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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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chaplain Martin’s Funeral Service?

I’ve been writing about the first casualty at Bunker Hill, and an anecdote which surfaced within fifty years of the battle of soldiers and a chaplain insisting on having a battlefield funeral over that body—and over Col. William Prescott’s objections. In 1826, early historian Samuel Swett wrote:

We related in the first edition of our Sketch, a remarkable anecdote of a Clergyman, who was on the battle-ground at Bunker Hill, and extremely desirous of saying prayers over the body of Asa Pollard, the first victim who fell. . . .

To those, who have taken trouble to peruse the newspapers of that period, it is perfectly well known, that the Clergyman, who was present and highly distinguished himself in Bunker hill battle, by valiantly fighting the foe, was the Rev. John Martin.

He was justly rewarded for his gallantry by a chaplaincy in a Rhode Island Regt.; and soon after the battle he preached a discourse from the following very appropriate text. Neh. 4.14. “And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your houses.”
Swett cited a short item from the 18 July 1775 New Hampshire Gazette, which said, “the Rev’d. Mr. JOHN MARTIN...fought gallantly at Bunker-Hill” and went on to quote the verse from Nehemiah. But that newspaper article said nothing about Martin serving as a battlefield chaplain or presiding over a funeral.

Furthermore, Swett was wrong in assuming that Martin had been given “a chaplaincy in a Rhode Island Regt.” On 28 June the Rhode Island Assembly appointed Martin to be a military surgeon, at £9 per month. Martin, an immigrant from Ireland, was apparently a man of multiple talents.

Finally, Swett had no way of knowing this, but the Rev. John Martin had left a detailed account of the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. In it he claimed to have done a lot of things on the field, but not a funeral. Therefore, we have no source at all for tying Martin to that battlefield anecdote, and a fairly strong indication that he wasn’t involved. Nonetheless, based on Swett’s book, for the next century authors wrote about “Chaplain Martin’s Funeral Service”.

TOMORROW: So what was the Rev. John Martin’s account of Bunker Hill, and how reliable was it?

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