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 26, 2019

“There the people were much frightened”

Yesterday we left James Reed of the “Woburn Precinct” (Burlington) hosting about a dozen British soldiers in his house on the afternoon of 19 Apr 1775.

Some of those redcoats had given themselves up in Lexington in the morning while others had seen hard fighting on their way back from Concord. Testifying in 1825, Reed said, “Towards evening, it was thought best to remove them from my house.”

Reed’s house was probably prominent. It was located near a highway through Middlesex County. John Hancock and Samuel Adams had stopped there early that day, long enough to send back to Lexington for Lydia Hancock and Dolly Quincy before they all moved on to the parsonage where the widow Abigail Jones was ready to feed them.

But a prominent house wouldn’t have been an asset if the British military came looking for its lost men. The Massachusetts militia had defeated a force of over a thousand men with two cannon, but they knew there were thousands more soldiers, and scores more cannon, inside Boston.

Reed therefore gathered some other militiamen and moved the prisoners on:
I, with the assistance of some others, marched them to one Johnson’s in Woburn Precinct, and there kept a guard over them during the night.
There were simply too many Johnsons in Woburn to identify this one with certainty. I think the most prominent local man of that name was Josiah Johnson, a militia officer who would be elected to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress the following month. But some of his cousins might dispute that.

Reed evidently stayed at one Johnson’s house with the redcoats and his fellow guards because he stated:
The next morning, we marched them to Billerica; but the people were so alarmed, and not willing to have them left there, we then took them to Chelmsford, and there the people were much frightened; but the Committee of Safety consented to have them left, provided, that we would leave a guard. Accordingly, some of our men agreed to stay.
Having moved his charges further northwest into the Massachusetts countryside, Reed got to go home to his less-crowded house on 20 April.

The people of Billerica and Chelmsford and nearby towns probably worried about a British military attack just as much as people in Woburn. And that’s where my talk last Saturday about those P.O.W.’s intersects with that day’s other presentation, by Alexander Cain of Historical Nerdery and Untapped History.

Alex explored the “Great Ipswich Fright,” a panic on 21 April in towns along the North Shore from Beverly to Newburyport. Almost all the militiamen from those Essex County towns had gone down to the siege lines. That morning a British naval vessel appeared at the mouth of the Ipswich River. That set off a panic of people fearing that enraged redcoats would land, burn, and pillage—perhaps on their way to those prisoners that Patriot officials had insisted on holding in Chelmsford.

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