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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Sunday, July 01, 2007

John Leach and the "Aides-de-Diable"

As I mentioned last month, British officers apparently found letters from Boston schoolmaster James Lovell on Dr. Joseph Warren’s body after the Battle of Bunker Hill. (At left is a detail from an engraving of the Death of Warren as painted by John Trumbull, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

But whatever evidence pointed to Lovell doesn’t seem to have been exact because on the same day the authorities detained him, they also arrested Boston’s other Patriot teacher with the initials J.L.

That was John Leach (1724-1799), a native of England who had settled in Boston’s North End after spending several years at sea. He wasn’t a public school teacher like Lovell, but rather offered private lessons in navigation and mathematics to aspiring sea captains. He and his wife Sarah had seventeen children, the youngest born in 1774. Among those children, son John, Jr., had witnessed the Boston Massacre in 1770. According to Annie Haven Thwing’s Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, Leach was known for wearing his hats until they wore out because he disliked taking on any debt.

Maj. Edward Cairn (whose Scottish name Bostonians insisted on spelling “Kane” or, more biblically, “Cain”) arrested Leach on the afternoon of 29 June 1775, seizing his papers—probably maps and other drawings that seemed suspicious. About twenty minutes after Leach arrived at Boston’s jail, the new Suffolk County sheriff, Joshua Loring, Jr., and Cairn brought in Lovell as well.

At some point Leach began to keep notes on his confinement with the help of eighteen-year-old printer’s apprentice Peter Edes, who had been locked up since 19 June. Both Leach and Edes recorded this incident in their diaries for 1 July 1775:

Major Harry Rooke took a Book of Religion from Mr. Joseph Otis, the Gaol keeper, who told him the Book belonged to some of the Charlestown prisoners, taken at Bunker’s Hill fight, and was given them by a Clergyman of the Town.

He carried it to Show General [Thomas] Gage, and then brought it back, and said, “It is your G–d Damned Religion of this Country that ruins the Country; Damn your Religion.”
Rooke was one of the general’s aides de camp—or “Aids-de-Diable,” as Edes would have it. (I’ve seen Rooke’s formal rank stated as lieutenant.) Leach, the Englishman, added:
I would only add this remark, that this Pious officer holds his Commission by a Sacramental Injunction, from his most Sacred Majesty King George the 3d.
British army officers had a hard time understanding New England Congregationalism. They often confused it with Presbyterianism, the established church in Scotland. They couldn’t figure out why Congregationalist ministers weren’t supporting the king, who was head of the Church of England back home. And they distrusted the fervency of New England’s Puritan descendants—the fervency that inspired young Edes to label his enemy as the “Diable.” But as Leach remarked, both sides thought God was on their side.

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