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, August 26, 2006

A Majority for Mr. Crafts

Today I return to this week's impromptu theme of Thomas Crafts, Jr.—decorative painter, militia officer, and protest co-organizer. Despite his grumbling in Dec 1772, Crafts remained active in Whig politics, serving on important committees during the confrontation over tea and the subsequent closing of Boston harbor. And then the war broke out.

In April 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress asked Col. Richard Gridley, a celebrated veteran of the siege of Fort Louisburg in 1745, to head the artillery force around Boston. The colonel, who was giving up a British army pension to sign on with the provincial forces, insisted that his youngest son Scarborough be one of his top officers, a major. The artillery regiment's lieutenant colonel was William Burbeck, who had looked after the cannons in Castle William, and the other major was David Mason, a Salem painter who had secretly gathered canons and mortars for the Provincial Congress starting in Nov 1774.

This system worked fine until there was a battle—the Battle of Bunker Hill, to be exact. Then the gunpowder supply system broke down, Scar Gridley stayed off the field, two other young company commanders left early, the colonel was wounded, and the regiment lost five of the six field-guns they had rolled into Charlestown. The only good news was that the British army had suffered even worse, and didn't try to break through the siege lines again. Gridley's artillery regiment seems to have spent the next few months building fortifications around Boston and feuding among themselves.

In the fall of 1775, Congress and Gen. George Washington decided they had to reorganize the regiment, now part of the Continental Army. Col. Gridley was kicked upstairs to the post of Chief Engineer, Scar Gridley and others removed from the army entirely. Twenty-five-year-old Henry Knox, a volunteer who had read a lot of books on military science, was put in command. (Why? Knox had no experience as an artillery officer before he became a colonel. This turned out to be a great decision, but there's no way Knox appeared most qualified on paper in late 1775. I'll speculate one day.)

During that shuffle, on 30 Nov 1775, the Continental Congress had resolved:

That the president inform the General [Washington] that two Gentlemen, viz: Thomas Crafts, jun. and George Trott, Esqrs. have been recommended to Congress as proper persons for field officers in said regiment, and that the General enquire into their characters and abilities; and if, upon enquiry, he shall judge them proper, and that the appointment of them will occasion no disturbance and disgust in the regiment, that he appoint them.
Who recommended those two men, Crafts and Trott? Delegate John Adams, who knew them as “old Friends” with experience as militia officers and years of service to the Whig cause. He had heard that they wanted Continental Army commissions. On 3 Dec 1775, Adams wrote to James Warren of Plymouth from Philadelphia:
I lately had an opportunity, suddenly, of mentioning two very deserving officers, Thomas Crafts Junior who now lives at Leominster and George Trot who lives at Braintree to be, the first a Lt Coll the second a Major of the Regiment of Artillery under Coll Knox. These are young Men under forty, excellent officers, very modest, civil, Sensible, and of prodigious Merit as well as Suffering in the American Cause. If they are neglected I shall be very mad, and kick and bounce like fury. Congress have ordered their Names to be sent to the General, and if he thinks they can be promoted without giving Disgust and making Uneasiness in the Regiment, to give them Commissions. Gen. Washington knows neither of them. They have too much Merit & Modesty to thrust themselves forward and solicit, as has been the Manner of too many. But they are excellent officers, and have done great Things both in the political and military Way. In short vast Injustice will be done if they are not provided for. Several Captains in the Artillery Regiment were privates under these officers in Paddocks Company [Boston's prewar militia artillery]. Captain [Edward] Crafts who is I believe the first Captain, is a younger Brother to Thomas. I believe that Burbeck, Mason, Foster &c [i.e., the artillery regiment’s existing officers] would have no objection.

The Merit of these Men from the Year 1764 to this day, has been very great tho not known to every Body. My Conscience tells me they ought to be promoted. They have more Merit between you and me than half the Generals in the Army.

Accordingly, on 11 Dec, Washington’s aide Robert Harrison sent Crafts this message:
I have it in Command from his Excellency to inform you that the Majority of the Regiment of Artillery is now vacant, and that he would wish you to fill it in Preference to any other Person. You will please to signify to him, whether you incline to accept it, as soon as you conveniently can.
By “Majority” Harrison meant the rank of major—serving below Col. Knox, Lt. Col. Burbeck, and Lt. Col. Mason (who had been promoted), helping to oversee the regiment's twelve company captains.

TOMORROW: Thomas Crafts, Jr., turns down the offer.

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