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, May 29, 2006

Edward Barber: teenaged casualty of war

The 1775 broadside titled "Bloody Butchery by the British Troops," available in a keyword search through the Library of Congress's magnificent "American Memory" site, lists all the American casualties along the Battle Road from Boston to Concord and back. From the town of Charlestown, two names appear:

Mr. James Miller.
Capt. William Barber's son, aged 14.
Obviously, the printers who created that broadside had limited information about the Barber boy. Charlestown genealogies published by Thomas Bellows Wyman in 1879 offer a bit more. Capt. William Barber was a mariner who owned waterfront property and a wharf. He married his second wife, Anne Hay, in 1745, and she bore his children until 1770. Edward Barber, baptized on 1 November 1761, was the ninth of the captain's thirteen children. The boy was probably thirteen years old when he died on 19 April 1775.

Abram English Brown's Beneath Old Roof-Trees (1896) quoted the memoirs of Mercy Tufts Boylston on the circumstances of Edward Barber's death:
General Gage sent a message to Hon. James Russell [of Charlestown], to the effect that he was aware that armed citizens had gone out to oppose his Majesty's troops, and that if more went he would lay the town in ashes. . . . The dread reality was apparent at about sunset. The troops came in haste and confusion into the town. The first of her sons to be sacrificed was a boy, Edward Barber, who was standing in a house, and was there shot. He was my cousin,...and would have escaped if our people had obeyed orders. We were told that no harm would befall us if the army was not fired upon. A careless, excited negro discharged his musket, and the return fire killed the inoffensive boy.
This would not have been the first time that nineteenth-century New Englanders used the excuse of a "careless, excited negro" to explain away impulsive actions by local whites. In 1821-22, the Columbian Centinel newspaper published "Recollections of a Bostonian" that blamed the fights before the Boston Massacre on a black man who insulted a soldier; in 1770 ropemaker William Green had acknowledged delivering the insult in question. Some people blamed the Emerson family's enslaved worker Frank for killing a wounded British soldier in Concord; Frank wasn't nearby at the time, and the attacker was most likely a local carpenter named Ammi White. So it probably was with the death of Edward Barber. There was general confusion in Charlestown, some locals might have shot at the British column, but no one could be sure who.

Twentieth-century historians suggest Edward was reckless in looking out a window as the British soldiers arrived. Those soldiers had marched all the way back from Concord (or, in the case of Percy's relief column, Lexington) under occasional attack from houses and farm-buildings along the road. Commanders had sent flankers out to break into houses and clear out yards, with most of the Crown "atrocities" that Massachusetts politicians and printers complained about coming during those actions. Edward Barber's face in a twilit window might have looked threatening to a British soldier. And I don't think we can rule out anger as a possible factor in making the regulars quicker to shoot.

I choose to write about Edward Barber on Memorial Day because he's the first example of a child killed in the Revolutionary War—and on the first day, too. He's a reminder that wars always end up killing children, whether as "collateral damage" or deliberate targets, whether in Haditha or Grozny or thousands of other places across history.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

We received more than enough confirmation of the fact that children die in wars from various places this week, and also confirmation from Iraq of some people's wish to deny or play down that fact.

After a US air strike killed the terrorist leader al-Zarqawi in Hibhib, early reports said that a child had been among the other victims. The next day, the US general in command strongly denied that. One day later, he had to confirm that US forces had found the boy of a girl about five or six years old, possibly al-Zarqawi's daughter, in the rubble.

Since the site had been searched immediately, and since an accurate report was disseminated before the general first spoke, someone must have decided not to pass on the information about the dead child, either to a superior or to the press. It's always easier to complain about the other side harming innocents than to acknowledge that one's own side has done so. But we can't wage an honest war without being honest that war kills children.