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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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

John Thomas Writes Home to His Wife

On 9 Mar 1776, Gen. John Thomas sat down to write to his wife Hannah from “Dorchester Hills, in a small hut.” Gen. Thomas, who was a doctor in civilian life, had married Hannah Thomas (that was her maiden name, too) on 12 Sept 1761, according to Kingston, Massachusetts, records. They had three children:

  • Hannah, born 14 Nov 1762.
  • John, born 17 Jan 1766.
  • Nathaniel, born 23 June 1769.
The general’s letter, which began “Dear Mrs. Thomas,” described how on the night of 4-5 March he had led “about three thousand picked men, beside three hundred and sixty ox teams and some pieces of artillery,” onto the Dorchester peninsula to fortify its two tallest hills before daybreak.

Thomas described the British reaction:
About sun rise, the enemy and others in Boston, appeared on the tops of the houses and on the wharfs viewing us with astonishment, for our appearance was unexpected to them. The connonading which had been kept up all night from our lines at Lamb’s Dam [in Roxbury], and from the enemy’s lines likewise, at Lechmere’s Point [in Cambridge], now ceased from these quarters, and the enemy turned their fire towards us on the hills, but they soon found it was to little effect.

About ten o’clock we discovered large bodies of troops embarking in boats with their artillery, which made a formidable appearance. After some time they were put on board transports, and several of the ships came down near to the castle, as we supposed, with a design to land on our shore.

Our people appeared in spirits to receive them,. We were in a good posture of defence, and had two thousand men added to our number. The enemy viewed us critically, and remained in that situation that night. The next day they came to sail, and returned to town and landed their troops. On Friday, about two o’clock, P. M. they sent a flag of truce with a paper, a copy of which I enclose.
Thomas left out the nasty windstorm that had prevented the British troops from landing on Dorchester until the Continentals had had time to strengthen their defenses even more. The gentlemen carrying a white flag brought this letter from Boston’s selectmen.

Gen. Thomas told his wife, “I have had very little sleep or rest this week,…But now I think we are well secured.” He offered another reassurance in a postscript:
Your son John is well and in high spirits. He ran away from Oakley privately, on Tuesday morning, and got by the sentries and came to me on Dorchester Hills, where he has been most of the time since.
Oakley was the Thomases’ enslaved black servant. Ten-year-old John had evidently decided he had to be with his dad on Dorchester Heights in case the British attacked.

Gen. Thomas died of smallpox in Canada on 2 June. His son John lived to be eighty-seven.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

“His looks were as mad as could be”

Yesterday I pointed to Don Hagist’s report on British Army private William Whitwell, who went insane on a military transport ship. Here’s a parallel case of a British Marines officer which Lee Bienkowski, author of Admirals in the Age of Nelson, unearthed in the National Archives of Britain and shared with the Revlist back in 2002.

On 21 Sept 1776, the navy tried Lt. Neil Wanchope to determine if he was lunatic. A lieutenant on the Thetis named (like the American general) William Heath testified:

His conduct has been insulting and improper. . . . This was after a very severe fit of madness when we were obliged to have four people hold him in his bed. I was frequently obliged to go to quiet him. He was knocking against the 1st Lieutenant’s cabin desiring him to leave off electrifying and murdering him. He regarded me more than anybody. He never insulted me till lately.

He grew better in about three weeks and returned to our mess. We used to send him his victuals when he was mad, and made the servant taste it first, for fear we should poison him. He did not eat at first for some time for that suspicion. At St. Helena he got better and conversed; he talked sensibly.

About the 21st of June at St. Helena at breakfast we sent to let him know breakfast was ready. He came with a bottle of porter in one hand and a tumbler in the other. Somebody just put his cup over to him. He said, “Gentlemen, I’ll have none of your tea.” His looks were as mad as could be. He said we had electrified him under cover and hurt his constitution, and he would take a turn with us all round one by one. He loaded his pistol that night.
Wanchope eventually challenged another lieutenant to a duel and then stabbed him superficially in the belly. He was found insane and discharged.

Wanchope’s rank suggests that he was a young man, and his paranoia indicates he might have been suffering from schizophrenia, which often becomes apparent in youth. I was particularly struck by how his anxieties focused on being “electrified,” the latest technology of the day, the way some people today worry about computer chips implanted inside them.

At last spring’s Organization of American Historians meeting, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi observed that schizophrenia (along with bipolar/manic-depressive disorder) is found at a fairly steady rate across all societies. In other words, Wanchope and Whitwell might or might not have suffered from schizophrenia, but we should assume that about one in a hundred men of their time did.

Monday, March 29, 2010

New Ways to Raise Funds for Old Stuff

Just a quick note spreading the word about a couple of nearby historical organizations’ interesting fundraising efforts:

Pvt. William Whitlow’s Frenzy

Last week Don Hagist’s British Soldiers, American Revolution blog featured the story of William Whitlow, a private and musician in His Majesty’s 44th Regiment of Foot who suffered episodes of insanity. Specifically, “When out of his sense he would express delusions that his wife was cheating on him with other soldiers.”

Don wrote of Whitlow:

As a child he had fallen from a wall in Kinsale, Ireland, and hit his head. This caused him pain sometimes, and worse than that it subjected him to occasional bouts of irrational behavior. The problem was compounded by drinking.
I’m not convinced the fall had much to do with Whitlow’s behavior, though it’s the sort of detail his contemporaries could see as significant. We humans like to find explanations for things we can’t understand, and a blow on the head provides a ready explanation.

As for alcohol, “Soldiers who had known Whitlow all his life discerned that these events could occur when he was completely sober” as well as when he’d been drinking. Liquor could have been Whitlow’s attempt to escape his mental problems—though it could easily have made his behavior worse.

Today I suspect psychiatrists would view Whitlow as exhibiting paranoid delusions, and seek the source in brain chemistry and genetics rather than childhood injuries. It appears that his symptoms began in early adulthood, which might be another diagnostic clue. The army put up with his behavior for years during the first half of the Revolutionary War.

In September 1779 the Whitlows and the 44th were on a transport ship, and William had one of his breakdowns:
He was seen running around the deck like a madman. On one occasion he left his wife and child in their berth, went to a group of sailors in steerage and accused them of having his wife with them. For nearly an hour he ranted and no one could convince him that his family was right where he’d left them. When he did return to his wife he claimed that he knew where she’d been and told her that he had been “talking to three little Devils upon Deck.”

Soon after a non-commissioned officer found him beating his wife; when asked why, he replied “Why should not I beat her, when I this Moment saw her in the Steerage with a Sailor on top of her.” One night when he was standing sentry at a hatchway on the ship, he approached the serjeant-major and insisted that he had been with his wife and had her hidden behind him in his watchcoat.
This story doesn’t end well, alas. Whitlow killed his wife (with help from the failings of eighteenth-century medicine), and tried to kill himself. His contemporaries judged him to be legally insane.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Contending for Cannon Balls

On Friday I quoted a letter from July 1775 describing how American troops in Roxbury reacted to a British artillery barrage: “most of the cannon shot were taken up and brought to the General.—It is diverting to see our people contending for the balls as they roll along.”

Why would people “contend for the balls”? The memoir of artist John Trumbull, a young Connecticut officer during the siege (shown here in a 1777 self-portrait), offers an answer. Describing the time before the Battle of Bunker Hill, Trumbull wrote:

Nothing of military importance occurred for some time; the enemy occasionally fired upon our working parties, whenever they approached too nigh to their works; and in order to familiarize our raw soldiers to this exposure, a small reward was offered in general orders, for every ball fired by the enemy, which should be picked up and brought to head-quarters.

This soon produced the intended effect—a fearless emulation among the men; but it produced also a very unfortunate result; for when the soldiers saw a ball, after having struck and rebounded from the ground several times, (en ricochet,) roll sluggishly along, they would run and place a foot before it, to stop it, not aware that a heavy ball long retains sufficient impetus to overcome such an obstacle. The consequence was, that several brave lads lost their feet, which were crushed by the weight of the rolling shot.

The order was of course withdrawn, and they were cautioned against touching a ball, until it was entirely at rest. One thing had been ascertained by this means, the caliber of the enemy’s guns—eighteen pounds.
I’ve seen several historians describe provincial soldiers chasing down cannon balls or getting hurt doing so, and those who cite sources all point back to Trumbull. But I can’t find the “general orders” that Trumbull recalled, the “small reward” offered, or an example of a soldier getting wounded as a result. So I wondered if Trumbull’s memory was exaggerating.

But that Roxbury letter shows that soldiers were chasing cannon balls as they rolled, and taking them to a general. In addition, Elias Nason’s 1877 history of Dunstable contains this short anecdote from the Bunker Hill battle:
While Isaac Wright was sitting exhausted on a bank in front of a house in Charlestown, a cannon-ball came rolling along so near him that he could have touched it with his foot, and on being asked why he did not stop it, he said, “I then should have returned home with only one leg.”
More evidence that some new soldiers thought it was a good idea to stop rolling cannon balls with their bodies. But Wright, who was about twenty-one years old, already knew not to try.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

“A 13-inch bomb dropped directly opposite the door”

Yesterday I quoted an account from early July 1775 of American soldiers in Roxbury defusing an unexploded British mortar shell by kicking out the burning fuse before its spark reached the explosive charge.

That seems to have been what one did with shells that landed without exploding. Here are some more examples from the Cambridge side of the provincial lines. First, from the memoir of John Greenwood, who was a teenaged fifer in 1775:

Night was the time for frolicking, as the British were constantly sending bombs at us, and sometimes from two to six at a time could be seen in the air overhead, looking like moving stars in the heavens. These shells were mostly thirteen inches in diameter, and it was astonishing how high they could send such heavy things.

I have often seen them strike the ground when it was frozen and bound up like a foot-ball, and again, falling on marshy land, they would bury themselves from ten to twelve feet in it, whereupon, the wet ground having extinguished the fuse, the Yankees would dig them up to get the powder out.

On one occasion a 13-inch bomb dropped directly opposite the door of the picket guard-house where 200 men were on duty, and a lad about eighteen years old, named Shubael Rament [Raymond], belonging to our company, ran out, knocked the fusee from the shell, and took the powder out of it, of which I had some myself to kill snipe with.
A similar reminiscence appeared in the Memoir of the Life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, the wife of the Josiah Quincy who became mayor of Boston and president of Harvard. In October 1830 the Quincys hosted Dr. Amos Holbrook of Milton, who had been surgeon’s mate in Col. John Greaton’s Regiment starting in August 1775.
“The [Harvard] President’s house was given to the commissary of the army,” said Dr. Holbrook; “and I was quartered at the house of Mr. [David] Phips, in the neighborhood. The colleges were much injured by the garrison. The rooms in Harvard Hall, except the one then used as a library, were filled with barrels of salt beef, brought by the country people for the army. One day, during the siege of Boston, a shell thrown by the British from Copp’s Hill struck the ground in the square near the President’s house. The fuze was yet burning; and a soldier went and stamped it out, at the risk of his life.”
That house is now called Wadsworth House, no longer the college president’s home but an administrative building. The “square near the President’s house” is now Harvard Square. Click the thumbnail above for a larger picture by eileansiar of the area that seems to have been saved from shelling.

Friday, March 26, 2010

“A Severe Cannonade at Roxbury”

Almon’s Remembrancer was an annual publication in London which reprinted interesting British newspaper items of the past year, and thus became a valuable source for historians of the Revolution—easier to search than all those newspapers. The 1776 volume included this passage from a letter sent from Cambridge and dated 12 July 1775:

Yesterday we spent in Roxbury:—while there, were amused with a heavy fire of cannon and mortars, from the lines of the Regulars on the Neck, and from one of their floating batteries, against 200 of our men, who were throwing up a breast work in front of the George Tavern. On the same Neck, and within a few rods of the Regulars advance guard; our people kept on their work, and never returned a shot.

Three bombs burst near our men without injuring them—most of the cannon shot were taken up and brought to the General [probably John Thomas].—It is diverting to see our people contending for the balls as they roll along.

During a severe cannonade at Roxbury, last week, a bomb, thirteen inches in diameter, fell within the American lines, and burnt furiously, when four of the artillerymen ran up, and one kicked out the fuse, saved the bomb, and probably some lives—a stroke of heroism worthy of record. The regulars have so hardened the provincials by their repeated firing, that a cannonading is just as much minded as a common thunder shower.
In the map above, available via Wikipedia, you can see the George Tavern near the Americans’ “Roxbury Lines” fortifications at the bottom.

TOMORROW: Defusing more bombs.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Twitter Feed, 15-24 Mar 2010

  • RT @history_book: The Showman & the Slave: Race, Death & Memory in Barnum's America j.mp/c7VWQ7 // George Washington's nurse? #
  • Washington Irving finishes biography of the President he was named for: bit.ly/aBtbun #
  • Private, for-profit education companies get most funding from public while public universities depend on private funds: bit.ly/bDzArG #
  • Gravestone of Polly Harris, Charlestown, d 1787: bit.ly/aWZxVz #
  • Connecticut's Ralph Earl painted charming portraits of kids in early republic: bit.ly/aQvk06 #
  • The death of British sergeant David Stuart in 1780: bit.ly/cVhQRK #
  • A glimpse of war between Connecticut and Pennsylvania: bit.ly/bF4KBO #
  • RT @KateMessner: So awesome! RT @SaundraMitchell Remains of 1730s French fort found on shores of Lake Champlain. tinyurl.com/ya72rlf #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum Today in 1767: President Andrew Jackson born in Waxhaw, SC. His uniform coat: ow.ly/1li2N #
  • RT @Thos_Jefferson: For more on my religious beliefs, visit the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia entry at ow.ly/1mViy #
  • RT @Thos_Jefferson: Sorry @LtGovAndreBauer: "My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results..." is not by Jefferson. #
  • Report on open-hearth cooking class, 1830s style: bit.ly/d8oQk3 #
  • C-SPAN archive on Boston lectures about J & A Adams, Jefferson, and Washington: bit.ly/cPzlqc #
  • Richard Brookhiser on the Adams cousins, why Samuel wanted John to defend Boston Massacre soldiers: bit.ly/8XOL1R #
  • Brookhiser got substance right, timing wrong. Boston elected John Adams representative BEFORE soldiers' trial, tho after he took case. #
  • Gen. Washington, disputes over rank among Continental officers, land speculation, and new republican values: bit.ly/cHRTQ4 #
  • RT @Gozaic: Check out the photos! RT @tudorplace: 18th century double barreled pistol found during dig! bit.ly/cl9Geh #
  • RT @halseanderson: ::dons Linguistic Superiority Hat:: Today's word is "tatterdemalion". Used by Brit officer to describe Patriot soldiers. #
  • Photos of what heavy rain did at Minute Man Natl Park: bit.ly/9s0ELa #
  • From 1804, Ching's Patent Worm Lozenges: bit.ly/b2oMtp Apparently they healed just about as good as they sound. #
  • Recounting effort to recreate Mary Goddard's 1777 printing of the Declaration of Independence: bit.ly/bJxn8w #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Who sewed the flag that inspired our national anthem? Hint: It wasn't Betsy Ross! ow.ly/1n26T #
  • RT @SecondVirginia: 3/17/1780: to honor Ireland @GeoWashington declares that "all fatigue and working parties cease": cot.ag/b9mBAZ #
  • Sample of @bostonhistory's school programs in greater Boston: bit.ly/9mnapJ #
  • Historian Jill Lepore and NEH chair Jim Leach (ex-R-IA) discuss political civility at AAS in Worcester, 14 Apr: bit.ly/9L0ZT7 #
  • RT @LooknBackward: Happy Evacuation Day! bit.ly/a9u5O7 // (Tho harbor engraving actually shows British troops arriving in Oct 1768.) #
  • RT @inhuggermugger: Today in 1737, Charitable Irish Society of Boston creates 1st public celebration of Saint Patrick's Day in America. #
  • RT @gerryconway: Reading "What God Hath Wrought" about America 1812-48; struck by how little politics has changed. Ignorance and fear rule. #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Gotten your census survey? Census records are a key source for learning about the past. See why! ow.ly/1n8Xn #
  • Robert Gross, 3/17: It wasn't taxation without representation that made men of Concord revolt in 1775; it was losing their charter rights. #
  • RT @RagLinen: New Rag Linen blog post: Colonial Newspapers, Unsung Heroes of the American Revolution - tinyurl.com/ybbst4n #
  • Presenting himself as history buff on FRESH AIR, political adivsor Karl Rove calls James Callender "Cadwallader." Oops. #
  • Revolutionary news feed and word-a-day iPhone apps from Colonial Williamsburg: bit.ly/avx3Gn I can't use 'em; maybe you can. #
  • Robert Mitchell, 3/17: To understand strategic importance of Dorchester Heights, look at colonial Boston's deep-water shipping channel. #
  • Alex Goldfeld, 3/18: Blacks in North End probably had religious meetings BEFORE Rev Cotton Mather got involved. bit.ly/d71t5V #
  • Abigail Adams bio by Woody Holton wins Bancroft Prize: bit.ly/9De9ij #
  • RT @history_book: Rhode Island's Founders: From Settlement to Statehood - Patrick T. Conley tinyurl.com/yl4kda6 #
  • Brad Pasley at Common-Place suggests Texas schoolbook board has redeemed Thomas Jefferson as a hero for the left: bit.ly/9zGzQC #
  • Some 1700s gravestones are touching. Some are elegant. Some just have…character. bit.ly/aG8BXv bit.ly/c2yhb6 #
  • RT @TAHVT: American Revolution: K-12 lesson plans & classroom projects bit.ly/4txnlR #historyteachers #resources #education #
  • Robert Darnton at NY REVIEW OF BOOKS sees blogs in 18th-century newspaper form: bit.ly/bOaWVJ #
  • RT @NPSEducation: It survived the Great Fire of Boston in 1760 while 349 other buildings fell. What is it? ow.ly/1o0hV #
  • RT @wceberly: 232 yrs ago, 20 Mar 1778, Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane & Arthur Lee meet Louis XVI as reps of US bit.ly/a2g3a5 #
  • .@lucyinglis Sounds like your witness to London poverty was Dr John Coakley Lettsom. His Boston connection: bit.ly/66z7jg #
  • Open house at the treasure-filled Massachusetts Historical Society, 27 March: bit.ly/dtBXqc #
  • 11-year-old Hannah Ruggles's gravestone from 1742: bit.ly/ceEgav #
  • From Ted Widmer in the BOSTON GLOBE, "How Haiti Saved America" in the Revolutionary War: bit.ly/cmkgzk #
  • Visiting 18th-century London's museum of anatomical curiosities: bit.ly/cM2AQM #
  • Collection of British letters from American War going on the auction block: nyti.ms/aNnAN2 #
  • The dark and the light in Georgian London: bit.ly/akv9Rj Boston got its first street lamps in 1774, lit with whale oil. #
  • William Caslon, leading typographer of 18th-century British Empire: bit.ly/dmtJUs Modern types: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caslon #
  • Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty" speech as a literary creation: bit.ly/aws8sv #
  • Levi Ames's life as a burglar in colonial Boston: bit.ly/cgO5z1 Levi Ames's afterlife: bit.ly/bJOetw #
  • RT @history_book: The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly - by Doug Stewart - Da Capo Press. bit.ly/dnVKkx #
  • Damian Wayne gets genealogical—at least at @SHORTPACKED: bit.ly/bWKmiy #
  • Mass Historial Socy's exhibit "War Through the Eyes of the Adams Women" includes Abigail Adams's report on Bunker Hill: bit.ly/8YD6fM #
  • Author in 1797 London arguing astronomy and natural sciences were proper subjects for girls: bit.ly/9Bte9q Of course, she would. #
  • BOSTON GLOBE slide show of historic documents up for auction: bit.ly/9tAP0d GLOBE's background story: bit.ly/aPEAFE #
  • Joel Barlow, poet of Revolutionary generation: bit.ly/aIh42O Later formed Paris ménage with wife & steamboat engineer Robert Fulton. #
  • Community meetings on the Boston Public Library's budget straits: bit.ly/cu7nQ2 #
  • RT @wceberly: 24 Mar 1765, Parliament passes Quartering Act bit.ly/9vmDvb // Common myth versus reality. #
  • RT @OspreyRich: V Davis Hanson contrasts collapse of mil hist in academe with interest from ordinary Americans - ow.ly/1qduY #
  • RT @wceberly: Crown Point, NY; Stone foundation discovered next to old Champlain Bridge could be small fort from 1731 bit.ly/bYpx9l #

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Meeting the Lexington Militia, 26 March

On Friday, 26 March, the Lexington Historical Society’s Cornelius Cronin Lecture Series will feature Bill Poole (who reenacts the role of Ebenezer Locke) speaking on “The Lexington Militia of April 19, 1775: Up Close and Personal.”

Who were the men present on Lexington common when the British column arrived? What happened to them during and after the Revolutionary War? Where did the young drummer William Diamond end up, and what’s the connection between Benedict Arnold and Sgt. William Munroe?

This talk begins at 8:00 P.M. at the Lexington Depot. It is free and open to the public, and there will even be coffee and dessert.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

“The Standard of our Second Regiment”

A lot of analyses of American and other national flags discuss what the colors symbolize. In fact, those meanings got attached to the banner years after it had been established. In 1782, a Continental Congress report on a seal for the United States noted that it contained the colors of the national flag and said:

White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.
Sometimes, however, color symbolism was a luxury an army couldn’t afford. On Monday, 19 June 1775, Gov. Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut met with that colony’s Committee of War on various matters, including flags:
It was moved and represented that the colour of blue, being ordered for the Standard of our Second Regiment, cannot be obtained, &c.

Voted, That the colour of green be substituted in its stead.
So much for “vigilance, perseverance & justice,” I guess.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Two Conferences in April

The New England Historical Association’s annual meeting is coming up on Saturday, 17 April, at Salem State College in Massachusetts. There are sessions on:

  • “Smallpox Inoculation in Revolutionary America” with papers by Ann M. Becker, Melissa Grafe, and Andrew Wehrman.
  • “Print Culture and Political Culture in Colonial and Post-Revolutionary America,” with Sean Delaney, Charles Heaton, and Kara E. Pierce.
  • “Telling Difficult History in Public Places,” with Katrina Browne, Rae Gould, and Louis P. Hutchins.
N.E.H.A.’s next conference is in October in Maine, and its call for papers is out now.

Ondine LeBlanc alerted me to what looks like an intriguing conference at Brown University on 24 April 2010: “Women in the Archives.” Its eighteenth-century content includes:
  • Sandy Perot, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Staging A Revolution: British and American Women in Theatre in the Late 18th Century”
  • Frank Kelderman, University of Michigan. “Sarah Wentworth Morton’s Ouâbi and the Politics of Ethnography”
And registration is free.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

“We found every thing exactly the reverse”

On 3 July 1775, Gen. George Washington took command of the Continental Army in Cambridge and started to assess the situation. He had come from Philadelphia with Gen. Charles Lee, an experienced British officer.

The next day, Lee wrote to Robert Morris in Philadelphia with a critical assessment:

We arrived here on Sunday before dinner. We found every thing exactly the reverse of what had been represented.

We were assured at Philadelphia that the army was stock’d with Engineers. We found not one. We were assur’d that we should find an expert train of Artillery. They have not a single Gunner, and so on so far from the men being prejudiced in favour of their own Officers They are extremely diffident in ’em and seem much pleased that we are arrived.

The men are really very fine fellows, and had they fair play would be made an invincible army. We are working hard to strengthen our different posts—And if the enemy will give us time for three or four days we shall I think be quite secure. I believe the loss of the regulars in the last affair was probably very heavy All accts concur in it.
Indeed, both armies were still reeling from the Battle of Bunker Hill—the New Englanders because they had lost, the British because their victory had cost them so many men. Lee threw himself into strengthening fortifications that could keep the redcoats from coming out of Charlestown to Cambridge. Unknown to him, the British commanders in Boston had decided that such an effort would be futile.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Don’t Make Me Come Back There!

Moses Fargo was a non-commissioned officer in Capt. William Coit’s Connecticut company, Col. Samuel Holden Parsons’s regiment, during the siege of Boston. On 23 Apr 1775, he was given a small notebook with this instruction, which he wrote on the first page:

That Each Adjutant Serjt Majr and Each Sert be Immediatly provided With orderly Books in order Regularly to Enter the orders of the army.
Each morning, the regiment’s sergeants were summoned to take down the day’s orders by dictation from Parsons or his adjutant. Those orders tended to cover administrative matters, not military strategy. Here, for example, is what Fargo wrote on 1 Aug 1775:
Notwithstanding Former orders For making Return of the Number of tents in Each Company in the Regment [there are] Great Complaints that more tents are in the Company or in the posestion of Idevideals Belonging To the Companys then the Number Returned

it is therfore orderd that the Commanding officer of Each Company Forthwith Mak a Return under his own hand of the Number of men in there Respective Companys and of the Number of tents in there Respective Companys or of any Noncomisiond officer or soldier in there Company that Equil Justus may be Don to the Companys Respecting the tents

Complaints being Made of Great Destruction of the Frute Belonging to the Inhabetants at Roxbury and that Damige has been Don to the owners of the Frute Such Personal Ingures have been Sufferd by the pratice of Throwing apples about the Camp It is orderd that all persons Belonging to this Regment upon there peril Forbear Distroying the Frute & also that the aforesaid pratice be Immediatly disused
Fargo was, as we see, a phonetic speller. But when the Connecticut Historical Society published this document alongside others in 1899, its editor wrote: “The two following journals are by much more illiterate men than the preceding order-book.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Desertion I’d Most Like to See Reenacted

From the diary of Pvt. Samuel Bixby, stationed at Roxbury, 17 Aug 1775:

Three or four deserters came in from the ships of war. Also, a light horseman from Boston by swimming bis horse—reports sickness among the regulars.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

“Necessary to abandon Boston before the Winter”

One of the great ironies of the British military evacuation of Boston in 1776, celebrated yesterday, is that the British generals in charge of the town had wanted to leave months before.

Gen. Thomas Gage wrote to his superiors in London soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill that there was no military advantage to holding Boston. Geography and the fervor of the Massachusetts people made that town a lousy place from which to pacify the rebellious region. At the same time, Gen. William Howe (Shown here) started sending letters home, recommending that the army move most of its troops to New York or Newport, Rhode Island.

The problem was that neither Gage nor Howe dared to make such a big move without approval from London, and it took weeks after they sent a message across the Atlantic before they received a considered reply.

On 5 Sept 1775, Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State in London, came to the same conclusion as his top general. (He had also concluded that his top general should be Howe, and told Gage to come home.) An official summary of the secretary’s correspondence with Howe says:

his Lordship, after describing the State of the Troops cooped up in Boston & exposed to numberless wants, difficulties and danger, observed, that it was not only advisable but necessary to abandon Boston before the Winter & to dismantle Castle William, and having embarked all the Stores and Artillery, and afforded to the well disposed Inhabitants every means of getting away with safety, to remove with the Troops either to New York or to some other place to the Southward, which considerations of superior Advantage should point out as the most proper, and where a Squadron of the King’s Ships might lye in the Winter:

His Lordship then proceeds to point out the advantages of such a Measure in various lights, and concludes with directing him to make an early return of every thing that would be wanted for the ensuing Campaign, and authorized him to appoint such Persons to be Adjutant General and Quarter Master General as he should think most fit for those Situations.
So why did the British army stay through the winter?

On 27 Dec 1775, almost at the end of the year, Gen. John Burgoyne arrived in London from Boston with letters Howe had written between 26 November and 3 December. Once again, the government summary:
In these Dispatches General Howe begins by stating that Lord Dartmouth’s Dispatches of the 5th September, directing the removal of the Troops from Boston arrived so late that they could not be carried into Execution,…[because of] the want of a sufficient number of Transport[ ship]s (there being a Deficiency of 11,062 Tons in, the Quantity necessary for the whole Embarkation at once[)], and that if they were embarked in separate Divisions, at different Periods, more would be hazarded than Prudence would justify.

He then says they are under no apprehensions of Attack or Surprize by the Rebel Army, on the contrary, it was very much to be wished they would make such attempt; that, however, from Sickness of the Army, and the extent of Post to be defended, the Force would not be adequate to any undertaking of Consequence, such as the Possession of Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia or Charles Town [i.e., Charleston, South Carolina].
Since his troops didn’t have enough ships to move and couldn’t accomplish anything anywhere that winter, Howe concluded, they might as well stay in Boston, where they were already well fortified. Come spring, he’d leave.

The American bombardment from Dorchester in March 1776 sped up the British departure. It may well have made the army leave behind some supplies it would have liked to take, and it probably postponed a spring attempt on New York (with far fewer forces than eventually arrived in summer). But Howe hadn’t planned on staying in Boston much longer, anyway.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

“What we had so bravely won”

Here’s Gen. John Sullivan’s account, in a 19 Mar 1776 letter to John Adams, of warily investigating British fortifications in Charlestown two days earlier, after seeing the British soldiers going aboard ships:

I then took my Horse, & rode down to Charlestown Neck, where I had a clear view of Bunker Hill. I saw the Sentrys standing as usual with their Firelocks shouldered, but finding they never moved, I soon suspected what Regiment they belonged to; and upon taking a clear view with my Glass found they were only Effigies set there by the flying Enemy.

This convinced me that they were actually fled, for if they meant to Decoy us, they would have taken away every appearance of man. By this time, I was joined by Colo. [Thomas] Mifflin, who, with my Brigade Major agreed to go up, sending two persons round the works to Examine whether there was any of them in the Rear of the works, while we went up in the front. I, at the same time sent for a strong party to follow us on to the Hill, to assist us in running away (if necessary).

We found no person there & bravely took a fortress Defended by Lifeless Sentries. I then brought on the Party to secure what we had so bravely won, & went down to the other works where we found all abandoned, but the works not injured in any part. We hailed the ferry Boat, which came over & Informed us that they had abandoned the Town.

We then gave Information to the General [Washington], who ordered me with the Troops under my Command to take possession of Charlestown, & General [Israel] Putnam with 2000 men, to take possession of the works in Boston; and on Monday morning His Excellency made his Entry into Boston, & Repaired to Mr. [John] Hancock’s House, where we found his Furniture left without Injury or Diminution.
Gen. Henry Clinton had used Hancock’s Beacon Hill mansion as his quarters, which spared it from being looted.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“A General Assault upon the Town”?

On 16 Feb 1776, Gen. George Washington summoned his top generals—Artemas Ward, Israel Putnam, John Thomas, William Heath, Joseph Spencer, John Sullivan, and Horatio Gates—to a council of war at his headquarters. Such a discussion among top officers was standard operating procedure in the British army, and the Continental Congress had instructed Washington to convene councils before major decisions.

The minutes of this council of war preserve the generalissimo’s big proposal:

His Excellency, the Commander-in-chief, informed the Council, that…the Regiments of the United Colonies, at these encampments, by Saturday’s return, amounted to eight thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven men fit for duty, besides officers, and one thousand four hundred and five men on command, which might be ordered to join their respective Regiments immediately.

That our Stock of powder was so small as to afford but little aid from cannon and mortars; and, therefore, that small-arms must be our principal reliance in any event, till a supply could be obtained.

That in the state Boston harbour has been all this year, and now is, a bombardment might probably destroy the town, without doing much damage to the Ministerial troops within it, as there were transports [i.e., ships], wooded and watered, with a view, more than probable, to take them in upon any sudden emergency, consequently, that might not produce the desired effect, if those transports were sufficient for the embarkation of the Army.

That from the best intelligence which had been procured, the strength of the Army in Boston did not much exceed five thousand men, fit for duty. That considerable reinforcements were expected, and, when arrived, they would undoubtedly endeavour to penetrate into the country, if their strength should be sufficient, or remove to some other part of the Continent, if not; and, thereby, greatly harass and fatigue our troops, by constant marching and countermarching, for which, in the present situation of affairs, they neither were, nor could be provided.

Therefore, that a stroke, well aimed, at this critical juncture, might put a final end to the war, and restore peace and tranquillity, so much to be wished for.

For these reasons, and under these circumstances, and as part of Cambridge and Roxbury Bays were so frozen as to admit an easier entry into the town of Boston than could be obtained, either by water or through the lines on the Neck, the General desired to know the sentiments of the General Officers respecting a general assault upon the town.
Washington wanted to push the British military out of Boston with a glorious attack. He wanted to do something. For weeks he’d planned an assault across the frozen mudflats on either side of the Boston Neck and across the frozen Charles River. He hoped such an infantry attack would capture or wipe out most of the British force in North America, thus hobbling the empire and bringing the Revolutionary War to an end after less than a year.

The other generals didn’t share his thinking.
The question being put, and their opinion demanded, [the council] Resolved, That an assault on the town of Boston, in the present circumstances of the Continental Army, is, for the following reasons, judged improper:

Because, it is the opinion of this Council, that the King’s forces in Boston, comprehending new-raised corps, and armed Tories, amount to a much larger number than five thousand, furnished with artillery, assisted by a fleet, and possessed of every advantage the situation of the place affords. The officers, in proportion to the number of men, are so many, that the troops there may be said, with propriety, to be doubly officered.

Because our Army is at present very defective in the numbers this Council declared to be sufficient for the purposes of offensive war; and, also, deficient in arms to the amount of two thousand stand. . . .

Because, it appears to the Council, by the report of a majority of the General’s commanding Brigades, that upon discoursing with the Field-Officers of their respective Regiments upon the subject of an assault, they, in general, declared a disapprobation of the measure, as exceedingly doubtful.

Because, if an assault should be found practicable and expedient at any time, it was declared highly necessary, that it should, for some days, be preceded by a cannonade and bombardment.
So after all Washington’s planning, after making all those PowerPoint slides, he didn’t convince anybody to go with his plan. So he asked his colleagues—perhaps still hoping they’d see their error—if they really wanted to go with plan B.
His Excellency the Commander-in-chief, then required the opinion of the Council, whether it would be advisable to begin a cannonade and bombardment, with the present stock of powder?

Resolved, That a cannonade and bombardment will be expedient and advisable, as soon as there shall be a proper supply of powder, and not before; and that, in the mean time, preparations should be made to take possession of Dorchester-Hill, with a view of drawing out the enemy, and of Noddle’s Island, if the situation of the water, and other circumstances will admit of it.
Gen. Ward had in fact been pushing his colleagues to take control of Dorchester since before Washington had arrived in Cambridge, though his plans were never detailed. And Col. Henry Knox’s arrival the previous month with cannons from Fort Ticonderoga meant that the Americans now had enough heavy artillery to do something with that peninsula besides just keep the British from grabbing it.

So that’s how the Continental Army ended up mounting many of those cannons on Dorchester Heights—because it seemed smarter than Gen. Washington’s plan, but it was still doing something.

TOMORROW: And how did that plan work out?

(Photo of Washington’s headquarters in winter by j-fi, available through Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Twitter Feed, 28 Feb-13 Mar 2010

  • From @lucyinglis, sites linked to gay life in Georgian London. Unlike ethnic groups, not confined to neighborhoods: bit.ly/8Y2VWJ #
  • Tabitha Taylor's gravestone: bit.ly/chPmjH The tilt makes all the difference. #
  • Spending a lot of hours these days at the searchable AMERICAN ARCHIVES: bit.ly/cQCPwc Let's hear it for Peter Force! #
  • RT @2palaver: Dinosaur State Park: On the trail of a predator, 200 million years later- Rocky Hill, CT bit.ly/b6A13C #
  • RT @tami24: Countries like to ignore and forget about embarrassing incidents unless forced to confront them. #ncph2010 #
  • RT @bostonhistory: Six Original George Washington Letters - and One Forgery tinyurl.com/ygpo3c2 #history #
  • RT @Boy_Monday: According to the Oxford DNB, David Hume "lost whatever Christian belief he had at Edinburgh University". #
  • RT @PaulRevere1734: A Meeting of the Mechanics of Boston this night 1795 at the Concert Hall, planning together a Charitable Association. #
  • From @lucyinglis, the non-British ethnic neighborhoods of 1700s London: bit.ly/byvhy6 #
  • Trying to sort out Revolutionary service records of the DeHarts at Walking the Berkshires: bit.ly/bmN7Kq #
  • At Walking the Berkshires, two Continental Army officers caught in bed: bit.ly/cB0tRQ #
  • Jon Rowe and Clayton Cramer highlight two fraudulent quotations from George Washington: bit.ly/cO0E04 #
  • .@LucyInglis doubts Franklin invented bifocals: bit.ly/atHD2q College of Optometrists refracts the evidence: bit.ly/9z1quO #
  • Liked @LooknBackward on Boston's oldest house: bit.ly/dbgBwf LOVED its painted bricks from other old houses: bit.ly/b4PGJ4 #
  • Historic Tale Construction Kit: bit.ly/6YaR6 A reason for me to upgrade my Flash software. #
  • RT @wceberly: 218 yrs today, 10 Mar 1792, John Stuart, earl of Bute & advisor to George III, dies in London; bit.ly/apaZGu #
  • RT @quackwriter: RT @GentlemanAdmn: History! Comics! History Comics! - new BLOGGE POSTE at wp.me/pxnIu-iJ #comics #
  • RT @KevinLevin: Latest Virginia Magazine of History & Biography on publication of Madison's notes on Constitution bit.ly/an1Db9 #
  • RT @history_book: Pitt the Elder: Man of War - by Edward Pearce - Bodley Head. bit.ly/cytZhz #
  • BOSTON GLOBE print edition ran cute photos of kids reenacting Boston Massacre on Saturday, but not in online edition: bit.ly/cjrCLI #
  • RT @history_book: Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America - by Sarah J. Purcell. j.mp/dgines #
  • I was wrong. @TheFreedomTrail found the BOSTON GLOBE kids' Boston Massacre slide show: bit.ly/bxgC7I #
  • RT @classroomtools: what Gary Nash wrote in 1997 about the formation of his history education commission. bit.ly/cGzn2d #ecosys #
  • One reason why Boston didn't allow theater until after the Revolution—the corrupting presence of actresses: bit.ly/8XIwey #
  • Interview with M T Anderson, author of ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING and SERPENT CAME TO GLOUCESTER: bit.ly/attocI #
  • Studying Massachusetts Provincial Congress records from 1775. Have actually been able to identify "Joseph Smith" and "Seth Brown." Ha! #
  • Podcast interview with Dr Tony Vaver of Early American Crime blog: bit.ly/9JMwXV #
  • RT @JBD1: RT @PhiBetaKappa What if senators rep'd by income or race, not state? is.gd/a3587 // Senate working as intended? #
  • RT @2palaver: Newport RI's Redwood Library and Athenæum is the oldest lending library in America bit.ly/8YLQvU #
  • Gravestone of Elizabeth Russell, Marblehead, Mass., dead 1771: bit.ly/9LY6tS #
  • When an eighteenth-century lady really has to go: bit.ly/cfbFNx #
  • Phillis Wheatley writes on Christopher Seider, 11-yr-old killed before Boston Massacre: bit.ly/cfJJ4U But she spells his name Snider. #
  • Finished 13,000 words on John Vassall of Cambridge: ~900 words for each year he lived at Longfellow House. Imagine if he'd done anything! #
  • AMERICAN EXPERIENCE website for Dolley Madison show reportedly has deleted scenes: to.pbs.org/bl8tDd (Videos seem to play right away) #
  • Timely extract from new book about events leading up to the Boston Massacre, AS IF IN AN ENEMY'S COUNTRY: bit.ly/d7AQZU #
  • RT @Boy_Monday: New on Transatlantic History blog | Account of the Boston Massacre: "This inhuman piece of barbarity" bit.ly/brPgcS #
  • Review of new children's book about Boston Massacre: bit.ly/cxUCqb #
  • BOSTON HERALD's Jules Crittenden walks with redcoats in Boston after reading 1776: bit.ly/cE4byK #
  • RT @Boy_Monday: New brief Transatlantic History blog post: The death of the divine right of kings | bit.ly/aNskIb #
  • RT @Boy_Monday: "It demands great industry and patience to wade into such abstruse stores as records and charters." Horace Walpole, 1768. #
  • RT @GeoWashington: On this day in 1793 I gave my 2d inaugural address, shortest in history. But slightly longer than Twitter - 133 words. #
  • RT @JenServenti: #webwise Lisa Fischer from Colonial Williamsburg describes projects from i ts Digital History Center is.gd/9I1b6 #
  • Last night: Heard lecture on Cape Cod's in-shore fisheries. Done in by American Revolution or market revolution? Or both? #
  • Tonight: Seminar on Eliza Lucas Pinckney's audience with Dowager Princess of Wales. Political status riding on 5-year-old's manners. #
  • RT @history_book: Historical Re-enactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn - Palgrave Macmillan. bit.ly/bl3PRU // From Australia! #
  • @halseanderson I'd never heard of the American Historian Laureate. Is there an Economic H.L.? Medieval H.L.? Alternative H.L.? Does it last? #
  • Two privates in king's 22nd Regiment during Revolution—one died young, one died old—and how we know about each: bit.ly/aAQuKi #
  • Death of Susanna Rowson, 2 Mar 1824: Boston teen, Loyalist, actress, bestselling novelist, Boston schoolteacher: bit.ly/clGjyn #
  • From Walking the Berkshires, Patriots playing politics and skirting the rules for profit during Revolutionary War: bit.ly/agqAPl #
  • RT @ToddHouse: RT @LooknBackward: Animated map of the fill-in of Boston, look at all that space! bit.ly/adboKm #
  • Gordon Wood wins American History Book Prize for EMPIRE OF LIBERTY. Apparently he's now "American Historian Laureate." #
  • RT @history_book: The Chronicles of John Cannon, Excise Officer and Writing Master, Part 2: 1734-43 - by John Money j.mp/afvJS3 #
  • RT @history_book: The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th Century England - by Carl Cone tinyurl.com/yeyn4w2 #
  • .@JBD1 looks at books of Dr John Jeffries, who left with British troops, flew the Channel, and came home to Boston: bit.ly/acPeTg #
  • Quack Doctor analyzes Bloom of Ninon, a lead-based cosmetic of the late 1700s: bit.ly/95EEHD #
  • RT @PaulRevereHouse: Col. Paul Revere's long career in ordinance manufacturing may have begun on Feb 28 1777 - bit.ly/bhBMSx #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1784: John Wesley charters first Methodist church in US. ow.ly/1bIN7 #
  • RT @lucyinglis: Mystery object? Right answers in the comments - it's an Argyll or Argyle. post.ly/Pj8u // Oh, it's an Argyll. #
  • Upcoming PBS show about Continental Army camp at Morristown—worst winter of the Revolutionary War: bit.ly/bPCHGJ #
  • Snopes tackles myth of "Washington's Vision": bit.ly/9nLSFa The Boston 1775 analysis from 2006: bit.ly/cHjxYW #
  • Edward Rothstein reviews new NYC African Burying Ground Museum for NY TIMES: nyti.ms/cZSQ0A #

Sunday, March 14, 2010

This Week’s Revolutionary Lectures

Puzzles of Dorchester Heights: Washington Ends the Siege of Boston
6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, 17 March, at Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge
Robert Cameron Mitchell, Professor Emeritus, Clark University

Historians agree that placing artillery on the hills of the Dorchester peninsula was decisive in forcing the British military to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776. But why had it taken so long for either army to seize that high ground? What was General George Washington’s role in setting strategy? And what other factors were important in the end of the siege? Free, but to reserve a seat, please call 617-876-4491.

Concord Goes to War: How a Conservative Colonial Town Became the Starting-Point of the Revolutionary War
8:00 P.M. on Wednesday, 17 March, at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord
Robert Gross, James L. & Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History, University of Connecticut

Gross specializes in the social and cultural history of the U.S., from the colonial era through the 19th century. His first book on the American Revolution, The Minutemen and Their World, a study of social and political life in Concord in the generation before 1775, won the Bancroft Prize in American History. Sponsored by the Friends of Minute Man National Park. Free, with parking available along Elm Street.

In Slavery and Freedom: Boston’s Black Community since 1638
6:30 P.M. on Thursday, 18 March, at the Boston Public Library, Copley Square (rescheduled from 10 February)
Alex Goldfeld, president and historian of the North End Historical Society

Goldfeld will give an illustrated presentation about Boston’s earliest African-American community, located in the North End prior to the Revolution. He will follow the community to the north slope of Beacon Hill, where African Americans established a new base to fight for equality in the antebellum era. New facts will come to light, including a black church established over 110 years before Boston’s venerable nineteenth-century African Meeting House.]

The Four Shapes of Boston
2:00 P.M. on Saturday, 20 March, at the Brooks Free Library in Harwich
John Morrison of Boston By Foot, the city’s nonprofit architectural walking-tour service

This lecture traces the city’s topography and architecture from 1630 to the present in four chapters: Surviving (the colonial period), Settling (the Federal period), Spreading (the Victorian period), and Soaring (the contemporary period). How did the great fire of 1760 feed into political turmoil in Boston over the next fifteen years, culminating in a break with Britain?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

“Took Their Cockades from Their Hats”

As the Continental Army prepared to defend New York in 1776, the system of color-coded hat cockades that Gen. George Washington had instituted over a year before was still in place, as shown by this item in his general orders for 15 August:

Lieut. Holcomb of Capt. Anderson’s Company, and Col Johnson’s Regiment, tried by the same Court Martial for “assuming the rank of a Captain, wearing a yellow Cockade, and mounting Guard in that capacity”—it appearing to be done thro’ misinformation and want of experience, the Court are of opinion, he should be cautioned by his Colonel, to make himself acquainted with his duty, and that he be released from his arrest.
There were many new regiments coming into the army, with soldiers not knowing the officers of other units, so five days later Washington repeated his orders about cockades:
The officers who have lately come into Camp are also informed that it has been found necessary, amidst such frequent changes of Troops to introduce some distinctions by which their several ranks may be known—viz: Field Officers wear a pink or red cockade—Captains white or buff—Subalterns green

The General flatters himself every Gentlemen will conform to a regulation which he has found essentially necessary to prevent mistakes and confusion.
The “yellow or buff” for captains had changed to “white or buff”—which probably didn’t mean much.

Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin recalled those cockades, though he thought they were meant to separate “officers of the new levies” from those of “the standing forces, as they were called.”

And how did the system work in battle? Here’s Pvt. Martin:
While we were resting here our Lieutenant-Colonel and Major, (our Colonel not being with us,) took their cockades from their hats; being asked the reason, the Lieutenant-Colonel replied, that he was willing to risk his life in the cause of his country, but was unwilling to stand a particular mark for the enemy to fire at. He was a fine officer and a brave soldier.
Gosh, do you think that last line was sarcastic?

Friday, March 12, 2010

“Distinction of ye. different ranks of ye. Officers”

Just because a commander issues orders, as I’ve quoted Gen. George Washington doing over the past two days, that doesn’t mean everyone in the army follows them. They might not be able to, for one thing.

Did all the officers of the Continental Army besieging Boston rush to put different colors of cockades in their hats? Did they train all sentries in how to recognize the different ranks of generals and aides-de-camp? All we can say for sure is that the word of the insignia went out in the general orders.

And got fairly widely disseminated. Schoolboy Joshua Green, whose family had left Boston for Westfield, wrote this in his almanac opposite the page for July 1775:

Distinction of ye. different ranks of ye. Officers in ye. Continental Army undr. Genl. Washington.

For ye. General a black cockade & a broad scarlet ribbon from ye. left shoulder to ye. right hip but being under ye. coat is seen only across his breast.

Major General a blk cockade wth. a purple ribbon as above.

Aid de camps, a blue.

Colo:, Lt: Colo:, & Major a scarlet cockade.

Captains a yellow cockade.

First & Secd: Lieuts: a green
Joshua’s notes weren’t accurate for the generals’ ribbands, and he left out the brigadier rank entirely. But he got the cockade colors for junior officers correct, and we can take “scarlet” to mean colonels and majors were seeking out something brighter than just “red or pink.”

Another observer who tried to record the system was Benjamin Thompson (shown above). In November 1775, he had sailed into British-occupied Boston from Newport after months of hanging around behind the American lines. He sat down to summarize all the intelligence he had gathered, including:
The marks of distinction among them are as follows, viz.:—The Commander-in-Chief wears a wide blue ribbon between his coat and waistcoat, over the right shoulder and across the breast; Major Generals a pink ribbon in the same manner; Brigadier Generals a [blank] ribbon; and all Aids-du-camp a green one; all Field Officers wear red, pink, or scarlet cockades; Captains, yellow or buff cockades; and Subalterns, green ones.
Even Thompson couldn’t remember that special distinction between major and brigadier generals.

TOMORROW: And how did the system work when it came time for a battle?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

“A Ribband to Distinguish Myself”

Does that look like a general? How can you tell? Well, yes, he is taller than most people, and he hasn’t got mud all over him. But the real tip-off is supposed to be the thin band of light blue cloth across his chest.

Yesterday I quoted Gen. George Washington’s orders to officers in the Continental Army around Boston to distinguish themselves with colored cockades on their hats. Nine days before that, he had addressed an even more pressing issue: making sure soldiers recognized him. The general orders for 14 July 1775 declared:

There being something awkward, as well as improper, in the General Officers being stopp’d at the out-posts; ask’d for passes by the Sentries, and obliged often to send for the Officer of the Guard (who it sometimes happens is as much unacquainted with the Persons of the Generals, as the Private Men) before they can pass in or out: It is recommended to both Officers and Men to make themselves acquainted with the persons of all the Officers in General Command, and in the mean time to prevent mistakes: The General Officers and their Aids-de-Camp, will be distinguished in the following manner.

The Commander in Chief by a light blue Ribband, wore across his breast, between his Coat and Waistcoat.

The Majors and Brigadiers General, by a Pink Ribband wore in the like manner.

The Aids-de-Camp by a green ribband.
The general had already expensed, on 10 July, “a ribband to distinguish myself.” Nowadays we usually spell that word “riband,” and we’re more likely to call that band of cloth a “sash” (as well as to expect it to say something like “Miss Rappahannock”).

Somebody apparently raised the issue of distinguishing major generals from their subordinate brigadier generals. The Boston theater had only two major generals, Artemas Ward and Charles Lee, and the latter was a notorious sloven when it came to dress and manners. [ADDENDUM: Oops! I was wrong. Ward and Lee were the first two major generals appointed by Congress, but by the time Washington was ordering ribands Israel Putnam had also received that rank.]

On 24 July the commander’s general orders included:
It being thought proper to distinguish the Majors, from the Brigadiers General, by some particular Mark; for the future the Majors General will wear a broad purple ribband.
TOMORROW: So did people pay attention to Washington’s color-coded system?

(The image above is a detail from Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of Washington at Princeton.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

“Some Badges of Distinction”

There are many workshops scheduled for this weekend’s Hive gathering at the Noah Brooks Tavern in Minute Man National Historical Park, including a new one from Ray Najecki: “Making Horsehair Fabric Cockades.” The cockade was the decorative ribbon that helped hold up one flap of the brim of a cocked hat. Here’s a sampling of Mr. Najecki’s work in this area.

Why were cockades so important? Because Gen. George Washington said they were. One of his priorities after taking over the army around Boston was to instill a stronger sense of rank and hierarchy into those New Englanders. In particular, that meant being able to tell the officers from the enlisted men.

On 23 July 1775, the generalissimo issued this order:

As the Continental Army have unfortunately no Uniforms, and consequently many inconveniences must arise, from not being able always to distinguish the Commissioned Officers, from the non Commissioned, and the Non Commissioned from the private; it is desired that some Badges of Distinction may be immediately provided, for Instance, the Field Officers may have red or pink colour’d Cockades in their Hatts: the Captains yellow or buff: and the Subalterns green. They are to furnish themselves accordingly.
So not only did an officer need a cockade on his hat, but it had to be the right color.

TOMORROW: Sometimes a general just wants to be recognized. Is that so wrong?

(The cocked hat above is from the online catalogue of C. & D. Jarnagin.)

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Josiah Quincy, Jr., Takes the Case (Again)

Back in October 2006, I noted a public dispute over whether unpopular defendants deserve legal representation. The Republican candidate for governor of Massachusetts had criticized her opponent, current Gov. Deval Patrick, for doing so.

This month Liz Cheney raised the same complaint about people working for the U.S. Justice Department. Cheney is still best known for who she was born to, and the department is still dealing with how her father’s administration tried to politicize its personnel choices (inspector’s report as PDF).

Several prominent Republican lawyers have now called Cheney’s campaign “a shameful series of attacks.” They stated, “The American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams’s representation of the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre,“ meaning it predates the U.S. Constitution. (Not that the Cheneys have shown much interest in the details of the U.S. Constitution.)

I’ve raised questions about Adams’s memory of how he came to defend the soldiers and how much grief he really took because of that. But there’s solid evidence of criticism for the same decision from Adams’s younger colleague on the defense team, Josiah Quincy, Jr.

As discussed in the Colonial Society of Massachusetts volume Portrait of a Patriot, Quincy was an energetic advocate for the Whig party in pre-Revolutionary politics. His father, Col. Josiah Quincy of north Braintree, wrote to Josiah, Jr., on 22 Mar 1770:

My dear Son,

I am under great affliction, at hearing the bitterest reproaches uttered against you, for having become an advocate for those criminals who are charged with the murder of the fellow citizens. Good God! Is it possible? I will not believe it.

Just before I returned home from Boston, I knew, indeed, that on the day those criminals were committed to prison, a sergeant had inquired for you at your brother’s house,—but I had no apprehension that it was possible an application would be made to you to undertake their defence. Since then I have been told that you have actually engaged for Captain [Thomas] Preston;—and I have heard the severest reflections made upon the occasion, by men who had just before manifested the highest esteem for you, as one destined to be a saviour of your country.

I must own to you, it has filled the bosom of your aged and infirm parent with anxiety and distress, lest it should not only prove true, but destructive of your reputation and interest; and I repeat, I will not believe it, unless it be confirmed by your own mouth, and under your own hand.

Your anxious and distressed parent,...
Four days later the young lawyer replied to his father from Boston:
Honoured Sir,

I have little leisure, and less inclination either to know, or to take notice, of those ignorant slanderers, who have dared to utter their “bitter reproaches” in your hearing against me, for having become an advocate for criminals charged with murder. But the sting of reproach when envenomed only by envy and falsehood, will never prove mortal.

Before pouring their reproaches into the ear of the aged and infirm, if they had been friends, they would have surely spared a little reflection on the nature of an attorney’s oath, and duty;—some trifling scrutiny into the business and discharge of his office, and some portion of patience in viewing my past and future conduct.

Let such be told, Sir, that these criminals, charged with murder, are not yet legally guilty, and therefore, however criminal, are entitled, by the laws of God and man, to all legal counsel and aid; that my duty as a man obliged me to undertake; that my duty as a lawyer strengthened the obligation; that from abundant caution, I at first declined being engaged; that after the best advice, and most mature deliberation had determined my judgment, I waited on Captain Preston, and told him I would afford him my assistance; but, prior to this, in presence of two of his friends, I made the most explicit declaration to him, of my real opinion, on the contests (as I expressed it to him) of the times, and that my heart and hand were indissolubly attached to the cause of my country; and finally, that I refused all engagement, until advised and urged to undertake it, by an Adams, a Hancock, a Molineux, a Cushing, a Henshaw, a Pemberton, a Warren, a Cooper, and a Phillips.
Samuel Adams, John Hancock, William Molineux, Thomas Cushing, Joshua (probably) Henshaw, Samuel Pemberton, Dr. Joseph Warren, William (or the Rev. Dr. Samuel) Cooper, and William Phillips made up the bulk of genteel Whig office-holders and activists in Boston. They all agreed that Quincy should take the case and ensure the soldiers received a fair trail.

The young lawyer continued:
This and much more might be told with great truth, and I dare affirm, that you, and this whole people will one day REJOICE, that I became an advocate for the aforesaid “criminals,” charged with the murder of our fellow-citizens.

I never harboured the expectation, nor any great desire, that all men should speak well of me. To inquire my duty, and to do it, is my aim. Being mortal, I am subject to error; and conscious of this, I wish to be diffident. Being a rational creature, I judge for myself, according to the light afforded me. When a plan of conduct is formed with an honest deliberation, neither murmuring, slander, nor reproaches move. For my single self, I consider, judge, and with reason hope to be immutable.

There are honest men in all sects—I wish their approbation;—there are wicked bigots in all parties,—I abhor them.

I am, truly and affectionately,

your son,

Josiah Quincy Jun.
A few weeks later, Quincy also agreed to represent Ebenezer Richardson, an even less popular defendant charged with killing young Christopher Seider. Because an unjust trial doesn’t produce justice for anybody.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Old and New Views of Colonial Boston

I wish I had the tech and the knowledge to appreciate Charlie Frye’s Historical GIS: Boston 1775. Last year he posted his work at ESRI Mapping Center and explained:

One of the projects I undertook was to create a GIS of Boston in 1775, using only maps published from that period. I eventually included some later source material of reliable historical character to flush out locations for specific or notorious events, structures, and so on. My goal was to create an inventory and therefore as complete a picture as possible of Boston’s environs in 1775. Not only that, I wanted to be able to cite every feature, making it possible to create a map that was in essence a spatial argument for what I think was in Boston in the year 1775.
There’s also a discussion group on using GIS technology to illuminate the Revolutionary War.

I was able to enjoy the Harvard Map Collection’s image of William Price’s panoramic picture of Boston a few decades before the war. The Image Delivery Service page lets you zoom, pan, and (though it’s not really helpful with this view) twirl the image.

But don’t assume that the panorama Price created is entirely accurate. In New England Prospect, Peter Benes notes that Price included church towers that we know hadn’t been built yet. That’s the magic of drawing, after all.