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, April 22, 2024

Washington on Franklin on Gage on Lexington

In 1789, President George Washington went on a tour (I might even say a progress) through the northern United States.

This is how he recorded his travel through Massachusetts in his diary on Thursday, 5 November:
About sunrise I set out, crossing the Merrimack River at the town, over to the township of Bradford, and in nine miles came to Abbot’s tavern, in Andover, where we breakfasted, and met with much attention from Mr. [Samuel] Phillips, President of the Senate of Massachusetts, who accompanied us through Bellariki to Lexington, where I dined, and viewed the spot on which the first blood was spilt in the dispute with Great Britain, on the 19th of April, 1775. Here I parted with Mr. Phillips, and proceeded on to Watertown, intending (as I was disappointed by the weather and bad roads from travelling through the Interior Country to Charlestown, on Connecticut River,) to take what is called the middle road from Boston.
Washington didn’t mention where he dined in Lexington, but other sources confirm that it was at the tavern of William Munroe, who had been a militia sergeant back in April 1775. That building is now one of the museums of the Lexington Historical Society.

The President’s travelogue sounds rather dry, but this item in the 7 Jan 1790 Berkshire Chronicle suggests he was actually in a cheerful mood:
When the President of the United States, in his late tour, was at Lexington, viewing the field where the first blood was shed in the late war; he with a degree of good humor, told his informant, that the Britons complained to Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin, of the ill usage their troops met with at Lexington battle, by the Yankies getting behind the stone walls, and firing at them. The Doctor replied, by asking them whether there were not two sides to the wall?
Well, it’s not exactly Abraham Lincoln’s joke about Ethan Allen, but we rarely get to hear Washington tell funny stories at all.

Washington’s comment echoes a poem published in the 27 Nov 1775 Boston Gazette called “The King’s Own Regulars.” Written in the voice of the redcoats, it includes this couplet about Gen. Thomas Gage:
Of their firing from behind fences, he makes a great pother,
Ev’ry fence has two sides; they made use of one, and we only forgot to use the other.
The following spring, Charles Carroll described this poem to his wife as “a song made by Dr. Franklin.” It looks like Franklin might have written those lines while visiting Gen. Washington in Cambridge in October 1775, then left them behind for the local press. And President Washington remembered the doctor’s pithy point years later.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Death of Daniel Thompson

Yesterday I quoted Maj. Loammi Baldwin’s diary noting the death of Woburn militiaman Daniel Thompson on 19 Apr 1775.

The published Woburn vital records say Daniel Thompson was born on 9 Mar 1734, making him forty-one years old at the Battle of Lexington and Concord (unless that’s an unlabeled Old Style date). He and his wife Phebe had three children, born 1761–1765.

According to a family history, The Memorial of James Thompson, of Charlestown, Mass., 1630-1642, and Woburn (1887), this was the story of Thompson’s death:
He was a man of ardent temperament, full of activity and enterprise. Previous to the Revolutionary war he was one of the guards of the royal governor [most likely the horse guard], and yet, in the troubles which preceded that event, he ever zealously espoused the cause of his native country.

On the morning of the 19th of April, 1775, hearing of the march of the British toward Concord, he mounted his horse and hurried to the north village, a mile distant, for the purpose of rousing his friends to oppose the march of the enemy. There is a tradition that of all the men he met only one hesitated, and when that one asked him if he were not too hasty and likely to expose himself to great danger, he instantly replied, “No! I tell you our tyrants are on their march to destroy our stores, and if no one else opposes them to-day, I will!” Immediately hurrying away to the scene of action, he boldly took his position and poured his fire into the ranks of the British.

On the retreat of the enemy, he took a station near the road. Stepping behind a barn to load, and then advancing round the corner of the building, he fired diagonally through the platoons of the enemy, so as to make every shot effectual.

A grenadier, who watched his movements, was so enraged that he ran around the corner of the barn and shot him dead on the spot, while he was in the act of reloading his gun. Tradition says that a well directed ball from another Woburn gun prevented the grenadier from ever rejoining his comrades.
I’m skeptical about that quotation, though the aggressive attitude seems to fit with going too close to the road and being cut down by a flanker. Abram English Brown’s Beneath Old Roof Trees (1896) added the comforting claim that one of Daniel Thompson’s own brothers killed that grenadier and brought his firelock back home to Woburn.

More certainly, we know that Thompson died within the borders of Lincoln. His body was brought back to Woburn. On 21 April there was a joint funeral with Asahel Porter, detained by the regulars in the early hours of the 19th and killed in the shooting on Lexington common.

Thompson’s gravestone appears above, courtesy of Find a Grave. It says:
Here lies Buried the Body of
slain in Concord Battle on ye. 19th.
of April 1775. Aged 40 Years.

Here Passenger confin’d reduc’d to dust,
lies what was once Religious wise & Just.
The cause he engaged did animate him high,
Namely Religion and dear Liberty.
Steady and warm in Liberties defence,
True to his Country, Loyal to his Prince.
Though in his Breast a Thirst for glory fir’d,
Courageous in his country’s cause expired.
Although he’s gone his name Embalmed shall be,
and had in Everlasting Memory.
The phrase about “Loyal to his Prince” suggests the Thompson family erected this stone in 1775 when most Americans still professed allegiance to King George III and saw themselves as fighting corrupt British ministers rather than the whole British constitutional system. If the Thompson family had had to wait another year for the stonecarving, the elegy would surely have praised Thompson’s loyalty to his country but not to his “Prince.”

Daniel and Phebe Thompson’s daughter, born in 1762 and also named Phebe, married Josiah Pierce in 1787 and settled in Maine. Josiah was a younger half-brother of Benjamin Thompson, who by then had moved from Woburn to Europe on his way to becoming Count Rumford.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

“A ball came thru the Meeting house near my head”

Yesterday we left Maj. Loammi Baldwin and his Woburn militiamen skedaddling east from Brooks Hill in Concord with the withdrawing British column on their tail.

Baldwin’s account in his diary, as transcribed in this copy with line breaks for easier reading, continues:
we came to Tanner Brooks at Lincoln Bridge & then we concluded to scatter & make use of the trees & walls for to defend us & attack them—We did so & pursued on flanking them—(Mr Daniel Thompson was killed & others[)]. till we came to Lexington. I had several good shots—
“Tanner Brooks” referred to the tannery owned by the Brooks family. Analysts of the battle say the Woburn companies engaged the British troops somewhere around the Hartwell Tavern within the borders of Lincoln.
The Enemy marched very fast & left many dead & wounded and a few tired I proceeded on till coming between the meeting house and Mr Buckmans Tavern with a Prisoner before me when the Cannon begun to play the Balls flew near me I judged not more than 2 yards off.

I immediately retreated back behind the Meeting house and had not been there 10 seconds before a ball came thru the Meeting house near my head.

I retreated back towards the meadow North of the Meeting house & lay & heard the ball in the air & saw them strike the ground I judged about 15 or 20 was fired but not one man killed with them. They were fired from the crook in the road by Easterbrooks—
The picture above, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, shows a “small cannon ball, said to have been found on the side of the road near Lexington” at some point. The webpage for this artifact says: “It is made of lead and was the type of projectile fired from a smooth-bored cannon.”

In The Road to Concord I argue that the presence of cannon in Concord, and particularly the brass cannon of the Boston militia train, was crucial to Gen. Thomas Gage’s decision to order an expedition there.

But the provincials moved most of those cannon further west in the days before that march. They probably weren’t all equipped for use, anyway. On the British side, the expedition under Lt. Col. Francis Smith marched with no artillery for maximum speed.

But Col. Percy’s reinforcement column did come out with field-pieces, and those were the cannon that Loammi Baldwin and his Woburnites ran into. By deploying heavy weapons for the first time that day, Percy was able to make time for the combined British forces to regroup in Lexington, tend their wounded, and set off for Boston.

As for Maj. Baldwin, his diary stops as quoted above. The transcripts don’t resume until May, when he was an officer in the provincial army. Baldwin probably decided that having marched into Concord and back, fired “several good shots,” and taken a prisoner, his unit had done their dangerous duty for the day. He and his men may have followed the British column east for some more miles, but they stayed out of cannon range.

Friday, April 19, 2024

“Soon heard that the regulars had fired upon Lexington People”

For Loammi Baldwin of Woburn, 18 Apr 1775 was not a good day.

As he wrote in his diary, “My Brother Ruel departed this life after a short illness of 5 or 6 days, Pleurisy fever.” Loammi was there, along with his parents.

Reuel Baldwin was twenty-seven years old. He left his wife Keziah and three young children—Reuel, Ruth, and James—with another child on the way, eventually named Josiah.

The next day, Loammi Baldwin had to muster as a major in the Middlesex County militia. An officer in a horse troop, Baldwin rode instead of marched.

I don’t know if Loammi Baldwin’s diary still exists, but there are two handwritten transcripts of select dates in the Harvard libraries, and much of his entry on 19 Apr 1775 was published in the first volume of D. Hamilton Hurd’s History of Middlesex County in 1890.

There’s an old joke that a man with a watch always knows what time it is, but a man with two watches never does. Likewise, with one transcript we’d feel confident about what Baldwin originally wrote, but with three there are some reasons for doubt about the details.

Here’s how Maj. Baldwin described his experience of the start of the war according to this transcript, with line breaks added to make reading a little easier:

April 19. Wednesday

This morning a little before break of day we was allarmed by Mr. Ledman [probably Ebenezer Stedman] Express from Cambridge—Informd us that the Regulars were upon the move for Concord

we musterd as fast as possible—The Town turned out extraordinary & proceeded towards Lexington & Rode along a little before main body and when I was nigh Jacob Reeds I heard a great firing proceeded on soon heard that the regulars had fired upon Lexington People & killed a large Number of them

we proceeded on as fast as possible and came to Lexington and saw about 8 or 10 dead & Numbers wounded was informed that the Regulars rushed upon our Lexington men and hollowed damn you Disperse Rebels & fired upon the Lexington Company

we proceeded to Concord by way of Lincoln meeting house come to Concord ascended the hill & pitched & refreshed ourselves a little

about [blank] o’clock the People under my command & also some others came running of the East end of the hill while I was at a house refreshing myself & we proceeded down the road & could see behind us the regulars following
A transcript with a more modern handwriting but more alternative spellings and the name “Stedman” starts at seq. 15 in this document. I can’t tell if this is more accurate to what Baldwin originally wrote. Fortunately, none of the discrepancies so far seriously affect his meaning.

TOMORROW: Cannon fire.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Launch of Concord’s Arrowhead Ridge

As Patriots’ Day season continues, Boston 1775 is pleased to welcome back our old friend Christopher Lenney, author of Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England, as a guest blogger.

In this posting, Chris discusses the origin of a name that has come to appear in maps and descriptions of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but which the locals of 1775 didn’t use.

The mile-long ridge running parallel to Lexington Road from Meriam’s Corner to the center of Concord has long been a looming presence in the landscape and the history of the town. However, until the mid-twentieth century, it had no single, well-established name. At various times, various parts have been known as ye Hill above ye Meeting house, Meriam’s Hill, Heywood’s Hill, or simply the hill (or hills).

Its present name, Revolutionary Ridge, likely first appeared about 1915 and was popularized as the original name of Ridge Road. It was officially adopted by the U.S. Geological Survey on the 1943 Concord quadrangle map and has become widely accepted.

So anachronistic a name as Revolutionary Ridge has obvious drawbacks when recounting the events of April 19, 1775. It presupposes what hasn’t yet occurred. Something less glaringly modern, please!

Since the 1960s, Arrowhead Ridge, a name of even more recent coinage and one borrowed from another war, has come to fill the void. While a few arrowheads have coincidentally been found there, this is not how the name came about.

Arrowhead Ridge originated almost accidentally with military historian John R. Galvin, who brought a shrewd eye for terrain to the study of the battle. In the text of his book The Minute Men (1967), he employs the term purely descriptively—lowercase—four times:
  • “A long ridge, shaped like an arrowhead, runs eastward from the center…The arrowhead points directly at Lexington”
  • “At Meriam’s Corner, just below the east tip of the arrowhead ridge”
  • “the British were preparing to march out along the arrowhead ridge”
  • “climbing up the slope of the arrowhead ridge”
Gen. Galvin was a Massachusetts native (Melrose and Wakefield) who had a lifelong interest in the battle. The term could only have occurred to someone studying a U.S.G.S. topographical map, and then perhaps only to a military topographer. It is inconceivable that Galvin, who was a cadet at West Point from 1950 to 1954, could have been unaware that Arrowhead Ridge (uppercase) was also the name of a fierce October 1952 battle of the Korean War.

To illustrate Galvin’s account, Arrowhead Ridge was understandably, but misleadingly, given equal weight with other place names on the endpaper map of the first edition of his book. From there it slowly spread. A decade later Arrowhead Ridge resurfaced on a map in The Minute Men 1775–1975, a booklet published locally by the Council of Minute Men in 1977.

Relatively few have ever seen the original Galvin map, as most copies of the 1967 edition are now locked away in local history rooms and the map was omitted altogether from the much-revised and more widely available 1989 edition (although use of “arrowhead ridge” persisted in the text). Still fewer have seen the Council of Minute Men publication, which is something of a rarity.

However, virtually everyone interested in the events of April 19, 1775, has seen Arrowhead Ridge where it truly came into its own: on the map of the British retreat on page 223 of David Hackett Fischer’s now classic Paul Revere’s Ride (1994). Although not original to Paul Revere’s Ride, the influence of that book has assured that use of the term would survive and thrive: notably in Time-Life’s The Revolutionaries (1996). Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill (2013), and Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming (2019). It has even made its way into a 2005 National Park Service report.

While Fischer refers to Galvin at least twenty-four times, the term Arrowhead Ridge never actually appears in the text of Paul Revere’s Ride. It was perhaps introduced by the cartographer, who compiled the map from Galvin and other sources. Its use is somewhat surprising in that Fischer twice takes exception to anachronistic terminology in his footnotes: Hardy’s Hill for Brooks Hill and, more famously, Bloody Angle for Bloody Curve. The latter is especially singled out for criticism as a Civil War name being reused for a battle in the Revolutionary War.

Ironically, in the use of Arrowhead Ridge we can see an example of much the same thing. Only in this case it was not a Civil War name that was borrowed, but one with ultimate origins in the Korean War.

We might ask whether Concordians of 1775 ever thought of that high ground as arrowhead-shaped since they weren’t used to picturing the world from above, the way we are in this era of widespread maps, plane travel, and satellite views.

Thanks, Chris!

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Mercy Warren in History

Since I’ve been writing about the Warrens of Plymouth in 1775, it seems appropriate to mention that there’s a push to increase Mercy Warren’s visibility as the Sestercentennial proceeds.

Last month Nancy Rubin Stuart published this profile of Mercy Warren as “America’s First Female Historian” in the Saturday Evening Post.

Michele Gabrielson portrayed Warren in two episodes of the Calling History podcasts, which records first-person interpretations of historical figures.

And those folks and others launched a nonprofit organization called Celebrate Mercy Otis Warren, which can be found on Facebook.

One of that group’s goals is to have a bust of Warren installed in the Massachusetts State House, perhaps in the one empty spot in the senate chamber.

A bill promoting that plan has been moving through the legislature. As of today, the proposed language is:
The superintendent of state office buildings shall, subject to the approval of the State House Art Commission as to size and content, install and maintain in a conspicuous place of the Art Commission’s choosing in the State House, a memorial honoring Mercy Otis Warren, of Barnstable, Massachusetts, a leading author, playwright, satirist, and patriot in colonial Massachusetts, whose essays contributed to the creation of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, and whose book, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution became this country's first published history of the American Revolution. Said memorial shall be the gift of Cape Cod artist David Lewis who will bear all costs associated with the creation, transportation, and installation of the artwork.
Lewis has already created a full-size statue of Warren shown above. It towers in Barnstable, the town where she was born.

Now I realize part of the Massachusetts legislature’s job is to boost the state’s products, but there were histories of the American Revolution published before Warren’s in 1805. At the time people pointed to David Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution from 1789. Michael Hattem’s superb chronology of the historiography likewise pairs Ramsay and Warren.

(A year even before Ramsay came the Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America. I suppose it doesn’t get counted as “this country’s first” because it was printed in Britain, and in some part written there. However, Gordon clearly composed a lot of material while living in Roxbury. Like Mercy Warren, he knew most of the local players.)

Of course, by coming later Warren’s book could cover the establishment of the federal government. Her final chapter describes the Shays’ Rebellion, the Constitutional Convention, and George Washington’s terms as President, with particular attention to the Jay Treaty. And then some remarks on John Adams that caused a deep rift between him and the Warrens.

I think that although Warren wrote history (just as she had earlier written poetry and closet dramas), her calling and strength were as an opinion writer. She didn’t disguise her feelings about Adams or the Federalist program overall. Writing in a Jeffersonian era, however, Warren was optimistic:
The wisdom and justice of the American governments, and the virtue of the inhabitants, may, if they are not deficient in the improvement of their own advantages, render the United States of America an enviable example to all the world of peace, liberty, righteousness, and truth.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

“The Inhabitants of Boston are on the move”

Among the items in the London newspapers that arrived in Marblehead in the first week of April 1775 was this:
Yesterday a messenger was sent to Falmouth, with dispatches for General [Thomas] Gage at Boston, to be forwarded by a packet boat detained there for that purpose.
It didn’t take long for the Massachusetts Patriots to figure out that if this report had gone into the newspapers, and those newspapers had traveled to New England, then those dispatches could have made it to New England, too. And in that case, the royal governor might already be preparing to act on them.

Decades later, Mercy Warren wrote of the royal authorities in Massachusetts: “from their deportment, there was the highest reason to expect they would extend their researches, and endeavour to seize and secure, as they termed them, the factious leaders of rebellion.”

I can’t actually find those italicized words in the writings of royal officials, and “deportment” is a lousy basis for such a conclusion. But the Patriots may have had a more solid basis for expecting arrests, possibly from sympathetic people in Britain.

On behalf of the imperial government, the Earl of Dartmouth had written to Gage: “the first & essential step to be taken towards re-establishing Government, would be to arrest and imprison the principal actors & abettors in the Provincial Congress.” That letter didn’t arrive in Massachusetts until 14 April, but it looks like Patriots anticipated it after those Marblehead arrivals.

Most of the rest of the letter from James Warren to his wife Mercy that I’ve been discussing is about that worry—that Gage’s government would start arresting resistance leaders. On 6 April, James wrote from Concord:
The Inhabitants of Boston begin to move. The Selectmen and Committee of Correspondence are to be with us, I mean our Committee, this day. The Snow Storm yesterday and Business prevented them then. From this Conference some vigorous resolutions may grow. . . .

I am with regards to all Friends and the greatest Expressions of Love and regard to you, your very affect. Husband, JAS. WARREN

Love to my Boys. I feel disposed to add to this long letter but neither time nor place will permit it.
Then on 7 April James went back to his letter with more information and a warning:
I am up this morning to add. Mr. [Isaac] Lothrop [another Plymouth delegate] is the bearer of this and can give you an Acct. of us.

The Inhabitants of Boston are on the move. [John] H[ancock] and [Samuel] A[dams] go no more into that Garrison, the female Connections of the first [Lydia Hancock and Dorothy Quincy] come out early this morning and measures are taken relative to those of the last [Elizabeth Adams, who didn’t make it out before the siege]. The moving of the Inhabitants of Boston if effected will be one grand Move. I hope one thing will follow another till America shall appear Grand to all the world.

I begin to think of the Trunks which may be ready against I come home, we perhaps may be forced to move: if we are let us strive to submit to the dispensations of Providence with Christian resignation and phylosophick Dignity.

God has given you great abilities; you have improved them in great Acquirements. You are possessd of eminent Virtues and distinguished Piety. For all these I esteem I love you in a degree that I can't express. They are all now to be called into action for the good of Mankind, for the good of your friends, for the promotion of Virtue and Patriotism. Don’t let the fluttering of your Heart interrupt your Health or disturb your repose. Believe me I am continually Anxious about you. Ride when the weather is good and don’t work or read too much at other times. I must bid you adieu. God Almighty bless you. No letter yet. What can it mean? Is she not well? She can't forget me or have any Objections to writing.
James Warren appears to have gone home to Plymouth a few days later and then immediately gone on to Rhode Island to try to convince that elected government to help prepare a New England army. He was in that colony when word came of shooting at Lexington.

Monday, April 15, 2024

“Concord, where a provincial magazine was kept”

Now we come to the part of James Warren’s 6 Apr 1775 letter to his wife Mercy that I like to quote in talks.

James was in Concord for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and he wrote frankly about military preparations:
All things wear a warlike appearance here. This Town is full of Cannon, ammunition, stores, etc., and the Army long for them and they want nothing but strength to Induce an attempt on them. The people are ready and determine to defend this Country Inch by Inch.
Earlier in the letter James alluded to news from London that the imperial government would insist on making Massachusetts obey Parliament’s laws. He told Mercy: “you well know my Sentiments of the Force of both Countrys.” That appears to refer to the strength of Britain and Massachusetts—or perhaps New England or even America. Whatever his “country” was, James expressed confidence that his side would be strong enough to prevail.

All that adds up to a very different picture from how later American historians liked to portray the Patriot cause: as poorly equipped and unprepared for war. For example, in publishing the records of the provincial congress, which are full of references to artillery and other weapons, William Lincoln wrote: “It is not improbable, that in the confusion occasioned by the sudden march of the British troops to Concord, the documents exhibiting the weakness of the province in martial stores, as well as the strength of its patriotism, were destroyed.” The provincials had to be the underdogs in the fight.

I’m not saying James Warren’s confidence was more realistic than those later assessments. He and his colleagues did overestimate their military preparations—how ready for use those cannon were, how much gunpowder was on hand, and so on. But knowing that Warren saw lots of weaponry around him and felt his faction’s force was the stronger helps us to understand his political decisions.

James’s remark about Concord being full of cannon also connects to a passage that Mercy Warren wrote decades later in his history of the Revolution:
When the gentlemen left congress for the purpose of combining and organizing an army in the eastern states, a short adjournment was made. Before they separated they selected a standing committee to reside at Concord, where a provincial magazine was kept, and vested them with power to summon congress to meet again at a moment’s warning, if any extraordinary emergence should arise.
The records of the provincial congress and its committee of safety (the same ones published by William Lincoln) do mention “the gentlemen [who] left congress for the purpose of combining and organizing an army in the eastern states.” The Massachusetts Patriots designated envoys to Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island—the last group including James Warren.

But those records don’t mention this “standing committee to reside at Concord.” I’d like to know who they were, what they did when the British column arrived. I’m keeping my eyes open for signs.

TOMORROW: Run away!

Sunday, April 14, 2024

“We shall have many chearful rides together yet”

As I quoted yesterday, in his 6 Apr 1775 letter to his wife Mercy, James Warren started by telling her that the latest news from London made a political solution to Massachusetts’s conflict with the Crown less likely.

And that had kept the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Concord from adjourning as he’d hoped.

Warren went on:
However my Spirits are by no means depressd, you well know my Sentiments of the Force of both Countrys, you know my opinion of the Justness of our Cause, you know my Confidence in a Righteous Providence. I seem to want nothing to keep up my Spirits and to Inspire me with a proper resolution to Act my part well in this difficult time but seeing you in Spirits, and knowing that they flow from the heart.

How shall I support myself if you suffer these Misfortunes to prey on your tender frame and Add to my difficulties an affliction too great to bear of itself. The Vertuous should be happy under all Circumstances. This state of things will last but a little while. I believe we shall have many chearful rides together yet.

We proposed last week a short adjournment and I had in a manner Engaged a Chamber here for my Beloved and pleased myself with the health and pleasure the Journey was to give her; but I believe it must be postponed till some Event takes place and changes the face of things.
There was deep affection between the Warrens, just as there was between their friends, John and Abigail Adams. At this time James was forty-eight years old, Mercy forty-six. They had five children, all boys; the youngest was George, who turned nine that year. Looks like James thought that was old enough for Mercy to come to Concord for some private time with him while the congress wasn’t in session.

At the end of his 6 April letter, James returned to that personal message for Mercy:
But to dismiss publick matters, let me ask how you do and how do my little Boys, especially my little Henry [second youngest, born in 1764], who was Complaining. I long to see you. I long to sit with you under our Vines etc and have none to make us afraid. Do you know that I have not heard from you since I left you, and that is a long while. It seems a month at least. I can't believe it less. I intend to fly Home I mean as soon as Prudence Duty and Honour will permitt.
The line about “Vines” was another Biblical allusion (Micah 4:4; also 1 Kings 4:25; Zechariah 3:10). The Warrens knew that phrase well enough that James could cut it off with an “etc.”

That verse was also a favorite of George Washington, another gentleman planter. And through him it got into the lyrics of Hamilton.

TOMORROW: Concord’s cannon.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

James Warren: “News we have”

On 6 Apr 1775, James Warren was in Concord, representing Plymouth in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

He started writing home to his wife, Mercy, that day. That letter contains a passage I’ve quoted many times in my Road to Concord talks, but there’s a lot more going on, too.

So over the next few days I’ll analyze of Warren’s whole letter.
My Dear Mercy,—

Four days ago I had full Confidence that I should have had the pleasure of being with you this day, we were then near closeing the Session. Last Saturday we came near to an Adjournment, were almost equally divided on that question, the principle argument that seemd to preponderate, and turn in favour of sitting into this week was the prospect of News and News we have.

Last week things wore rather a favourable aspect, but alas how uncertain are our prospects. Sunday Evening brought us accounts of a Vessel at Marblehead from Falmouth, and the English Papers etc by her. I have no need to recite perticulars. you will have the whole in the Papers, and wont wonder at my forgoeing the pleasure of being with you. I dare say you would not desire to see me till I could tell you that I had done all in my power to secure and defend us and our Country.

We are no longer at a loss what is Intended us by our dear Mother. We have Ask’d for Bread and she gives us a Stone, and a serpent for a Fish.
That last line is an allusion to Matthew 7:9–11.

The British news that Warren alluded was printed in the Essex Journal of Newburyport before spreading to other papers. “Capts. Barker and Andrews” had sailed from England on 17 February, bringing the latest.

The Essex Journal reprinted a long report on debate in Parliament on 5 April and an even longer one on 12 April. Those two articles don’t agree in all the details, but they’re clear on the basic developments.

For years the Massachusetts Whigs had hoped that their pleas, protests, and persistence would prompt a change in British government policy. Instead, the Lords refused to hear the latest petitions from America.

The Earl of Chatham, formerly William Pitt and still America’s favorite, moved that Parliament repeal the Coercive Acts and remove troops from Boston. Other peers argued for “compelling the Americans to the immediate obedience of the legislature of the mother country.” Ultimately the House of Lords rejected all of Chatham’s proposals by margins like 77 to 18.

Furthermore, on 9 February both houses of Parliament had signed off on an address to the king that declared in part:
…we find that a part of your majesty’s subjects in the province of Massachusetts Bay have proceeded so far to resist the authority of the supreme legislature; that a rebellion at this time actually exists within the said province. . . .

we consider it as our indispensible duty, humbly to beseech your majesty that you will take the most effectual measures to enforce due obedience to the laws and authority of the supreme legislature; and we assure your majesty that it is our fixed resolution, at the hazard of our lives and properties, to stand by your majesty against all rebellious attempts…
The king’s official response was to promise “the most speedy and effectual measure for enforcing due obedience to the laws, and the authority of the supreme legislature.”

And that was just the official record. The London newspapers also threw in comments like “Lord N—h is determined that the Americans shall wear chains.”

TOMORROW: Keeping up spirits, keeping up defenses.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Thomas Machin on the Firing at Lexington

On 9 August 1775, Jedediah Preble (1707–1784, shown here) was visiting Cambridge.

A veteran of the wars against the French, he had been the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s first choice to command its forces back in October 1774, but turned down the job on account of his age and health.

During that visit Preble wrote in his diary: “This morning met with a man that deserted from the regulars this day fortnight, as sensible and intelligent a fellow as I ever met with.”

A fortnight, or fourteen days, before was 27 July. There was one man who deserted from Boston around that date, remained with the Continentals, and was praised for his intelligence by men on both sides: Thomas Machin, captain in the American artillery from 1776. So I believe Preble recorded the former private Machin’s observations on the start of the war.

Preble wrote:
He was at Lexington fight. He says he came out with Lord Percy, and that he asked a young fellow of his acquaintance who fired first.

The soldiers when they first came where the Provincials were, one of them flasht his piece, on which a regular officer fired and swung his gun over his head, and then there was a general fire. They had 75 killed and missing, 233 wounded.
Alas, the antecedent for “one of them” is ambiguous: “soldiers” or “Provincials”?

Machin’s informant certainly blamed some “regular officer” for aggravating the situation. On the other hand, this version of events doesn’t have Maj. John Pitcairn or other officers ordering the redcoats to fire, which became the official provincial line soon after the battle.

There are further considerations. Machin’s information was secondhand, and he may have felt pressure to tell Americans what he thought they wanted to hear. Nonetheless, these comments ring true as a British enlisted man’s perspective: What did officers expect their soldiers to do when one of them was firing his gun and waving it around?

Preble went on:
He was also at Bunker’s Hill, where there was killed and died of their wounds 700, and 357 wounded that recovered. He took the account from Gen’l Robinson [actually James Robertson]. He says before he came out there died eight men of a-day, one day with another, and that they could not muster more than 6000 men.
Again, we know from Gen. George Washington’s files that Machin had brought out those casualty figures, as well as drawings of the British fortifications. He must have planned his desertion carefully.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

“The unrivaled honor of having shed the first British blood”?

I’ve written several postings about Solomon Brown, even suggesting he might have been responsible for the first shot in Lexington on the morning of 19 Apr 1775.

There’s one source about him I haven’t been able to nail down.

In an 1880 issue of The Magazine of American History, the Rev. Horace Edwin Hayden of Pennsylvania quoted a local obituary of Solomon Brown like this:
Deacon Solomon Brown

The individual whose name heads this article, and a notice of whose death appeared in this paper, a short time since, was one of the oldest inhabitants of New Haven in this county [in Vermont], and died claiming the respect of all who knew him, for his virtues both as a man and a citizen. . . . 

Deacon Brown was a soldier of the Revolution, and bore a part in that memorable struggle, which should immortalize him in the annals of his country. He was a participator in the first battle for freedom on the plains of Lexington, and has the unrivaled honor of having shed the first British blood in defence of American liberty, at the battle of Lexington on the morning of the 19th of April, 1775.

This battle was the opening scene of the bloody drama which closed with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, and in this scene the subject of this notice stands forth the most prominent actor. He wrote in blood the first word in the charter of American freedom. Let his name be registered among the noblest of his country's benefactors and heroes, and honored by posterity as the most dauntless of their heroic sires. Deacon Brown served five years in the revolution as a sergeant of artillery, and encountered all the perils and hardships of that memorable and glorious struggle. He died mourned by his friends, lamented by the church, and respected by all. 
But as to the source of that encomium, Hayden could only say: “Middlebury, Vt., Free Press, about 1830.”

Two years later, Hayden published A Biographical Sketch of Captain Oliver Brown, an Officer of the Revolutionary Army who Commanded the Party which Destroyed the Statue of George the Third. Solomon was Oliver’s younger brother, so he tagged along in that booklet. Unfortunately, Hayden’s citation only got worse with Middlebury turned into “Middleburg.”

I went looking for the newspaper article Hayden quoted. It doesn’t appear in the newspaper database I access. Furthermore, I discovered that there was no Middlebury Free Press in 1830. The printer E. D. Barber was still calling his young newspaper the Anti-Masonic Republican.

In the Genealogical and Family History of the State of Vermont compiled by Hiram Carleton in 1903, I found a statement that Solomon Brown died on 6 June 1837. That date does fall in the period when Barber called his newspaper the Middlebury Free Press, just before he sold out to Hamilton Drury and it became the Vermont Argus and Free Press. So we should be able to narrow the search down to the summer of 1837—if copies of the newspaper survive from then.

Another voice speaking to Solomon Brown’s primacy was Josiah Bushnell Grinnell (1821–1891, shown above). He was a U.S. Representative from Iowa and namesake of Grinnell College. In 1887 he returned to his home town of New Haven, Vermont, to deliver a historical address, later published. Grinnell stated:
Dea. Solomon Brown also lived and died here fifty years ago. To him belongs the honor of having fired the first effective shot at the red coats in the revolutionary war. I attended his funeral, at which his memorable shot was mentioned, and I just remember the story from his own lips. . . . He did not wait for orders and sighted an honest gun at a red coat spy, where was found blood, and to him belongs the honor of that first shot which “echoed round the world.”
Both Hayden and Grinnell cited the depositions collected by Elias Phinney in his 1825 History of the Battle of Lexington as supporting Brown’s claim. The evidence in that book is more equivocal.

It’s worth noting that in 1775 no British officers reported that the regulars on Lexington common suffered any wounds, and they had every reason to do so in the effort to cast blame on the provincials.

Solomon Brown might well have shot at the redcoats—he could even have been the first to do so. But that doesn’t mean his shots hit anyone.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Elijah Sanderson of Lexington and Salem

Elijah Sanderson has appeared on Boston 1775 several times, but usually as a source on other people’s experiences of the April 19 battle.

Several years back, Donna Seger highlighted Sanderson’s memories of that day and his subsequent career on her Streets of Salem site.

In 1775 Sanderson signed off on a brief account of his experience for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. But he had much more to say in Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th of April, 1775, published in 1825.

Seger wrote:
Phinney took oral histories from participants who were still alive, published in the form of sworn affidavits in the book’s appendix, and the very first account was that of Elijah Sanderson, who was at the end of a long career as one of Salem’s most successful cabinetmakers. Sanderson’s testimony was given just weeks before his death in early 1825, and published not only in Phinney’s account but also in the regional newspapers that year, when historical consciousness of the importance of the Battles of Lexington and Concord seems quite well-developed.

Elijah Sanderson and his younger brother Jacob were among the most prolific and consequential cabinetmakers of Salem, who spread the city’s craftsmanship and style far beyond New England through an expansive export trade in alliance with their partner Josiah Austin and several prominent merchants and shipowners.
That’s the same Josiah Austin quoted in this document describing how he moved ammunition out of Concord. Since that account seems incredible, perhaps Austin was spurred to invent his tale after hearing his partners talk about their presence at Lexington. Or perhaps someone else thought that if one Salem cabinetmaker was in the thick of the fight, another could be inserted into that action as well.
…in 1775 the Sanderson brothers were living in Lexington, in the home of their elder brother Samuel…on the main road from Boston. . . . relatively late on the evening of the 18th Elijah noted the passing of a party of British officers “all dressed in blue wrappers”. He decided to discern what was up, so made his way to John Buckman’s tavern where an older gentleman encouraged him to “ascertain the object” of these officers, so he did so, on a borrowed horse in the company of two other comrades. . . .

Elijah’s party was stopped by nine British officers a few miles down the road in Lincoln, and they were detained and examined, along with two other “prisoners”, a one-handed pedlar named Allen and Col. Paul Revere. After “as many question as a Yankee could” ask, the entire party mounted and made their way to Lexington, where [fellow detainee John] Loring observed “The bell’s a ringing, and the town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men” but [the officers] let them go, after cutting the bridle and girth of Elijah’s horse.

We hear no more of Revere, but Elijah made his way to the tavern in Lexington and there promptly fell asleep! Yes, he fell asleep in the middle of the opening act of the American Revolution.
But then came the drums signalling that the British column was in sight. To follow Sanderson through what happened next, visit Streets of Salem.

(The picture above is a secretary bookcase from the Sanderson brothers’ shop, now the property of the U.S. Department of State.)

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

“The Regular Troops have this morning kill’d six men”

Here’s what appears to be an authentic document from 19 Apr 1775. It was sold by Heritage Auctions in June 2017, but the company has preserved an image for us.

This short note reads:
To all whom it may concern, be it known, that the Regular Troops have this morning kill’d six men near Lexington Meeting House; this news is brot: to Watertown by Mr. Sanger, who told me that he saw the men lie dead.

J. Palmer
of the Congress Com:tee

Watertown, Wednesday Morning abt 8 o’Clock
Joseph Palmer (1716–1788) was a Massachusetts Provincial Congress delegate from Braintree and a member of the committee of safety and supplies. He was staying in Watertown with in-laws.

Two hours later, “near 10 o’Clock,” Palmer wrote a longer, more detailed letter that he sent to Hartford, Connecticut, with courier Isaac Bissell. That dispatch reported that a British relief column was out. By then, Palmer wrote, he had “spoken with Several Persons who have seen the Dead & Wounded.”

Along the way that letter was copied and sent south, its text mutating as it was hurriedly transcribed. I don’t think the original of that letter exists, but many handwritten and printed copies do, making it rather famous.

This first, shorter letter shows that Palmer had heard about the deaths on Lexington common by eight o’clock and started to spread the news on behalf of the congress’s committee. It’s unclear whom he addressed this particular note to, however.

I also can’t identify “Mr. Sanger.” There were multiple men with that surname in Watertown at this time, including David Sanger, on an October 1774 committee to equip two cannon, and Samuel Sanger, first sergeant of the militia company.

That’s a reminder that, even though some documentation survives to show such men as Joseph Palmer spreading the alarm in April 1775, many more people did so without leaving a firm trace in the historical record.