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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Monday, August 19, 2019

Captain Reid versus Captain Packwood

Yesterday I shared an official description of the confrontation in Newport, Rhode Island, over the Customs ship Liberty on 19 July 1769.

By “official” I mean that the town’s Whig leadership supplied that text to the Newport Mercury. They sent similar letters to sympathetic printers in Providence and Boston. Naturally, their account put the crowd’s assault on royal property in the best possible light.

Some newspapers printed less favorable accounts. For example, the 24 July Boston Chronicle reported that the brig and sloop seized two days before the riot weren’t just random ships. Capt. William Reid of the Liberty had “information” that Capt. Joseph Packwood had shifted “brandy, wine, &c.” from his brig onto the sloop so that it could be landed secretly. He therefore stopped both ships, sent away their crews, and had his own men sail them to Newport.

The Chronicle also provided more details about Capt. Packwood’s return to his brig while it was in Customs department custody:
On the Wednesday following, Capt. Packwood went on board the brig to get his cloaths to be washed, and asked for his sword, all which, the commanding Officer on board refused to deliver him; but which, after some altercations, he took possession of and put into the boat, and was rowing on shore, when the people on board the brig hailed the sloop Liberty, and told the Commanding Officer, (Capt. Reid not being on board) that Capt. Packwood had used them very ill, and desired him to bring the boat too,

on which some person on board the Liberty fired a musket with a brace of balls at Capt. Packwood, one of which went but a few inches over his head, and the other over the heads of some people standing on the wharf, they afterwards attempted to fire a swivel, but it only flashed, and Capt. Packwood pushed on shore.
[Let me point out this is yet another period description of a musket being loaded with “a brace of balls,” or two balls.]
By this time a number of people assembled, who with Capt. Packwood went in search of Capt. Reid, whom they soon met in the street, when they demanded the reason of the insolent behavior of his people?

Capt. Reid told them that he was ignorant of the affair, was extremely sorry for what had happened, that he would deliver up the people who had fired, to be punished according to law; and proposed to go himself on board and fetch them on shore:—This the people would not permit, but insisted on his going to hail the sloop and ordering them to be immediately sent on shore.——

This was complyed with, and a boat was sent off for them, which soon returned with two of the sloop’s hands, but the people declaring these were not the persons who had fired; the boat was sent on board a second time, and brought two others, but these likewise being declared not to be the persons, the board was again sent off and brought some others, till there were only two left on board belonging to the sloop; soon after which, some people who had tarried on board the sloop, cut her cables and ran her on shore, threw the guns overboard, cut away the mast, rigging, &c. and scuttled her:
I suspect some of this account came ultimately from Capt. Reid since it reflects well on him—justified in his seizures, blameless for the crew’s shots at Packwood, powerless to stop the mob. In contrast, the Whigs’ letter complained that “no Proof appeared against the Brig” and that Reid “had never condescended to exhibit his Commission to the Governor of this Colony.”

Both reports depict the Newporters as trying to enforce local law against the Customs ship sailors. That’s similar to the conflict going on in Boston over whether British soldiers had to obey local watchmen and magistrates. But in the Chronicle that demand for the rule of law seems more like a smokescreen to move sailors off the Liberty until it had only a couple of defenders.

TOMORROW: The final fate of the Liberty.

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