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 02, 2019

William Sullivan’s “Bunker Hill manuscripts”

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1825, the committee raising funds to build the Bunker Hill Monument held a cornerstone-laying ceremony. Many veterans of the Revolutionary War attended.

A few weeks later, on 12 July, the head of the Bunker Hill Monument Associates, William Sullivan, told his fellow directors that “he had possession of the papers containing the accounts given by the survivors of the battle of the 17th of June, 1775, and that he proposed to hold them subject to the inspection of the Directors exclusively.”

The historian Samuel Swett got to see those accounts. The following year, he wrote in his history of the battle about “statements taken down in writing by Gen. Sullivan and other Directors of the Bunker Hill monument, assisted by Judge Thacher and one or two other gentlemen, at the request of the Directors, from surviving soldiers of the battle present at the celebration the 17th June last.”

William Sullivan (1774-1839) was a son of James Sullivan, a Massachusetts attorney general and governor, and nephew of Gen. John Sullivan of the Continental Army. He was a lawyer, officeholder, and a militia commander (hence the title of “general”). Though his father had been a Jeffersonian, William Sullivan was a fervent Federalist. He was also deeply interested in history, publishing many books explaining many things. According to Justin Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of America (1887), Sullivan had the veterans’ recollections of Bunker Hill transcribed in his law office and bound those pages into three volumes.

In 1839 Sullivan died. His widow asked his brother Richard what to do with those volumes. On 4 Feb 1842 Richard wrote to James Savage, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, offering “to give them a place among the Collections.” That probably meant publishing the documents in the society’s Collections series, not simply preserving them.

At the 24 February meeting the M.H.S. chose a committee of three members “to examine and report upon the three manuscript volumes containing a list of the survivors of Bunker Hill battle who appeared at the celebration, June 17, 1825, and other matters therein contained.” The members on that committee were George Ticknor the publisher, George Bancroft the historian and statesman, and the Rev. George E. Ellis, who in 1841 had delivered an address on the battle, soon to be published as Sketches of Bunker Hill Battle and Monument. They met in Ticknor’s library.

The next M.H.S. meeting was at the end of March. According to the official minutes, Ticknor “made an informal report on the matter.” In response, two members proposed that the society immediately return the manuscripts to the Sullivans, but another suggested that “the whole subject be laid upon the table until the next meeting.” That plain record conceals a difficult disagreement. A letter from Savage the next month stated that he had been so caught up in the “long discussion we had on the Bunker Hill documents” that he forgot to announce that he was about to go to England.

On 8 April, Richard Sullivan wrote to Ticknor with second thoughts:
Since the manuscripts were sent, I have had reason to think it was my brother's intention that the papers in question should never meet the public eye; that they were not prepared under authority from the Bunker Hill Monument Association, but at the suggestion of Mr. W. Sullivan, as matters of curiosity; but that as statements of facts I am now convinced, from a source to be relied upon, and as is also known to you, he considered them entitled to no credit. It is, therefore, my duty, under this information, to beg the favor of you, if consistent with your duty as a committee, to present a request from me to the Society that the manuscripts be returned to me, and in the mean time suspend your further action on the subject.
Of course, back in the 1820s Swett had written that William Sullivan did work with other directors of the Monument Association to collect the veterans’ statements. And he had gone to the trouble of having those accounts transcribed, bound, and preserved for over a decade. On the other hand, Sullivan had never chosen to publish that material himself.

At its 28 April meeting, the M.H.S. voted to approve Ticknor’s motion to return the three volumes to Richard Sullivan. But that still wasn’t the last word. On 26 May the society reopened the question of “the true historical character and value of the Bunker Hill manuscripts.” Some members wanted to hear more from their committee. The bare-bones record of the meeting again gives only a hint of what passed: “After some discussion upon the subject, Voted, That the subject be laid over until the next meeting.”

On 30 June, the Rev. Samuel Ripley, son of a historian of Concord based in large part on interviews with veterans, moved that the manuscripts be considered again. But Ticknor wasn’t present and attendance was thin. “After some discussion,” the record says again, members voted to postpone their decision until the next meeting. But officially they never addressed the question again. The M.H.S.’s published Proceedings volume reports: “The Records are silent as to any further action or discussion concerning these manuscripts.”

TOMORROW: What was so troubling about those manuscripts?

[The picture above shows the Bunker Hill Monument as it looked about 1837, twelve years after the cornerstone was laid and six years before it opened.]

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