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 03, 2019

“Wholly worthless for history, and some of it discreditable”

As I wrote yesterday, in 1842 the Massachusetts Historical Society named a committee to consider taking in and/or publishing a collection of testimony collected in 1825 from veterans of the Bunker Hill battle. That testimony had been collected and preserved by William Sullivan, head of the committee overseeing the start of the Bunker Hill Monument.

One member of that M.H.S. committee was the Rev. George E. Ellis of Charlestown. He had heard about those accounts and tried to find them the previous year when he prepared an address on the battle. He couldn’t, so he must have been eager to read what finally surfaced.

More than three decades later, Ellis recalled:
I took the books to my house in Charlestown, and deliberately examined them.

Their contents were most extraordinary, many of the testimonies extravagant, boastful, inconsistent, and utterly untrue,—mixtures of old men’s broken memories and fond imaginings with the love of the marvellous.

Some of those who gave in affidavits about the battle could not have been in it, nor even in its neighborhood. They had got so used to telling the story for the wonderment of village listeners, as grandfathers’ tales, and as petted representatives of “the spirit of ’76,” that they did not distinguish between what they had seen and done and what they had read, heard, or dreamed.

The decision of the Committee was that much of the contents of the volumes was wholly worthless for history, and some of it discreditable, as misleading and false. The suggestion, as I remember, was made that the Committee report advising that the papers be burned. But this was not adopted.
Ellis’s memory doesn’t entirely fit with the M.H.S. minutes from 1842. The only recorded proposal from committee chairman George Ticknor was to simply return the volumes to the Sullivan family.

Ellis also recalled the committee had ultimately recommended “that there should be an entry made in the books, saying that they had been examined by a committee, who had passed judgment upon them, in substance as above, and that they be sealed up, and put away in our Cabinet.”

It’s unclear what actually happened to the volumes, however. The M.H.S. voted to return them, then voted to reconsider, then didn’t make a final determination at all (at least formally). The monument opened the next year.

Editing the society’s records for publication in 1880, M.H.S. chroniclers reported: “Mr. Thomas C Amory, a relative of Mr. Richard Sullivan, is strongly of the impression that the papers, on their return to Mr. Sullivan, were destroyed by him.”

Yet in 1887 Justin Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of America stated that the “three folio volumes” were still “preserved in the cabinet of the Mass. Hist. Society.” A few years later, however, members couldn’t find any such volumes.

Winsor also suggested that the original documents transcribed for Sullivan survived into the 1880s: “What purported to be some of the originals were offered for sale in New York in 1877, but were bid in.” Nate Raab confirmed to me that this meant they didn’t meet the reserve price. About what might be the same collection, Winsor added: “C. L. Woodward, of New York, advertised in May, 1883, nearly two hundred papers, which were called Col. [Samuel] Swett’s Collection of Affidavits.” No word on whether that sold.

So it’s possible that there’s still a sizable collection of testimony from Bunker Hill battle veterans out there in some private archive. It’s also possible that that testimony is just as worthless as Ellis believed. I’d still like to see it.


Don Carleton said...

I was wondering whether there was material in there on the breakdown in Provincial leadership that left the forces occupying the heights without enough ammunition or support that paints things in even a worse light than we know...

J. L. Bell said...

The Battle of Bunker Hill led to a lot of finger-pointing, both in the summer of 1775 and then in the controversy over who was in command in the early 1800s, so I doubt there were accusations that hadn't been aired.

I have a hard time believing that the whole three-volume collection was as unreliable as Ellis claimed. It's possible that a significant amount of testimony was indeed exaggerated or outright false, and I've found one lauded "veteran of Bunker Hill" who was clearly describing a different action. (I'll write about him some year.) But Ellis wrote off the whole collection as worthless.

Samuel Swett quoted from the testimony Sullivan collected. His quotations focus on the activity of Gen. Israel Putnam, so they're not complete, alas. Together they add up to a picture of lots of individual bravery and organizational confusion. There are some strange details (Putnam splitting a cannon?), but nothing so obviously wrong it would impeach a whole stack of recollections.

I glanced at Ellis’s book on the battle to see if he strongly disagreed with a particular take, thinking that may have motivated him to deem any testimony saying otherwise to be unreliable. Nothing stood out for me in his writing, but maybe there's some subtle animus I didn't pick up on. As of now, the whole affair raises lots of questions and provides almost no answers.

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

It's not so much any boastful claims I'd be interested in reading, it's the matter-of-fact incidentals I'd relish. "We passed by 'A's tavern next to 'B's smithy" is of interest to me. "A British musket ball severed my canteen line," tells me something apart from the breathless close call that was intended. "My cousin with the bad leg who lived in town 'C,' on the north border of town 'D,' who's wife's father was a noted Tory, made my bayonet."

J. L. Bell said...

True, those would be useful too, but in my experience the most boastful personal accounts don't have any of that stuff. They lack the details that add verisimilitude to a convincing narrative. It's all about "We marched onto the battlefield to the tune of 'The World Turned Upside Down,' and the enemy ran away," and never "We spent twenty minutes hiding behind the woodpiles to the east of Brady's tavern."