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, July 26, 2017

“With great zeal I went to Genl Washington”

Elias Boudinot (1740-1821) was a Continental Congress delegate from New Jersey, eventually president of that body, and later a U.S. Congressman and director of the U.S. Mint. He was brother-in-law of Richard Stockton twice over (i.e., each married the other’s sister).

For a considerable period of the war Boudinot was the American commissary of prisoners, meaning he was responsible for feeding and supplying captured British and Hessian soldiers. As such, he often worked closely with the Congress, local authorities, and Gen. George Washington.

Boudinot left behind a manuscript in which he explained:
A great many interesting anecdotes, that happened during the American Revolutionary War, are likely to be lost to Posterity, by the negligence of the parties concerned, in not recording them, so that in future time they may be resorted to, as throwing great light on the eventful Crisis, of this important Æra—I shall therefore without any attention to order, but merely as they arise in my memory, set down those I have had any acquaintance with, attending principally to the TRUTH of the facts.
That manuscript was published in 1890 as Boudinot’s Journal or Historical Recollections of American Events during the Revolutionary War. It’s not really a journal since he didn’t record events as they happened; indeed, most of the stories aren’t tied to specific dates. But they’re valuable nonetheless.

Here’s one example:
In [April] 1777 Genl [Benjamin] Lincoln, was surprised at the Dawn of Day in his Quarters at Bound Brook. by Lord Cornwallis. who had marched from Brunswick passed his out Centinels captured or destroyed his main guard, and was at the Genls Quarters before he knew anything of it. He had but just time to escape out of a back door. Several men were killed and one or two pieces of ordnance taken.

It was sometime a mystery how this had been effected with so much secrecy, till I was well informed by a Gentn of note who was with the Enemy at Brunswick, that a certain Farmer whose name he mentioned and who lived in the midst of our Camp had communicated to Lord Cornwallis our Countersign, by which he had accomplished his intentions,

My spirit was very much aroused ags this Traitor and with great zeal I went to Genl Washington with the information, stating the substance of it. but keeping back the name of my informant; as he had assured me his life depended on my prudence & faithfulness to him; I urged the Genl, (to give) orders to sieze the Culprit without delay & make an Example of him. The Genl did not immediately answer me. on which I repeated my request.

He then said. did not you tell me that the life of your informant depended on your secrecy,—would you take up a Citizen & confine him without letting him know his crime or his accuser.—No—let him alone for the present: watch him carefully. and if you can catch him in any other crime. so as to confront him by witnesses. we will then punish him severely.——

My mortification was very great. to think. that I who had entered the Army to watch the Military & preserve the civil rights of my fellow citizens. should be so reproved by a Military man, who was so interested in having acted otherwise I recd it as a severe lecture on my own imprudence
When I read that story, I thought that the interaction with Washington could have come right out of the television show Turn: Washington’s Spies, given how it presents the commander’s character.

I’ve been reviewing the final season of Turn for Den of Geek; you can find my assessments here. Gen. Washington, played by Ian Kahn, remains one of the decidedly best parts of the show.


Marshall Stack said...

I'm not usually one to nitpick, but I think the only thing worse than that beard on Brewster would be to have Woodhull send intelligence to Tallmadge via encrypted email.

J. L. Bell said...

But his emails.

Anonymous said...

Published almost 70 years after the writer's death -- so no one alive could even say she heard her grandfather tell that Rev War story --

J. L. Bell said...

The source of the published text was a copy of Boudinot’s original written out by hand by a descendant.