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, February 23, 2009

Scandalous Conduct of the Connecticut Troops?

Rebellion in the Ranks, the book by John A. Nagy that I described yesterday, lists two mutinies within the Continental Army during the siege of Boston. One was a brief attempt by a Pennsylvania regiment to free a couple of their comrades from military jail, as chronicled two days ago. The other appears in a letter from Gen. Israel Putnam (shown here) to Gen. George Washington dated 1 Dec 1775:

I shall esteem it a particular favor if your Excellency will be so obliging as to recommend my worthy friend, Colonel Henry Babcock, to the Honorable Continental Congress, to be appointed to the rank of Brigadier-General in the Continental army. I have been upon service with him several campaigns in the last war, and have seen him in action behave with great spirit and fortitude when he had command of a regiment. He has this day been very serviceable in assisting me in quelling a mutiny, and bringing back a number of deserters.
Putnam was trying to get a brigadier-general to help manage his division. Babcock (1736-1800) was an old comrade from the French & Indian War. Born the son of Rhode Island’s chief justice, he had graduated from Yale in 1752 at the top of his class. At this time he was making his home in Stonington, Connecticut.

What did Putnam mean by “mutiny” and “deserters”? That becomes clear in Washington’s report to Congress on 4 December:
The scandalous conduct of a great number of the Connecticut troops has laid me under the necessity of calling in a body of the militia, much sooner than I apprehended there would be an occasion for such a step.

I was afraid some time ago, that they would incline to go home when the time of their enlistment expired. I called upon the officers of the several regiments, to know whether they could prevail on the men to remain until the 1st of January, or till a sufficient number of other forces could be raised to supply their place. I suppose they were deceived themselves. I know they deceived me by assurances, that I need be under no apprehension on that score, for the men would not leave the lines.

Last Friday showed how much they were mistaken, as the major part of the troops of that colony were going away with their arms and ammunition. We have, however, by threats, persuasions, and the activity of the people of the country, who sent back many of them, that had set out, prevailed upon the most part to stay. There are about eighty of them missing.
In other words, those troops were mutinying and deserting by leaving for home “when the time of their enlistment expired,” which was on 1 December. Even though their officers had asked them nicely not to! (Well, one reading of the Connecticut militia law had their enlistments ending on 10 December, but commanders were asking those men to stay through the end of the year.) All but one of the Connecticut regiments tried to leave, so this “mutiny” wasn’t the bright idea of a few hotheads.

Prof. Fred Anderson’s article “The Hinge of the Revolution: George Washington Confronts a People’s Army, July 3, 1775” suggests that this dispute reflects a particular regional understanding of military service. As he developed the idea in more detail in A People’s Army, Anderson posits that Calvinist New Englanders viewed their service in the mobilized militia as a “covenant” with society, its parameters defined like a contract. In practice, New Englanders were perfectly willing to do their militia service, but insisted on going home at the end of the stated terms.

In contrast, Washington and his top officers, like the British commanders in the French & Indian War before them, felt that soldiers should continue to serve if the situation required them. By that light, militiamen who left at critical times were “deserters” even if the letter of the law was on their side. The commander-in-chief stopped most of the Connecticut men from leaving and had other units guard their camp for the rest of the year.

As for Putnam’s recommendation of Henry Babcock, Washington passed it to Congress with a note that said, “I know nothing of this gentleman, but I wish the vacancy was filled, as the want of one is attended with very great inconveniences.” But Congress didn’t commission Babcock in the Continental Army. Instead, in February 1776, the Rhode Island legislature put him in charge of defending Newport.

TOMORROW: And then Babcock went mad.


Larry Cebula said...

Washington seems often to have been frustrated by how little it meant to be "in command" of New Englanders! It offended his squirely (and slave-owning) sensibilities regarding the proper order of society.

Anonymous said...

Washington arrived in New England with a somewhat jaded view of northern folks.He openly distained the militia and its officers,not really understanding how this system functioned in Ma. and Ct.Nepotism was evident,perhaps even a requirement here.His Virginia gentleman's concept that an elitist "class-system " existed is perplexing today as we think of him as a great leader and the "Father of the Country".I respect the good Gen. for what he accomplished,but his methods were peculiar,at least.