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, March 20, 2018

A Book “Taken in ye Field of Battle”

Last month the blog of the Clements Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, noted an unusual way of identifying books in its collection: as “battle estrays,” or books known to have been picked up in battle. No other library is known to use this term.

One example shown is the third volume of Jonathan Swift’s Miscellanies as published in London in 1742. It is inscribed:
22d-43d-54th-&-63d Regiments took possession of New York
—5 Brigade—
Taken in ye Field of Battle,
the 16th of September 1776—
The library blog said:
First Library director Randolph Adams noted in The Colophon that the British occupied the lower part of Manhatten Island on the 14th and 15th of September, then started up the island on the 16th. The battle [of Harlem Heights] on the 16th, in which this book was picked up, took place about what is now 126th St.
Not mentioned in the blog post, but noted in the book’s cataloguing record, is the bookplate. It shows the volume had been owned by the Rev. Dr. Myles Cooper, the president of King’s College. That institution later became Columbia University. It’s now located near the site of the fighting on 16 Sept 1776, but back then it was housed in one large building near modern New York City Hall.

If a volume from Cooper’s personal library was on “ye Field of Battle,” it had probably been looted from the college hall or his house. Cooper himself had fled America in May 1775. The college shut down, its building becoming a military hospital, so a lot of people might have had access. An American soldier or civilian might have taken the book and then dropped it on the retreat north, where a British soldier picked it up.

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