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, July 18, 2017

“The Young Provincial” on Bunker Hill

At the end of 1829 the writer and editor Samuel G. Goodrich published an anthology of short stories and literary sketches by various authors titled The Token, for 1830.

One of those pieces was titled “The Young Provincial,” and it began:
“Now, father, tell us all about the old gun,” were the words of one of a number of children, who were seated around the hearth of a New England cottage. The old man sat in an arm-chair at one side of the fireplace, and his wife was installed in one of smaller dimensions on the other. The boys, that they might not disturb the old man’s meditations, seemed to keep as much silence as was possible for individuals of their age; the fire burned high, with a sound like that of a trumpet, and its blaze occasionally shone on an old rifle which was suspended horizontally above the mantel.
Of course, the Revolutionary-era gun above a mantel in a New England cottage wouldn’t have been a rifle but a musket.

The story the old man tells those boys begins with him as a youth in “Tewksbury, a small town in Middlesex county.” He and the other “younger men of our village” formed a minuteman company. The story says: “Perhaps if you accent the last syllable of that word minute, it would better describe a considerable portion of our number, of whom I was one.”

The narrator of the “Young Provincial” describes experiences that closely parallel those of Jacob Frost, quoted yesterday, except in a much more elevated language. This is how Frost’s pension application of 1832 discussed the Battle of Bunker Hill:
[He] was in the battle and was then severely wounded in the hip, and entirely disabled, and he laid among the wounded until the day after the battle—when he was taken up by the British & carried to Boston & there kept a prisoner
The Token story says:
As soon as Boston was invested, we heard that our services were called for, and nothing more was wanted to fill the ranks of the army. I arrived at the camp the evening before the battle of Bunker Hill. Though weary with the march of the day, I went to the hill upon which our men were throwing up the breastwork in silence, and happened to reach the spot just as the morning was breaking in the sky. It was clear and calm; the sky was like pearl, the mist rolled lightly from the still water, and the large vessels of the enemy lay quiet as the islands.

Never shall I forget the earthquake-voice with which that silence was broken. A smoke like that of a conflagration burst from the sides of the ships, and the first thunders of the revolutionary storm rolled over our heads. The bells of the city spread the alarm, the lights flashed in a thousand windows, the drums and trumpets mustered their several bands, and the sounds, in their confusion, seemed like an articulate voice foretelling the strife of that day.

We took our places mechanically, side by side, behind the breastwork, and waited for the struggle to begin. We waited long and in silence. There was no noise but of the men at the breastwork strengthening their rude fortifications. We saw the boats put off from the city, and land the forces on the shore beneath our station. Still there was silence, except when the tall figure of our commander moved along our line, directing us not to fire until the word was given.

For my part, as I saw those gallant forces march up the hill in well ordered ranks, with the easy confidence of those who had been used to victory, I was motionless with astonishment and delight. I thought only on their danger, and the steady courage with which they advanced to meet it, the older officers moving with mechanical indifference, the younger with impatient daring. Then a fire blazed along their ranks, but the shot struck in the redoubt or passed harmlessly over our heads. Not a solitary musket answered, and if you had seen the redoubt, you would have said that some mighty charm had turned all its inmates to stone.

But when they stood so near us that every shot would tell, a single gun from the right was the signal for us to begin, and we poured upon them a fire, under which a single glance, before the smoke covered all, showed us their columns reeling like some mighty wall which the elements are striving to overthrow. As the vapor passed away, their line appeared as if a scythe of destruction had cut it down, for one long line of dead and dying marked the spot where their ranks had stood.

Again they returned to the charge; again they were cut down; and then the heavy masses of smoke from the burning town added magnificence to the scene. By this time my powder-horn was empty, and most of those around me had but a single charge remaining. It was evident that our post must be abandoned, but I resolved to resist them once again.

They came upon us with double fury. An officer happened to be near me; raising my musket, and putting all my strength into the blow, I laid him dead at my feet. But, meantime, the British line passed me in pursuit of the flying Americans, and thus cut off my retreat; one of their soldiers fired, and the ball entered my side. I fell, and was beaten with muskets on the head until they left me for dead upon the field.

When I recovered, the soldiers were employed in burying their dead. An officer inquired if I could walk; but finding me unable, he directed his men to drag me by the feet to their boats, where I was thrown in, fainting with agony, and carried with the rest of the prisoners to Boston. One of my comrades, who saw me fallen, returned with the news to my parents. They heard nothing more concerning me, but had no doubt that I was slain.
Like Jacob Frost, the “Young Provincial” narrator is kept in the Boston jail for months, then transported to Nova Scotia in March 1776. He and five other men break out of their new prison on a night that’s literally described as “dark and stormy.” He struggles through the wilderness toward Massachusetts, benefiting from strangers’ kindness. At last he arrives in Tewksbury on a Sunday.
I went to my father’s door, and entered it softly. My mother was sitting in her usual place by the fireside, though there were green boughs instead of fagots in the chimney before her. When she saw me, she gave a wild look, grew deadly pale, and making an ineffectual effort to speak to me, fainted away. With much difficulty I restored her, but it was long before I could make her understand that the supposed apparition was in truth her son whom she had so long mourned for as dead.

My little brother had also caught a glimpse of me, and with that superstition which was in that day so much more common than it is in this, he was sadly alarmed. In his fright he ran to the meeting-house to give the alarm; when he reached that place, the service had ended, and the congregation were just coming from its doors. Breathless with fear, he gave them his tidings, losing even his dread, in that moment, for the venerable minister and the snowy wigs of the deacons.

Having told them what he had seen, they turned, with the whole assembly after them, towards my father's house; and such was their impatience to arrive at the spot, that minister, deacons, old men and matrons, young men and maidens, quickened their steps to a run.

Never was there such a confusion in our village. The young were eloquent in their amazement, and the old put on their spectacles to see the strange being who had thus returned as from the dead.
Again, Jacob Frost’s 1832 account said simply that “he finally arrived at his residence in said Tewksbury the last of September 1776”—which was in fact a Monday.

“The Young Provincial” thus seems to be an elevated version of Jacob Frost’s experiences. But did the author really hear about those events from Frost? Might the story’s hero be a composite of Frost and other men with similar war records? Can we use the story’s details to fill out Frost’s bare-bones pension application, or must we assume that the author used a lot of literary license? Those were questions that Jocelyn Gould of Boston National Historical Park and I started discussing earlier this month.

The easiest place to find “The Young Provincial” now is at the end of this volume of The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1900. The picture above shows Hawthorne in 1841, or about eleven years after “The Young Provincial” was published. By then he had become locally known for his short stories, many based on New England history.

TOMORROW: But this story is not actually by Hawthorne.

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