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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Thursday, May 06, 2021

The Court Martial of Lt. Col. Abijah Brown

In October 1775, for the second time in a half a year, Patriot authorities met to formally judge the behavior of Waltham’s Lt. Col. Abijah Brown.

The first time was in late May, when a committee of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress assessed reports that Brown was badmouthing that body because he didn’t like the orders he had received.

The second time, the judges were Continental Army officers assembled for a court martial, and Brown faced the charge of “endeavouring to defraud the Continent, in mustering two Soldiers, whom he at the same time employed in working upon his farm.”

That board’s judgement, as reported in Gen. George Washington’s general orders for 7 October, was:

The Court having duly considered the evidence, are of opinion, that Lieut. Col. Brown is not guilty of any fraud, in endeavouring to have Harrington and Clarke muster’d, in the manner he did: But the Court are of opinion, that Col. Brown is guilty of employing Harrington for fourteen days, and Clarke for eighteen days, out of Camp, upon his own business; yet are inclined to think it was done rather thro’ Ignorance, than a fraudulent intent, and therefore adjudge that he be fin’d Four Pounds, lawful money, for the said offence.
Brown appears to have deployed the George Costanza “Was that wrong?” defense. And once again, the official verdict was that Brown had done what he was accused of doing but didn’t deserve serious punishment.

The commander-in-chief felt he had to abide by that verdict, but he made clear that he wasn’t pleased:
The General orders Lt Col. Brown to be released, as soon as he has paid his fine to Dr [Isaac] Foster, Director of the hospital, who will apply it to the use of the sick, in the General hospital, under his care—

The General hopes, the Stigma fixed on Lieut. Colonel Brown by the above sentence, will be a sufficient warning to all Officers, not to be guilty of the like offence, especially as the General is confident, no General Court martial will, for the future, admit a plea of Ignorance, in excuse of so atrocious a crime.
For the adjutant general, Horatio Gates, the outcome of this court martial showed the need for wider reform:
Much regulation is wanted in the Continental Articles of War, as in many Instances they have been found to give too Discretionary a power to the Members who compose Genl Courts Martial, a very Flagrant instance having happen’d lately in the trial of Lieut. Colo. Abijah Brown.
At the time, Washington, Gates, and other commanders were busy reorganizing the Continental Army for the new year and trying to convince men to reenlist. Col. Benjamin Rugggles Woodbridge evidently indicated that he would not return in 1776. But that didn’t open a position in his regiment for Lt. Col. Brown.

Instead, on 3 November a council of war ranked Brown as sixth in seniority among the lieutenant colonels but then assigned him to a regiment under Loammi Baldwin (shown above), still a lieutenant colonel himself but to be commissioned on 1 January as the most junior colonel in the new army.

Brown ultimately declined to reenlist. Gen. Washington and his headquarters staff probably weren’t sad to see him go.

TOMORROW: One more march.


EJWitek said...

On 29 September 1775, Lt Col Brown (Lincoln) lodges a complaint against his regimental Commander, Col Woodbridge (Hampshire County) and a Court of Inquiry is held. All of the court members are from Eastern Massachusetts. Complaint and outcome unknown. One week later, a general court martial, presided over by an officer from Rhode Island, is held and Lt Col Brown is found guilty of employing two of the men from a Western Massachusetts regiment on his farm for roughly two weeks. This is not exactly Bernie Madoff fraud and rather picayune by 18th century British army standards, or, indeed by Continental Army standards. Yet Washington uses the term "atrocious" to describe Lt Col Brown's "fraud." One wonders if there isn't more to this.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there’s definitely a deeper story here. Brown definitely lodged a complaint against Woodbridge. Did the colonel retaliate with an accusation against Brown? Or was Brown’s complaint an attempt to preempt Woodbridge’s action against him?

Brown was from Waltham (though ultimately he died in Lincoln). It looks like he brought one company from that town to the siege lines in May 1775, but it’s not clear what happened with those men next. According to Frank Gardner’s Massachusetts Magazine series on the province’s regiments, Woodbridge’s regiment included six companies from Hampshire County, two from Berkshire, one from Hampshire and Worcester, and one from Essex. No companies from Middlesex.

And yet Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors lists an Amos Harrington of Waltham who served in Col. Gardner’s militia regiment in April 1775 and then joined Capt. Seth Murray’s company of Col. Benjamin Ruggles Woodbridge’s regiment at Prospect Hill later in the year. This is the only Harrington linked to that regiment, so he was probably Brown’s farmworker.

There are multiple men named Clark or Clarke listed in Woodbridge’s regiment, none with a link to Waltham.