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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Friday, September 26, 2008

Samuel Adams Destroys His Letters

On 17 Sept 1777, six days after the Battle of Brandywine, Samuel Adams wrote to James Warren back in Massachusetts:

The Enemy were left Masters of the Field, but by all Accounts the Advantage was on our side. [Gen. William] Howe and his Army remain near the Field of Battle. They have had much to do in dressing their wounded and burying their dead. General Washington retreated over the Schuilkil to Germantown a few Miles above this City, where he recruited his Soldiers.

He has since recrossed the River and is posted on the Lancaster Road about 12 Miles distant from the Enemy. His Troops are in high Spirits and eager for Action. We soon expect another Battle. May Heaven favor our righteous Cause and grant us compleat Victory! Both the Armies are about 26 Miles from this Place. A Wish for the New England Militia would be fruitless. I hope we shall do the Business without them.
Adams was far too optimistic. The Continental troops had been beaten badly, their commanders outmaneuvered, and their casualties more than twice as high as the British. On 26 September, the Crown forces under Howe marched into Philadelphia, meeting no resistance. Adams and his colleagues in the Continental Congress had fled from the city.

Despite his tough talk, Adams had apparently prepared for such close calls by regularly burning his sensitive correspondence. His cousin John Adams wrote, in a letter to William Tudor, Jr., dated 5 June 1817:
I have seen him, at Mrs. Yard’s [boardinghouse] in Philadelphia, when he was about to leave Congress, cut up with his scissors whole bundles of letters into atoms that could never be reunited, and throw them out of the window, to be scattered by the winds. This was in summer, when he had no fire; in winter he threw whole handfuls into the fire. As we were on terms of perfect intimacy, I have joked him, perhaps rudely, upon his anxious caution. His answer was, “Whatever becomes of me, my friends shall never suffer by my negligence.”
The Congress regrouped in Lancaster and then York, Pennsylvania. Washington found a winter encampment at Valley Forge. After word of the American victory at Saratoga, Samuel Adams began to think that perhaps Gen. Horatio Gates would do a better job as commander-in-chief. I think it’s interesting how as late as 17 September he still expressed confidence in Washington.


Anonymous said...

Sam Adams was a litterbug too, eh? What a rabble-rouser!

Your timing of the Brandywine stuff is fantastic. I just made plans to visit there, along with Valley Forge and downtown Philly in the middle of October. Thanks again for your daily work. It's appreciated and enjoyed, greatly.

J. L. Bell said...

Littering is a modern deadly sin, but I get the feeling that the people of the eighteenth century and before wouldn’t see what all the fuss is about.

As for timing, I just realized I might be off by a day: tomorrow (27 September) is Samuel Adams’s birthday.

Glad the Philadelphia stuff will be useful.