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, February 12, 2011

The Mystery in Dr. Warren’s Recovered Letter

This week the Massachusetts Archives reported recovering a letter that Dr. Joseph Warren wrote on 25 May 1775, happily passing on the news that Col. Benedict Arnold had captured some outposts north of Fort Ticonderoga.

Warren was then in Watertown, presiding over the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He sent this two-page letter along the highway to Cambridge, where the Committee of Safety and Gen. Artemas Ward were sharing headquarters beside Harvard College.

The letter disappeared from the state facility decades ago, and resurfaced in an auction of Americana. Here are the Boston Globe and WBUR stories on the document’s return.

Both stories include this detail (quoted from WBUR):

He sent the good news from Watertown in a letter to the revolutionary Committee of Safety, asking that it be forwarded to the good Gen. Henry Knox.
That caught my eye for two reasons:
  • I’m eager for any evidence of when Henry and Lucy Knox left Boston. The earliest statement of a date appears in Francis Drake’s 1873 biography, which says they departed “Just one year from the day of his marriage,” which was on 16 June 1774. That meant the couple was out just in time for the Battle of Bunker Hill. Thus, if the Committee of Safety was in a position to pass news to Knox on 25 May, then he must have been out earlier.
  • However, Knox did not become a general until 1776. In May 1775, he held no rank in the New England army, and had been only a lieutenant in his prewar militia company.
The WBUR story included a link to its Flickr photostream, which included images of the front and back of Dr. Warren’s note. And the next-to-last line in the postscript doesn’t necessarily say “Knox.” As to what Warren did write, his handwriting is not easy to decipher. (He was a doctor, after all.) In his American Archives, Peter Force transcribed the words as “General Room,” but there was no such man. Richard Frothingham’s biography of Warren renders the phrase as “the general’s room,” presumably meaning Gen. Ward’s office; that makes more sense, but there’s no “the.”

I think another possibility, given the hurried scrawl, is that the postscript said:
You will be Kind enough to send communicate the Contents of this Letter to General Thomas as I love to give Pleasure to good men.
Dr. John Thomas was commanding the troops at Roxbury. He had a headquarters and council of war that operated somewhat independent of Ward and the committee in Cambridge, and Warren might have wanted to be sure that both wings of the army would learn the news.


Charles Bahne said...

Now that you say it, John, "Thomas" is an excellent match for those scrawled letters, and it makes perfect sense given the circumstances. I think you've hit on a discovery!

Joan said...

Is that a comma after "General"?

J. L. Bell said...

It could be a comma. It could be a misplaced apostrophe. It could be a random mark.

RFuller said...

Any idea who stole the letter from the Mass. Archives in the first place?

J. L. Bell said...

The news articles suggest this letter was removed from the archives sometime in the Colonial Revival Era, and moved through the collectors’ market until it ended up in James S. Copley’s hands. That collection was just auctioned, and some state archivists recognized the description of the document.