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, December 07, 2016

“Capt. Ingersoll was tried by a Court Martial”

In 1766, at the age of thirty-one, Peter Ingersoll opened a tavern and inn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (It still exists in greatly expanded form as a bed-and-breakfast called the Wainwright Inn, shown here.) He was from one of the town’s leading families, though not from one of its leading branches.

In 1775, Ingersoll was one of the town’s militia captains. News of the fighting at Lexington and Concord reached Berkshire County on 21 April. Ingersoll and his men assembled, and they marched east five days later. When Massachusetts organized an army for service to the end of the year, Ingersoll and many of the men signed on as part of Col. David Brewer’s regiment.

That regiment ran into problems in the fall. Col. Brewer was tried by court-martial and dismissed on 23 Oct 1775 for insisting that his son, also named David, be ranked and paid as a lieutenant. Such nepotism wasn’t uncommon, but in this case David Brewer, Jr., was back home in Berkshire County while his father was still collecting his pay. So that left the regiment leaderless, and perhaps resentful.

In early December, Capt. Ingersoll was brought up before another court martial—apparently at the regimental level since it’s not mentioned in Gen. George Washington’s general orders. Lt. Gamaliel Whiting of Great Barrington wrote in his diary, transcribed in Charles J. Taylor’s History of Great Barrington: “Dec. 4. Peter Ingersoll try’d by Court Marsh’ll.”

A more detailed account, and a different date, appear in the diary of Pvt. Samuel Bixby:
Dec. 7th, 1775. Thurs: Capt. Ingersoll was tried by a Court Martial for spreading false reports about the Country, tending to defame the General. He was fined £8, and dismissed the service. —

8th. Friday. The same Court fined one man £8.7s., and sentenced him to two years imprisonment in the New Gate Prison in Simsbury [Connecticut], for stealing & deserting; and another man, John Smith, for similar offences, was fined £8, and sentenced to six months at Newgate.
A third diarist, Sgt. Henry Bedinger of Virginia, also recorded court-martial verdicts on 7-9 December, overlapping with Bixby’s account, but not exactly. (He wrote that one man was named John Short.) So it’s not clear whose diary is most reliable. Yet it does seem significant that Bedinger didn’t mention Ingersoll’s case, nor have I found references to it elsewhere. Mike Sheehan was kind enough to look for the captain’s name in Summer Soldiers, James C. Neagles’s listing of more than 3,000 courts-martial in Continental Army records, and it’s not there. So was this proceeding deliberately kept quiet?

Perhaps manuscript records of this proceeding survive in some unexpected archive. They could offer details of what “false reports” Ingersoll spread and how they tended to “defame the General”—namely Washington. Was the tavern-keeper frustrated by the slow pace of the siege? Angry about Brewer’s dismissal? Pessimistic about the Patriot cause?

Whatever the details, Ingersoll went home to Great Barrington, probably in a huff. He went away without filing the paperwork the state would need to pay his men. Since it was already December, and people’s enlistments were up at the end of the year, his early return might not have been that conspicuous. (After all, David Brewer, Jr., had come back much earlier.)

Still, word got around town. The next March, after one of Great Barrington’s militia companies narrowly elected Ingersoll their captain, some men complained. New colonel Mark Hopkins described the problem to the Massachusetts Council:
a large number of the soldiers appear to be very uneasy with the officers elected. Those of the South Company say that Captain Peter Ingersoll was broke last fall by the sentence of a Court-Martial in the Continental Army, and was then declared incapable of sustaining any office in the Continental service.
By July, Ingersoll was out of Hopkins’s regiment and in another, still a captain. But I don’t know how long that lasted. Ingersoll died in 1785.

Local histories—even the one that quoted a neighbor and fellow officer saying he went before a “Court Marsh’ll”—treat Capt. Peter Ingersoll as an admirable contributor to the American cause. They say nothing about how he was cashiered for defaming Gen. Washington.

TOMORROW: Trouble in the Berkshire County militia.

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