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 31, 2007

"Nothing Remarkable" about Gen. Washington

Most histories of the American Revolution mention only one event from July 1775: the arrival of Gen. George Washington in Cambridge, where he assumed command of what at the same time became the Continental Army. The lithograph to the left, from 1876, reflects that view of the new commander’s importance. Boston 1775 has had little to say about Washington this July, however. That’s because the new general’s arrival in Massachusetts wasn’t treated as so momentous at the time.

In fact, lots of people didn’t even take notice. Here are the entries for that week from the journal of Pvt. Samuel Haws of Wrentham, Massachusetts.

the 29. Nothing remarkable this day.

the 30. Nothing hapened only there was a Smart shower.


the 1. Nothing remarkable this day.

the 2. Dito.

the 3. Dito.

the 4. Their was a flag of truce come out of town to our centry on the neck.

the 5. Nothing worth a mentioning to day.

the 6. Nothing remarkable this day.
Washington arrived on 2 July, and formally took command of the army the next morning.

Haws noted the major skirmishes of the month, even when he wasn’t involved. On 25-26 July, he mentioned a couple of other general officers: first his company and three others “marched toward cambridg to meet general [Artemas] Ward,” and the next day “General [William] Heaths regement moved from Dorchester to cambridg and Jeneral Wards regement moved from cambridg to Dorchester and took general Heath’s Baracks.”

Not until 23 November did Haws find anything to say about Washington:
Being thanksgiveing I went with Serg[eant] Felt up to newtown and kept thanksgiveing their and returnd to our Barricks at night and we had not ben a bed long when our captain came to us and ordered us all to Lye upon our arms by order of General Washington Lesemo of the American Army incampt at cambridg and roxbury and other places
In that passage I sense a touch of grumpiness about being kept up on orders of the generalissimo (a word Haws was still learning to spell).

Why did Haws show so little interest in (and perhaps knowledge of) his new top commander in July? As a private, he might have seen that change as too far above him to worry about. Some New Englanders might have viewed the installation of this new general from Virginia as a political matter, a way to cement the support of the Continental Congress, not necessarily bringing long-term consequences. (The press seems to have given more attention to Gen. Charles Lee, who arrived at the same time, because of his European military career and his epistolary debate with Gen. John Burgoyne.)

I suspect another reason for Haws’s lack of excitement stemmed from how he was stationed in the southern part of the ring around Boston. The officers there tended to act independently of the command in Cambridge. Gen. Ward’s orders would arrive, and the regimental commanders in Roxbury would have a counsel to discuss whether they were ready to sign on to those plans. That attitude might have filtered down to the men. When Haws wrote of “the general” on 14 June, he meant Gen. John Thomas in Roxbury, not Gen. Ward.

That loose command structure hadn’t produced any breakdowns yet, largely because the New England militiamen were so united in their goals and outlook. But among the jobs Washington took on were instilling more military discipline and hierarchy in the New England ranks, and integrating those men with troops coming from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other colonies. Only then was he truly commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

Monday, July 30, 2007

A British Officer’s Worries

The situation inside besieged Boston was looking dire, according to this 25 July 1775 letter from a British officer to gentleman in London, published in Force’s American Archives and presumably reprinted from a British newspaper.

As far as I can guess from a matter not perfectly known, we at present are worse off than the rebels. In point of numbers they so surpass us, that we are like a few children in the midst of a large crowd. Trusting to this superiority, they grow daily more and more bold, menacing us most insolently, and we fear, when the days shorten, and dark nights come on, they will put some of their threats in execution, unless other re-enforcements, and a fleet of men-of-war arrive soon.

They know our situation as well as we do ourselves, from the villains that are left in Town, who acquaint them with all our proceedings, making signals by night with gunpowder, and at day out of the church steeples. About three weeks ago three fellows were taken out of one of the latter, who confess they had been so employed for seven days. Another was caught last week swimming over to the rebels, with one of their General’s passes in his pocket; he will be hanged in a day or two.
Could this swimmer be the mysterious barber named Carpenter I discussed back here? [ADDENDUM FROM MARCH 2011: His name was Richard Carpenter.] That would explain why he had gone over to Dorchester and back, but not why the military authorities later pardoned him (if indeed they did).

Since we have been here, we have been re-enforced by four Regiments; but many of the men are very ill with fluxes, occasioned by the bad water which they got on landing, and the want of fresh provisions. No action has happened since the 17th of June.

A few shot have been exchanged by scouting parties; one morning they beat in our advanced guard, and burnt the guard-house; and on the, 19th [probably the 12th] instant [i.e., this month] they set fire to the Light-house, and one of our men-of-war lying but a mile from it. As it was calm we could not get at them, their whale-boats, in which they made their escape, outrowing any of our boats, and a small island lying between them and the ship, prevented her firing on them. They took from the Light-house a six pounder and a swivel.
It had been five weeks since the army had won its costly victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The government in London had just received word of that event, and it would take several more weeks before they could send significant supplies.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

He Promised Me He Would Advance No Further

On 29 July 1775, Col. William T. Miller from Rhode Island wrote a letter from the Continental army camp at Prospect Hill in Cambridge that revealed some of the etiquette of the siege of Boston at the time—namely, that the sides shouldn’t do anything needlessly provocative:

I had the honor to be field officer of the day here yesterday: and as I was visiting the out sentries, which stand within half musket shot of the enemy’s sentries, the regulars came out with a party, and began to cut some trees and remove some fencing stuff which was between the sentries.

I beckoned to the two officers who commanded there, one of whom I took to be Major [Andrew] Bruce of the regulars, who came out and met me between the sentries, when I told him that his conduct in felling the timber so near our sentries created a jealousy, and desired him to desist from any further encroachments; when he told me he thought the trees, &c., which they were getting, were as near their lines as they were to ours, and that they had not interrupted our men in cutting hay close to the lines; and he promised me he would advance no further.

I immediately retired, and reported what had happened to Major-general [Charles] Lee, who thanked me for my conduct.

I also saw a gentleman that came out of Boston yesterday, who says the people of Boston and the soldiers are very sickly and much dejected; that General [Thomas] Gage had given orders for all the inhabitants of Boston that have a mind to depart by water to return their names, and they should have liberty to depart.

We have three deserters from the regulars come into this camp since we came here, one of whom found his own brother here in the camp. Their meeting was very affecting.
We don’t usually think of this canpaign as a “brother v. brother” conflict, at least in the enlisted ranks. The bulk of the Continentals were New Englanders or other natives of the colonies. Almost all the regulars were from the British Isles. Yet here were two brothers in the opposing armies, apparently unknown to each other.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Boston's Population in July 1775

According to Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston:

In the last week of July [1775] the number of inhabitants was stated at 6753; the number of troops, with their dependents, women and children, at 13,600. . . .

The troops had an abundance of salt provision, and of fish, but this exclusive diet rendered many unfit for service.
The civilian population of Boston had shrunk to about 40% of what it had been in 1765, the last year for which we have a detailed census. However, that figure included hundreds of people from Loyalist families who had moved into the capital from the countryside since September 1774; over a thousand civilians would leave Boston with the troops in March 1776 rather than stay under Patriot rule.

Furthermore, the overall count of people in Boston had grown by a third since 1765 because for each remaining civilian there were now two people connected to the British military. And the town, which normally relied on shipments of food, firewood, and other vital supplies from the countryside, was cut off by land by the besieging Continental Army.

(Thumbnail map above from the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. Check it out.)

Friday, July 27, 2007

When Was John Crane Wounded?

A while back I quoted how Continental artillery officer John Crane was wounded in the foot. Boston 1775 reader Scott Crane got me interested in the exact date of that event, which doesn’t appear in my source, a memoir of Crane written by Dr. William Eustis and printed (reprinted?) in the Military Journal of Dr. James Thacher.

Context says that Crane must have been wounded during the British military’s return to the U.S. of A. in the fall of 1776. The major landmarks of that campaign were the Battle of Brooklyn on 27-30 August, the landing at Kip’s Bay on 15 September, the Battle of Harlem Heights on 16 September, the Battle of White Plains on 28 October, and the taking of Fort Washington on 16 November. (Final score: Gen. Sir William Howe 5, Gen. George Washington 0.)

Using correspondence from 1776 that’s available online, I narrowed the window for when Maj. Crane was wounded. On 4 Sept 1776, Washington told Congress that the artillery officer was still quite active:

On Monday night a forty Gun Ship passed up the [Long Island] Sound between Governor’s and Long Island and Anchored in Turtle Bay. In her passage she received a discharge of Cannon from our Batteries, but without any damage and having a favourable Wind and Tide, soon got out of their reach.

Yesterday morning I dispatched Major Crane of the Artillery with two twelve pounders and a Howitzer to annoy her, who hulling her several times forced her from that Station and to take shelter behind an Island where she still continues.
A transcribed digital copy of that letter appears in the Library of Congress’s collection of Washington’s papers. (Eustis’s account, written years after the war, differs on what guns Crane was using—a minor mistake.)

By 23 Sept, it appears, Crane had been wounded. On that date, his commander, Col. Henry Knox, wrote to his brother William:
Pay Mrs. Crane, wife to Major Crane, fifty dollars, and inform her that the Major is in a fair way to do well. He is in high esteem in the army, and the loss of his services much regretted by me.
Knox obviously expected his brother and Mehitable Crane to have already heard about her husband’s wound. That implies Crane was hurt early in the month, soon after Washington’s letter. Dr. Eustis had more to say about the officer’s recovery. Eventually Knox became a general, and Crane a colonel. (And William Knox? Sooner or later I’ll discuss where he ended up.)

Online resources have also helped me clear up a mystery about the short biography of Crane’s colleague in carpentry and artillery, Ebenezer Stevens, that I quoted back here. I thought Stevens’s descendants had printed that booklet privately, but it’s an off-print from an 1877 volume of The Magazine of American History.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Free Walking Tour: The Powder Alarm in Cambridge

As part of the Cambridge Historical Collaborative’s annual Discovery Days, Boston 1775 will offer a free historical walking tour of that city’s Brattle Street called:

“The Powder Alarm of 1774 and the End of British Government in Massachusetts”

In September 1774, Cambridge was the site of a massive confrontation between supporters and opponents of Massachusetts’s royal government. This event, since named the Powder Alarm, began when Gov. Thomas Gage seized gunpowder and cannons assigned to the provincial militia. In response, thousands of armed New England farmers marched on Boston. Massing on Cambridge Common, those crowds used their numbers to intimidate royal appointees into resigning.

Those days made clear that the governor no longer exercised any authority outside of Boston. Loyalist families left Cambridge. The British military and bands of Patriots raced to control artillery pieces, a competition that led to war seven months later at Lexington and Concord.

The walking tour will visit several sites central to the confrontation, including the homes of the province’s attorney general, the lieutenant governor, and the militia general who started it all.

The tour will take place on Saturday, 11 August, and Saturday, 18 August, rain or shine. It begins outside the Cambridge Center for Adult Education at 42 Brattle Street, shown above. I aim to start at 2:00 and end at 3:15, but that may depend on how well I can walk and talk at the same time.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

How to Play Tip-Cat

John Adams’s statement, whatever its source, that apprentice Christopher Monk carried a catstick to the Boston Massacre indicates that the town’s adolescents were familiar with the game of tip-cat.

Tip-cat was one of many games humans have invented that involve hitting a small object with a stick and then running around while other players try to catch the object and/or you. Nowadays we play baseball and softball and Wiffleball and cricket and oina. In centuries past people played stoolball and rounders and one-ol’-cat and tip-cat.

In fact, the eighteenth century seems to have been when baseball, under the name of “base,” started to surface in that collection of games. George Ewing’s journal of life at Valley Forge contains entries like this, from April 1778:

Attested to my Muster Rolls and delivered them to the Muster Master excercised in the afternoon in the intervals playd at base this evening some Rogueish chaps tied a sheaf of straw to the tail of Joseph Andersons B Quartermaster commonly called leg and a piece of five Pound tens horse tail and set it on fire and let him run which very much offended him and he set out to the Genl to enter a complaint
Good times.

The following explanation of tip-cat combines text from Joseph Strutt’s The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (first published in 1801, revised and republished many times afterwards) and diagrams from Daniel Carter Beard’s Outdoor Games for All Seasons (1896), shown above.
The Cat [fig. 272] is about six inches in length, and an inch or an inch and a half in diameter, and diminished from the middle to each end in the manner of a double cone: by this curious contrivance the places of trap and ball are at once supplied; for when the cat is laid upon a stone, or the ground, the player with his cudgel or catstick [or bat, fig. 273] strikes it smartly, it matters not at which end, and it will rise with a rotatory motion [fig. 274], high enough for him to beat it away as it falls, in the same manner as he would do a ball.
You can also read Beard’s discussion of tip-cat from Inquiry.net.

What did Strutt mean by “trap and ball”? A trap was another mechanism for putting a ball into play. It was a lever, either with its own fulcrum or placed on the edge of a little hole. The batter stomped on one end of the trap to launch the ball on the other end up into the air, where he or she could hit it. These two pages contain images of children in the 1800s playing trap-ball. Fisher-Price and Little Tikes now sell machines that do the same thing as a trap for $40-60.

A catstick like Kit Monk’s could have been used with either a trap and ball, or a cat. Back in colonial times, not all children had wussy leather balls. No, some played with pieces of wood! And they liked it!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Handbills on the Wings of the Wind at Night

On 24 July 1775, according to American Archives, someone in the provincial camp at Cambridge wrote:

We have frequently thrown into their [i.e., the British military] lines, on the wings of the wind at night, hand-bills, and propose to send in a few tonight. These bills are blown into their camp, and get into the hands of their soldiers, without the officers being able to prevent it.

Major [Andrew] Bruce [of the 38th Regiment] complained, at an interview the other day, of such usage. We retorted his decoying our sentries from their posts, two rascals having left us a day or two before, by his or some other officer’s means.
In other words, there was a small trickle of deserters back and forth behind the two armies. The notion of provincial militiamen slipping off to the British lines surprises me, not because I see the American cause as obviously just and holy but because the countryside undoubtedly had more food and more opportunities for movement. One of the handbills that the provincials printed, shown above, even highlighted that difference. Yet some men saw better prospects inside Boston than outside.

That same 24 July 1775 letter also reported, “our sentinels have dispersed several hundred of those papers called ‘An Address to the Soldiers,’ amongst the Regular Troops, which, it is to be hoped, will be of good effect.” That broadside, downloadable through the Library of Congress here, made an appeal to the British soldiers’ values in the form of a letter from a veteran. It recalled how British soldiers had refused to serve James II during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It insisted that the current ministry sought “the Establishment of Popery and Arbitrary Power in one Half of their Country”—a reference to how the Quebec Act let Catholicism continue to be the state religion in Canada.

The “Address to the Soldiers” concluded:
Arts will no doubt be used to persuade you, that it is your Duty to obey Orders; and that you are sent upon the just and righteous Errand of crushing Rebellion[.] But your own Hearts will tell you, that the People may be so ill treated, as to make Resistance necessary. You know, that Violence and Injury offered from one Man to another, has always some Pretence of Right or Reason to justify it. . . .

Your Honour then, Gentlemen, as Soldiers, and your Humanity as Men, forbid you to be the Instruments of forcing Chains upon your injured and oppressed Fellow Subjects. Remember that your first Obedience is due to God, and that whoever bids you shed innocent Blood, bids you act contrary to his Commandments.
your sincere Well-wisher,

Monday, July 23, 2007

Timothy Newell Worries About Nothing

On 23 July 1775, Boston selectman Timothy Newell wrote in his diary:

The Castle it is publicly talked will be dismantled. This evening many Guns fired at and from the man of war at N[orth or New, meaning West]. Boston. Ten or twelve transports it is said sailed this day with 150 soldiers upon a secret expedition for provisions.
That expedition was very secret indeed—I can’t find any other mention of it. Most likely the rumor Newell had heard was just as unfounded as the plan to dismantle Castle William in Boston harbor, which was, after all, the British military’s strongest protection.

Castle William was never dismantled during the Revolutionary War [ADDENDUM: but see comments]. Eventually that fortification on an island in Boston harbor was replaced by the current structure, completed in 1851. The area is now called Castle Island even though it’s no longer an island. Go figure.

For a sunny view of Castle Island taken from a plane leaving Logan Airport, see Gregory Garretson’s travel journal.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Christopher Monk's Catstick

While attorneys at the trial of soldiers for the Boston Massacre questioned blockmaker James Brewer, as described over the past week, one lawyer for the defense, John Adams, was taking notes. He summarized some significant parts of Brewer’s testimony like this:

Kit. [Christopher] Monk was there. I turned round to speak to Kit. Monk, and they fired and K. faltered. [Pvt. Mathew] Kilroy struck me upon the Arm with his Bayonet as they came round before they were formed. The Firing began upon the Right. I thought it was the Man quite upon the right. Kilroy struck at me. Saw no blows, nothing thrown. Monk had a Catstick in his Hand. Heard no Names called, no Threats, no shouts, no Cheers, till the firing.
What’s a “catstick”? John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (published in 1849) defines that object this way:
Catstick. A bat or cudgel, used by New England boys in a game at ball. It is known by the same name in England, though used for a different play. I have never heard the word except here in Rhode Island.
A catstick was thus a small wooden bat, perhaps the size of those miniature bats sold as souvenirs. (The one pictured above, available from the Oddball Mall, features Nomar Garciaparra in a Red Sox uniform. I wonder why those haven’t sold out.)

Here’s the real mystery. The detail that “Monk had a Catstick in his Hand” does not appear in the published record of Brewer’s testimony. It first saw print when Adams’s notes were published in the third volume of Legal Papers of John Adams. What explains the discrepancy? I can imagine two scenarios.

First, the shorthand expert who privately transcribed the trial, John Hodgson, might have missed that part of Brewer’s testimony. Adams and merchant Richard Palmes both claimed Hodgson had made serious mistakes. Hodgson did not capture Robert Treat Paine’s summation for the Crown because the courtroom was so crowded and his hand so cramped. The Whigs already suspected Hodgson’s neutrality since he was a Scottish immigrant employed by a printer who supported and was supported by the Customs service.

But Brewer testified early in the trial, and Adams said Hodgson’s notes on the witnesses’ remarks were fine. (I suspect his notes on Adams’s summation were fine as well, and that speech simply wasn’t as brilliant as Adams wanted to remember.) Testimony that young Kit Monk had been carrying a stick, especially from a prosecution witness, would have helped the defense, so it seems unlikely that Hodgson would have missed it. Furthermore, that detail doesn’t fit with Brewer’s other testimony: he was busy denying that he’d seen any civilian on King Street with any stick.

My second scenario, therefore, is that Adams might have heard about Monk’s catstick from some other source. As he took notes on Brewer’s testimony, the attorney responded to the blockmaker’s denials by, perhaps indignantly, inserting a contradictory fact. But because no witness testified about the catstick, Adams and his colleagues never got to introduce that detail into the trial.

COMING UP: So what did New England boys use a catstick for? Besides possibly brawling with soldiers, of course.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

James Brewer at the Boston Massacre, part 4

Here’s the end of Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s cross-examination of prosecution witness James Brewer at the trial of eight British enlisted men for the Boston Massacre. The pump and blockmaker continued not to recall the crowd doing or saying anything threatening on King Street on the night of 5 Mar 1770. But Quincy was able to elicit some information from him that might help the defense:

Q: Did you hear any huzzas or cheers as they are called?

B: I heard a clamour of the people, but I hear no cheers.

Q: Did you hear them call the soldiers any names?

B: No.

Q: Did you hear any body say, kill them, damn them knock them over?

B: No.

Q: Did you hear the whistling about the streets at the time?

B: No.

Q: Did you see any person strike with a club at the soldiers or any of them?

B: No.

Q: Did you see them attempt to strike their guns?

B: No.

Q: Did you hear the rattling of the guns as though a stick had struck upon them?

B: No. I heard people around call fire.

Q: Did you take that to be the cry of fire, or bidding the soldiers fire?

B: I cannot tell now what I thought then.

Q: How many guns did you hear fired?

B: I think seven.
There were indeed seven guns fired, a detail that became crucial in the final arguments. The jury could not convict the eight soldiers as a group or they would be condemning one man who was clearly innocent. But which one? The prosecution had to either identify the one man who had not fired or to prove that certain others had.
Q: Did the word fire proceed from the people or from the soldiers?

B: From the people.

Q: Was there a greater noise than usual, when the bells rang for fire?

B: I did not think there was so much. When I saw Dr. [Thomas] Young, he had a sword in his hand. When I came in King-street it was as quiet as I ever saw it in my life.
Brewer had mentioned Dr. Young earlier, but not his sword. He may have volunteered that detail in an attempt to contrast the atmosphere of danger around the soldiers’ barracks with the calm he was describing outside the Customs house. But the defense lawyer seized on that detail. Young was well known as a radical thinker—an actual democrat. Had he encouraged the crowd to be violent, or directed men to King Street? Brewer went back to not remembering.
Q: Was the sword naked or not?

B: I cannot remember.

Q: What sort of sword was it?

B: I do not remember.

Q: What did Young say to you?

B: He said it was best for every body to go home.

Q: Did any body huzza for King street?

B: No. I said, every man home, and the word went round.
Such statements like this might hint that the Boston crowd saw Brewer as a leader among them, or at least an example to follow.
Q: Did not Dr. Young say the soldiers were beat to their barracks?

B: No; He said they had made a rumpus, and were gone to their barracks.

Q: Do you know if Dr. Young went into King-street?

B: I cannot tell, I left him in the lane.
I think the phrase “beat to their barracks” probably refers to a drum signal, what Thomas Simes’s Military Medley (1768) called a “taptoo.”

COMING UP: A missing detail from Brewer’s testimony.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Carpenter Sentenced to Hang—or Maybe Not

Tonight I break off from testimony about the Boston Massacre to a more mysterious story from 237 years ago.

Ezekiel Price (c. 1728-1802) was a familiar face in Boston business circles: he was variously Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas, Registrar of Deeds, notary public, and an insurance broker. However, in the summer of 1775 Price had gotten out of Boston and behind the provincial lines. He kept a diary that noted other people’s departures from town and the news they brought with them. On 19 July 1775, Price recorded this tidbit:

One Carpenter, who last evening swam from Boston to Dorchester, says that it was very sickly in Boston; and that provisions were very scarce in Boston, and the people in great distress.
This was a man named Carpenter, not a carpenter, but I haven’t been able to identify his first name. [ADDENDUM FROM MARCH 2011: His name was Richard Carpenter.] All I can say for sure is that he didn’t stick around in Dorchester.

Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded the next chapter in Carpenter’s story:
20th [July]. Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole—upon examination he had swum over to Dorchester and back again, was tried here that day and sentence passed on him to be executed the next day,—his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [i.e., noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution. Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.
(“Goal” was a common eighteenth-century spelling for “jail.”)

Back to Ezekiel Price. On Friday, 28 July, he wrote down this rumor:
Hear that Carpenter, the barber who swam from Boston to Dorchester about ten days ago, returned again into Boston, was taken up by General [Thomas] Gage, and hanged on Copps Hill last Saturday.
That hanging would have been on 22 July. Newell’s account implies that Carpenter was prepared for execution on the 21st. He was writing from the perspective of “a few days after,” so he might have had the date wrong but the outcome right. So was Carpenter hanged or not?

The man also pops up in the jailhouse diary of Peter Edes, a teenager left behind by his father, printer Benjamin Edes, and then arrested on charges of “concealing firearms.” On the 18th and 19th Peter and his cellmates had been taken to the Concert Hall for a military inquiry, which went nowhere. On the 20th, he wrote:
My four room companions and myself were escorted as before, with one Carpenter a barber, who swam from Boston to Cambridge [sic], and back again. The said Carpenter and Mr. [John] Hunt were examined.

We were all sent to prison again, under a strong guard. This is the third day we were carried out to trial, (four hours each time, and nothing asked but what was mentioned before,) and no examination, under all the disgrace and contempt they could contrive.
The next day, young Edes wrote, “No court of inquiry held, so that we are still held in suspense. We had been in prison 29 days, when we found out by chance from the serjeant’s return, what our crimes were, and yet we were ordered to prepare for trial, and not accused of any thing.” (Imagine how bitter Peter Edes would have been if he’d been locked up that way for four or five years, like some young men his age today.)

Edes never mentioned Carpenter again. Either a fake execution and pardon or a real hanging would have caught his attention if he’d heard about them. So Carpenter’s fate was apparently not widely reported back in the jail. Yet Price heard that he was hanged, and Newell that he’d been pardoned.

I wish I knew the full story here. Was Carpenter a smuggler? Was he gathering information or carrying messages—and if so, for which side? Did the military authorities decide he was harmless, or did he save himself by offering to cooperate with them? Were the preparations for hanging meant to scare him, or to scare or impress others?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

James Brewer at the Boston Massacre, part 3

The published transcript of the trial of soldiers for the Boston Massacre, possibly the first ever attempted in America, doesn’t indicate when the questioning of witnesses switched from prosecution to defense. So I’m guessing at that point in blockmaker James Brewer’s testimony, based on when the questions double back to the beginning of his account and start reviewing the same points.

The soldiers’ legal team—Robert Auchmuty, John Adams, and Josiah Quincy, Jr.—were trying to make a case for self-defense. So they started by homing in on why Brewer had thought sentry Hugh White seemed scared before turning to what else he might have seen. Quincy, as junior member of the team, probably handled the questioning; Adams was taking detailed notes on Brewer’s remarks, which survive.

Q: How came you to to speak to the Sentry, and tell him not to be afraid?

B: Because he was swinging his gun in that manner.

Q: Did you come up Royal-exchange-lane?

B: Yes. I saw Doctor [Thomas] Young there, and several others coming up to know where the fire was; Doctor Young said it was not fire, but the soldiers had made a rumpus, but were gone to their barracks again. [This was the fight at Murray’s barracks.] Then said I let every man go to his own home.

Q: Did you see any thing thrown at the soldiers?

B: No.

Q: Did you hear any body call them names?

B: No.

Q: Did you hear any threatning speeches?

B: No; except that the people cryed fire!—fire!—the word fire was in every body’s mouth.

Q: Just before the firing, when [Pvt. Mathew] Killroy struck you, was there any thing thrown at the soldiers then?

B: I saw nothing.

Q: Was there a number of people betwixt you and the soldiers?

B: Not many.

Q: Did you see [merchant Richard] Palmes talking with Capt. [Thomas] Preston?

B: No; I saw the molatto fellow [Crispus Attucks] there, and saw him fall.

Q: Did you see a party of people like sailors, coming down from the Jackson’s corner, with sticks?

B: No, I saw none.

Q: Where did you first see the molatto?

B: He was just before me by the gutter.

Q: Did you see any people coming from Quaker-lane with sticks?

B: I saw several inhabitants coming through that lane, but I saw no sticks.

Q: Were there any coming up Royal Exchange lane?

B: Yes, numbers, but I saw no sticks.

Q: When you first saw the molatto, did you hear him say any thing to the soldiers, or strike at them?

B: No.

Q: Had he a stick or club?

B: I did not take notice.
Many other witnesses had testified and would testify to seeing civilians, including Crispus Attucks, carrying cordwood sticks. Even though Brewer recalled Attucks standing “just before me,” he recalled nothing of the sort. Many people testified that the crowd yelled insults at the soldiers (and vice versa). Several people said that others threw snowballs and harder objects at the soldiers. Brewer, however, had developed an Alberto Gonzales-like ability to not see or remember any bad behavior by his comrades.

COMING UP: The end of the questioning—and a loose thread.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

James Brewer at the Boston Massacre, part 2

Yesterday I quoted the start of blockmaker James Brewer’s testimony about what he had seen on King Street on the night of Monday, 5 Mar 1770. Here’s more from his time in the witness-box as the prosecutors led him to fill in his account—particularly a detail he’d left out earlier, but which was probably crucial to the case they were trying to make.

Q: Was it the first gun that you thought wounded [Christopher] Monk?

B: No.

Q: Did you see any of these prisoners there?

B: I think I saw [Pvt. Mathew] Kilroy, and that he was the man who struck me with his bayonet, when they came down, before they formed.

Q: Did any body near you do any violence to him?

B: No, I saw none.

Q: Had you seen Monk that evening before?

B: No, nor the day before.

Q: How near were you to the soldiers when they fired?

B: I was about ten or fifteen feet from them, I stood in the street just above Royal-exchange-lane, about six or seven feet from the gutter.

Q: Could you see the whole party?

B: Yes, they stood in a circle, or half moon.

Q: Did you take notice of the distance betwixt the first and second gun?

B: No.

Q: Was your back to them, when that first gun was fired?

B: No, my face was to them.

Q: Where did the firing begin?

B: Towards the corner of Royal-exchange-lane. I think it was the man quite to the right.

Q: Did you know him?

B: No.

Q: Did the man that struck you do it on purpose, or accidentally, do you think?

B: I think he did it on purpose, I apprehended it so; I was standing by the gutter, and he was before me.

Q: Said he anything to you?

B: No, nor I to him: he came to form, and I was closer than I wished I was, and he struck me.
Pvt. Kilroy was key to the prosecutors’ hopes of convincing the jury that the British soldiers were out for blood when they arrived on King Street. He had been at the brawl between soldiers and ropemakers the previous Friday. He had a bad reputation in Boston, shoemaker George R. T. Hewes would recall. And according to Brewer, he had struck out at the crowd with his bayonet “on purpose” and been the first to fire his gun.

(Image of musket and bayonet above from the Black Watch Regimental Museum.)

COMING UP: James Brewer’s cross-examination.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

James Brewer at the Boston Massacre, part 1

On Wednesday, 28 Nov 1770, the Crown called James Brewer, blockmaker, to the witness stand at the trial of soldiers for the shootings on King Street the previous March. The prosecutors were Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and an attorney specially hired by the town of Boston, Robert Treat Paine. Their questioning started like this:

Q: Please to look upon the prisoners, do you know any of them?

Brewer: I think I remember this man. [He pointed to Pvt. Mathew Kilroy.]

Q: Was you in King-street the fifth of March last?

B: Yes, in the evening.

Q: Please to inform the Court and Jury what you saw there?

B: I came up Royal-exchange-lane, and as I got to the head of it, I saw the Sentry [Pvt. Hugh White] on the steps of the Custom-house, with his bayonet breast high, with a number of boys round him: I called to him, and said, I did not think any body was going to do him harm. I saw Capt. [Thomas] Preston and some soldiers come down.

Q: Which of the prisoners was the Sentry?

B: I cannot tell, I was not so nigh him to know his face.

Q: How many boys were there round him?

B: I think about twenty.

Q: How old were those boys?

B: About fourteen or fifteen years old, perhaps some of them older, I saw no men there except one, who came up Royal-exchange-lane with me, thinking it [the alarm bell] was fire. He went back again.

Q: What did you take to be the reason that the Sentry charged his bayonet?

B: I could not tell what the reason was; there was no body troubling him. I was at the corner of Royal-exchange-lane, and a young man went up to the Sentry and spoke to him; what he said I do not know.

Q: Was you there at the time of the firing?

B: Yes, I went toward the Sentry-box, where I saw Capt. Preston. I said to him, Sir, I hope you are not going to fire, for everybody is going to their own homes. He said I hope they are. I saw no more of him. He immediately went in amongst the soldiers.

Q: What number of soldiers were there?

B: I think seven or eight, I did not count them. [There were eight enlisted men, including White.]

Q: Did Capt. Preston lead or follow them down?

B: I think he was upon the right of them. [Preston arrived a short time after his men, who were led by a corporal.] As they came down they had their guns charged breast high. I saw Christopher Monk [a sixteen-year-old shipwright’s apprentice], who was wounded that night, I turned to speak to him, and directly they fired, and he seemed to faulter. I said are you wounded, he said yes. I replied, I do not think it, for I then apprehended they fired only powder [i.e., the soldiers had fired blanks].
NEXT: Brewer’s testimony continues.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sneaking a Peek at the Green Dragon

In 1765, the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons in Boston bought the Green Dragon Tavern on Union Street to use as a meeting-place. (Of course, they kept the liquor license. Starting in 1771, the bartender was Benjamin Burdick, Jr., otherwise busy as Constable of the Town-House Watch.) For a while the lodge tried to rename their building The Masons’ Arms, but the Green Dragon stuck because of the striking carved sign over the door.

Our visual image of the Green Dragon Tavern comes from a watercolor sketch by John Johnson or Johnston (c. 1753-1818), a Boston painter who served as an artillerist during the Revolutionary War. The original is owned by the American Antiquarian Society; I’m sharing a black and white thumbnail. Johnson’s most famous painting today is his portrait of William Dawes, Jr., now at the Evanston (Illinois) History Center, but he had steady work in the early republic. In the mid-1800s, I suspect, Johnson’s picture of the Green Dragon Tavern was the model for this engraving, showing the building from the same angle. The building itself disappeared in 1854.

The sketch is often dated to 1773, and for a fairly compelling reason: Johnson wrote that date on it, twice.

Where we met to Plan the Consignment of afew Shiploads of Tea
Dec 16 1773
John Johnson
4 Water Street
Boston, Mass. 1773
I don’t think Johnson really painted the tavern in 1773, however. I think he tried to paint the building as he recalled it looking in that year, from the nostalgic perspective of the 1790s. My arguments:
  • Johnson was only twenty in 1773, and thus not old enough to have been a member of the St. Andrew’s Lodge or involved in planning the Boston Tea Party. His caption was a collective claim.
  • The Tea Party occurred eleven and a half months into 1773, leaving very little time for him to have painted the tavern in that year.
  • Most important, destroying the tea was a secret, illegal action, and Johnson would have been foolhardy to caption his image with such a confession until after the war was settled.
  • Boston addresses didn’t include street numbers until after the war.
  • In front of the tavern Johnson drew three silhouettes in profile: a horse and chaise and two men talking. I think such silhouettes became fashionable in art as the century ended.
(Here’s a site offering a free paper model of the Green Dragon Tavern and other Revolutionary scenes—some assembly required.)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writ near a century ago, by the great Major Molineaux?

I was planning to write more about James Brewer tonight, but since I spent all afternoon at a concert of H. W. Longfellow poems set to music (more varied and entertaining than you might think), I’m going back to comment on another name that recurs in the records of Boston’s political conflict: William Molineux.

In Tales of a Wayside Inn, Longfellow used a framing device of people sitting around a Sudbury tavern telling stories. One of those stories, from the Landlord, was “Paul Revere’s Ride,” previously published in periodicals on its own. The book’s “Prelude” set the scene for the storytelling:

The fire-light, shedding over all
The splendor of its ruddy glow,
Filled the whole parlor large and low;
It gleamed on wainscot and on wall,
It touched with more than wonted grace
Fair Princess Mary’s pictured face;
It bronzed the rafters overhead,
On the old spinet’s ivory keys
It played inaudible melodies,
It crowned the sombre clock with flame,
The hands, the hours, the maker’s name,
And painted with a livelier red
The Landlord’s coat-of-arms again;
And, flashing on the window-pane,
Emblazoned with its light and shade
The jovial rhymes, that still remain,
Writ near a century ago,
By the great Major Molineaux,
Whom Hawthorne has immortal made.
In that last line, Longfellow gave a shout-out to Nathaniel Hawthorne, a friend from Bowdoin College. In 1832 Hawthorne had published a short story titled “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux.” As for “jovial rhymes,” Longfellow was also referring to an actual bit of verse scratched on a windowpane at the Wayside Inn; it’s still there, now on display instead of exposed to the elements.

What’s the actual relationship between the Boston radical leader William Molineux, Hawthorne’s character, and the verse on the pane of glass? Not nearly as close as Longfellow believed.

First of all, Hawthorne said his tale took place “not far from a hundred years ago,” which meant in the 1740s. Though separating the tale from Revolutionary times, Hawthorne clearly drew on Revolutionary history, both in the name of Molineux/Molineaux and in the climactic “tar-and-feathery” scene. In fact, that punishing ritual didn’t appear in Massachusetts until 1768, in Hawthorne’s home town of Salem, and was applied to low-level Customs workers rather than wealthy gentlemen—so the story is historically anachronistic.

The real William Molineux was in most ways the opposite of the fictional Major Molineaux. The real merchant never held a high militia rank (though at least one man who distrusted his street activism referred to him as “General Molineux”). The major in Hawthorne’s story is unpopular for being, the introductory remarks imply, a member of “the court party”; William Molineux was an opponent of Crown officials. The real Molineux led crowds rather than being attacked by them.

Indeed, there’s a bit of political reshaping in both Hawthorne’s tale and Longfellow’s allusion to it. Hawthorne disliked popular enthusiasms, whether they were eighteenth-century mobs, the witch scare of 1692, the Puritan morality in The Scarlet Letter, or Abolitionism in his own time. By taking a Revolutionary leader’s name and applying it to a Tory, then having a frightening mob punish that Tory, Hawthorne portrayed mobs as fearsome while at the same time symbolically punishing Boston’s crowd leader for the violence he encouraged—all without violating New England expectations of patriotism. Longfellow, on the other hand, took back the name of “Major Molineaux,” declared him “great,” and connected him to the Patriot leader.

Who actually scratched the verse on the Wayside Inn window? It’s clearly [!] signed:
William Molineaux, Jr.
Boston, 24th June, 1774.
So this wasn’t the Revolutionary leader at all. It was his eldest son, the one involved in the strange court case of 1771. And as for the verse itself—well, let’s just say it poses no threat to Longfellow’s rank as a poet:
What do you think?
Here is good drink.
Perhaps you may not know it.
If not in haste, Do stop and taste,
You merry folks will show it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

James Brewer: pump and blockmaker

Yesterday I listed James Brewer as one of the prisoners that the British military traded for captured soldiers in June 1775, shortly before the Battle of Bunker Hill. That was only one episode in his Revolutionary career.

James Brewer was born in Boston on 18 April 1742, the son of John and Dorcas Brewer. James appears to have grown up as the eldest son, his older brother John dying before he turned four. (The family named their next boy John as well.) James and his siblings, also including Sarah and Thomas, were baptized at Old South Meeting-House.

(I should acknowledge that there was another child named James Brewer born in Boston, in 1756, to parents Giles and Charity Brewer of King’s Chapel. And a man named James Brewer married Mary Burgess at King’s Chapel in 1748, almost a month before the baptism of their child. And yet another James Brewer, born to Moses and Elizabeth Brewer in Sudbury or Sherborn in 1756, was “reportedly brought up in the family of relatives in Boston.” But I think the James Brewer who kept popping up during Boston’s Revolution was the man born in 1742.)

John Brewer was a pump and blockmaker, and his son James went into that profession as well. I’ve been trying to come up with a modern equivalent, and the best might be a tool and die maker. A pump and blockmaker was a precision woodcarver, making two machines that ships needed to sail: the block-and-tackles that could lift heavy cargo or raise sails, and the pumps that kept water from building up below decks.

Pump and blockmaking wasn’t a luxury craft, like silversmith, japanner, or upholsterer, which brought mechanics into direct dealings with gentlemen. But it required advanced technical skills, and there was probably steady demand in the seaport town. John Brewer remarried in 1768 and died at the age of 95 in 1793, leaving a significant legacy to his grandchildren through his first wife.

James Brewer was responsible for five of those grandchildren. On the first day of 1765, he married Jane (or Jean) Black at the Presbyterian Meeting-House—perhaps a reflection of Scottish heritage for the bride. They named their children James, Henry, Thomas, Jane, and Dorcas (not necessarily in that order). Thomas was born on 8 July 1781, but I don’t have exact information on any of the other children.

In 1781 the Brewers lived in “an old wooden house at the foot of Summer Street” in central Boston. As an established manufacturer, James joined the Mechanics Society, formally the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, in 1801. Though one history of the Tea Party says he died in April 1805, death notices in the Boston Gazette and other newspapers make clear he died on 4 Oct 1806.

NEXT: James Brewer at the Boston Massacre.

Friday, July 13, 2007

American Prisoners Exchanged in June 1775

Last month I wrote about a prisoner exchange on 6 June 1775, and discussed the British officers who were exchanged for American prisoners. Here’s my long-promised look at those Americans, listed in a contemporary newspaper report as:

Messirs. John Peck, James Hews, James Brewer, and Daniel Preston, of Boston; Messirs. Samuel Frost and Seth Russell, of Cambridge; Mr. Joseph Bell, of Danvers; Mr. Elijah Seaver, of Roxbury, and Caesar Augustus, a negro servant of Mr. Tileston, of Dorchester
Shortly after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had issued a report that listed five men as missing. I used to wonder what that meant. Had those men been wounded and died under a bush, still not found? Had they taken advantage of the battle’s chaos to sneak away from home?

No, it turns out that all five of those missing men must have been taken prisoner by the British column as it withdrew to Charlestown. In West Cambridge on the Nineteenth of April, 1775 (written in 1864), minister Samuel Abbot Smith would add a little more detail about the capture of two of those men, probably based on what they told their families and neighbors after returning home:
Seth Russell and Samuel Frost, of West Cambridge [now Arlington], were taken prisoners. They put Frost on a horse, and cut his waist-band strings so that he could not easily run away. They were carried on board a guard-ship in the harbor, and were soon afterwards exchanged.
So the British troops kept Frost with them by making sure that if he tried to run his pants would fall down.

One of the five provincials captured in April, Breed was exchanged for a wounded British lieutenant on 28 May 1775. The remaining four—Russell, Frost, Seaver, and Bell—were part of this exchange in June. So all the American missing from 19 April are accounted for.

What about the four other exchanged men? What had caused the British military authorities to designate them as enemy combatants and lock them up?

Caesar Augustus was almost certainly an enslaved man. Perhaps he had escaped to Boston, and the authorities insisted on his return. Perhaps he wanted to go back to Dorchester. The only further information I could find is that from 1779 to 1793, the town of Dorchester paid Samuel Pierce to provide room, board, and mending to a man named Caesar Augustus. The implication of that record is that by that time Caesar Augustus had become free, and a pauper.

The remaining four men were from Boston, so had presumably been arrested within the town rather than outside it. According to Boston schoolteacher James Lovell, merchant John Peck’s offense was receiving letters about politics. In a letter to an out-of-town correspondent dated 9-10 May 1775, Lovell said:
You must however give us no State Matters; for ’tis but “you are the General’s Prisoner,” and whip! away to the Man of War; as is the Case of poor John Peck. I carry’d him Breakfast to the main Guard yesterday, and again this Morning but he was carry’d off last Evening and put on Board Ship. Inquisitorial this!
Peck’s arrest was especially odd since he was not politically active and an Anglican member of King’s Chapel (shown above). Curiously, one sponsor of his son Frederick’s baptism in that church in 1772 was “Jacob Whippel,” presumably the man captured by the Americans on Long Island in July 1775 and immediately set free. (Last month a Boston 1775 reader alerted me to a different tale about John Peck’s activities, in a recent book, but I haven’t read and evaluated that yet. There may be more to come.)

Daniel Preston was a housewright living in the North End, according to real estate records from 1774. I’ve found no clue to why he was locked up.

As for James Hews (or Hewes, as in other newspapers), there was a James Hewes (or Hughs) who married a woman named Ann Williams at the New North Meeting-House in 1767 and had a child in 1769. I know no more about him. Then I tried the spelling “Hughes.” Was the exchanged prisoner a fifteen-year-old son of a Loyalist merchant? That James Hughes later complained about the war disrupting his education, and being locked up would do that. But he seems a less likely candidate.

Finally, there’s James Brewer. Again, I don’t know what he did to cause the British military to lock him up in June 1775—but he did plenty of stuff in the preceding years. More about him to come.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Boston's Own Battle of Long Island

On 12 July 1775, Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded the battle of Long Island in his diary. No, not the big one in which Gen. Sir William Howe drove the Continental Army into Manhattan in 1776. This was a small battle over the nutritive resources of the much shorter Long Island in Boston harbor. Newell wrote:

Two men of war made a heavy fire on Long Island. The Provincials last night [i.e., the 11th] in 65 whale boats [like the one shown at left, courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum] and 500 men went over to Long Island and took off 31 head of cattle, with a number of Sheep and quantity of hay and likewise seized on and brought off fourteen of the Kings Mowers with the family belonging to the Island—

The next day they returned again and set fire to the Mansion house and barn &c.—this within sight of the Man of war, who kept up a constant fire on them.
From outside the town, an eyewitness described the same fight:
While we were on Powderhorn Hill, back of Chelsea, we saw a skirmish between a party of our people, (one hundred and ten in number,) who went in whale boats to an island about twelve miles from Boston, and burnt a large quantity of hay, which was put up into bundles by the Regulars, and intended to be sent to Boston for their horses.

A great number of Marines, in schooners, men-of-war boats, and two ships-of-war, kept up a constant fire on our men, while they remained on the island; but this did not prevent them from destroying the hay.

The schooners and boats endeavoured to cut off their retreat, which brought on a very warm engagement, in which we had one killed and one wounded. The loss of the Regular is not known, but supposed to be considerable, as they were drove off several times, and finally obliged to retire; which would not have been the case, if they had not lost some men.
The provincial commander of this raid was Col. John Greaton (1741-1783) of Roxbury. At the time, Long Island was legally owned by Barlow Trecothick (1718?-1775), a former Lord Mayor of London who had started in business at Boston, married his employer’s daughter, and moved to England to make their fortune. (Or perhaps the property was tied up in Trecothick’s estate.)

One major consequence of this raid is that the Continentals suddenly had more prisoners. What to do, what to do? The staff at headquarters asked the Committee of Safety. The committee, deciding it didn’t have the authority to decide, sent the matter to the whole Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The Provincial Congress’s “Committee appointed to examine the fifteen Prisoners” came back with these orders:
That Jonathan Winship and Jacob Whipple, two of the prisoners, be discharged immediately; that Jacob Davis, another of the prisoners, be sent to the main guard at Cambridge, the Congress having great reason to suspect that he enlisted in, and deserted from the Army raised by this Colony, and that the officers of the guard be certified in writing of what crime the said Jacob now stands charged; that John Freeman, a negro man, said to be the servant of Mr. Joseph Howett, of Newburyport, be sent to the Jail at Cambridge, there to continue till further orders; that the other prisoners, with the said Jacob and John, be committed to Captain Crafts, to be kept under guard until further orders.
The next day, the congress ordered ten prisoners from Long Island distributed among towns in Worcester County:
  • John Hayes and Thomas Bibby to Lunenburgh
  • James Griffin and John Reef to Rutland
  • Perez Merren and Michael Malony to Shrewsbury
  • Patrick Hickey and Richard Nash to Brookfield
  • Michael Mellows and John Fleming to Sutton
They were “to be received, employed, and provided for by the Selectmen of those respective Towns, in the best way and manner they can, till further order of this Colony.” No, I can’t make the numbers add up to fifteen, either.

That day the congress also gave the Committee of Safety full executive power through the end of the month, meaning that the smaller group could make these tough decisions on their own for a while.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

One Random Fact About Me

A couple weeks back, a Boston 1775 reader with the Revolutionary nom de blog Hercules Mulligan “tagged” me with a meme, which is the fancy modern term for a sort of chain letter combined with “truth or dare.” In this case, the meme requested bloggers to post “8 random facts about themselves” and to “tag 8 other people.”

I sat on that for a while, trying to decide how to respond. And I finally decided that, flattered as I might feel, I don’t think folks come to Boston 1775 to find out eight random things about me, or even five. (And wasn’t this meme five things just a few weeks ago?) Nor could I identify eight other people I’d feel brave enough to tag in turn. (At least through this blog.) But I also realized I could share one important fact about me that holds some relevance to studying early American history.

I went to a college with a terrific History Department. Among the professors on campus during my undergraduate years were Edmund S. Morgan, John Demos, William Cronon, David Brion Davis, Harry S. Stout, Jon Butler, and many others who didn’t happen to write about early American history. And from them I learned...nothing.

That’s because I didn’t take any U.S. history classes. I took other history classes, to be sure, from ancient Sumer to the soon-to-expire Cold War. I took lots of classes in other fields: literature, history of art, history of science, astronomy, psychology, early film, several-variable calculus, probability. (I especially enjoyed probability.) I ended up in the college’s special Humanities Major, which I described as “for people who couldn’t make up their minds.” The program was actually quite structured, but it offered the advantage of letting me take nearly any course.

I thought I had much more to learn about the history of other countries and more distant times than about something that seemed as familiar as the American Revolution. Especially since I grew up in New England during the Bicentennial, I thought the start of the Revolution around here had been studied so thoroughly that there was little more to learn.

That choice of college major was right for me at the time. I learned a great deal. A general humanities education served me well as a book editor, the career I chose right out of college. There were very few courses I regret having sat through. But, looking back, I also regret missing the chance to learn from some of those fine historians. Then again, was I ready for them at the time?

So what’s the lesson there? Perhaps never to assume that there’s “little more to learn” about any major topic—and never to assume that it’s too late to start.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Burgoyne, Lee, and Enoch Brown's Tavern

On 8 July 1775, a trumpeter came out of occupied Boston with a letter from Gen. John Burgoyne (at right) to Charles Lee, a British officer who had served under him in Europe. Lee had become a general in the Polish army, then traveled to North America. In early June, a few days before receiving a commission as major-general from the Continental Congress, Lee had written a long, critical letter to Burgoyne. It said:

I sincerely lament the infatuation of the times, when men of such a stamp as Mr. Burgoyne and Mr. [William] Howe can be seduced into so impious and nefarious a service by the artifice of a wicked and insidious Court and Cabinet. . . .

What I have seen of Courts and Princes convinces me, that the power cannot be lodged in worse hands than in theirs; and of all Courts, I am persuaded that ours is the most corrupt and hostile to the rights of humanity. I am convinced that a regular plan has been laid (indeed every act since the present accession evinces it) to abolish even the shadow of liberty from amongst us. It was not the demolition of the tea, it was not any other particular act of the Bostonians, or of the other Province which constituted their crimes; but it is the noble spirit of liberty pervading the whole Continent which has rendered them the objects of ministerial and royal vengeance.
Burgoyne responded with a proposal that the two officers meet at Enoch Brown’s tavern to discuss matters. That tavern sat on Boston Neck between the town’s fortified gates and the provincial lines; the British army was using it as a forward base.

Lee wanted to take up this invitation, and asked the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to send someone along with him. The congress named Elbridge Gerry of Marblehead as their representative, but also expressed worry that the two generals might end up negotiating without due regard for Americans’ chosen representatives.

As it turned out, the New England army prevented any meeting from taking place, at least at Enoch Brown’s tavern. Boston selectmen Timothy Newell recorded what happened that night:
8th [July]. Saturday morning at half past 2 waked up with roaring of cannon and small arms upon the lines which continued two hours. Brown’s house burnt.
Gen. William Heath of Roxbury recorded the provincial attack in his diary:
A little after two o’clock in the morning, a number of volunteers, under the command of Majors [Benjamin] Tupper and [John] Crane, attacked the British advance guard at Brown’s house, on Boston Neck, and routed them, took a halbert, a musket, and two bayonets, and burnt the two houses.
Crane led an artillery company with two brass field-pieces that raked the tavern with grapeshot, forcing the British soldiers inside to run away.

Newell also described the British response on the 9th: “The Regulars last night made an advance battery near Browns on the Neck.” And then the American response to that: “10th July. Provincials last night attacked the Centinels at the lines, and burnt Brown’s shop.” Burgoyne and Lee never had their meeting.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Paul Revere and the 181st Infantry Regiment

In reporting on the deployment of C Company, First Battalion of the 181st Infantry Regiment to Iraq this month, the Boston Globe stated:

The historic unit, which Paul Revere led against British forces on Lexington Green and in Concord in 1775,...
Similar remarks were aired by WBZ on TV and WBUR on radio.

But Paul Revere (shown here around 1800) didn’t lead any troops on Lexington Green. He was busy moving a trunk of papers that John Hancock had left behind. Revere never reached Concord at all that night. And he held no military rank or command in April 1775.

Furthermore, Revere’s military experience came in the artillery, not the (light) infantry. First he was a lieutenant under Col. Richard Gridley in 1756, not seeing much action. In 1779 he became commander of the Massachusetts militia artillery regiment (succeeding Col. Thomas Crafts), and led that force during a calamitous attempt to take the British-held fort on the Penobscot River.

Revere’s role in the Battle of Lexington and Concord should be extremely easy to check. It’s not one of the forgotten details of the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the misinformation about Revere seems to have come from the Massachusetts National Guard itself. A December 2006 press release downloadable here stated:
The 181st Infantry (Light) is one of the five oldest units in the U.S. military, tracing its lineage back to 1632. It was formed in 1636 as part of the Massachusetts Militia. The unit fought during the King Phillips War, repulsing various raids by Native Americans. In 1775, Paul Revere led the regiment against British forces on Lexington Green and in Concord.
We can see a public-relations stretch for historical significance in how this paragraph contradicts itself. If the 181st Infantry (Light)’s first predecessor “was formed in 1636,” then it could not go “back to 1632.” Or, if we decide that a 1632 precursor to the legislated Massachusetts militia counts, then why not trace the lineage back even earlier to England? The answer is, of course, that the “lineage” of military units is a bureaucratic fiction that selects historical facts to construct an inspiring heritage. An extra four years is a little more inspiring, but roots in another country are not. The name of Paul Revere resonates more now than that of the actual commander at Lexington, Capt. John Parker.

There’s no practical harm in such historical inaccuracy, of course. But when soldiers and other people are being put in danger, the government and the news media should get the facts right.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Noah Eaton Brings Home a Prisoner

Last week I might have appeared to be picking on Framingham, but I just happened to see some boosterish comments about that town. I could just as easily have written about the local traditions of any other Middlesex County municipality since most local histories find inordinate importance in local events and people. What really mattered in the Battle of Lexington and Concord was how those towns worked together.

As I quoted yesterday, in February 1775 British officer Henry DeBerniere wrote sarcastically about the Framingham militia’s lack of “coolness and bravery” and their “pot-valour.” But the locals got the last laugh. On 19 Apr, DeBerniere was with the advance companies of the British column in Concord, and thus had to endure the whole withdrawal back to Boston under attack from town militia companies—including Framingham’s.

While looking into that history, I stumbled across this intriguing anecdote from William Barry’s history of Framingham, published in 1847:

Noah Eaton, 2d, and his brother Jonas, were at Lexington. The former, having discharged his piece, retired behind a knoll to reload, where he suddenly encountered a British regular, with a loaded gun.

Noah presented his empty musket, threatening to kill the soldier; when the latter surrendered, returned with his captor to Framingham, and lived in his service.
I’ve read of two other British regulars defecting like this on 19 Apr 1775, melting into a Middlesex County community. It’s fun to imagine the conversation when a militiaman returned with his prisoner:
“Darling, I’m home!”

“Oh, I thank the Lord you’re safe! Ever since you went out with your gun this morning, I’ve been worr— Who’s this?”

“Oh, yeah. I brought home a grenadier! His name’s Tom. Right?”

“Actually, it’s Tim, sir.”

“Tim. His name’s Tim, Sarah. He says he’s ready to help around the farm. You always wanted me to have a hired man, right? You’ll have to sew him a new set of clothes, but in exchange you can cut up that big red coat and use it for something.”

“Yes. Silas, may I speak to you privately?”

“Of course, Sarah. Please excuse us, Tom.”

“Yes, sir. It’s Tim, sir.”

“Silas, I truly wish you would ask me before making such big decisions that affect the house.”

“Come on, Sarah! Do you expect me to run home in the middle of the battle? ‘Darling, may I take a prisoner? No? Then I’ll go back and shoot him!’ No offense, Tom.”

“None taken, sir. And, it’s Tim.”
In at least one of those other cases, the former British soldier ended up marrying into the family he worked for. Barry doesn’t name Noah Eaton’s prisoner or say what happened to him, but perhaps the answer lurks in Framingham’s vital records.

From what I can tell, in the spring of 1775 Noah Eaton (1733-1814) was married to his second wife, May (or Polly) Tilton. Their daughter Molle (Molly) was baptized 11 Nov 1771, three days short of nine months after the couple had married on 14 Feb. With his first wife, Noah had a son named Noah, born in 1758. He may have had other children, but since there were two sets of Noah and Hannah Eaton in town—this man and his parents—it’s hard to separate out the baptisms. Did Noah have a daughter or sister in her teens or early twenties when he brought this soldier home? Is there a man marrying into the family who doesn’t seem to come from anywhere else in the vital records?

(Evocative thumbnail from Patrick Donnelly’s shots of a reenacted Battle of Guilford Courthouse.)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

When British Spies Came to Framingham

On 22 Feb 1775, Gen. Thomas Gage (shown at left, courtesy of NNDB.com) ordered two British officers, Capt. William Brown of the 52nd Regiment and Ensign Henry DeBerniere of the 10th Regiment (both men’s surnames are spelled differently in different documents), to scout the road to Worcester while disguised as local civilians. They took an enlisted man as a servant, set out on foot, and were promptly recognized by a serving-woman at a tavern in Watertown.

Not letting such a little thing bother them, Browne and DeBerniere pressed on. Eventually they reached the town of Framingham. This is what DeBerniere later wrote about that night:

We arrived at [Joseph] Buckminster’s tavern about six o’clock that evening, the company of militia were exercising near the house, and an hour after they came and performed their feats before the windows of the room we were in; we did not feel very easy at seeing such a number so very near us; however, they did not know who we were, and took little or no notice of us.

After they had done their exercise, one of their commanders spoke a very eloquent speech, recommending patience, coolness and bravery, (which indeed they much wanted) particularly told them they would always conquer if they did not break, and recommended them to charge us cooly, and wait for our fire, and every thing would succeed with them—quotes Caesar and Pompey, brigadiers [Israel] Putnam and [Artemas] Ward, and all such great men; put them in mind of Cape Breton [i.e., the capture of Louisburg in 1745], and all the battles they had gained for his majesty in the last war, and observed that the regulars must have been ruined but for them.

After so learned and spirited an harangue, he dismissed the parade, and the whole company came into the house and drank until nine o’clock, and then returned to their respective homes full of pot-valour. We slept there that night and no-body in the house suspected us.
In his 1847 history of Framingham, William Barry repeated only the part about “a very eloquent speech, recommending patience, coolness and bravery.” He overlooked the fact that DeBerniere was writing sarcastically.

Later local historians have read this passage as evidence that Framingham’s militia was unusually large, but the numbers don’t support that assumption. In fact, “the whole company” managed to fit inside the tavern, so they couldn’t have been that numerous. DeBerniere and Browne admitted that “did not feel very easy at seeing such a number [of militiamen] so very near us,” but they were spies. Worrying about being suspected as Crown agents wasn’t the same as feeling nervous about whether your army could defeat rebels in battle. On that score, frankly, the officers seemed pretty confident.

Browne and DeBerniere’s report made no recommendation to Gage about whether an army column could march successfully to Worcester. Scholars have therefore had to guess why the general ordered a raid on Concord instead. The enthusiasm of the local militia is one factor people have suggested; others include how Worcester was much farther away, the road to it offered less shelter, and (my own pet theory) the field-pieces that Gage wanted to recover were in Concord. Browne and DeBerniere located those guns on their next scouting mission, a month later.