the isthmus which separates Buzzards Bay and Barnstable Bay, whereby the Hazardous Navigation round Cape Cod, both on account of the shoals and enemy, may be prevented, and a safe communication between this colony and the southern colonies be so far secured
The notion of a canal through Cape Cod had been around for decades. With the Royal Navy lurking out in the Atlantic, this seemed like an excellent time to push it through.

People understood that Machin had experience digging canals. According to family tradition set down in the mid-1800s, he had worked for the British canal engineer James Brindley. Indeed, Brindley was active in the part of central England where Machin reportedly hailed from. However, that family tradition is suspect, creating a fictional past for the man instead of identifying him as a deserter.

Whatever his background, Lt. Machin went to work surveying the canal route and making other plans. But on 10 June 1776, Gen. Washington wrote to James Bowdoin, senior member of the Massachusetts Council:
I am hopeful that you applied to General [Artemas] Ward, and have received all the Assistance that Mr Machin could give in determining upon the practacability of cutting a Canal, between Barnstable & Buzzards Bay ’ere this, as the great demand we have for Engineer’s in this Department [i.e., New York], Canada, &ca, has obliged me to order Mr Machin hither to assist in that branch of business.
Just as the canal construction might be starting that summer, the engineer was called back to the army.

TOMORROW: Can this project be saved?

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