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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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Documents Old and New

Last year the Paul Revere House highlighted a document from its collection, a letter from Paul Revere to his second wife, Rachel:
Shortly after the Siege of Boston began in the spring of 1775, Paul Revere took a few minutes to scrawl a hasty letter to his wife, Rachel. In it, he included details of his plan to get most of the Revere family out of occupied Boston.
The letter is datelined only “Charlestown Sunday [Morn?].” Context indicates the silversmth wrote it on 23 or, more likely, 30 Apr 1775.

In 2011, a Revere descendant brought the document to the Paul Revere House, and three years later the museum acquired it.

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia told a similar story this summer:
Discovered in a shoebox in a Northern California garage, the long-lost Revolutionary War diary of John Claypoole is now on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Claypoole was the third husband of Betsy Ross, the seamstress and upholsterer who has long been celebrated by many as the creator of the first American flag.

Claypoole’s handwritten diary, which includes letters and songs he transcribed, was written during the years 1781 and 1782…
At the time, Claypoole and Ross’s second husband, Joseph Ashburn, were in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England, after being captured on American privateers. Ashburn died as a prisoner. Claypoole survived, brought the sad news to the widow, and then married her.

Those documents have something in common besides being connected to middling-class craftspeople who lived through the Revolution and became household names in America’s Colonial Revival. Both were transcribed and published in the nineteenth century.

Elbridge H. Goss published the Revere letter in his 1891 biography, reporting the original as still being in the family. But within a generation scholars didn’t know where it was. They had to rely on Goss’s transcription.

Likewise, the Claypoole prison diary was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1892 but then dropped out of sight until a descendant found it among her late mother’s family papers.

For both documents, scholars already had access to the texts. So where is the value in having the originals? Of course, it’s good to be able to confirm that a transcribed document actually exists, and that the published transcription is accurate and complete. There might be additional information (Goss didn’t publish the “Charlestown Sunday” line), perhaps in non-textual form (What size of notebook could a prisoner of war keep?).

But we also have to acknowledge that the authenticity and antiquity of a historical document produces a magnetic appeal that goes beyond the information it preserves. Though they might be most useful to historians as data repositories, they’re also relics of the past.

Friday, July 30, 2021

“I saw Columbia’s weeping Genius”

On 5 Oct 1778, Benjamin Edes printed a long poem on the front page of his Boston Gazette newspaper. It started:

BENEATH the lofty Pine, that shades the plain,
Where the blue Mount o’erlooks the Western Main,
I saw Columbia’s weeping Genius stand,
A black’ned Scroll hung waveing in her Hand,

The pensive Fair in broken Accents said,
Shall Freedom’s Cause, by Vice be thus betray’d;
Behold the Schedule that unfolds the Crimes
And Marks the Manners of their venal Times;
She sigh’d and wept, the Folly of the Age,
The selfish Passions and the mad’ning Rage,
For Pleasure’s soft debilitating Charms,
Running full Riot in cold Av’rice Arms.
Who grasps the Dregs of base oppressive gains,
While Luxury in high Profusion reigns.
Our Country bleeds—and bleeds at every Pore,
Yet Gold’s the Deity whom all adore,
Except a few, whose Probity of Soul
No Bribe could purchase, nor no Fears controul.
A chosen few, who dar’d to stem the Tide
Of British Vengeance in the Pomp of Pride,
When George’s Fleets with every Sail unfurl’d,
And by his Hand the reeking Dagger hurl’d,
The Furies guide, and Albia’s Offspring feel
The wounded Bosom, from the sharp’ned steel,
The purple Tide the Field and Village stain,
And the warm fluid rushes from each Vein,
Yet back recoils the Tyrant’s bloody Hilt,
And slaughter’d Millions mark the Monster’s Guilt,
But midst the Carnage the weak Monarch made,
Stern bending down his awful Grandsire’s shade,
Bespoke the Pupil of the Scottish Thane;
Why sully’d thus the Glories of my Reign?
The Western World oft for my House has bled,
And Brunswick’s Friends lie mingled with the Dead.
Years later, in 1790, Mercy Warren included a revision of that poem in her collection Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, thus claiming it as her work. You can read the book’s text here.

The newspaper didn’t give that poem a title. In the book, it was called “The Genius of America weeping the absurd follies of the Day.” Curiously, it also carried the date of “October 10, 1778,” five days after it first saw print. Perhaps that was when Warren finished her revisions.

This poem is germane to the question of whether Warren also wrote the lines about Plymouth’s “prophetic egg” that Edes published in January 1777, as I discussed yesterday. The two sets of verses share some qualities:
  • Debut on the front page of Edes’s Boston Gazette.
  • Strongly supportive of the Patriot cause and critical of Loyalists.
  • Reference to “the Genius of America,” also known as “Columbia’s weeping Genius.”
Do those similarities that mean they came from the same pen?

In fact, there’s a significant difference in how the two poems discuss that “Genius of America.” The prologue to the egg poem referred to “a Hermit resembling the Genius of America, who had resided in a certain Forest from the first Settlement of the Country.” That hermit was male.

In contrast, Warren’s 1778 lines leave no doubt that the Genius was female, and more a supernatural symbol than an inspired hermit. (The first version also described a female “Albia,” but that became “Albion” later. I don’t know if anyone’s done a close reading of the two publications.)

There are also stylistic differences between the poems, such as tetrameter versus pentameter, and a generally lower tone in the 1777 lines. That’s not to say Warren couldn’t have worked in a different mode in a quick response to the prophetic egg. But with no external evidence that Warren did write the egg verse, those differences make the hypothesis less likely.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

“Plimouth has producd lately a Prophetical Egg”

Back in 2012 I wrote about the “prophetic egg” found in Plymouth at the end of 1776, forecasting victory for the Howes.

I quoted a couple of men with Plymouth roots, Dr. James Thacher and Elkanah Watson, recounting the story, plus a poem published in January 1777 which appeared to be the only comment about it.

Boston 1775 reader JPC just asked if the author of that poem might be Mercy Warren, as Alice Brown stated in her 1896 biography:
When an egg was found in Plymouth, bearing the legend, “Howe will conquer,” it was Mrs. Warren who at once sat down—possibly in an interval of needlework or brewing—and wrote a counterblast in her customary satirical vein, reducing egg and prophecy to naught.
Brown cited no evidence for that statement, so it’s possible that she merely assumed any Patriot poetry linked to Plymouth must have come from Mercy Otis Warren.

I looked into the question and, while I found no conclusive evidence, found more contemporaneous references to the egg and a provocative link.

On 14 Jan 1777, Hannah Winthrop, wife of Harvard College professor John Winthrop, wrote to her friend Warren:
I hear Plimouth has producd lately a Prophetical Egg that bodes no good to America for the year 77, but as it is said to be laid by a Tory hen I interpret it to be what is wishd, rather than what will happen. The inscription on it is said to be. Howe will Conquer America. but I believe the Prophesy will prove as Brittle as the Tablet on which it is engravd.
Thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society, that letter can be viewed here. It shows that Mercy Warren was informed about the egg, and more importantly—since she’d surely already heard that news by word of mouth in Plymouth—that she knew people in the Boston area were discussing it.

Back in 2012, I wrote that I’d found only one newspaper commenting on the egg, the 28 January issue of The Freeman’s Journal, or New-Hampshire Gazette.

I can now report that Portsmouth newspaper reprinted almost exactly a letter and poem that Benjamin Edes had published on the front page of the Boston Gazette one week earlier, on 20 January. That appearance makes it more likely the author of that poem was based in Massachusetts instead of New Hampshire.

Furthermore, Edes had been the first to print Mercy Warren’s closet dramas The Defeat and The Group and her poem “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs.”

Of course, Warren had supplied some of her work to other printers, such as Isaiah Thomas, and had seen some published without her approval. On his side, Edes published many other poets. So while their previous connection makes it possible Warren sent the egg poem to Edes for publication, it’s not conclusive.

To both JPC and myself, the poem about Plymouth’s prophetic egg doesn’t fit well into Warren’s usual style. But there is one phrase to examine more closely.

TOMORROW: “The Genius of America.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Capt. Brisbane and Two Figureheads

After the sea battle I recounted last week, Capt. John Brisbane (shown here) of the Royal Navy sent his commanding admiral descriptions of the two Continental Navy frigates he had seen.

Presumably that was so the Admiralty Office had a record of enemy vessels, even though one of those was now Britain’s vessel. (I suppose it’s possible Brisbane didn’t know about Cdr. Sir George Collier capturing the Hancock when he wrote his report.)

Those descriptions might be useful in parsing Continental symbolism, or perhaps simply in picturing the scene.

About the Hancock Brisbane wrote, starting with the figurehead:
A Man’s Head with Yellow Breeches, White Stockings, Blue Coat with Yellow Button Holes, small cocked Hat with a Yellow Lace,

has a Mast in lieu of an Ensign Staff with a Latteen Sail on it, has a Fore and Aft Driver Boom, with another across, Two Top Gallant Royal Masts, Pole Mizen topmast, a whole Mizen Yard and mounts 32 Guns,

has a Rattle Snake carved on the Stern,

Netting all round the Ship, Stern Black and Yellow, Quarter Galleries all Yellow.
The figurehead presumably represented John Hancock.

For more on how American Patriots seized on the rattlesnake as their mascot early in the war, you can always return to my article at Age of Revolutions.

As for the U.S.S. Boston, Brisbane recalled:
An Indian Head with a Bow and Arrow in the Hand, painted White Red and Yellow,

Two top gallant Royal Masts, Pole mizen topmast on which she hoists a Top gallant Sail,

painted nearly like the Hancock with Netting all round

has a Garf, a Mast in room of an Ensign Staff with a Latteen Sail on it, and mounts 30 Guns.
A “Garf” was a gaff. That and the latteen sail on a mast at the stern instead of a flagstaff gave the American frigates more maneuverability, especially when tacking.

The Boston’s figurehead might well have been inspired by the arrow-wielding Indian on the old Massachusetts seal, though in 1777 that figure had been briefly replaced by a man in European clothes.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

A Change for Email Subscribers

When I compose postings for Boston 1775, I focus on the content and how it looks on the website. Making sure there’s a one-pixel line around the images, for example.

I don’t work on the other ways people see those postings. I know Blogger reformats the page for cellphones, eliminating most of the custom design and the lists of links on either side. The content also looks different after going through R.S.S. feeds.

For people who wanted to receive Boston 1775 postings by email, I chose years ago to attach the Feedburner service since, like Blogger, it was part of Google. Aside from that connection, I didn’t dig into how it worked. Some people told me postings arrived in their in-boxes in the late afternoon, though I always schedule them to appear on the web at 8:30 A.M., and I’ve just lived with that mystery. (As well as why Blogger interprets 8:30 A.M. differently at different times of the year.)

This spring, Google announced that it would no longer support the email subscription feature of Feedburner. Observers suggest the service might disappear completely, like Google Reader, or become unusable. I looked at alternatives and chose to shift to Follow.it.

The transition turned out to be more involved than I thought. There were thousands of addresses on the Boston 1775 email list—far more than I imagined. That required working with the Follow.it help desk, which actually was helpful. Then some chunk of those addresses were probably fictive, snuck on through a particular domain, so they had to be cleared away. With other things demanding my attention, the shift took weeks rather than a couple of days.

Today I got my first look at an example of the new Follow.it email feed, forwarded by a subscriber. The service is asking everyone to confirm that they want to continue to receive emails, which is good.

That email also contains more advertising than I like, and Follow.it wants people to use its service to subscribe to other blogs or news sources as well. Those seem to be the unavoidable prices of a free service. And of course my lovely design features are gone.

This posting is meant to explain the big changes that one set of Boston 1775 readers will see. For people checking in on the web, the blog will keep the same look, at least until I get a brighter idea. But for people reading on other platforms, those are out of my control. I appreciate whatever attention you give to this content.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Back in Halifax Harbor

As described yesterday, on 8 July 1777, after a chase and running battle lasting almost forty hours, H.M.S. Rainbow captured the Hancock, the Continental Navy’s leading frigate.

The Hancock was on its maiden voyage, less than two months out of Boston. It was commanded by Capt. John Manley, the first naval hero of the U.S. of A. There were more than two hundred American sailors on board.

Also captured on that ship was the surgeon, Dr. Samuel Curtis of Marlborough. (Following his story is how I embarked on this voyage.)

The Rainbow’s victory did set some people free: the commander of the captured British privateer Fox and about forty of his crew, being held on the Hancock while a Hancock lieutenant and crew took over the Fox.

Cdr. Sir George Collier, master of the Rainbow, did the same with his new capture. He sent Lt. Thomas Haynes and a prize crew to take control of the American ship.

Once Collier realized there were almost as many American crewmen present as British, he decided both ships should head for Halifax to unload their prisoners before those men got any ideas about retaking their vessel.

“I had the great Satisfaction on my Arrival,” Collier then wrote from that port, “to find the Flora and the Fox both here; she had retaken the latter shortly after I passed her.” Capt. John Brisbane’s Flora had forced the surrender of the American prize crew on the Fox and brought it into the same harbor.

Thus, on 6 July Collier had spotted four vessels in American hands, and two days later two of those ships were under British control and a third destroyed. Only the U.S.S. Boston had escaped. The Royal Navy had suffered minimal casualties.

In addition, the American Tartar, the largest of the privateers to leave Boston at the same time as the Hancock, was captured by H.M.S. Bienfaisant on 28 August with about 130 more men.

Though the spring 1777 cruise had started out well for the Americans, with several captures, it ended in failure. The losses were especially hard on New England since so many of the men on those ships came from the region.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

U.S.S. Hancock and H.M.S. Rainbow

We now return to the sea battle between Capt. John Manley of the Continental Navy’s Hancock and Cdr. Sir George Collier of the Royal Navy’s Rainbow.

Manley was concerned about getting away from the more heavily armed British warship, especially after the other vessels in his fleet, the Fox and the Boston, sailed off in different directions. Before then, he had had a 3:2 advantage over the British, but that was gone.

Collier aimed to capture the Hancock, which one of his officers recognized as a new American vessel commanded by a top American captain, so he kept up the chase.

Capt. Manley ordered his crew to shift his water supply forward, hoping to make the Hancock sail faster. But this was a miscalculation. While the American frigate had “appeared to outsail the Rainbow,” in Collier’s estimation, it was now “out of Trim.”

As night fell on 7 July 1777, the Hancock was still ahead of the Rainbow, but by a shorter distance. Collier and his crew kept his enemy in sight “by Means of a Night-Glass.” This was a telescope with large lenses. In The Panorama of Science and Art (1828), James Smith explained:
The telescope called a night glass is nothing more than the common astronomical telescope with tubes, and made of a short length, with a small magnifying power. Its length is usually about two feet, and it is generally made to magnify from six to ten times. It is much used by navigators at night, for the purposes of discovering objects that are not very distant, but which cannot otherwise be seen for want of sufficient light, such as vessels, coast, rocks etc. From the smallness of its magnifying power, and the obscurity of the objects upon which it is employed, it admits of large glasses being used, and consequently has an extensive and well enlightened field of view.
The example above is offered by Fleaglass.

“At Dawn of Day,” Cdr. Collier wrote of Manley, “he was not much more than a Mile a-head of me; soon after which we saw a small Sail to Leeward.”

Remember the brig Victor, which Collier had left behind the previous morning because it was slowing him down? Under command of Lt. Michael Hyndman, it had caught up with the fight at last! Or rather, the fighting ships had come across it.

As the Hancock swept past the Victor, it fired its guns “and killed one of the Men at the Wheel.” The Victor wasn’t fast enough to remain in the action, but it did damage.

At this point the Rainbow was firing regularly from its bow guns, “with occasional Broadsides loaded with Round and Grape.” Suffering damage in its rigging and sails, the Hancock was moving even more slowly.

“At Half an Hour past Eight I was so near as to hail her,” reported Cdr. Collier, “and let them know, that if they expected Quarter, they must strike immediately.”

Capt. Manley didn’t answer right away. Sensing a new breeze, he had his crew “set some of the Steering Sails” on the side away from the Rainbow. Collier responded by firing another broadside. Manley finally “struck the Rebel Colours.”

TOMORROW: In the wake of the battle.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

“We lost Sight of Capt. Manly”

We don’t have Capt. John Manley’s account of the 7 July 1777 sea battle I’ve been recounting, but we do have the entries from Capt. Hector MacNeill’s journal.

We even have MacNeill’s sketches, as published in 1922. The drawing above shows the situation after Manley set fire to a captured coal sloop and cut it loose as two British frigates approached.

Here’s what MacNeill wrote in that journal, spellings, abbreviations, and nautical terms intact:
Mounday, July 7, 1777. . . . two vesails [H.M.S. Rainbow and Victor] to the Eastward of us. At 4 a.m. see them again Bearring to the Eastwart. Still at 5 a.m. made a Saile [H.M.S. Flora] Bairing to W, we going WbS. She past us and gave us two guns, as soon as she got in our wake She put a Bout and stood for us and came up with us fast and we playd a way with our Stairn Chases.

At 11 a.m. Capt. Manly and the fox and frigate till Darck and could see the frigate two guns

after 11 we began to Engage and had it very warm, the fox being to Lewyard the frigat at hir and she Run be fore the wind. Ther was a two Decker [Rainbow] under our Lee, we ware a Stoping our Shot holes, we thought Not Safe to follow.

Tusday, July 8, . . . At 12 p.m. Capt. Manly put a Bout Stood after the fox, the two Decker gave Chace to him and fird Sevral guns. He stood away as fast as posable. The frigate [Flora] and fox made a Running fight, they stood away a Bout NNE, we stood about NWBN.

We lost Sight of Capt. Manly a Bout 4 p.m. But we keep Sight of the fox and our Ship put a Bout and stood for hir; at 35 Minnites shot off the fox, and thought the fox gaind of hir. The frigate mounted 32 or 36 Guns. We are Surrounded with Ships all Round.

At 5 a.m. we heard Guns for a Long time. We Expect some Engagement Soon. We had one [Gideon] Wasborn kiled out Rig[ht], one [Henry] Green a Quarter master wounded in the Leg, had it Cut of at 8 p.m., died at 4 A.M. See the Land.

Wednesday the 9. . . . The first part of this 24 hours Modrate pleasant we going under all the Saile that we Could Tack, the Latter part a fresh Gale in all Small Sailes. Expecting Every moment to make the Land. Saw a plenty of Rock wead and old Logs of wood. I Could hearitly wich the Hancock and fox was with us for we are all Most in a Good harbour thanks Be to God.
The bottom line was that MacNeill had engaged in the battle early on, but on the afternoon of 8 July the Hancock, Fox, and Boston sailed in different directions, and after four hours he “lost Sight of Capt. Manly.”

The next morning, Capt. MacNeill heard guns, so he knew there was a fight going on. But he didn’t head to the action to help. Instead, covinced there were “Ships all Round," he sailed as fast as he could for a safe harbor. “I Could hearitly wich the Hancock and fox was with us,” MacNeill wrote the next day. But the bottom line was that they weren’t.

In letters written a few days later, MacNeill emphasized some details not in his journal, such as Manley letting some captured sailors go, thus alerting the British of his fleet’s presence, while declining MacNeill’s advice to sail down to South Carolina instead.

As for his departure from the action, MacNeill told the Continental Congress’s marine committee: “We were constrain’d to keep the Wind for our own Security being neither able to Run from nor fight such force as then appear’d to Leward.” On Tuesday, 8 July, he now recalled, “I saw five Sail of the Enemy to the Leward of me three on the Lee bow and two on the Lee Quarter”—details not in his journal.

TOMORROW: Back in the action.

Friday, July 23, 2021

“Manly and McNeal do not agree”

As documented yesterday, there were a lot of people that Capt. John Manley of the Continental Navy didn’t get along with.

One of the most prominent was the navy’s next most senior captain, Hector MacNeill. Their animosity was actually a matter of public concern in the spring of 1777, when they were both in Boston preparing frigates for cruises.

On 23 March, state official James Warren wrote to his friend John Adams, who had been on the Continental Congress’s marine committee but was now on the board of war:
The Hancock, Boston, Alfred and Cabot are all yet in port. It is said the Hancock [Manley’s ship] is ready to sail and was to have gone yesterday but remains here yet. I fear the Consequences of their going out single, but McNeil and Manly it is said like the Jews and Samaritans will have no Connections or Intercourse. They will not sail together.
The Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper sent a similar warning on 3 April:
Manly and McNeal do not agree. It is not I believe, the Fault of the first. They ought to sail together with all the Force they can obtain here to join them—a large Privateer would have readily done it. McNeal is inclin’d, and has obtain’d Liberty from Congress it is said, to sail alone. All may be lost in this Way. Jointly they might take single Frigates of the Enemy, or oblige them to sail in Fleets, which would greatly open the Ports for the Supplies from France and evry Quarter. Pray let some Orders be taken in this Matter as early as may be.
Later in the same letter Cooper returned to that theme:
Manly and McNeal are now, like Matthews and Lestac [two feuding British captains in the 1740s]. If they are not better united, infinite Damage may acrue. The latter hardly brooks the Superiority of the former—tho no Man has merited more, in the marine than Manly, or promises better.
It’s not clear how Warren and Cooper knew about the captains’ animosity. Were there open arguments? Grousing behind each other’s backs? However the rift opened, a lot of people knew about it.

For his part, MacNeill later insisted that in this period he’d been on his best behavior:
The General opinion which had prevail’d, that I was dissatisfied with being under Manley’s Command, made me sett up a resolution to obey implicitly every one of his Commands, (as for Signals, I never could get any from him) to the utmost of my power. I did however endeavour to advise him now and then when in a good mood, and he often appear’d to attend to what I said; but the unstableness of his Temper led him rather to do as he pleas’d. Nevertheless I follow’d him as the Jackall does the Lyon, without Grumbling except in my Gizard.
I find it striking that each of those writers reached for a metaphor as the best way to convey the depths of the two men’s relationship.

After the Hancock and Boston left port in May, the two captains managed to work together well enough to make some captures and avoid being captured themselves. But people back in Boston remembered the bad blood between Manley and MacNeill.

TOMORROW: Back into battle.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Captain Manley’s Temper

One of the striking details of Cdr. Sir George Collier’s account of the sea battle on 6-8 July 1777, recounted yesterday, is how his ship had almost no coordination with the other Royal Navy frigate in the fight.

Capt. John Brisbane had sailed the Flora up from New York on orders of Adm. Lord Howe. He happened to intersect the three Continental ships that Collier’s Rainbow was chasing down from Nova Scotia.

Brisbane and Collier didn’t expect to see each other. At first Collier thought Brisbane’s ship was an enemy vessel only pretending to be British. At one point in the maneuvers, Brisbane’s sailing master warned him that they might be so far north as to be out of their station.

I also wonder if the two Royal Navy officers were wary of giving up authority to the other. Collier was in home territory and (at least when the chase began) overseeing two ships, but as a captain Brisbane outranked him.

But the British captains weren’t the only ones who had trouble coordinating their attack.

Capt. John Manley on the Hancock was the star of the young Continental naval forces. Starting with command of one of Gen. George Washington’s schooners out of Beverly, Manley had racked up more and richer captures than any other captain. There was even a broadside ballad about him, illustrated with the engraving above.

But Capt. Manley also had a temper, and he was in continual conflict with other Continental naval officers. In October 1776 he complained about being ranked as second most senior captain in the navy, thus being “under the Command of one man, whose Ability I had reason to doubt.”

In April 1777, as I recounted back here, Manley insisted on a court-martial for his lieutenant, Joseph Dobel, for disobedience.

Then in early May, Manley summoned other captains onto his ship for a court-martial of eight men, including his pilot, ”for Mutiny.” 

One measure of Manley’s anger about those eight men is that the captains he summoned included Hector MacNeill and John Paul Jones, and they hated him.

TOMORROW: Divided command.