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, September 18, 2010

“A Letter from the Mr. J— C— the Grocer”

On 15 August 1775 Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin sent Gen. George Washington some intriguing news from Chelsea:

I hope to be able tomorrow to forward to your Excellency a letter from the Mr. J— C— the Grocer

I heard from him yesterday Informing that he Expected to git further Information by tomorrow if it comes to hand shall forward it with all Convenient Speed
And the next day Baldwin wrote:
I have received a Letter which I supose came from Mr. J. C. by the Hand of the Gentleman Expected who says he is going to Headquarters in the morning to see about the sheep that was brought off from Puding Point which I have wrote to the adjutant General about
At the time Baldwin was dealing with the puzzle of what to do with sheep that his troops had driven out of reach of British raising parties, but which then had nowhere to graze. The people of Point Shirley, evidently including the man named Tewksbury who was part of the communication chain to “Mr. J. C.,” wanted to keep some of that livestock. Baldwin was writing not only to Gen. Horatio Gates, the adjutant general, but also quartermaster general Joseph Trumbull.

Baldwin referred to the American agent inside Boston only by his initials, but the letter he had received from Joseph Reed a couple of weeks before spells out the man’s full name: John Carnes. And as a confirmation that this was the same John Carnes who had been a minister, four days later a refugee from Boston named Ezekiel Price recorded a rumor in his diary:
in the afternoon, Mr. Hill, of Providence, was here, who left Cambridge this forenoon, and says, that this morning a woman got out of Boston, who brought a letter from Parson Carnes, which mentioned that the Regulars in Boston intended to come out this night or tomorrow night,—in consequence of which, preparations were making in the several American encampments to receive them
I’m not sure who “Mr. Hill” from Rhode Island was. Price had been a court clerk, registrar of deeds, notary, and insurance broker in Boston before the war, and was plugged into a lot of information networks.

Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston states, “On the 20th, the British, it was thought, were about to sally out of Charlestown, when the camp was alarmed, and the men ordered to lie on their arms,” in order to be ready for any attack. Nothing happened, and at the end of that week the American forces preemptively attacked Ploughed Hill, as described back here.

TOMORROW: Another message from John Carnes inside Boston?

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