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.

Follow by Email


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Case of the Blown Up Battery

Today’s installment of CSI: Colonial Boston comes from two of the diaries of the siege of 1775-76 that I’ve been quoting regularly.

On 17 Oct 1775, Capt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment wrote in his journal:

Last night the Rebels brought down Cambridge River two Gondolas with a Gun in each of ’em; they fired several shot at the encampment on the Common without doing any harm ’till at last one of their Guns burst and killed and wounded several of them.
Besieged selectmen Timothy Newell described the same event, and the evidence of the explosion’s toll:
Two floating batteries from the Provincials from Cambridge river [i.e., the Charles], fired a number of cannon into the camp at the Common, the shot went thro houses by the Lamb Tavern &c.—A deserter who came in this morning, says one of the Cannon split, and killed and wounded several. 5 or 6 hats, a waistcoat and part of a boat came on shore at the bottom of the Common.
The picture above of a Continental floating artillery battery was published in Benson J. Lossing’s Pictoral Field-book of the Revolution; he based it on sketch that the historian Peter Force copied it from “an English manuscript in his possession.”

We also have a description of the vessel’s flag in a letter dated 20 Oct 1775 from Gen. George Washington’s top aide Col. Joseph Reed to Col. John Glover and Muster-Master General Stephen Moylan, who were in Marblehead arranging to equip two ships to patrol the Massachusetts coast:
Please to fix upon some particular colour for a flag, and a signal by which our vessels may know one another. What do you think of a flag with a white ground, a tree in the middle, the motto “Appeal to Heaven?” This is the flag of our floating batteries.
ADDENDUM: The diary of Samuel Pierce of Dorchester, 16 Oct 1775, offered an explanation for why the floating battery blew up.
Our people went down in Cambridge bay with two floating Batery’s to fire upon Boston, and one of them split their cannon by not raming their shot down; it kild one and wounded 6.


Larry Dudley said...

That's interesting about the flags. But what kind of tree would that be? The Liberty Tree? Or the old Massachusetts Pine tree?

J. L. Bell said...

I believe the tree question has vexed vexillologists for a while. I don't know of a clear answer in the sources, or whether the distinction between a Liberty Tree (an elm for Bostonians, different species in other towns) or a pine would have mattered for the Patriots' purpose.

Larry Dudley said...

Yes, it might not have mattered and it might not have been any of those. Who would have expected the palmetto and beaver motif on the 3rd Virginia standard Tarleton captured that recently sold at Southebys? Or it's basically rococo asymmetrical character? I saw no palmettos the last time I was in the Old Dominion!


RJ Howell said...

That would have been the Pine Tree, a symbol going back to the Puritans. It would have mattered as it was a symbol of the old Massachusetts Bay Colony. Also important to them was the motto ,"An Appeal to Heaven". This
from an account Locke (Second Treatise) mentions of a war with the Israelis and Amorites in the Book of Judges. These were flown on Massachusetts naval vessels(and later probably others) during the war. The Palmetto on the 3rd Virginia standard probably refers to their service at the Siege of Charleston where they were captured.