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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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An Army Stays in Town on Its Stomach

The last couple of Boston 1775 postings have been about the first significant military action around Boston after the provincials laid siege to the town, the skirmish around Grape Island. The two armies started shooting at each other again over a harvest of hay. How could hay be so important?

The British military, trapped on Boston’s spit of land, had lots of horses. Boston Common had been set aside since the first English settlement as an area for livestock to feed, including the town’s milk-cows, but it and a few other fields within the town were too small to grow enough fodder for all those animals.

The military authorities knew that London would start sending them more supplies once ministers learned about the war—but they also knew how long it would take for Gen. Thomas Gage’s report to cross the Atlantic and for supply ships to sail back. In fact, the first word of the siege (sent by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress) didn’t reach London until 28 May. So until the British government could gear up to send supplies, the besieged army and navy had to feed themselves, their horses, and that part of the Boston population who remained in town.

On 1 June, Boston merchant John Andrews, who was staying only to preserve his property, described the shortages to his brother-in-law in Philadelphia:

Now and then a carcase offer’d for sale in the market, which formerly we would not have pick’d up in the street; but bad as it is, it readily sells for eight pence Lawful money per lb., and a quarter of lamb when it makes its appearance, which is rarely once a week, sells for a dollar, weighing only three or three and a half pounds. To such shifts has the necessity of the times drove us; wood not scarcely to be got at twenty two shillings a cord. Was it not for a triffle of salt provissions that we have, ’twould be impossible for us to live. Pork and beans one day, and beans and pork another, and fish when we can catch it.
Eventually British ships delivered more food, and even over the winter no one starved. The military helped relieve the firewood shortage by pulling down Liberty Tree, other trees, fences, small houses and shacks, and even churches and their steeples.

Prof. David Hsiung of Juniata College is now studying that struggle for natural resources as part of an environmental-history approach to the Revolutionary War. There’s a December 2006 draft of his preliminary work available through the Georgia Workshop in Early American History and Culture.

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