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, June 21, 2021

“A poor drum-boy, killed by the goat on St David’s Day”

In 1832 the United Service Journal, and Naval and Military Magazine ran an unsigned article titled “Record of the Services of the Twenty-Third Regiment, or Royal Welsh Fusileers."

In describing that regiment’s losses at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the writer said:
If it may be permitted to quote a work of fiction as an authority, it may be observed, as a confirmation of the severe loss of the regiment, that an American novelist, after describing the battle of Bunker’s Hill, states, “The Welsh Fusileers had not a man left to saddle their goat.”
The article didn’t name the American novelist (though, to be fair, there weren’t that many back then, so it was a lot easier to guess). It also didn’t explain the goat. Apparently readers of this magazine were supposed to know.

Eighteen years later, in 1850, the British military clerk Richard Cannon (1779-1865) borrowed that sentence for a footnote in the Historical Record of the Twenty-Third Regiment that he’d been assigned to compile. Cannon identified the source of the line as “J. Fennimore [sic] Cooper, in his work entitled, ‘Lionel Lincoln’.” Cannon also quoted from Francis Grose quoting from Maj. Robert Donkin to explain the goat.

Another thirty-nine years later, in 1889, a reviewer in the United Service Magazine (the latest name for the United Service Journal) criticized Cannon for using such “apocryphal sources of information” as Cooper‘s fiction and a letter from Abigail Adams setting down rumors. That critic pointed out that the 23rd Regiment’s records show that only the grenadier and light infantry companies were ordered onto Bunker Hill. Most of the Royal Welch Fusiliers stayed on the Boston side of the river and suffered no casualties.

But by then the idea that the Royal Welch Fusiliers had lost so many men they couldn’t even saddle their goat had moved from a remark by a character in an American novel into an official British military history.

And that wasn’t the only elaboration. In Famous Pets of Famous People (1892), Eleanor Lewis cited “an officer [who] wrote at some length in the London Graphic” as quoting the description of the 1775 St. David’s Day in Francis Grose’s Military Antiquities and adding:
the same goat which threw the drummer accompanied the regiment into action at Bunker’s Hill, when the Welsh Fusileers had all their officers except one placed hors de combat. What became of the Bunker’s Hill goat, we do not know; nor can we say how many successors he had between the years 1775 and 1844.
That same year, an article in The Cornhill Magazine titled “A Wreath of Laurels” offered another variation on the sources from the 1770s:
The death of a poor drum-boy, killed by the goat on St David’s Day, just before the outbreak of the American War, must have seemed an omen of the disaster of ‘Bunker's Hill,’ when, according to Fennimore Cooper, ‘the Welsh Fusiliers had hardly men enough left to saddle their goat.’
This author cited Richard Cannon’s regimental history about the death of the drummer. In fact, Cannon had simply quoted the report of the goat bucking the drummer onto a table. No source mentioned any children killed at that dinner, and that’s the sort of detail people mention.

Given such exaggeration, it was relatively restrained for The Navy and Army Illustrated to state on 12 Nov 1898: “At any rate, we know that the regiment had a goat with them at Bunker’s Hill in 1775.”

But do we know that?

TOMORROW: Wrapping up the goat story.

[The photograph above comes from the 1898 story in The Navy and Army Illustrated.]

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