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, November 18, 2016

Thomas Machin “employed in ye. Colony service”

I left off yesterday with Gen. George Washington asking the Massachusetts government to release Lt. Thomas Machin from his project surveying a canal through Cape Cod and join the Continental Army around New York. Washington needed engineers to build fortifications.

On 10 June, Washington’s military secretary Robert Hanson Harrison told Gen. Artemas Ward:
I am commanded by his Excy to request you to send immediately to this place Lt Machin of the Train, provided, he does not belong to either of the Artilly Companies, in Boston—If he does not, he will come with all possible dispatch
A week later, Ward wrote back to the commander-in-chief: “Last evening I received Major Harrison’s Letter of the tenth Instant, and agreeable [to] your desire have directed Lieut. Machin to be ready as soon as possible to set out for New York.”

But “as soon as possible” appears to have meant different things to different people. Massachusetts still wanted that canal, which would make shipping from Boston to the southern states quicker and safer. Evidently Machin continued to work on the project. On 19 June the head of the Massachusetts Council, James Bowdoin (shown above), wrote to him at Nantasket, or Hull:
I informed the committee that you could go to Sandwich on the survey if it could be taken this week; in consequence of which, we agreed that you might set out as soon as is thought proper, and begin the survey, and that we would follow, and be there next Tuesday. I beg you would let me see you to-morrow evening, that the committee may hear what to depend on.
He also provided a pass: “Lieut. Machin, the bearer hereof, being employed in ye. Colony service, it is desired he may pass from hence to Sandwich and back without interruption.” That was dated “Boston, June 20, 1776.”

But Massachusetts couldn’t keep Machin much longer. A month later, on 21 July, he was in New York City, Gen. Washington sent him up the Hudson River, telling a secret committee of the state government:
Mr Machine a Lieut. in the Train, who has just returned from overseeing the Works at Boston, he is as proper a person as any I can send, being an ingenious faithfull hand, And One that has had considerable experience as an Engineer
Washington’s orders for Machin were:
You are without delay to proceed for Fort Montgomery, or Constitution in the High Lands on Hudsons River, and put yourself under command of Colo. George [actually James] Clinton or the Commanding Officer there, to Act as Engineer in compleating such Works as are already laid out, and such others as you, with the advice of Colo. Clinton may think Necessary—’tis expected and required of You—that you pay strict and close Attention to this Business—and drive on the Works with all possible Dispatch, In Case of an Attack from the Enemy, or in any Action with them you are to join and act with the Artillery on that Station, and to return to your Duty in the Regiment as soon as you can be spared from the Works
That was the beginning of Machin’s long service fortifying and protecting the upper Hudson against British ships, which included his most storied feat: building a chain of barriers across the river at West Point.

Machin had left something behind in Massachusetts, however. On 10 Aug 1778 Dr. Nathaniel Freeman wrote to Machin from Sandwich: “Your chest of books and instruments are safe here, and ready to be delivered to your order at any time…”

As for Massachusetts’s big engineering project, Freeman wrote, “Our report respecting the channel was seasonably made and in favor of it, but nothing done.” The Cape Cod Canal wasn’t completed until the early twentieth century.

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