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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Monday, August 27, 2007

Lt. John Barker Observes the Siege

I’ve been quoting a lot of New England sources on the siege of Boston in 1775-76. There are also some great contemporaneous accounts from the Crown side, particularly diaries and letters written by British army officers. (We have few detailed sources from British enlisted men, alas. One exception is Thomas Sullivan’s journal—but he switched sides later in the war.)

Unfortunately for my purposes, many of those officers’ writings weren’t published until after 1922, which means that they’re still protected by copyright. So, while I feel free to quote them briefly on specific points, I can’t extract from them as extensively as from the diary of Timothy Newell (published 1852) or the letters of George Washington (published in many growing editions since the 1830s).

One exception to that pattern is a British army officer’s journal published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1877. The diarist was later identified as Capt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment, and the document was transcribed again and republished as The British in Boston in 1924. These entries are from the earlier published form of the diary—the one in the public domain.

In his diary, Barker tended to vent almost as much about the incompetence of his own commanders and men as about the perfidious rebels.

24th [Aug 1775]. The expedition talked of was to attack Dorchester Hill, and was to have been to day at 6 oclock in the morng. All the Troops on this side were drawn out and paraded on the Hill, and some march’d into the road; this was to alarm the Rebels on this side and keep off their attention; but soon after we heard it was put off, the Genl. [William Howe] hearing they had got intelligence and had reinforced that place with 4000 Men.

Several shells fired from the Lines into Roxbury to set it on fire, but did not answer; the same day two Men came in as far as Brown’s House, when a Serjt. and a Party was sent to meet them, as it was thought they wanted to deliver themselves up, but when the party got near, the two men fired and run away, but were shot by the Party and their Arms brought in.

Aug. 26th. The Rebels perceived throwing up Entrenchments on Winter Hill [actually Ploughed Hill, one rise to the east] about 12 or 1300 Yards from our Works on Bunker’s hill; after wasting a good deal of time we at length got four long twelvers [i.e., twelve-pounder cannons] to the Lines and fired several shot at them, but without preventing them from continuing their Work; they had likewise made a Battery near the water side at a Mill on Mr. Temple’s farm, a great way off, from which they fired several shot at the Gondolas, but without doing any harm.
Barker was still using “Brown’s house” as a landmark on Boston Neck, though it had been burned in July. Interestingly, if Gen. Howe had managed to seize “Dorchester Hill” in August 1775, the Continental Army could not have put a large battery up there in March 1776, the move that finally forced the British to depart.


pilgrimchick said...

Wow, that's a great source there. It's too bad that history like this is usually presented in "watered down" form, and not watered down well at that.

Melissa said...

Hi. Do you know where John Barker lived? There were Barker loyalists in Epping, NH and I wonder if he was from there. Thanks, melmail88 at yahoo dot com.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't recall Lt. Barker indicating he had any American relatives. He himself was definitely English.

Unknown said...

Did John barker have a son Pittman and did he finally settle in conn?

J. L. Bell said...

After Barker retired from the British army, he settled in Suffolk, England. Here's a genealogy page for him. I think he'd be peeved by the suggestion that he had close relatives in America, but then he appears to have been peeved all the time.