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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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Joseph White: good speller, sickly soldier

In 1833, Joseph White of Charlestown, Massachusetts, published a little book called An Narrative of Events, as they occurred from time to time, in the Revolutionary War. (In 1956 American Heritage magazine ran an extract.) White said he wrote out his recollections of the war “at the earnest request of many Young Men.” But his memoir is hardly a stirring saga of battlefield heroics.

White first enlisted in the New England artillery regiment in May 1775. He wrote that he “had not been very long in that capacity, before the Adjutant came to me and said, I understand that you are a good speller, I told him I could spell most any word. Why cannot you come and be my Assistant said he.” (White's spelling was obviously more standardized than his punctuation.)

An adjutant was a regiment’s organizational officer. Because the artillery force was spread out around three sides of Boston, it apparently needed extra organizing work. White got “five shillings per week, outside his rations.” Plus, he had an opportunity for social mobility; as the adjutant said, “you will go right into gentlemens’ company.” White bought a spiffy military coat and started work, which turned out to be so light that he actually kept a local school for six months as well. White wrote, “I was a feather-bed soldier all this time, and slept with the Commissary-General of military stores.”

In 1776, White got assigned as an orderly sergeant, and soon saw another opportunity. While the Continental Army was encamped around New York, awaiting the British counterattack:

Three sergeants of us went to Col. Knox, & got appointed settlers for the regiment, and no Capt. could pay the men their wages, before they had our accounts. We made money fast.

Between bouts of making money, White had a pattern of being sick during major battles. During Bunker Hill:
I had a lame hand, and they would not let me go.
During the American retreat from Long Island:
I was just recovering from a dangerous sickness, went on board a row galley, and sailed up the north river, 20 miles. Sailing up, I saw heaps of peaches, of the best kind, lying under the trees; I got the capt. to send a boat ashore and get some, which he did; I eat so many, was bad as ever, and went into a barn for the hospital.
White eventually returned to his company at Fort Washington on Manhattan, but:
capt. Perkins told me, that I looked so weak, was not able to fight; that they expected to be attacked every moment. I had better go over to fort Lee, to capt. Allen, so I went.
Fort Washington was taken shortly thereafter.

White could be quite honest about trying to avoid work. Here, for instance, is his recollection of how he received another special assignment:
One night about 12 o’clock, I heard some body inquiring after me, I lay still, in hopes they would not find me, thinking some of the guard had deserted, that I had to go and get a new countersign. It poved [sic] to be Richard Frothingham, Esq. waggon-master of the army, Gen. Knox’s right hand man. He called once or twice, I answered him: Come turn out, here is an appointment for you, said he. You are appointed commissary of military stores, of General Wayne’s brigade.
But in that job, White said, he was such a stickler for regulations that “I had so much trouble for two or three weeks, I resigned it.”

In short, in his own memoir White comes across as an operator within the ranks, looking out for himself a lot of the time. He seems to have performed heroically at Trenton, helping to capture a British cannon and preserving an American one from being left behind. But at the start of 1777, he declined to reenlist. Some officers told him to expect a promotion to their ranks, apparently because of his clerical and organizational skills. But White left for home anyway.

But fifty years after the end of the war, White was a hero to the "many Young Men" of Charlestown. Shows what you can accomplish if you just live long enough.

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