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, June 15, 2017

A Coffin at Bunker Hill

Nathaniel Coffin (1725-80) was a merchant in Boston who in November 1768 took the job of Deputy Cashier to the American Board of Customs.

That shifted Coffin politically onto the side of the royal government. He would even report to his employers about Boston town meetings and private conversations with Whig leaders, but he never hid his distaste for protest and thus wasn’t really undercover.

With Coffin came his sons, John (1756-1838) and Isaac (1759-1839). They both joined the British military during the Revolutionary War and had long and distinguished careers. John became a general, judge, and legislator in New Brunswick. Isaac became an admiral, baronet, and Member of Parliament in England. Since this branch of the Coffin family still had relatives back in Massachusetts, they corresponded and visited with people in the U.S. of A. between and after the wars.

At the start of the war, it appears, John Coffin was a teenager helping to sail a troop transport ship. On 9 Jan 1819, Josiah Quincy (after he served in Congress but before he was elected mayor) recorded a story about Coffin in his diary:
In conversation with William Sullivan. He dined yesterday in company with General Coffin of the British army. Coffin said, that he had the command of the first boat (being then Lieutenant of a transport ship) which landed the advance of the first regiment of British grenadiers at the attack of Bunker’s Hill. As the boat touched the shore, a three-pound shot from the American lines passed lengthways over the boat, touched not a man, and beat out her stern.

Further service with his boat being thus rendered impracticable, Coffin took a musket, joined the assailants, and was in the midst of the battle. He said that he had been since that time in many engagements, but never knew one, for the time it lasted, so hot and destructive.
Quincy evidently wrote this down because “The anecdote proves what has been denied,—that artillery was used on the American side in the battle of Bunker’s Hill.” There’s ample evidence of such artillery from other sources, but American chroniclers had preferred to portray their side as total underdogs. In fact, the diary of Lt. Richard Williams tells us that the provincials were firing five-pound balls, even bigger than what Gen. Coffin described whizzing past him.

The biography of John Coffin published by his son in 1874 goes into more detail, though not necessarily more reliable detail. It said:
John…was sent to sea at a very early age, and served his time in a Boston Ship; being an active young man he soon rose in the estimation of his Captain: in due time became Chief-mate, and soon after was placed in command of the ship, at the early age of eighteen.

In 1774, Mr. John Coffin brought his ship to England; the following year the Government took her up amongst others for the conveyance of troops to America, where the war had commenced. He had on board nearly a whole Regiment with General Howse (in command of the troops), who was ordered out to supersede General [Thomas] Gage, at Boston.
We know Gen. William Howe actually arrived in Boston on 25 May 1775 aboard the Royal Navy ship Cerberus, along with Gen. John Burgoyne and Gen. Henry Clinton. Other ships and soldiers arrived around the middle of June, and Coffin may well have been working on one of those ships instead.
The vessel arrived at Boston, on the 15th of June, Mr. Coffin landed the Regiment immediately under Bunker’s Hill, and the action having already commenced (17th June, 1775), he was requested by the Colonel “to come up and see the fun;” the only weapon at hand being the tiller of his boat, he immediately (to use a nautical phrase) unshipped it, and with equal determination commenced laying about him, and shipped the powder and belt, and musket of the first man he knocked down, and bore an active part during the rest of the action.
This is even more dramatic than the anecdote Quincy recorded, but the only men who would have been within reach of Coffin’s tiller as he was really “laying about him” would have been British soldiers.
In consideration of his gallant conduct, he was presented to General Gage after the battle, and made an Ensign on the field; shortly after he was promoted to a Lieutenant, but still retained the command of his ship.
There’s no documentary support for any of that. John Coffin was commissioned as a captain in the Orange Rangers, a Loyalist corps, in 1777.

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