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, April 30, 2011

“History is by its nature a critical, sceptical discipline”

Last month the London Review of Books published Richard J. Evans’s essay “The Wonderfulness of Us (The Tory Interpretation of History).” It addresses Education Secretary Michael Gove’s efforts to revamp Britain’s national history curriculum, with British-American historian Simon Schama (probably the closest our academy has produced to a celebrity historian) as the point person.

The first task of the curriculum, as Gove and Schama see it, is to foster a sense of British national identity. ‘At a moment fraught with the possibility of social and cultural division,’ Schama writes, we need citizens ‘who grow up with a sense of our shared memory as a living, urgently present body of knowledge’. . . .

History is by its nature a critical, sceptical discipline. Historians commonly see one of their main tasks as puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives that advance spurious claims to objectivity. Schama advocates the return of ‘storytelling in the classroom’ as the ‘necessary condition’ of debate and analysis. He is confident that a narrative approach doesn’t have to rule out analysis, since distinctions can be made ‘between just and unjust conflicts’ and students can develop ‘analytical knowledge of the nature of power’.

But simply telling children that British history has been full of conflict doesn’t tell them anything about the distortions of power; what they need to learn is scepticism about the narratives presented by historians, including of course Schama’s own account of British history. . . .

Gove, Schama and their allies are confusing history with memory. History is a critical academic discipline whose aims include precisely the interrogation of memory and the myths it generates. It really does matter to historians that there isn’t any evidence that Alfred burned the cakes, or that Nelson and Wellington weren’t national heroes to everyone. For those in power, this makes history as a discipline not only useless but dangerous too.
In this article and argument, the term “Tory” has a current political meaning, of course, but “Tory history” also alludes to “Whig history,” now a discredited approach to analyzing the past. Evans is trying to define history as “a critical, sceptical discipline” even though for centuries the practice of history has been swayed by political ends, particularly in service of those who hold power in a society.

Though the U.S. has no national curriculum, governments at various levels issue standards, approve textbooks, and otherwise exercise some control over history education. When those initiatives have become controversial, the politics line up generally as this essay depicts the situation in Britain: conservatives in favor of national unity, progressives in favor of critical inquiry. Both sides generally support stories and facts, so long as their own favored stories and facts are included (sometimes at the expense of others).

Friday, April 29, 2011

Getting to Know Thomas Hutchinson in July

The Forbes House Museum in Milton sits on part of the estate that once belonged to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. This summer the site will partner with the Massachusetts Historical Society to present “The Worlds of Thomas Hutchinson,” a three-day investigation of the Loyalist politician. This workshop is open to the public, and comes with additional P.D.P. sessions for educators.

The event description says:
The year 2011 marks the 300th birthday of the last civilian colonial governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson—a man whose actions and uncompromising stance played a central role in the Stamp Act crisis and ensuing events throughout the decade preceding the Revolution. . . .

AT THE MASSACHUSETTS HISTORICAL SOCIETY: Discover the issues Hutchinson confronted by viewing and working with rare 18th century documents that chronicle the conflicts

IN DOWNTOWN BOSTON: See what Hutchinson was up against as we take to the streets with historian Bill Fowler, who shows us the sites and scenes of mounting resistance.

AT THE FORBES HOUSE: Gain insight into the life of Hutchinson as husband, father, landscape designer and gardener and statesman through study of his country retreat on Milton Hill.
The event takes place 12-14 July, 9:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. each day. The cost is $125, or $100 for members of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Forbes House Museum, and all teachers. That fee includes all activities, coffee and lunch on two days, and a reading packet.

For more information, contact Kathleen Barker, Massachusetts Historical Society Education Coordinator, or call the Forbes House Museum at (617) 696-1815.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sculpting the Image of a Shapely Neck

It’s impossible to make sense of colonial Boston without knowing how the town used to be connected to the Massachusetts mainland only by a narrow strip of dry land called the Neck.

Granted, even with understanding the Neck, not all of colonial Boston’s history makes sense. But that vanished geographical reality is why:
  • The Massachusetts Bay company settled on the easily defended Boston peninsula (after establishing towns at Salem and Charlestown).
  • The British military was able to hold the port against a hostile population from September 1774 to March 1776, and to keep desertion relatively low.
  • Paul Revere and his colleagues arranged the “one if by land, two if by sea” (actually two if by the Back Bay) signals for the different routes out of town.
  • The South End is so much larger than the North End, and north of South Boston.
Bostonians began major landfill projects in the late 1700s, eventually filling in the Mill Pond, the inner harbor, and all the areas that were mudflats at low tide. As a result, there are now many land routes out of central Boston where there used to be one. Today it’s hard to picture the geography the colonists dealt with.

Boston just paid homage to its past as a peninsula by installing a sculptural tribute to the Neck at the corner of Washington and East Berkeley Streets. Here are reports on the dedication from the Boston Globe and South End Patch (which for some reason calls the sculpture “infamous”). 

The sculpture is titled “LandWave.” It includes an engraved map of Boston in the eighteenth century, but some people still think it might be a skateboard ramp. (Not helping is the fact that Landwave is the brand of a company that makes skateboard ramps.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pathway of the Patriots, Woburn, 30 April

The Patriots Day commemorations aren’t over yet. And since it was kind of cold and wet on the official weekend, maybe Saturday, 30 April, will bring better weather for Pathway of the Patriots.

This event is organized by the Charlestown Militia, and takes place in Woburn along a preserved part of the Old Lexington Road. The event description explains:
A portion of this road still exists today in near pristine condition in the Battle Road Conservation Area. When walking this stone wall lined pathway, houses, vehicles, power lines, and other modern intrusions are soon left behind. Time seems suspended as wild turkeys, deer, and other creatures scurry across the road ahead or watch from a distance.

Although no fighting historically occurred on Woburn’s Battle Road, this stretch of road, undeveloped since the 18th century, offers a unique setting to reenact a portion of the Crown Forces march from Concord back to Boston under constant fire from the Woburn Militia and other Colonial militia and minute companies from the surrounding towns.
The event is free and has on-site parking. Its description promises:
At scheduled times, interpretive scenes take place: you can attend the Raising of the Liberty Pole; watch the British troops drill; hear the Wives of the Patriots trying to understand how the future will be affected; witness the punishment of suspected rebels; and join in and try your hand (and feet) at English Country Dancing.
There are walking tours along the Battle Road, crafts demonstrations, and children’s games throughout the day.

The photo above comes from last year’s Pathway of the Patriots event, and was taken by photographer Jack Boudreau.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Reason to Buy a Kindle

Last month a small press called Sinclar Street Publishing issued Douglas P. Sabin’s report for the National Park Service, April 19, 1775: A Historiographical Study, in the Kindle format.

Prepared for Minute Man National Historical Park over several years and completed in 1987, Sabin’s report reviewed over two centuries of writings about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. David H. Fischer used Sabin’s report as a major guide for his book Paul Revere’s Ride, and called it “an indispensable work for serious students of the battles.”

As a government document, I believe this study was made available to the public, but getting hold of a copy isn’t simple. Some libraries in Middlesex County have copies, but this appears to be the first republication in any format.

Five years after this report, Sabin completed an internal report titled “The British Skull Controversy.” I’d love for that to be part of the Kindle file, but I suspect it’s not.

Monday, April 25, 2011

“Solomon Brown fired at them”

Yesterday I described Solomon Brown’s experience on the night of 18-19 Apr 1775: carrying news of British army officers on patrol, being captured by those officers, being released. The deposition that the teenager and two older companions signed a few days later, complaining about how those officers had detained them, leaves the impression that that’s all he did.

Indeed, the depositions that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress published in April 1775 say little about anyone resisting the British military in Lexington on the morning of the 19th. The purpose of those documents was to convince readers that the army had fired without provocation on a peaceful assembly (of armed militiamen who had been out all night).

I’ve come to approach Revolutionary depositions as usually truthful in what they say, but also prone to significant omissions. In 1775 the folks at Lexington didn’t deny firing back at the redcoats. Rather, when folks were talking with the Patriot magistrates who collected their depositions, the question just didn’t seem to come up.

In 1825 local historian Elias Phinney wanted to make the case that Lexington had been the site of the first forceful resistance against the royal troops—i.e., that the men of his town had fired back, and done at least a little damage. And young Solomon Brown turns out to have been a crucial figure in that aspect of the event as well.

Elijah Sanderson was one of the two men detained along with Solomon for several hours the previous night. Here’s part of his description of the shooting on the green for Phinney:
After our militia had dispersed, I saw them [i.e., the regulars] firing at one man, (Solomon Brown,) who was stationed behind a wall. I saw the wall smoke with the bullets hitting it. I then knew they were firing balls. After the affair was over, he told me he fired into a solid column of them, and then retreated. He was in the cow yard. The wall saved him. He legged it just about the time I went away. In a minute or two after, the British musick struck up, and their troops paraded, and marched right off for Concord.

I went home after my gun,—found it was gone. My brother had it. I returned to the meeting-house, and saw to the dead. I saw blood where the column of the British had stood when Solomon Brown fired at them. This was several rods from where any of our militia stood; and I then supposed, as well as the rest of us, that that was the blood of the British.
Abijah Harrington, one of Lexington’s representatives in the Provincial Congress, added:
A day or two after the 19th, I was telling Solomon Brown of the circumstance of my having seen blood in the road, and where it was. He then stated to me, that he fired in that direction, and the road was then full of regulars, and he thought he must have bit some of them.
A more dramatic description of the teenager’s activity in those minutes was supplied by his son G. W. Brown in 1891. This account was clearly based on decades of local writing as well as family traditions:
Solomon Brown went [from the common] to the right across the Bedford road and jumped over a stone wall. As he landed upon the ground a ball from the enemy passed through his coat, cutting his vest. Another about the same moment struck the wall. He then dropped down behind the wall until their attention was drawn from him.

He then took a circuit in their rear around to the Buckman tavern, where he supposed many of the company had taken refuge, entered the back door, and on going over the house found no one except the pedler [named Allen], who was for a short time prisoner with him on the Concord road the night previous.

He then went to the front door and opened it, when to his surprise the rear portion of the enemy stood in his front, the army having made a halt. No sooner had he stepped in the open door-way than a bullet from an enemy’s gun struck the doorpost about midway. Another following it struck the door near the top.

He then stepped back a little, placed his gun near the muzzle against the door casing, aimed at an officer standing in the ranks of the enemy and fired. Not waiting to see the result he hastened through the house and out at the back door where he entered and made a hasty retreat through the fields.

Being discovered by the enemy, a shower of bullets went whizzing by him until he had reached a distance of some forty rods, when he slipped and fell, and although his clothing bore testimony of the close proximity of some of their bullets, not one marred his person.
And as long as we’re talking about firing from Buckman’s tavern, here’s a detail that militia sergeant William Munroe gave to Phinney:
The front platoon [of the regulars], consisting of eight or nine, then fired, without killing or wounding any of our men. They immediately gave a second fire, when our company began to retreat, and, as I left the field, I saw a person firing at the British troops from Buckman’s back door, which was near our left, where I was parading the men when I retreated. I was afterward told, of the truth of which I have no doubt, that the same person, after firing from the back door, went to the front door of Buckman’s house, and fired there.
How do we reconcile the details of these accounts? G. W. Brown was probably mistaken about his father having lined up on the green; earlier accounts don’t suggest Solomon was among those men. Instead, the teenager appears to have been all around Buckman’s tavern (shown above, courtesy of the Lexington Historical Society).

Phinney concluded that Solomon had fired “from a wall” in the front of the tavern, and that a different person had fired from its back door. But the Brown family came to understand that he had been at the back door before going inside to fire from the front. And Munroe understood that one man had fired from both spots—meaning at different times.

Apparently Solomon did something to attract the redcoats’ fire early on—which brings us to the report of Lt. William Sutherland that the first shot had come “from the Corner of a house to the right of the Church”—i.e., Buckman’s tavern. Another curious detail is Solomon’s surprise at opening the front door of the tavern and finding part of the army massed in front of him. If they had been shooting at him already, even from the green, why was he surprised?

Did regulars shoot at Solomon for a while before he went into the tavern, as he shot from the front door, and then again after he ran out the back? Did the British rear guard shoot at Solomon separate from the first companies on the common? Does that fit with descriptions of how long the firing lasted?

All the accounts from Lexington state that Solomon Brown didn’t fire until after the regulars had begun the shooting. But of course that’s what they would say. What if Solomon fired the first shot, then ran through the tavern and fired another, and finally “legged it” as bullets flew around him?

If so, it’s easy to understand why. Solomon Brown was eighteen. He’d seen armed officers slipping into his town. He’d been captured at gunpoint and held by those officers for several hours in the middle of the night, deprived of his horse (or his minister’s horse), and left to race back home. For this teenager, the war might already have started.

Then again, the first shot at Lexington could have come from someone whose name has been forgotten, or could have been an accidental discharge that the regulars interpreted as an attack. I’m not convinced Solomon Brown bears any responsibility. But he’s the first guy I’d want to take a deposition from.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Solomon Brown Stays Out Late

In April 1775, Solomon Brown was an eighteen-year-old growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, the son of a local deacon. He was also crucial in at least one way the momentous confrontation between the town’s militia company and the British military on the 19th of that month.

On the 18th, Solomon visited Boston, and early in the evening he stopped into William Munroe’s tavern (shown above) to tell Munroe, a sergeant in the Lexington militia, that on the way home:
he had seen nine British officers on the road, travelling leisurely, sometimes before and sometimes behind him; that he had discovered, by the occasional blowing aside of their top coats, that they were armed.
That quotation comes from Munroe’s testimony decades later. He said that he immediately assembled a small squad to guard the parsonage where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying because Patriots widely (but wrongly) thought the royal authorities intended to arrest those men.

Meanwhile, Solomon went on to Buckman’s tavern near the center of town and repeated what he had seen. Elijah Sanderson recalled:
After some conversation among the citizens assembled there, an old gentleman advised, that some one should follow those officers, and endeavour to ascertain their object. I then observed, that, if any one would let me have a horse, I would go in pursuit. Thaddeus Harrington told me, I might take his, which was there. I took his, and Solomon Brown proposed to accompany me on his own horse. Jonathan Loring also went with us. We started, probably, about nine o’clock…
According to an 1891 profile of Solomon Brown by his son, the teenager at first objected that he had “had his horse in use through the day, when Minister [Jonas] Clark replied to him that he would be provided for, and soon led out his own horse saddled and bridled for his use.” That profile conflicts with contemporaneous sources on some points, but this seems like an odd detail for the family to make up.

In any event, the three Lexington men set off to the west. After about an hour they saw the British officers. Unfortunately for them, those officers saw them first. According to Sanderson, “One rode up and seized my bridle, and another my arm, and one put his pistol to my breast, and told me, if I resisted, I was a dead man.”

The officers, under the command of Maj. Edward Mitchell, made the three men dismount in a wooded area of Lincoln. They held Solomon and his companions for hours, questioning them repeatedly. In 1775 the men complained that their captors “searched and greatly abused them,” but decades later Sanderson recalled the questioning as persistent but civil. It was a pleasant night, but still not a pleasant experience.

By 2:15 A.M., according to Sanderson, the officers had added two more detainees: “Allen, a one-handed pedlar,” and Paul Revere. However, the British failed to stop Dr. Samuel Prescott from getting past the patrol on the back trails to Concord.

The Lexington men heard Revere tell Mitchell that the provincial militia had already been alerted to their army’s march. This was apparently a last-ditch attempt to make the British field commanders call off the mission, and it had some effect. The officers decided to rendezvous with the column marching west.

Mitchell ordered Solomon and the other detainees back on their horses, and they all rode east “at considerable speed.” As they approached Lexington, there was a burst of gunfire up ahead—perhaps militiamen discharging their guns before going into Buckman’s tavern for a late-night refreshment or nap. The officers stopped to confer—was the column being attacked?

Maj. Mitchell decided to let all their prisoners go. The Lexington men testified in 1775 that the officers “cut the horses’ bridles, and girths, turned them loose, and then left us,” heading for Lexington. Now it was the locals’ turn to worry about an attack—what would those officers do when they got to the center of town? Sanderson recalled:
We then turned off to pass through the swamp, through the mud and water, intending to arrive at the meeting-house before they could pass, to give information to our people.
The men saw the officers arrive at the town meeting-house, but then ride on to the east. Solomon Brown and his companions went into Buckman’s tavern to describe their experiences.

TOMORROW: Shooting and being shot at.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The First Shots on 19 April 1775

Immediately after the battle in Lexington and other parts of Middlesex County on 19 Apr 1775, each side tried to make the case that the other had fired first.

British officers filed reports emphasizing how they had heard alarm signals and seen provincials with guns moving over distant hills during the march out to Concord. Lt. William Sutherland described a specific example of gunfire from the provincials:
On coming within Gunshot of the village of Lexington a fellow from the corner of the road on the right hand Cock’d his piece at me, burnt priming, I immediately called to Mr. [Jesse] Adair & the party to observe this Circumstance which they did & acquainted Major [John] Pitcairn of it immediately.
Lt.-Col. Francis Smith included this incident in his report to Gen. Thomas Gage, and Gage included it in his report to the ministry in London.

When the two forces approached each other on the Lexington common, Sutherland continued, someone shot “from the Corner of a house to the right of the Church”—probably Buckman’s tavern. After army officers ordered the militia company on the green to disperse, the lieutenant went on, “some of the Villains were got over the hedge, fired at us.”

Maj. Pitcairn reported “several Shott were fired from a Meeting House on our Left,” but other British officers pointed to the men grouped to the right side of the common. Some wrote that it was impossible to know where that first shot had come from, but no officers blamed the militiamen actually lined up on the green. (The impressions of the British enlisted men went unrecorded.)

In contrast, all the provincials insisted that the regulars on Lexington common had fired first. John Robbins said that “the foremost of the three [mounted] officers ordered their men saying, ‘Fire!—by God!—fire!’” Within a short time that officer was widely identified as Maj. Pitcairn. Benjamin Tidd and Joseph Abbot described hearing “first a few guns, which we took to be pistols, from some of the regulars who were mounted on horses.”

Many other Lexington men offered no details of the first shot beyond insisting that it had come from the redcoats before anyone had fired at them. In fact, dozens of men signed the same two depositions attesting to that vital fact. The only thing their accounts had in common with the British officers’ reports is that each agreed that the other was to blame.

Until the early twentieth century, almost all American historians echoed the provincial sources and described the British firing first. With more British sources appearing, more skepticism, and less defensiveness, more recent American authors acknowledged that the situation was probably more confused than that, and even that it was possible that the first short came from someone on the provincial side.

At his “1775” blog, Derek W. Beck has shared his conclusion that some American(s) must have fired first—though not necessarily while deliberately aiming at the soldiers. I’ve heard Christopher Bing, a son of Lexington who’s produced a handsome edition of Paul Revere’s Ride, make a similar argument: that the British soldiers were too well drilled to fire without being ordered to or being attacked (though even their own officers complained that, once attacked, the regulars on the green went out of control for a little while).

All that said, I think that for some of the men in Lexington that morning, the war had already started, making the first shot on the common less significant. Lt. Sutherland, for example, would state that locals had shot at him twice before the confrontation on the green. And one young man from Lexington had been in the thick of the conflict since the previous afternoon.

TOMORROW: Solomon Brown’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Exploring Concord on the 19th of April and Beyond

Concord and the Dawn of Revolution: The Untold Truths is a collection of articles by D. Michael Ryan about the details of the outbreak of war in 1775. Published in 2007, it reflects some of the latest research about the traditions of Concord, sorting out which stories seem well rooted in evidence and which are probably no more than legends.

Several of Ryan’s articles appeared in earlier form in the online Concord Magazine, which has collected those links and more in “Concord Fight: A Virtual Booklet.” So you can sample the quality of his work.

For example, there’s the mystery of a man named James Nichols, born in Britain and living in Lincoln in 1775. Reportedly he broke ranks with his militia unit during the stand-off at the North Bridge, walked down to chat with some redcoats, and decided to go home rather than fight.

At least that’s what a survivor of the battle named Amos Baker said decades later. Yet there’s no mention of Nichols in Lincoln town records. On the other hand, that would be a weird story for Baker to make up—what cultural or psychological need might it fulfill? Ryan lays out the mystery and leaves it open for further investigation.

The articles in Concord and the Dawn of Revolution are on bigger topics like James Barrett, Daniel Bliss, and the curious Bedford flag. They’re well researched, and often spotlight corners of the conflict that other books leave out or speed past.

Of course, there’s still more to be found out. For example, it’s unlikely that James Hall was one of the British soldiers buried in Concord, as suggested in this article (not collected in the book). But that’s someone else’s story.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

“With two balls each time, and with well directed aim”

J. W. Hanson’s History of the Town of Danvers (1848) prints part of a speech that that veteran Gideon Foster delivered when laying the cornerstone of that town’s Revolutionary War monument (shown at right) in 1835. Foster described how his militia company had marched on 19 Apr 1775:

I was then 26 years of age. About ten days before, I had been chosen to command a company of minute-men, who were at all times to be in readiness at a moment’s warning. They were so ready. They all assembled on the very spot where we are this day assembled:—they all went; and in about four hours from the time of meeting, they travelled on foot (full half the way upon the run) sixteen miles, and saluted the enemy. This they did most effectually,—as the records of that day most clearly prove.

I discharged my musket at the enemy a number of times (I think eleven,) with two balls each time, and with well directed aim. My comrade (Mr. Cleaves of Beverly) who was then standing by my side, had his finger and ramrod cut away by a shot from the enemy.

Whether my shots took effect, I cannot say; but this I can say, if they did not, it was not for the want of determined purpose, in him who sent them.
I first took note of this passage as yet another example of someone shooting two balls at once, as likely happened at the Boston Massacre. Some folks have said it would be foolish to try to shoot two balls from a flintlock musket; all I can say is that men of the eighteenth century did it.

After the British evacuation, Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke billed Massachusetts for treating:
Nathaniel Cleaves of Beverly
wounded in Lexington Battle
To Amputating his finger, sutures &c
To 5 dressings Do.
Holyoke’s treatment lasted from 20 April to 24 May, and cost 12 shillings.

While the Danvers men traveled on foot, Cleaves rode from Beverly. We know that because he asked to be reimbursed £12 for his lost horse, saddle, and bridle. He got £2.12s.

And speaking of Beverly, I’ll repeat the announcement that on Monday, 25 April, at 9:30 A.M., I’ll speak at that town’s library on “The Lost and Legendary Riders of April 19th.” I’m afraid that Cleaves doesn’t make the list.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A View of Battle Road from Needham

Continuing Boston 1775’s look back at the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, here’s a description of that event from the manuscript memoir of the Rev. Samuel West of Needham’s first parish, as transcribed here, courtesy of the town’s historical society and schools. This Rev. Samuel West of Needham and later Boston (1738-1808) was not the Rev. Samuel West of Falmouth (1729-1807) who deciphered Dr. Benjamin Church’s secret letter into Boston.

In the night after the eighteenth of April a detachment of the British troops marched out of Boston for the purpose of securing to themselves or destroying the provisions etc. which had been deposited at Concord, by order of the Provincial Government. They in part effected their purpose, but were soon attacked by our people and a continual skirmish was kept up during their march from Concord to Boston. About one hundred on both sides were killed and many were wounded.

The news reached us about nine o’clock A.M. The east company in Needham met at my house as part of the Military stores were deposited with me, they there supplied themselves, and by ten o’clock all marched for the place of action with as much spirit and resolution as the most zealous friends of the cause could have wished for.

We could easily trace the march of troops from the smoke which arose over them, and could hear from my house the report of the cannon and the Platoons fired by the British. The Needham company was soon on the ground, but unhappily being ignorant of what are called flank-guards they inserted themselves between them and the main body of the British troops. In consequence of which they suffered more severely than their Neighbors who kept to a greater distance. . . .

In the evening we had intelligence that several of the Needham inhabitants were among the slain, and the next morning it was confirmed that five had fallen in the action and several others had been wounded. It is remarkable that the five who fell all of them had families, and several of them very numerous families so that there were about forty widows and fatherless children made in consequence of their death.

I visited these families immediately, and with a sympathetic sense of their affliction I gave to some the first intelligence they had of the dreadful event, the death of a Husband and a Parent. The very different manner in which the tidings were received, discovered the very different disposition of the suffers. While some were almost frantic in their grief others received the news with profound silence as if in a consternation of grief they were incapable of shedding tears or uttering sighs or groans. . . .

Their treatment of such as the British left dead on the road was such as I could have supposed. They were stripped for the sake of their cloths and left naked on the highway until buried by order of our Government…

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The First Reenactment at Lexington?

Last November, Roger Fuller of Minute Man National Historical Park alerted me to a description of what might be the first “reenactment” of the fight on Lexington common, in 1822—the auspicious 47th anniversary of the British march. I’ve copied most of Roger’s comment into this “guest blogger” posting.

Albert W. Bryant read his paper “The Military Organizations of Lexington” before the Lexington Historical Society on December 9, 1890. He wrote of his own experiences in the Lexington Militia until it disbanded in 1847. And he wrote of an earlier experience:

I recall standing, on the 19th of April, 1822, on the steps of the south side entrance to the meetinghouse, which had three entrances, and seeing a company of about 60 men in line on the Common near where the stone boulder is placed, under the command of Abijah Harrington. They were representing the Minute Men who stood upon that spot on the morning of the 19th of April, 1775.

I also saw Maj. Benj. O. Wellington on horse-back, riding up Main Street in front of several militia companies who were intended to represent the British troops. When they came to the Common, Major Wellington said, “Lay down your arms and disperse, you rebels,” at the same time firing his pistol, and immediately giving the order to the foremost company to fire, which was quickly answered by the Minute Men.

This scene was incomprehensible to my youthful mind, but it awakened an interest that led me to learn as soon as possible what it was intended to convey. Other movements followed descriptive of scenes that took place on that day, such as marching toward Concord as far as the Lincoln line, a hasty retreat back, and the firing upon the main body, from behind trees, stone walls, etc. This part of the program lasted until noon, when refreshments were furnished at Munroe’s Tavern. In the afternoon commemorative services were held in the meeting-house, Rev. Mr. Stearns of Bedford delivering an oration.
An interesting way for these veterans and townspeople to come to terms with arguably the most important event in their lives and of their town.

According to Charles Hudson’s Genealogical Register of Lexington Families, Albert Withington Bryant was born on 16 Feb 1814, so he was eight years old in 1822 when he saw this mysterious and inspiring commemoration.

Monday, April 18, 2011

“From a Rare Old Print”

Last year the Boston 1775 reader “A Staunch Whig” alerted me to this cartoon from the New York Public Library’s digital image collection. It was published in the original Life magazine around Patriots’ Day in 1893. Click on the image to get to a larger reproduction. Paul Revere’s ride, April 18, ... Digital ID: 808502. New York Public LibraryI’m not sure what point this cartoon is making, apart from parodying a scene that had become an American icon. But that might be all we need.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Myth of Sam Ballard and the Green Dragon Tavern

In Old Boston Days and Ways (1909), Mary Caroline Crawford published what she called “A brand new and not uninteresting explanation of the celerity with which the news [of the planned British march to Concord] reached [Paul] Revere.”

Crawford’s source was “Mrs. E. Corinna Wheeler, an aged lady still living in Boston,” who had heard the story from her mother. Wheeler’s mother, I’ve found, was Rachel (Ellis) Ayer, said to be born in Boston on 12 Feb 1804. Wheeler said that Ayer in turn had heard the story from her grandmother, Lydia Lewis, born Lydia Ballard about 1760.

And the tale:

It was to her brother, a bright Yankee boy, Sam Ballard by name, that the intelligence of the Committee of Safety was due. . . .

It was a great thing in those times for the boys to hang about the inn doors to pick up a few shillings and sixpences by holding horses, while their owners went inside for a drink. On the week before the eighteenth my great-great-uncle, then a boy of thirteen, overheard in this way the conversation of two British officers. That conversation was important. For they talked of the plan to capture [John] Hancock and [Samuel] Adams.

Sam went immediately with his news to the landlord of the Green Dragon [Tavern, shown above], and he informed the Committee of Safety which had its meetings in an upper room of that tavern. Acting on this information the committee appointed a spy to hide in the rooms where the British held their councils. The spy learned the rest. Then the committee held another meeting and planned the ride of Paul Revere.

But on the night of the eighteenth the committee was carefully watched, for the British were determined that they should not do the very thing they accomplished,—that is, get news of the march to Lexington and Concord. The committee did not dare to venture out, but somehow they must send word to Revere. It suddenly occurred to Dr. [Joseph] Warren that no suspicion would be aroused to see a boy running up the causeway from the Green Dragon to Revere’s house. So, about ten o’clock, he despatched that same thirteen year old Sam Ballard to carry the message to Paul Revere!
This is a classic “grandmother’s tale,” my term for a story told by an older relative (usually female) to entertain and inspire the children in her care, probably not expecting it ever to leave the household. But those children grow up believing the tale is (a) entirely true, and (b) of national importance.

The legend of Sam Ballard is also an example of what I’ve called “memory creep.” It appears to have been inspired by the anecdote of John Ballard that I analyzed yesterday, but it got better with:
  • a lot more name-dropping: Hancock! Adams! Green Dragon! Paul Revere! Dr. Warren!
  • the listeners’ ancestor put at the center of the action: Sam Ballard not only overhears the British officers, but also brings that news to the Patriots himself, and finally carries Warren’s orders to Revere.
Indeed, one starts to suspect that if the storyteller had seen a way to have young Sam “hide in the rooms where the British held their councils,” she would have included that detail, too.

Furthermore, there are a lot of details that reflect a casual late-nineteenth-century understanding of Revolutionary Boston rather than the historical record.
  • Gen. Thomas Gage never made a “plan to capture Hancock and Adams”; his mission was entirely aimed at seizing cannon and other matérial in Concord. Any spy who was really in the British council room would have had better intelligence.
  • The “Committee of Safety” was part of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and met outside of Boston, never in the upper room of the Green Dragon.
  • The “ride of Paul Revere” was improvised, not planned. 
  • By their own accounts, many Boston Patriots did “dare to venture out” on 18 Apr 1775. We have Revere’s recollection, for example. Dr. Warren’s professional daybook shows two transactions on that date. William Dawes rode out of town. Col. Percy reported hearing local men discuss the march on the Common at night, so somebody must have been up and about.
Finally, I can’t find any record of a girl named Lydia Ballard being born in Boston around 1760, or a boy named Samuel Ballard being born there around 1762. The town’s records are very spotty, but it still would have been nice to have some evidence Sam Ballard even existed besides a story set down over 125 years after the fact.

For a brief time authors accepted the tale of Sam Ballard—it was featured in the New York Times review of Crawford’s book. But historians found this legend not to be credible and stopped incorporating it into their recreations of events. It survives today only on the placemats of today’s Green Dragon Tavern, which has no connection to the establishment that existed in 1775.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

John Ballard and John Ballard, Jr.

Yesterday I quoted three successive versions from the 1870s of an anecdote about a “stable boy” or “hostler” named (according to two versions) John Ballard, who helped bring Paul Revere word of the British march planned for 18-19 Apr 1775. Was John Ballard real?

In fact, there are (at least) two John Ballards, father and son, and sorting out the references to them isn’t easy. The father appears to have been born to Benjamin Ballard and the former Anne Hudson in 1715. He married a woman named Anna Young in 1738, and had four children baptized at the New North Meetinghouse from 1740 to 1745. According to a Copp’s Hill epitaph, Anna Ballard died 15 Feb 1751, aged thirty-two. The third of her children was John, Jr., born in January 1744.

Legal records suggest that the elder John Ballard started out as a ship joiner or carpenter, then bought a wharf and was thus listed as “wharfinger.” In 1739, the selectmen licensed him to sell liquor, and fifteen years later a bunch of his friends petitioned that board to let him open a tavern, which became the British Coffee-House. The St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons sometimes met there; Ballard was a member. In 1765 the Boston bar association had its first organizational meetings at Ballard’s tavern.

Ballard was a major figure in a mob attack on Patrick McMaster in 1770, as described back here. Records of the North End Caucus show Ballard participated in its political meetings in the early 1770s.

In 1742 John Ballard had been admitted to the firefighting company that kept “the Engine which is kept in a House Adjoining to the Old North Meeting House.” He became captain of Fire Engine Company #1 on 28 Dec 1767, and his son John, Jr., joined the following year. However, on 13 Apr 1774 Boston’s selectmen learned he was stepping down:

Mr. John Ballard Master of Engine No. 1. having as the Selectmen are informed by Mr. [Joshua] Bently declined serving as he purposes to reside wholly at the Eastward, where he now is…
“Eastward” usually meant Maine, though perhaps in this case it meant Cape Ann. With the Boston Port Bill about to go into effect, Ballard may have been seeking better prospects.

But it appears he didn’t leave Boston permanently because “Capt. John Ballard” was elected a fireward in 1777 alongside other prewar activists: Paul Revere, John Pulling, Thomas Crafts, Ebenezer Hancock, Edward Procter, John Scollay, &c. In 1785 he was made one of Boston’s first Inspectors of Police. (Presumably he also commanded a militia company at some point to get the title “Captain.”)

By that time John Ballard, Jr., had entered business for himself in the South End. Legally identified as a housewright, he married Mary Coats in 1777, and started to serve in town offices like constable and then clerk of the market—a post he kept for years. In the 1780s he’s listed as a trader, and in the late 1790s as a gentleman.

In Boston’s 1780 “Takings” book, or tax roll, there are two John Ballards, one keeping a tavern and the other keeping horses. Presumably the father ran the inn, and the son the stable and related businesses. An ad in the 26 Sept 1782 New England Chronicle refers to “Mr. John Ballard’s livery stable.” Later ads announce “An elegant Coach and a handsome pair of Horses” for hire, stationed near the center of town; this was, Thomas Handysyd Perkins remembered, the first hackney stand in Boston.

The 4 Mar 1794 Massachusetts Mercury reported the death of “Mr. John Ballard, 78”, in Boston. That should make it easier to sort out the men of that name, except that at some point after the war yet another John Ballard moved into Boston from Saugus. And in 1803 the cycle starts up again, with a “John Ballard, jun.” advertising that he’s selling dry goods from the same address where his father was still handling legal business; this is probably the stable owner’s son, baptized in 1782.

So what does all that say about the anecdote of John Ballard hearing that a British officer said, “There will be hell to pay to-morrow,” and passing that news on? The Ballards were just the sort of men who would be involved in the Patriot intelligence-gathering network: they were networkers, connected to others like themselves; social strivers, trying to rise above their middling origins; and politically active. Their descendants remained in Boston, able to retell the story (though, of course, also able to exaggerate it, or totally make it up).

I suspect that the younger John Ballard was the man who picked up that news from a groom attached to Gen. Thomas Gage’s headquarters. At age thirty-one, he wasn’t a “stable boy,” and might even have been a manager.

But I also suspect a lot of the other specifics in the tale got added later: that the Province House groom overheard Gen. Gage himself, that Ballard’s hands trembled at the news. Ballard might have sent word to Revere, or Revere might just have been the most famous possible recipient of that news after 1861.

One quality of this tale that makes me think its core is authentic is that it doesn’t claim too much. Whenever he passed on this story, Ballard didn’t claim to have daringly listened in on a British strategy meeting; he just kept his ears open. He didn’t claim to have learned Gage’s whole plan, only what day the army would move. He didn’t even claim to be first with the information: he said he was the third person to reach whomever he reported to. In sum, Ballard presented himself as one part of a network of citizens gathering intelligence, a part that happened to live long enough to pass on his story. And that seems credible.

TOMORROW: A contrasting version of this tale.

Friday, April 15, 2011

“There will be hell to pay to-morrow”

Another story of how Boston’s Patriot leaders got early intelligence of the British march on 18 Apr 1775 credits a stable-worker in the center of town. The circumstances of this story are hazy, and it developed over time, but here’s as far back as I’ve been able to trace it.

Samuel A. Drake’s Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (1873) says:

A groom at the Province House [the royal governor’s mansion, shown here] dropped into the stables, then opposite the Old South on Milk Street, for a social chat with a stable-boy employed there. The news was asked of the British jockey, who, misconceiving the sentiments of his friend, replied, that he had overheard a conversation between [Gen. Thomas] Gage and other officers, and observed, “There will be hell to pay to-morrow.” This was immediately carried to Paul Revere, who enjoined silence on his informant, and added, “You are the third person who has brought me the same information.”
As usual, Drake didn’t provide a source for his anecdotes. He recorded this one over a decade after Henry W. Longfellow had made Revere famous as carrier of the news of that march. Revere wrote nothing about such a discussion in his 1798 letter about the day to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap.

The next year, Drake expanded on the story in Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex, adding a name:
John Ballard was the hostler at the stables on the corner of Milk and old Marlborough Streets, to whom the groom imparted the intelligence that “there would be hell to pay to-morrow”; but even he little thought how prophetic his language would become. Ballard was a liberty boy, but his informant did not suspect it. His hand trembled so much with excitement that he could hardly hold his curry-comb. Begging his friend to finish the horse he was cleaning, and feigning some forgotten errand, Ballard left the stable in haste. Not daring to go directly to Revere’s house, he went to that of a well known friend of liberty in Ann Street, who carried the news to Revere.
Drake’s first book had mentioned a man named John Ballard twice: once in regard to the “Paddock elms” planted along the edge of the Common beside Tremont Street, and once as proprietor of the British Coffee-House. But it hadn’t linked him to this anecdote.

In 1875, George William Curtis delivered a centennial oration at Concord that repeated Drake’s story about John Ballard and his trembling hand; that oration was reprinted many times over the following decades. Three years after that, in the privately published William Dawes and His Ride with Paul Revere, Henry Holland wrote:
On the afternoon of the day before the attack, [Dr. Joseph] Warren learned from several sources that the British were about to move. A gunsmith named Jasper got it from a British sergeant, and told Colonel [Josiah] Waters, of the Committee of Safety,—Dawes’s cousin; and he, of course, told Warren at once. John Ballard, in the Milk Street stable, heard one of the Province House grooms say that “there would be hell to pay to-morrow,” and made a pretext to run with the news to a friend of liberty on Ann Street (William Dawes, I think), who carried it to Revere, who told him he had already heard it from two other persons.
Holland’s version of events is, you might notice, quite Dawes-centric. He was a descendant of that Patriot.

Many authors have repeated variations of this story. But is it reliable? In particular, should we trust these authors’ identification of John Ballard as a source of information?

TOMORROW: Who is John Ballard? (Or, to be more accurate, who are John Ballard?)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

“He is ready to wish he had never known her”

Charles Bahne just alerted me to a discussion of Margaret and Thomas Gage’s marriage in John Singleton Copley in America, published after (and thus influenced by) Paul Revere’s Ride and its argument that on 18 Apr 1775 Margaret probably gave away Thomas’s secret plans to Dr. Joseph Warren.

That extraordinarily handsome and thorough art book says of Mrs. Gage:

Copley's dark and romantic portrait, in contrast, offers some indication of the despair and loneliness that seems to have defined her married life. Thomas Hutchinson, who stayed at Firle in 1774, proposed that her divided loyalties and yearning to live full-time in New York had become a source of tension between the Gages; he maintained as well that he had seen a letter that the commander had written to her “in which he says he is ready to wish he had never known her.”
But context is everything. Here’s what former governor Hutchinson actually wrote in his diary for 10 Aug 1774 (which of course was well before any possible betrayal to Dr. Warren):
Lady Gage gave me to read a letter to her from General Gage, dated the 26th June, from Salem, in which he says he is ready to wish he had never known her; laments his hard fate in being torn away from his friends, after the difficulty of crossing the Atlantick in the short time of 9 months, and put upon a service in so disagreeable a place, which, though he had been used to difficult service, he seemed to consider as peculiarly disagreeable; wishes Mrs Gage had staid in England, as he advised her; for though it was natural she should desire to see her friends at New York, &c., yet, she could have no sort of satisfaction in New England, amidst riots, disorders, &c.: and the whole letter discovers greater anxiety and distress of mind than what appears from all the accounts we have recd concerning him.
So that wasn’t a “I don’t love you” message. It was a “I love you so much I hate being away from you, and wish I wasn’t thinking of you all the time in this miserable situation, which I hope you won’t suffer with me.” After receiving this latter, Margaret left the family seat at Firle and joined her husband in Boston.

I think we’ve reached a point of circularity, where assumptions about the Gages’ troubled marriage affect authors’ interpretation of the evidence, producing more “evidence” for the assumptions.

ADDENDUM: See the comments for a persuasive reinterpretation of Hutchinson’s diary entry. The main point that this passage doesn’t support the idea of a rift in Thomas and Margaret Gage’s marriage still stands.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Marriage of Thomas and Margaret Gage

As I described yesterday, the largely very good history Paul Revere’s Ride argues that there’s a strong circumstantial case that Margaret Gage betrayed her husband Thomas, British commander in Boston (shown here), by leaking word of the march to Concord to Dr. Joseph Warren.

Among that evidence, the book says, is “her husband’s decision to send her away from him after the battles, and the failure of their marriage.”

But here’s Gen. Gage’s entry at ThePeerage.com, listing his children with Margaret:

  • Maria Theresa Gage d. 21 Apr 1832
  • Charlotte Margaret Gage d. Sep 1814
  • Harriet Gage d. 1835
  • Maj.-Gen. Henry Gage, 3rd Viscount Gage of Castle Island b. 4 Mar 1761, d. 29 Jan 1808
  • Louisa Elizabeth Gage b. c 1766, d. 21 Jan 1832
  • John Gage b. 23 Dec 1767, d. 24 Dec 1846
  • Emily Gage b. 25 Apr 1776, d. 28 Aug 1838
  • Admiral Sir William Hall Gage b. 2 Oct 1777, d. 5 Jan 1864
Since Emily Gage was born in late April 1776, Margaret Gage conceived that child around the end of July 1775—months after when Paul Revere’s Ride says her husband “ordered her away from him.”

The Gages probably didn’t realize that Margaret was pregnant when she left Boston in late August. Nevertheless, sending one’s wife out of a besieged town suffering from food shortages and smallpox might actually be a sign of affection. At the very least, I’d want my husband to consider it.

Paul Revere’s Ride errs in saying that “the General remained in America for another long and painful year” after his wife’s departure. Gage received orders to sail back to London on 26 September, and left on 11 October. Some historians suggest he had already sensed those orders were coming, which would have given him another reason to send his family home well before winter.

What about the Gages’ life in England? They retired to Firle Place. (Occasional Boston 1775 guest blogger Charles Bahne sent me that web address, as well as this page with more information.)

I haven’t seen any statement from the Gages’ contemporaries—who loved to gossip—that their marriage failed. In fact, the couple had another child in October 1777, which strongly suggests that they were still acting as husband and wife in every way. They had no more children after that son, but by then Margaret was aged 43.

Thomas Gage died in 1787, having achieved some vindication from how no other generals had been any more victorious in America than he had. Margaret lived to 1824. Of their two children born after the war began, Emily Gage grew up to marry the Earl of Abingdon, and William Hall Gage became an admiral and knight. They’re both thus well documented; he’s even got a Wikipedia page. And they make the evidence for Margaret Gage’s betrayal of her husband look quite thin.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“He was governed by his wife”

According to Paul Revere’s Ride, by David Hackett Fischer, the marriage of Gen. Thomas and Margaret Gage didn’t survive the start of the Revolutionary War:

Before this fatal day, Gage had been devoted to his beautiful and caring wife. But after the Regulars returned from Concord, he ordered her away from him. Margaret was packed aboard a ship called Charming Nancy and sent to Britain, while the General remained in America for another long and painful year.
That estrangement, the book states, is a major part of the “circumstantial evidence [which] strongly suggests” that Margaret Gage leaked word to Dr. Joseph Warren about the march to Concord.

It’s a dramatic theory: Margaret torn between two loyalties, the general betrayed by his closest companion, even the possibility of an extramarital affair between the military wife and the widowed physician. Later authors have seized on the idea as fact, tossing aside the little doubt that Fischer preserved. Old North Church even developed a lesson plan about Margaret Gage’s dilemma.

I thought the theory was very intriguing when I first read Paul Revere’s Ride. After studying the book’s argument more intently, however, I think it overstates the case, misstating some evidence and tilting the rest in favor of that thesis.

For example, the book states, “In 1775, she [Margaret Gage] told a gentleman that ‘she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen.’” That quote comes from former governor Thomas Hutchinson’s diary for 27 July 1775, when he was in London:
Mr Keene called: complains of Gage: says his lady has said she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen. I doubted it. He said he did not, but did not chuse to be quoted for it.
Keene was a member of Parliament in London; he couldn’t have had any contact with Margaret Gage in 1775, and was passing on secondhand information at best. Fischer doesn’t mention Hutchinson’s doubt.

Paul Revere’s Ride states, “The well-informed Roxbury clergyman William Gordon wrote that Dr. Warren’s spy was ‘a daughter of liberty unequally yoked in the point of politics.’” Actually, as I discussed back here, that was Gordon’s description of a woman who told Samuel Adams about the British plans “a few days” before 18 April.

Page 95 quotes the diary of the Rev. Jeremy Belknap about Warren consulting “the person who had been retained, and got intelligence of their whole design.” However, a footnote on page 387 dismisses a detail from that same diary entry which points away from Margaret Gage, arguing that Belknap’s information “was merely a rumor he heard in the American camp six months later.”

It’s true that Charles Stedman’s 1794 history of the war describes how Col. Percy warned Gage that he’d heard Bostonians discussing the goal of the march (“the cannon at Concord”), and how “The general said that his confidence had been betrayed, for that he had communicated his design to one person only besides his lordship.”

It’s also true that Maj. James Wemyss later criticized his commander this way:
Lient.-General Gage, a commander-in-chief of moderate abilities, but altogether deficient in military knowledge. Timid and undecided in every emergency, he was very unfit to command, at a time of resistance and approaching rebellion to the mother country. He was governed by his wife, a handsome American; her brothers and relatives held all the staff appointments in the army, and were with less abilities, as weak characters as himself.
But I haven’t read any British officers accusing Margaret Gage of choosing America over Britain, as opposed to hoping there wouldn’t be bloodshed. And if Gen. Gage had told his top-secret plans only to his wife, that means he hadn’t told his confidential secretary, Samuel Kemble; his intelligence manager, Maj. Stephen Kemble; his second-in-command, Gen. Frederick Haldimand; or any other military or political colleagues—rather extraordinary for an eighteenth-century gentleman.

Margaret Gage may well have felt torn between supporting her husband’s military mission and wishing to spare the country where she had grown up. However, unlike the character from Shakespeare she quoted after the Battle of Bunker Hill, she wasn’t torn between her family of birth and her husband—they were on the same side. Indeed, we might wonder why historians suspect Margaret Gage’s loyalties but not those of her two brothers on Gage’s staff, who were in the same situation as she.

Finally, there’s the evidence of the Gages’ marriage.

TOMORROW: “he ordered her away from him”?

Monday, April 11, 2011

“Which is the side that I must go withal?”

Thomas Gage, British army officer and younger son of a baronet, and Margaret Kemble, daughter of a wealthy New Jersey merchant, married in 1758. He was in North America to fight in the French and Indian War.

In the course of that conflict, Thomas rose to the rank of general, and afterward became the commander-in-chief of all British army forces on the continent. Over fifteen years Margaret had six children (at least—those six survived to adulthood).

Gen. Gage was on his first trip back to England in early 1774 when news of the Boston Tea Party reached London, and was summoned to court to share his expertise on America. For years he had sent letters recommending how to change colonial laws or constitutions to make life easier for the army. George III and his ministers liked what Gage told them and offered him the post of royal governor of Massachusetts. The general promised that he’d bring the obstreperous province to order.

The new governor arrived in May 1774, accompanied by the first of many regiments to be stationed in town. Among his top aides were Maj. Stephen Kemble, a deputy adjutant-general, and Samuel Kemble, confidential secretary; they were Margaret’s brothers. Some of the Gage children were also in Boston, but the oldest appear to have been at boarding schools in England.

On 26 February and then 18 Apr 1775, Gage sent troops out from Boston to search for the defiant Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s artillery and supplies. The provincial forces responded by besieging Boston. On 17 June the two armies fought over the heights of Charlestown, with the British securing the high ground of Bunker Hill in a Pyrrhic victory.

On 1 November, one of Margaret Gage’s friends wrote to her from Perth Amboy (in a letter opened by the British post office seeking intelligence and preserved in government records):

I recollect with horror the bloody scene at Charlestown. Poor Jennet [Montgomery]! I have been told that she charged [Richard] Montgomery to avoid, at any rate, being taken prisoner. A cord, I suppose, she apprehended would finish his exploits. What a dreadful apprehension for a wife; let either side conquer, what heartfelt woe must it occasion! This puts me in mind of a conversation you and I had the day after that dreadful one, when you thought the lines so expressive:
The Sun’s o’ercast with blood; fair day, adieu!
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both; each army hath a hand,
And in their rage,—I having hold of both,—
They whirl asunder, and dismember me.
And again:
Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose,
Assured loss, before the match be played.
Those are lines from Shakespeare’s King John, spoken by Lady Blanch as she feels torn between her husband and her family on opposite sides of a war. Evidently Margaret Gage also felt torn between the royal forces her husband led and the American colonists.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Isaiah Thomas Slips Out of Boston

On 2 Oct 1775, printer Isaiah Thomas wrote from Worcester to Daniel Hopkins, a minister and Massachusetts General Court representative from Salem. Thomas was protesting how the legislature had canceled its multiple subscriptions to his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy. He described how in the previous April he had slipped out of Boston at the urging of the colony’s politicians:

A few days before the late memorable Battle of Lexington, I applied at Concord, to a number of the Hon. Delegates, then sitting in [the Massachusetts Provincial] Congress, among whom was the Hon. President [John Hancock], to ask their Opinion, if it was not proper, as public matters then were, for me to remove my Printing Office out of Boston, as I found the Liberty of the Press, in that devoted Capital, daily declining, and myself growing more and more obnoxious to the Enemies of our once happy Constitution, and more particularly so to our then Military Masters, (some of whom had carried their Resentment so far as Twice to endeavour to assasinate me, for no other reason, as I humbly conceive, than doing the little in my power, in the way of my Profession, towards supporting the Rights and Privileges of my Countrymen.)

The Hon. Gentlemen informed me that they thought it was highly requisite I should immediately remove myself and printing materials out of Boston, as in a few days it might be too late. I accordingly went and, as soon as could be, packed up my Press and Types, and in the dead of night stole them out of town.—

Two nights after this the Troops went to Lexington, and the next evening Boston was entirely shut up:—I escaped myself the day of the battle and left every thing my tools excepted behind me. Some of the Delegates, of the Hon. Congress, in a day or two after desired me to get my Press ready for Printing, as they had several things to be done.
Among the documents Thomas printed that spring was A Narrative, of the Excursion and Ravages of the King’s Troops Under the Command of General Gage, on the nineteenth of April, 1775—the legislature’s official (and one-sided) report on the Battle of 19 Apr 1775.

This season brings a new opportunity to see a colonial-era press and learn about printing in Revolutionary times. On 15 April, Gary Gregory (who stands in for Thomas in the thumbnail above) will open the Printing Office of Edes & Gill in the Clough House, next to the Old North Church in Boston’s North End.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Rev. Samuel Cooper’s View of the War Reconstructed

The Huntington Library in California reports that it has acquired and reunited parts of the Rev. Samuel Cooper’s diary recording the start of the Revolutionary War. The library’s blog says:

The first portion covers events through April 18, 1775. The Library’s previously acquired diary picks up the narrative on the following day. Cooper then returned to this fragment of the diary on May 6 to recap the events that had taken place since his leaving Boston, where “the Troubles” were increasing.

Among the fascinating entries is Cooper’s description of his encounter with “a Lad of about 16 in ye Neighborhood…ardent to join his Friends & Neighbors in going to meet ye British Forces who had unprovok’d fired upon the People at Lexington.” The boy was begging for “ye Loan of a Gun” and finally obtained “a small old & almost useless Piece…declaring He w’d soon obtain a better.” That he did: “soon after He shot a Br. Soldier—stript him of his Arms & Cartrach [Cartridge] Box.”

Visitors will be able to view the manuscript for themselves during the month of April, when it will be on view in the Treasures Case in the east foyer of the Library Exhibition Hall.
The “Neighborhood” that the ardent lad came from was probably Weston. Cooper had left Boston for that town in early April, apparently worried about being arrested as a Whig leader. He recorded the anecdote about the boy on 18 April.

The portion of Cooper’s diary starting 19 Apr 1775 was published in the American Historical Review in 1901. The part up to 18 April is mentioned in The Divine Politician, Charles W. Akers’s 1982 biography of Cooper, but to my knowledge hasn’t been published.

Friday, April 08, 2011

“Lost & Legendary Riders” in Beverly, 25 April

We’ve entered the Patriots Day season in Massachusetts, with many events linked to the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Among them, I’m pleased to announce, will be:

The Lost and Legendary Riders of April 19th
Monday, 25 April, at 9:30 A.M.
Beverly Public Library
Beyond Paul Revere and his companions, Americans have passed along stories of other notable riders on April 19, 1775. In this illustrated lecture I’ll explore the facts and fiction behind Hezekiah Wyman, the dreaded “White Horseman”; Abel Benson and Abigail Smith, children said to have helped raise the alarm in Middlesex County; and Israel Bissell, the post rider credited with carrying news of the fight all the way to Philadelphia.

I delivered an earlier version of this talk at the Old South Meeting-House last fall. This will be my first public appearance on the North Shore. I plan to dress warmly.

For less important events, such as the annual battle reenactment involving hundreds of participants, see the Battle Road website and Boston National Historic Park’s events listing. Events at National Park Service sites could of course be affected by the House of Representatives’ government shutdown. [ADDENDUM: I hear that the Meriam's Corner Exercise scheduled for Saturday, 9 April, in Concord has been canceled due to uncertainty about the federal lands, but that the town’s Patriots Day Parade and Dawn Salute will go on.]

Since Patriots Day is the start of Massachusetts’s April school vacation, many historic sites and museums, such as the Paul Revere House, have extra programs for kids and families that week. Local sites would not be affected by problems in the federal government.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

New England’s Meeting Houses in Westford, 7 April

On Thursday, 7 April, the Westford Museum will host an illustrated talk on “New England’s Colonial Meeting Houses and Their Impact on Society” by photographer Paul Wainwright.

Wainwright’s photographs of the region’s oldest surviving religious buildings are collected in A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England, with a foreword by Brent Glass of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian and a historical essay by Peter Benes, director of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife. The book was named best photography/art book of 2010 at the New England Book Festival.

The event description says:

When built in the 1700s, Colonial meetinghouses were the focus of both religious and civic life – concepts not at all separate in Colonial New England. Many were built with tax money, and their simple, undecorated architecture reflected the desire of early Puritan settlers to live simple lives apart from the Church of England. Yet these were their “cathedrals,” built by hand without adornment, except for the wonderful woodwork. Only a few of them remain in a relatively unchanged state.

These buildings embody an important chapter in American history. In them were formed the principles of our democracy and participatory government. In them the issue of separation of church and state was debated and tested. Wainwright’s photography explores these structures and the society that built and used them. They not only present a fascinating glimpse into our nation’s Colonial history, but are beautiful as well.
And of course those unadorned, white-painted churches are excellently suited to black and white photography.

About the speaker:
Paul Wainwright is a photographer based in Atkinson, New Hampshire, who works in a traditional manner utilizing sheet film, a large-format camera, and silver gelatin printing. His work has appeared in numerous juried competitions and solo exhibitions, and is included in the permanent collections of both private and corporate collectors, including Fidelity Investments, the Boston Public Library, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. . . . Wainwright holds a Ph.D. in physics from Yale University.
Copies of A Space for Faith will be on sale at the talk, which starts at 7:00 P.M.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Talks on Slavery and Freedom in Newton, 7 and 26 April

Historic Newton, the Myrtle Baptist Church in that city, and Mass Humanities are presenting two talks this month on the history of slavery in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

On Thursday, 7 April, at 7:00 P.M. Tracey Grahan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, will discuss slavery’s appearance in Newton in the 1600s, its gradual end, and the growth of a black community in West Newton. That neighborhood provided a base from which local African-Americans asserted their civil and religious rights in the following centuries.

On Tuesday, 26 April, at 7:00 P.M. Prof. Elise Lemire will speak on “Slavery in America’s Birthplace: Rethinking the History of Concord.” Author of Black Walden: Slavery and its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, Lemire will examine how and why local elites used slaves, conditions of those people’s daily lives, how they helped effect their own emancipation, and what became of them. I heard Lemire speak on this topic last year and have read parts of her book, and I’m impressed by her research and analysis.

Both talks will take place at the Myrtle Baptist Church, 21 Curve Street, in West Newton. Both are free and open to the public.