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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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Handsome Pictures in a Disappointing Picture Book

Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot, by Anita Silvey and Wendell Minor, is a picture-book biography published last year.

The back cover shows Henry Knox as he might have looked at age nine, starting his apprenticeship as a bookbinder. In that picture I can perceive the features that Gilbert Stuart painted forty-seven years later, and the cheery, winning personality Knox’s contemporaries described.

All of Minor’s paintings are handsome and evocative. But I can’t recommend the book because the text contains too many errors and exaggerations. Some of those mistakes appear in popular biographies of Knox, such as the notion that the heavy cannon from Fort Ticonderoga were “all the working artillery of the Continental Army.” But others I can’t find any support for.

Most important is the statement that contemporaries called the trek from Ticonderoga with those cannon “Knox’s Folly.” In fact, the idea of hauling guns from Lake Champlain to Cambridge had been around for months before Knox undertook it. Massachusetts’s original orders to Col. Benedict Arnold to take the fort also told him to bring back the cannon inside. Gen. George Washington’s council of war in October 1775 agreed that the army should transport guns from Crown Point. It doesn’t take much away from Henry Knox’s hard work to acknowledge that he wasn’t a lone rebel standing up to a crowd.

There are a lot of other misstatements, large and small. When Henry was nine, it was not “difficult for such a young boy to find full-time work”; hundreds of Boston boys were apprentices by that age. There were not “several thousand British troops” in Boston when Knox came of age in 1771; there were a few hundred stationed on Castle Island. The British military never “surrounded the city” and kept out food; that’s what the provincial military tried to do during the siege.

Gen. Washington arrived in Cambridge not on 14 June 1775, but 2 July. “Randall lineback oxen” are a modern breed; the term does not date from the eighteenth century. A list of “all the major battles of the war” should include Saratoga, Brandywine, Monmouth, Cowpens, and more, not just Washington’s famous triumphs of “Valley Forge, Trenton, Princeton, and Yorktown”—especially since Valley Forge was a winter encampment, not a battle. Gen. Howe was not knighted until after the siege of Boston, and Gen. Ward spelled his name “Artemas.”

I wish I’d had a chance to fact-check this book before it went to the printer. Its basic story of Henry Knox is solid. With a thorough vetting, the text could have matched the quality of the art.

(Review based on advance unbound copy supplied by the publisher.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Notorious Benedict Society

Among this year’s Boston Globe/Horn Book Award winners in children’s literature is The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery, by Steve Sheinkin.

This is not a picture-book biography, but a 300-page book for readers in the upper elementary grades. It received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and praise here here from Abhi, age 11, of Gahanna, Ohio. The publisher offers an extract from the start of the book.

Sheinkin has also written a shorter, lighter book about a bigger topic: King George, What Was His Problem?: The Whole Hilarious Story of the Revolution.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Going Back to April 19, 1775

In April I mentioned that Sinclair Street Publishing had brought out an electronic edition of Douglas P. Sabin’s April 19, 1775: A Historiographical Study, originally written for the National Park Service, in the Kindle format. I wondered aloud whether Sabin’s follow-up report “The British Skull Controversy” was included.

Publisher Greg Williams recently contacted me with more good news:
I’ve updated the Kindle edition to include “The British Skull Controversy” as an appendix. If you’ve already purchased the Kindle edition, Amazon customer service should be able to update your copy at no charge (eventually, these updates are supposed to happen automatically, but I don't think Amazon has implemented that feature yet). Simply contact Amazon at 1-866-216-1072 (you may also be able to email them through their online contact form).

If you’re not a Kindle owner, the updated ebook is also available on Apple’s iBookstore and Barnes and Noble’s Nook store.

In addition, a print version is now available at CreateSpace.com, and at Amazon.com. Please note “The British Skull Controversy” is not included in the print version.
This is a fine example of how digital technology is changing the way books can be published, and publishers can operate. What would printer Benjamin Franklin and bookseller Henry Knox think?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Society for Military History Call for Papers

The Society for Military History has released its call for papers for its 79th Annual Meeting, to be hosted by the Army Historical Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, on 10-13 May 2012. The announcement says:

The conference theme is “The Politics of War,” highlighting the transition from war to peace, civil-military relations, the dynamics of coalition warfare and the problems of military government and occupation. We encourage a diverse group of participants and especially encourage junior scholars to present their work and to serve on panels. As always, the program committee will consider all panel and paper proposals dealing with important questions of military history.

Panel proposals must include a panel title, contact information for all panelists, a brief description of the purpose and theme of the panel, a one-paragraph abstract of each of the papers, a one-page curriculum vita of each panelist, including commentator and chair, and contact information.

Proposals for individual papers are welcome and should include a brief abstract, a one-page curriculum vita, and contact information. All presenters, chairs, and commentators must be SMH members at the time of the 2012 meeting.

Proposals must be submitted electronically to the conference coordinator, Mr. Matt Seelinger. Deadline for proposals is 1 November 2011.
The meeting site will be the Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel. I believe more information will appear on this webpage closer to the conference.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Independence Weekend Walking Tours in Boston

The Boston African American National Historical Site is offering two free walking tours focusing on the history and heritage of the American Revolution on the upcoming holiday weekend.
Black Bostonians of the Revolution
Saturday, 2 July, 11:00 A.M.
Come learn about Revolutionary War-era leaders such as Prince Hall and Colonel George Middleton and how they and other early African American activists in Boston laid the foundation for the Abolition Movement and the early struggles for equal rights. Tour begins at the Samuel Adams Statue in front of Faneuil Hall.

The Freedom “on Trial” Trail
Monday, 4 July, 11:00 A.M.
Join us for this great walking tour which focuses on the time when the promises of the American Revolution were “on trial” in Boston’s 19th-century African American community. The tour will take you to places where Boston’s developing black community struggled to realize the full promise of citizenship. Tour begins at the Samuel Adams Statue in front of Faneuil Hall.
Each tour, led by a National Park Service ranger, will take approximately ninety minutes. Check the historic site’s website for more tours on this weekend and throughout the summer.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Who Are You Wearing, General Washington?

On 25 June 1775, Gen. George Washington arrived in New York on his way from the Second Continental Congress to the newly adopted Continental Army in Massachusetts.

At least as far back as Douglas Southall Freeman’s multivolume biography published in the mid-1900s, good authors including Richard M. Ketchum, John Ferling, and Ron Chernow have stated that Washington dressed up to enter the city. Specifically, they say he wore a feathered hat and a purple sash.

However, those sartorial details go back to a single source: the reminiscences of Gen. Richard Montgomery’s widow Janet. She died in 1827, and her notes were first published in The Ladies’ Repository thirty years later. They say:

Washington’s stay was but a moment at New York. He drove a sulky with a pair of white horses; his dress was blue, with a purple ribbon sash, and a long plume of feathers in his hat. What a mortifying sight to Governor Tryon!
In our eagerness for everyday details about Washington’s life, we’ve seized on that description. But I don’t think it’s reliable.

We know from Gen. Washington’s expense account that he bought a phaeton and a double harness before leaving Philadelphia. A phaeton is a four-wheeled carriage. A sulky is a light, one-horse vehicle, usually with only two wheels, and thus would have been less impressive for a commander-in-chief.

Washington did wear a colored sash, which he called a “ribband,” as a mark of his rank as commander-in-chief, as shown in the Peale painting above. However, we also know that:
  • Washington didn’t establish that insignia until 14 July.
  • His sash was light blue; a purple sash indicated a major general, one rank below.
  • He bought his ribband on 10 July, two weeks after leaving New York.
I have no information one way or the other on the generalissimo’s preference for “a long plume of feathers in his hat.” But unless someone finds a source about Washington’s wardrobe other than Janet Montgomery, writing up to a half-century later, I doubt we should say that he made such a flashy entrance into New York.

Friday, June 24, 2011

General Folsom and General Sullivan

Yesterday I quoted the New Hampshire general Nathaniel Folsom’s complaint to the government back home about Col. John Stark refusing to acknowledge his authority in late June 1775. (Image of the Stark statue here courtesy of the webcomic The Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark.)

Stark had been on the siege lines for about two months by that point. He had arrived as a militia captain, but his regiment reorganized itself as part of the New England army, and he apparently felt he answered directly to Gen. Artemas Ward.

Then for some reason Stark decided he would recognize Folsom’s authority. On 1 July, the New Hampshire government replied to Folsom’s good news:
It gives us great Pleasure to find by yours of 26 [sic] last month that a reconciliation had taken place between you & Col. Stark: We doubt not you’ll use your utmost endeavours to keep up a good Harmony among the Troops
One day later, Gen. George Washington arrived from Philadelphia with commissions for all the Continental Army generals. And representing New Hampshire in that group was…John Sullivan.

Sullivan and Folsom had been their colony’s representatives to the First Continental Congress. Sullivan went back for the second, which put him in great position to point out that (as far as the Congress knew when it was drawing up commissions) there was no general from New Hampshire, and he was available. Hint, hint.

On his first full day in Cambridge, Gen. Washington acknowledged Folsom’s presence in his general orders:
It is ordered that Col. [John] Glover’s Regiment be ready this evening, with all their Accoutrements, to march at a minutes warning to support General Falsam of the New Hampshire forces, in case his Lines should be attack’d.
After all, Washington had met Folsom as a peer at the first Congress. He couldn’t just ignore the man. But he didn’t have a Continental commission for him. Awkward.

Sullivan arrived in Massachusetts on 10 July. Ten days later, Washington told the Congress that “General Folsom proposed…to retire.” Apparently the New Hampshire officers had worked out some arrangement among themselves, which doesn’t show up in any official document.

Folsom returned to New Hampshire, where in August the colony’s legislature voted to make him the sole general of its militia. Sullivan and Stark remained with the Continental Army.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

General Folsom and Colonel Stark

On 29 May 1775, the New Hampshire Provincial Congress chose Nathaniel Folsom to command all its forces in the war against the Crown—which consisted of two regiments. Folsom arrived on the siege lines outside Boston on 20 June, three days after those regiments had fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. And immediately he found trouble.

On 23 June, Folsom wrote back to the New Hampshire government from Medford:
In my Letter to you yesterday I acquainted you that on my arrival here I Imediately waited on the Capt. General [Artemas Ward]; he then Order’d me to make return to him of the Two Regiments, viz. Colo. [John] Stark’s & Colo. [James] Reed’s, of their Situation and Circumstances; on my return here I sent orders to the Two Colos. to make return of their respective Regiments to me.

Colo. Reed Imediately obey’d the order but Colo. Stark repeatedly and at last absolutely refused to comply. I am well inform’d by Mr. Stark’s best friends that he does not Intend to be under any subordination to any Person appointed by the Congress of New Hampshire to the general command of the New Hampr Troops. I have tried all conciliatory methods both by Personal Conversation and the mediation of Friends, but without effect.

In consequence whereof I this afternoon again waited on the Capt. General at Head Quarters to take his order on the matter; he requested me to advise with the Committee of Safety of New Hampr on the Business, as Colo. Stark has received no Commission yet from you, he thinks he does not properly come under his cognizance. Gentlemen, it is I trust unnecessary to hint to you that without a Proper subordination it will be absolutely Impossible for me to Execute the Trust you have Reposed in me; in my last conversation with Mr. Stark, he told me he could take his Pack and return home (and meant as I suppose to Lead his men with him.) I represented to him the dishonorable part he would thereby act towards both Colonies.

I have since made Enquiry & find he would not be able to Lead off many more than the supernumerors of his Regiment, it still consisting of 13 Companys. I think a Regiment might be form’d of the men who have been under his command without his being appointed to the Command of ’em.

I must do the Justice to Letn. Col. [Isaac] Wyman to say he has behaved prudently, Courageously and very much like a Gentleman, and I think I could recommend him to the command as soon as any Person I know.
Just as things were looking interesting, two days later Folsom reported:
In my letter of the 23d Instant I informed you that Col. Stark refused subordination to my orders. But yesterday he made such submission as induces me to desire you to pass over said Letter, so far as it relates to him, unnoticed.
Why did Stark change his mind? I have no idea.

TOMORROW: How long did Gen. Folsom stay in command?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

“You will have bloody work to-day”

Yet another version of the Abijah WillardWilliam Prescott anecdote I’ve been discussing appeared in The Prescott Memorial, a genealogy published in 1870 by William Prescott, M.D.

That book quoted manuscript material from “Dr. Oliver Prescott, Jr., who was a nephew of Colonel William Prescott, and intimate in his family”; he had heard Col. Prescott often “relate a variety of anecdotes and incidents in his experience while in the army,” which he subsequently wrote down. In 1870, those pages were owned by “Miss Harriet Prescott of Cambridge, Mass.”

This version of the tale goes:
On the morning of the battle [of Bunker Hill], Governor [Thomas] Gage, the British commander, viewed the American works from an elevated position in Boston (Copp’s Hill), and called upon the tory refugees to see if they knew the commanding officer.

Abijah Willard, a mandamus counsellor, whose wife was a sister to Colonel Prescott, having viewed the works with the glass, informed Gage that he knew the commander well, “It is my brother-in-law, Prescott.”

“Will he fight?” asked Gage.

“Yes,” replied Willard, “that man will fight h—l, and if his men are like him you will have bloody work to-day.”
Each version of the story quotes Willard’s reply differently, though all three replies convey the same warning about Prescott’s bellicosity.

So what can we conclude? It seems certain that young men in the Prescott family heard this story as they grew up. They had no written source, and consequently the stories diverged before the mid-1800s. Nevertheless, all three versions contain the same core elements: Uncle Abijah Willard, Gen. Gage, Col. Prescott in the redoubt, the question “Will he fight?”

But there’s a question I’ve learned to ask about all early stories of British officials during the siege of Boston: How could Americans have known? Given that there was a, you know, war going on, how could the Prescott family have learned about Willard’s conversation with Gage?

Paul Lockhart describes the difficulty of Willard recognizing Prescott at the distance from Charlestown to Boston, and it would be even harder for Prescott to have heard Willard. Furthermore, as described in his entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Willard evacuated in 1776, worked as a commissary for the British army, and settled in New Brunswick after the war. So even if he had remained friends with Prescott up until the war began, he wasn’t around to pass on this story.

After Willard died in 1789, his third wife, the former Mary McKown, came back to Massachusetts until her own death in 1807. As for Willard’s surviving children:
  • daughter Elizabeth Wales also returned and died in Lancaster in 1822. Family historian Joseph Willard described her as “a very bright, intelligent lady, full of vivacity and conversation.”
  • daughter Anna Goodhue became the wife of a U.S. senator (shown above) and died in Lancaster in 1858. Joseph Willard also had nice things to say about her, though he didn’t describe her as a conversationalist.
  • son Samuel might never have left Lancaster, and lived there well into the 1800s.
That leaves the possibility that Abijah Willard’s widow or children heard the story from him and later passed it on to Col. Prescott or his family. Or maybe they took some statement Willard made about Prescott always being ready to fight and attached it to a very dramatic moment. It seems significant that the Prescott boys grew up believing that the tale involved Willard, not just any Loyalist.

Nevertheless, if Willard couldn’t have recognized Prescott at that distance, then the tale is a myth. Alas.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

“He will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins”

Yesterday I quoted what I think is the earliest printed version of the story of Abijah Willard recognizing his relative William Prescott on the redoubt before the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Richard Frothingham included a slightly different version of the story in his History of the Siege of Boston, first published in 1849:
To inspire confidence, Colonel Prescott mounted the parapet and walked leisurely around it, inspecting the works, giving directions to the officers, and encouraging the men by approbation, or amusing them with humor. One of his captains, understanding his motive, followed his example while superintending the labors of his company. This had the intended effect. The men became indifferent to the cannonade, or received the balls with repeated cheers.

The tall, commanding form of Prescott was observed by General [Thomas] Gage, as he was reconnoitring the Americans through his glass, who inquired of Councillor Willard, near him, “Who the person was who appeared to command?”

Willard recognized his brother-in-law.

“Will he fight?” again inquired Gage.

“Yes, sir; he is an old soldier, and will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins!”

“The works must be carried,” was the reply.
Frothingham cited a handwritten memoir of Col. Prescott by his namesake son. (As usual, I’ve broken up the single long paragraph in Frothingham’s book to make the text easier to read online.)

In 1875, Frothingham submitted that manuscript to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and it was published in the society’s Proceedings and in a booklet called The Battle-field of Bunker Hill. The anecdote is nearly the same:
As Governor Gage and his staff, with some other officers, were watching the progress of the battle from Copp’s Hill in Boston, he handed his glass to Colonel Willard, one of his council, and asked him to look and see if he knew the person who appeared to have the command of the rebels. He looked, and told the governor he knew him well; it was Colonel Prescott, his brother-in-law, and that he was sorry to see him there. “Will he fight?” inquires the governor. “Yes,” replied Colonel W., “he is an old soldier; he will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins; it will be a bloody day, you may depend on it.” “The works must be carried,” was the reply.
The manuscript included another anecdote about Prescott and Willard:
Colonel Prescott had determined never to be taken alive. A few months before the battle, while he commanded a regiment of minutemen, his brother-in-law, Colonel Willard, was at his house; and, endeavoring to dissuade him from the active part he was taking against the king’s government, among other things, suggested that, if he should be found in arms against it, his life and estate would be forfeited for treason. He replied: “I have made up my mind on that subject; I think it probable I may be found in arms, but I will never be taken alive. The Tories shall never have the satisfaction of seeing me hanged.”
As for the relationship between the two men, Willard’s first wife, Elizabeth, was Prescott’s older sister. She had died in 1751. By the Battle of Bunker Hill, Willard was on his third wife. The two men also shared the experience of serving as officers during the wars against the French. They didn’t live in the same town, however, or even the same county, and I’m not sure if there’s any evidence independent of these anecdotes that the men kept in close touch.

TOMORROW: Yet another version.

(Photo of the Prescott statue at the Bunker Hill Monument above by rjones0586, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

“Colonel Prescott will fight you to the gates of Hell!”

In The Whites of Their Eyes, his new book on the Battle of Bunker Hill, Paul Lockhart treats the story (dramatized here) of Abijah Willard recognizing Col. William Prescott on the redoubt on Breed’s Hill dismissively. In fact, he relegates the tale to a footnote. (Well, at least it’s not an endnote.)

Lockhart writes:
It’s a stirring anecdote, to be sure, but undoubtedly apocryphal. The closest [Gen. Thomas] Gage could have been to the fighting was Copp’s Hill—and if he was there, neither [Gen. Henry] Clinton nor [Gen. John] Burgoyne remarked upon it. And at that distance—over one thousand yards lay between Copp’s Hill and the summit of Breed’s—the idea that Willard could have seen and recognized Prescott, given the primitive optics of the day and the amount of gunsmoke that must have hung in the air, seems implausible at best.
Since I’m rather fond of that anecdote, I decided to check into when it appeared on the scene. The earliest version I’ve found appeared in the back of Memoirs of His Own Time, by Alexander Graydon, published in 1846. That book was edited by John Stockton Littell, who added appendixes about Revolutionary events and figures. In one of those, Littell wrote:
Gage, with his officers and others in whom he had confidence, went up to Beacon Hill to reconnoitre; after having looked through his telescope for some time, he handed it to a Mr. Willard, a mandamus counsellor, and describing the leader of the American troops as head and shoulders above the works, asked him who it was, and if the rebels would fight. Willard told him, that it was his brother-in-law, Prescott; “as to his men,” said he, “I cannot answer for them; but Colonel Prescott will fight you to the gates of Hell!”
Littell stated that his source for those facts was “a MS. of his friend, the late estimable and Reverend Edward G. Prescott, a grandson of Colonel Prescott.”

TOMORROW: But I found other versions as well.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Midwifery at the Shirley-Eustis House, 19 June

At the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury this Sunday, 19 June, from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M., there will be a hands-on demonstration of eighteenth-century midwifery techniques by Executive Director Patti Violette.

My first thought is that a hands-on demonstration must mean that site has a really dedicated set of volunteers.

But the event description says:
The midwife's duties would consist of gynecology, obstetrics, pharmacy, nursing, and grief counseling – she performed all aspects of medicine in the 18th century – except for surgery. This program will demonstrate the historical time line of a midwife while comparing the occupations of apothecary, physician, and man-midwives.

“This is a great way to truly understand how medicine and science has brought us into the 21st century,” said Executive Director Patti Violette, “After you experience this program, you will marvel at our great strides in medicinal technology since the 18th century. We will have hands-on activities creating soothing herbal remedies. Most of the items that we will use are probably already stored in your own kitchen!”
So it looks like the “hands-on” part will be restricted to those herbal remedies. Unless, of course, someone wants to volunteer.

The demonstrations run continuously, and the Shirley-Eustis House suggests a $5 donation. Or perhaps you could volunteer. For review, here’s a transcript of a podcast about midwifery from Colonial Williamsburg. And another podcast from the University of Houston about the man-midwife controversy.

Upcoming events at the Shirley-Eustis House this summer explore an eighteenth-century town meeting, a day in the life of a servant, and country/contra dancing.

(Photo of the Shirley-Eustis House gazebo by Tim Sackton via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Dinner for General Washington

On 18 June 1775, George Washington wrote in his diary:
Dined at Mullens upon Schoolkill. Spent the Evening at my lodgings.
The next day he recorded dinner at the house of Joseph Reed, soon to be his first military secretary. And then, on the day he received his formal commission as general from the Continental Congress, Washington stopped keeping his diary for a few years.

Years later, Dr. Benjamin Rush described what was probably that dinner at a tavern along the Schuylkill:
A few days after the appointment of General Washington to be commander in chief of the American armies, I was invited by a party of delegates and several citizens of Philadelphia to a dinner which was given to him at a tavern on the banks of the Skuilkill below the city. Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin, Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson, James Wilson, Jno. Langdon of New Hampshire and about a dozen more constituted the whole company.

The first toast that was given after dinner was “The Commander in chief of the American Armies.” General Washington rose from his seat, and with some confusion thanked the company for the honor they did him. The whole company instantly rose, and drank the toast standing. This scene, so unexpected, was a solemn one. A silence followed it, as if every heart was penetrated with the awful, but great events which were to follow the use of the sword of liberty which had just been put into General Washington’s hands by the unanimous voice of his country.
In his autobiography Rush added another anecdote:
About this time I saw Patrick Henry at his lodgings, who told me that General Washington had been with him, and informed him that he was unequal to the station in which his country had placed him, and then added with tears in his eyes “Remember, Mr. Henry, what I now tell you: From the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall, and the ruin of my reputation.”
That story seems out of character for Washington to me. But of course he worked hard at presenting a certain character to the world, and we’re not privy to many unguarded moments. A slight change in the words Henry remembered—“I fear that from the day I enter…,” or some such—makes it easy to imagine those words from Washington’s mouth.

Friday, June 17, 2011

“The enemy fir’d very warm from Boston”

One of the standard sources on the Battle of Bunker Hill is a letter written on 25 June 1775 by Peter Brown of Westford, who served in Col. William Prescott’s regiment. The Massachusetts Historical Society displays the letter in its online exhibit about the battle.

The battle begins:
after tarrying on parade till Nine at Night [on 16 June], we march’d down, on to Charleston Hill against Copts hill in Boston, where we entrench’d & made a Fort, ten Rods long, and eight wide, with a Breastwork of about eight more, we work’d there undiscovered till about five in the Morning, when we saw our danger, being against Ships of the Line, and all Boston fortified against us,

The danger we were in made us think there was treachery and that we were brought there to be all slain, and I must and will say that there was treachery oversight or presumption in the Conduct of our Officers, for about 5 in the morning, we not having more than half our fort done, they began to fire (I suppose as soon as they had orders) pretty briskly for a few minutes, then ceas’d but soon begun again, and fird to the number of twenty minutes, (they killd but one of our Men) then ceas’d to fire till about eleven oClock when they began to fire as brisk as ever, which caus’d many of our young Country people to desert, apprehending the danger in a clearer manner than others who were more diligent in digging, & fortifying ourselves against them.

We began to be almost beat out, being fatigued by our Labour, having no sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum, but what we hazzarded our lives to get, we grew faint, Thirsty, hungry and weary.—

The enemy fir’d very warm from Boston, and from on board their Ships till about 2 oClock when they began to fire from Ships that lay in Ferry way and from a ship that lay in the river against us, to stop our reinforcement, which they did in some Measure one cannon cut three Men in two on the neck,

Our Officers sent time after time for Cannon from Cambridge in the Morning & could get but four, the Captn of which [Samuel Gridley?] fir’d a few times then swung his Hat three times round to the enemy and ceas’d to fire, then about three o Clock there was a cessation of the Cannons roaring, soon after we espied as many as 40, boats or barges coming over, full of troops it is supposed there were about 3000 of them, and about 700 of us left…
Read the whole letter here.

In the same letter Brown told his mother in Newport, “I do a Clerk or Orderly Sergants business; which requires much care but the Duty is easier, and the pay higher than a private Soldiers.” His ability to write got him that job, and let him record an ordinary soldier’s experience of the battle. Other than this letter, very little is known of Peter Brown.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Brace of Bunker Hill Authors in 2011

This season has brought two new books on the Battle of Bunker Hill and surrounding events, and both authors will be speaking in Boston over the next two days.

On Thursday, 16 June, Prof. Paul Lockhart of Wright State University will lecture at the Massachusetts Historical Society on his book The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington. His previous books include The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army.

This talk is co-sponsored by the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge, now offering free tours every Wednesday through Sunday. Lockhart’s lecture is free and open to the public, with refreshments before and books for sale after, but the historical society asks people to reserve a space in advance.

On Friday, 17 June, James L. Nelson will be the orator at the Bunker Hill Day Commemorative Exercises. His latest book is With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution. The exercises at the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown start at 10:00 A.M., following a religious service and a parade.

Nelson is the author of George Washington’s Secret Navy, Benedict Arnold’s Navy, and George Washington’s Great Gamble, as well as some award-winning maritime historical fiction. With Fire and Sword might be Nelson’s first book about fighting over (gasp!) land. But of course Royal Navy gunners were the first British to fire on the provincials building their redoubt on Breed’s Hill.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

“To take immediate Possession of Bunker’s Hill, and Dorchester Neck”

A couple of days ago, I quoted a warning from New Hampshire to Massachusetts about the British army planning to seize the Charlestown and Dorchester peninsulas.

In response to that and other warnings, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety met on 15 June at the house of Harvard steward Jonathan Hastings and came to this conclusion:
Whereas, it appears of Importance to the Safety of this Colony, that possession of the Hill, called Bunker’s Hill, in Charlestown, be securely kept and defended; and also some one hill or hills on Dorchester Neck [i.e., peninsula] be likewise Secured. Therefore, Resolved, Unanimously, that it be recommended to the Council of War, that the abovementioned Bunker’s Hill be maintained, by sufficient force being posted there; and as the particular situation of Dorchester Neck is unknown to this Committee, they advise that the Council of War take and pursue such steps respecting the Same, as to them shall appear to be for the Security of this Colony.
As Charles Martyn interpreted the documentary evidence in his biography of Gen. Artemas Ward, that commander convened his council of war, also in the Hastings house, and decided:
Resolved in Council of War to take immediate Possession of Bunker’s Hill, and Dorchester Neck.
But Gen. John Thomas wasn’t at Ward’s council of war in Cambridge. In fact, I’m not sure whether he was at any of Ward’s councils of war. And Thomas had responsibility for Dorchester and the southern wing of the siege.

So the Committee of Safety sent two members, Joseph Palmer and Benjamin White, to meet with Thomas. And Ward’s council of war sent Gen. Israel Putnam, Col. Joseph Ward (the commander’s secretary), and Col. Samuel Gerrish to relay its resolve. They were all “to consult with the Commanding Officers at Roxbury respecting the expediency of carrying the above Resolutions into Execution.”

Thomas didn’t take the decision of Ward’s council as an order. He evidently convened his own council of war, and they concluded that they didn’t have the resources to hold the Dorchester peninsula against a likely British countermove. As a result, that area remained a no-man’s land until the following March.

Would the siege of Boston have been different if Gen. Thomas’s troops had taken possession of the Dorchester peninsula at the same time that Ward’s wing marched into Charlestown? Well, sure. But different in what way is hard to figure.

Would Gen. Thomas Gage have split his forces to attack both peninsulas, and not been able to capture either? Or would sending men into Dorchester have weakened Thomas’s defenses in Roxbury, opening the door for a British charge down the Boston Neck?

Given the topography of the Dorchester peninsula, would its hills’ defenders have been cut off? (Most of the provincials who went into Charlestown got out.) Would holding the heights of either peninsula have mattered for the New England forces when they had little to no heavy artillery? We’ll never know.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, on 15 June 1775, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief of the army it had just created on paper.

(Above is Thomas’s headquarters in Roxbury, now known as the Dillaway-Thomas House. The photograph is by Tim Sackton via Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“Some resolutions which they had come into”

While folks in New England were discussing whether to occupy the Charlestown and Dorchester heights, here’s what the Continental Congress was up to in Philadelphia:
The Congress met and agreeable to the order of the day, resolved itself into a committee of the whole, to take into consideration &c.
As a committee of the whole, the Congress didn’t have to keep notes on its deliberations. In fact, it had been working as a committee of the whole for so long the secretary didn’t even bother to write out what they were considering.
After some time spent thereon, the president resumed the chair, and Mr [Samuel] Ward [of Rhode Island] reported, that not having yet come to a conclusion they desired him to move for leave to sit again. At the same time they desired him to report some resolutions which they had come into.

The resolutions being read, were adopted as follows:

Resolved, That six companies of expert rifflemen, be immediately raised in Pensylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia; that each company consist of a captain, three lieutenants, four serjeants, four corporals, a drummer or trumpeter, and sixty-eight privates.

That each company, as soon as compleated, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army.

That the pay of the Officers and privates be as follows, viz. a captain @ 20 dollars per month; a lieutenant @ 13 1/3 dollars; a serjeant @ 8 dollars; a corporal @ 7 1/3 dollars; drummer or [trumpeter] @ 7 1/3 doll.; privates @ 6 2/3 dollars; to find their own arms and cloaths.

That the form of the enlistment be in the following words:
I have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army, for one year, unless sooner discharged: And I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army.
Upon motion, Resolved, That Mr. [George] Washington, Mr. [Philip] Schuyler, Mr. [Silas] Deane, Mr. [Thomas] Cushing, and Mr. [Joseph] Hewes be a committee to bring in a dra’t of Rules and regulations for the government of the army. . . .

Resolved, That the Congress will, to Morrow, resolve itself into a committee of the whole, to take into consideration the ways and means of raising money, and the state of America. This to be a standing order, until the business is compleated.

Adjourned till to Morrow at 9 o’Clock.
The record doesn’t really say what was significant about those resolutions. The Congress was accepting control of the army outside Boston, as the Massachusetts delegation had requested weeks before. In other words, it was legally turning the New England colonies’ combined army into the Continental Army. Furthermore, the Congress was going to pay for regiments from three other colonies to head to Cambridge and join the soldiers there.

Of the five men put on the committee to draw up rules for the army, the first two—Washington and Schuyler—would shortly be made commander-in-chief and major-general of that army. (That’s Schuyler up above.)

As a result, 14 June is usually treated as the anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Army, as well as (by coincidence) the anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. flag in 1777. But which was more significant?

Monday, June 13, 2011

“I gave them our standard talk about Paul Revere…”

From Episcopal Café, the Rev. Stephen T. Ayres of Old North Church shares his side of the Sarah Palin/Paul Revere kerfuffle. After all, he showed the former governor and her family through the church shortly before she told television cameras what she’d take away from her visit to Boston.

I gave them our standard talk about Paul Revere and the two men who hung the lanterns in the steeple, Robert Newman and John Pulling. I added a bit about the debate between John Hancock and Sam Adams after they received the warning from Revere . . . I did mention that Revere was arrested by British troops and led back to Lexington, warning those British troops that the minutemen had been alerted.

After the introductory talk, we climbed up to the bell ringing chamber, where I talked about how Paul Revere how founded our bell ringing guild in 1750 as a teenager. Governor Palin was particularly interested to see a copy of the original bell ringing contract between Paul Revere and his friends and the rector of Old North, Dr. [Timothy] Cutler. The contract portrays a group of teenagers using democratic principles to organize their bell ringing guild.
Ha! I guessed that Revere’s adolescent bell-ringing had something to do with it.
I was surprised and bemused when the video of Governor Palin's impromptu history quiz went viral the next day. I knew where all the factoids she cited came from and take responsibility for putting them in her head. I will not take the blame for the odd order those factoids came out. Perhaps it was too much information in too short a period of time to digest properly. Maybe if we climbed to the top of the steeple and viewed the lanterns, the governor wouldn't have focused on the bells. Who knows? . . .

I am somewhat saddened by what passes for news and for fact these days. We can laugh at Governor Palin, who may not have gotten all her facts wrong, but certainly didn't get them all straight. But what does this story, with its incredible legs, say about the rest of us? Why was such a large media contingent following the governor in the first place, particularly when many of them were publicly complaining that the trip was not newsworthy?
Part of the answer is the power of celebrity, of course. The same social force that got Palin and her family a special tour of Old North by the minister himself after the National Park Service had brought over security dogs, as Ayres describes at the start of his essay. (Rep. Earl Blumenauer has queried that public expense.) The same force that gave rise to a Palin impersonator outside. It’s a weird phenomenon, but one that acts on nearly all of us.

Another part of the answer is the modern American right’s attempt to claim exclusive ownership of the country’s founding period and legacy. A lot of people get the details of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution mixed up. But when Herman Cain does so while standing for the Republican nomination for President, and while acting more-knowledgeable-and-patriotic-than-thou, that flub is bound to mean more to the public.

“Secure some advantageous Posts near Boston”

On 13 June 1775, the New Hampshire Committee of Safety, meeting in Exeter, sent this message to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety in Cambridge:

By a Gent’n of undoubted veracity (who left Boston last Friday & who had frequent oppor’s of conversing with ye principle officers in Gen’l [Thomas] Gage’s army) we are informed that there is a great probability that when the expected reinforcement arrives from Europe that Gen’l Gage will secure some advantageous Posts near Boston, viz. Dorchester & Charlestown. We are unacquainted with the importance of those posts, but if this hint sho’d be in any degree usefull it will give us pleasure.
That is often taken as the spur that led the Massachusetts committee to order troops into Charlestown ahead of the British, bringing on the Battle of Bunker Hill. But it was probably one of many indications that the British, now reinforced with three more generals and many more soldiers, were about to make an aggressive move.

Furthermore, the Massachusetts leaders already knew about the strategic importance of the Dorchester and Charlestown peninsulas. They had been hearing warnings that the Gage and his officers wanted those posts for over a month. Most of the inhabitants of Charlestown had evacuated, fearing a fight. (The Dorchester peninsula was less populated to begin with.)

The main question was when the British might move. On some occasions, such as the march on Salem in February, the army had acted on a Sunday, when so many New Englanders were in church. The next Sunday was 18 June.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sarah Palin’s Last Word on Paul Revere

For several days last week, much of America seemed consumed by the vital issue of whether former half-term governor Sarah Palin misspoke about the history of Paul Revere, or whether her comments referred to one particular moment in the early hours of 19 April 1775.

As we recall, during her visit to Boston’s North End, Palin told television cameras that Revere was: “He who warned, uh, the…the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells…”

Law professor William A. Jacobson, who started a blog in large part because he dislikes criticism of Palin, then pointed out that when Maj. Edward Mitchell detained Revere at pistol point in Lincoln, the silversmith told him all about alarming the countryside. (Boston artist Dan Mazur has shared a comic-book version of this episode drawn by Alex Toth.)

That episode could be interpreted, historians conceded, as warning the British. It wasn’t the purpose or most important moment of Revere’s ride, however. And he certainly didn’t warn Mitchell “by ringin’ those bells.”

So did Palin share a correct and uncommonly knowledgeable interpretation of Revere’s ride? Or was she correct only in the way that a stopped clock is correct if you look at it in exactly the right way and ignore it a second later?

That argument might have raged forever, but then someone came along and made it impossible to maintain that Palin enjoys a detailed, accurate understanding of the start of the Revolutionary War. That person was Sarah Palin.

Within the friendly confines of her employer, Palin made a follow-up statement that—even with cramming and preparation—contained so many errors that it confirmed her historical ignorance. She said:

I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere. Here is what Paul Revere did. He warned the Americans that the British were coming, the British were coming, and they were going to try to take our arms and we got to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and shoring up all of our ammunitions and our firearms so that they couldn’t take it. But remember that the British had already been there, many soldiers for seven years in that area. And part of Paul Revere’s ride — and it wasn’t just one ride — he was a courier, he was a messenger — part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there. That, hey, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have. He did warn the British. And in a shout-out, gotcha type of question that was asked of me, I answered candidly. And I know my American history.
Let’s take those points one by one.

“He warned the Americans that the British were coming, the British were coming…”

Previously, we recall, Palin said the opposite: “He who warned, uh, the…the British…” But this elaboration started with acknowledging Americans’ basic shared understanding of what Revere did.

In doing so, Palin echoed the cliché phrase, “The British are coming!” Historians have pointed out for years that the American colonists of 1775 still thought of themselves as British subjects fighting for British rights. Therefore, Revere wouldn’t have used that language. In retrospect, however, it’s useful to write about “the British government” or “the British army” to distinguish those from the provincial or American equivalents. And perhaps that’s what Palin was doing here.

(Back here Boston 1775 discussed what might be the earliest appearance of the phrase “The British are coming” in stories of that event.)

“…and they were going to try to take our arms and we got to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and shoring up all of our ammunitions and our firearms so that they couldn’t take it.”

Palin probably meant “storing up” instead of “shoring up,” which is what one does with the levee. The plural of “ammunition” is usually just “ammunition.” The antecedent of “it” should be singular, not two plurals.

But the historical issue here is the word “firearms,” which refers especially to rifles, pistols, and other weapons people carry. Gen. Thomas Gage sent soldiers to Concord to look for cannon. The most advanced battlefield weapons of the day.

“But remember that the British had already been there, many soldiers for seven years in that area.”

What might Palin have meant by “that area”? There were never British soldiers stationed in Lincoln, where Revere was detained. British regiments did come to Boston in 1768, seven years before Revere’s ride. But then they pulled out of the town in 1770. One regiment remained in a fort on an island in the harbor. If we charitably concede that Palin’s “that area” could mean anywhere in eastern Massachusetts, then this would be technically correct. But historically Bostonians experienced a significant decrease in the military presence from 1770 to 1774.

“And part of Paul Revere’s ride — and it wasn’t just one ride — he was a courier, he was a messenger.”

It’s hard to see how Revere’s other rides support Palin’s point, or indeed are relevant. Is it possible that she just threw out that fact because it was something she remembered hearing about Paul Revere and thought might sound impressive?

“part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there. That, hey, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms.”

For most English speakers, the phrase “was to” indicates purpose—i.e., that Revere undertook his ride in order to warn the British. But Revere worked very hard at avoiding British military personnel on the night of 18-19 April.

If Revere had intended to pass a message to a British officer, he could have done so back in Boston. He could have caught the attention of sailors on the Somerset. He could have stopped to chat with the mounted officers who chased him toward Medford. But he didn’t, because the last thing he wanted to do was talk to the royal authorities.

Only after Revere had been captured—an event he didn’t want to happen—did he speak to a British officer. At that point, his ride was over. He wasn’t operating according to his original intent. Palin’s second statement about Revere’s warning to the British was thus more erroneous than her first.

“You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have.”

Here Palin showed her true colors, badly misstating history as she blew a dog whistle to America’s far right. The colonial militia was not an “individual, private militia.” It was an arm of the government, and of society. Militia service was required and regulated by law, and militia units were organized on a provincial, county, and town basis.

Capt. John Parker was not in an “individual, private militia.” Timothy McVeigh was. It’s an important distinction.

“And in a shout-out, gotcha type of question that was asked of me, I answered candidly.”

The “gotcha type of question” was: “What have you seen so far today, and what are you going to take away from your visit?” Palin misstated the history of a few days before, let alone centuries back.

As for “candidly,” it would have been candid for Palin to say, “I misspoke. I should have said that ‘Paul Revere warned about the British,’ or that ‘Paul Revere’s ride is a warning to anyone who wants to take away Americans’ right to defend ourselves.’” But that would have required admitting a minor error.

“And I know my American history.”

No, she really doesn’t. And worse than that, she doesn’t know how to admit to being even a little wrong.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

William Russell’s Writing

Last month the Seth Kaller auction house alerted me to this collection of the Revolutionary War documents of William Russell (1748-1784), a Tea Party participant, charter member of Col. Thomas Crafts’s militia artillery regiment after the war began, privateer crewman under Capt. John Manley, and twice prisoner of war.

The collection includes a note from Crafts and several letters written home while Russell was in captivity in Britain or New York harbor. I see mentions of Benjamin Edes and James Brewer. Some of the material has been published in The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem, by Ralph D. Paine.

According to Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves, Russell was “sometime usher in Master Griffiths’ school, on Hanover Street, below the Orange Tree.” John Griffith was a private schoolteacher, rather than one employed by the town. I’ve long wondered how he had enough students to hire an usher, or assistant teacher.

Handwriting was a major part of the colonial curriculum, and Russell’s ability to write clearly was a big part of his military career. As sergeant major of Crafts’s regiment, he wrote out the first list of recruits. Later he was the regiment’s adjutant, or administrative officer, during an attempt to drive the British military from Newport.

On board Manley’s ship, Russell was a clerk. The captain was reportedly barely literate, so a clerk would have been a good thing. During his first stint as a prisoner, in the Mill Prison in England, Russell kept a detailed diary, which I believe is now at the Peabody Essex Museum. Someday I’ll quote from the published version.

Russell’s name appeared on the first published list of Tea Party members, in the back of Traits of the Tea Party (1835). One of Russell’s sons, John, had grown up to be an apprentice at the Massachusetts/Columbian Centinel; I’ve theorized that that newspaper’s publisher, Benjamin Russell, was the source of that first Tea Party list.

The same year that book came out, as the Boston Tea Party became famous, John Russell gave a lecture about the event in Salem, and of course he invoked his father’s name. I should note, however, that John Russell was born in 1779, so he had no first-hand knowledge of what happened in 1773. He was also only five years old when his father died, so he probably couldn’t sort out what he’d heard his father say from what he’d heard from other relatives. Still, Russell’s connections to Crafts and other activists make it likely that he did help to destroy the tea.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tristram Shandy and the American Generals

Yesterday Boston 1775 shared a glimpse of one spread from Tristram Shandy, a publishing sensation two and a half centuries ago. It made its author, the Rev. Laurence Sterne (shown here), into a celebrity.

Among the novel’s fans in America was Nathanael Greene. He made allusions to the book in his letters, and he imitated characters. According to Greene’s grandson and biographer:
his brothers, to the day of their death, could never mention Tristram Shandy without dilating upon the exquisite comicality of his impersonation of Dr. Slop.
In July 1775, Greene was made a brigadier general in the Continental Army and then assigned to serve under the major general Charles Lee.

Reading sources from that year, I sense that a lot of people saw Lee as larger than life. He was considered one of the greatest experts on military affairs in North America. He had been wounded once in battle and twice in duels. He had traveled west far enough to lead the first British expedition on Lake Erie, and east far enough to have seen the Russians fight the Turks.

Lee had told off George III for not granting him a regimental command. He had met the king of Poland, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Frederick the Great of Prussia. He was friends was Isaac Barré, Catherine Macaulay, the Earl of Shelburne, Edmund Burke, and other leading British opposition figures. Lee’s own political writing was widely reprinted in America in 1774-75.

And Lee was a good friend of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy. The two men had even published verse together. Imagine getting a new boss like that.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

“Throw down the book at once”

Sunday’s Boston Globe alerted me to this year’s 250th anniversary of the third volume of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, and its Marbled Page. Actually, I hadn’t thought of the Marbled Page in capitalized terms before.

Sterne and his narrator introduce that page by saying:
I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once, for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.
Since the facing page was originally created with hand-marbled paper, each edition was different. The fact that the effects of marbling aren’t entirely under the craftsperson’s control added another layer of randomness. So, yes, that meaning could be difficult to penetrate. Unless the meaning was randomness itself.

Of course, by the time I read Tristram Shandy as a Penguin paperback, this page had been thinned out to a uniform grayscale image of a single piece of marbled paper, probably chosen by the publisher decades before. Still, it was fun to see Sterne playing with the book form.

This fall the Laurence Sterne Trust, which maintains the author’s home Shandy Hall, will host an exhibit celebrating this anniversary called “The Emblem of My Work”. The exhibit has its own website, naturally. Different artists have been invited to interpret the marbled Marbled Page.

This exhibit follows a similar celebration two years ago of Volume 1’s all-black page (“the black one”), which signaled a character’s death. That exhibit, too, had a website. I have to say, though, that a lot of those Black Pages aren’t very black.

TOMORROW: Tristram Shandy and the American generals.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

“We begin to simplify experience into myth”

In a review of recent books about World War 2 in the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic editor Adam Kirsch closes with some thoughts about historical myth-making, debunking, and revision:
It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.

The best history writing reverses this process, restoring complexity to our sense of the past. Indeed, its most important lesson may be that the awareness of ambiguity must not lead to detachment and paralysis. . . . The fact that we can still be instructed by the war, that we are still proud of our forefathers’ virtues and pained by their sufferings and sins, is the best proof that World War II is still living history.
I think the same words apply to the Revolutionary War, or any other conflict that folks study with lively accuracy.

The image above is “Washington & Lincoln (Apotheosis)”, created about 1865, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Origin of “Live Free or Die”

Back in February, I wrote about Rep. Michele Bachmann’s reverence for the Founding Fathers, and how trying to reconcile that conviction with modern values led her into stating historical nonsense.

In March, Bachmann told people in New Hampshire, “You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.“ When corrected, she posted on Facebook: “It was my mistake, Massachusetts is where they happened. New Hampshire is where they are still proud of it!” Note the scurrilous implication about states besides New Hampshire.

Last month Bachmann campaigned in New Hampshire again, and, according to the Boston Globe:
She cited the idealism of Abraham Lincoln, and of General John Stark of New Hampshire who coined the phrase that is the state motto “Live Free or Die.”
And this time I must note that Bachmann (or her speechwriters) got it right.

In 1822, John Farmer and Jacob Bailey Moore printed the first volume of their Collections, Topographical, Historical and Biographical, Relating Principally to New-Hampshire. It included a “Biographical Sketch of General John Stark” quoting some of his letters.

In 1809, a committee from Vermont invited Stark to a dinner commemorating “the action commonly called the Bennington Battle.” On 31 July, Stark wrote back from his home in Derryfield, declining the invitation on account of his age; “You say you wish your young men to see me. But you who have seen me, can tell them that I was never worth much for a show, and certainly cannot be worth their seeing now.”

Stark’s letter didn’t include the words, “Live free or die.” But the following year, the Vermont committee wrote again (in a letter published in 1860 in Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark) to say:
In your patriotic address to us last year, we regret that you tell us that the oil is almost extinguished in the lamp, and that age has rendered it impossible for you to attend, although we are again pressed by our fellow-citizens to give you an invitation to come and join in the festivities of the day. The toast, sir, which you sent us in 1809, will continue to vibrate with unceasing pleasure in our ears: “Live free, or die—Death is not the worst of evils.”
The Collections volume also printed that saying (without the comma), with the statement: “Accompanying this letter, the General forwarded as his volunteer this sentiment.” That appears to be a rare use of the word volunteer to mean a voluntary gift. So it appears that Stark sent that toast on a separate piece of paper, which was lost or else its full text would be reprinted, but the information on that paper was preserved by the second letter.

Now let’s savor the irony that New Hampshire’s motto was invented for, and preserved by, folks in Vermont. (Of course, the “Bennington Battle” actually took place in New York. See, it doesn’t pay to suggest that only Americans from one state are special.)

Monday, June 06, 2011

Kudos to Peter and Jane Montague Benes

The Mass Humanities conference “Off the Record: Telling Lives of People Hidden in Plain Sight” is taking place today at Holy Cross. I’m sorry not to be there because the topic looks very interesting, but I’m at my keyboard finishing up a big writing project.

I especially wish I could attend to clap for Peter and Jane Montague Benes, recipients of this year’s Bay State Legacy Award. As the conference program says:
Peter and Jane Montague Benes are synonymous with the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife. As founders of this more than 30-year series of conferences and publications, they have helped professional and avocational historians alike explore an extraordinary range of subjects in the everyday life, work, and culture of the Commonwealth and the region. In dozens of co-edited volumes, and publications from the 1977 Masks of Orthodoxy to the forthcoming Meetinghouses of Early New England, the breadth and depth of Peter and Jane's contributions to Massachusetts History are unequalled.
I’m one of the “avocational” historians who’ve benefited from Peter and Jane’s work in organizing symposia and preparing publications, and from their friendship and enthusiasm for New England history from the bottom up.

Later this month, 24-26 June, the 2011 Dublin Seminar will tackle the topic of “Beyond the Battlefield: New England and the Civil War.” Even though that’s the wrong civil war for me, I’m looking forward to another full program of new research on the daily lives of ordinary and extraordinary New Englanders.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Real Paul Revere in Newton, 7 June

On Tuesday, 7 June, Robert Martello will speak at the Newton library on his book Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Growth of American Enterprise.

This book is part biography of Revere, part history of the climate for new business and technology in the early republic. Revere was an entrepreneur, but then so was nearly everybody in an economy based on family workshops and farms. Revere stood out as a pioneer in moving from his North End to large metalworking factory compounds—in his case, casting bronze pieces like church bells and cannon and rolling copper sheets for ships and buildings.

Martello is a professor of the history of science and technology at Olin College. I heard him speak at Lexington earlier in the year, and he packs a lot into one talk. (Which means he speaks even faster than I do.) His talk begins at 7:30 P.M., and he’ll sign books afterward.

Also, via BoingBoing and Judy Cataldo, here’s a Photoshop artist’s rendition of how Revere might have responded to recent news.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Sarah Palin Meets Paul Revere

Yesterday former half-term governor Sarah Palin’s made-for-television bus tour of historic sites ran into a pothole when she spoke on camera about Paul Revere. As transcribed by The Selling of the President 1968 author Joe McGinniss, Palin said Revere was:
He who warned, uh, the…the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and um by makin’ sure that as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warnin’ shots and bells that uh we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free…and we were gonna be armed.
Needless to say, Revere didn’t ride to warn the British. He rode to warn provincial militia officers and the Continental Congress delegates Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were on the march.

One could make the argument that Revere’s actions led to a massive popular response that served as a warning to British officials about the people’s determination to protect their traditional liberties—I’m just not convinced that Palin could make that argument, at least without coaching.

Furthermore, her comment about “takin’ away our arms” connotes that the royal forces were after personal weapons like muskets and pistols. The goal of the British march was artillery which the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had collected using diverted taxes for a military force independent of the royal government. That’s an important distinction, I think.

It sounds like Palin got an accurate description of Revere, the Lexington alarm, and his adolescent bell-ringing at Old North Church during her travels, but that history got garbled in her attempt to spin it into modern right-wing talking points (“Put the government on warning!” “We need our arms!”). The result was her typical stew of folksy phrases without logical or grammatical connections.

However, some of the websites critiquing Palin’s remark made historical errors of their own. Mediaite said of Revere:
He had to be quiet to not let the British know that he knew (sorry, but no bells either) they were coming– to seize weapons stores, actually…
And McGinniss elaborated on that:
the whole point of Revere’s ride from Boston to Lexington (his destination was Concord, but he didn’t make it) was that it was secret. Because the Middlesex County countryside was rife with British supporters, Revere virtually whispered his warnings that the King’s forces were crossing the Charles River on the night of April 18-19, 1775 to launch an attack upon the American rebels.
There weren’t many “British supporters,” or Crown supporters to be scrupulous, in Middlesex County by April 1775. The most prominent had been chased into Boston, or cowed into silence. Revere had to leave Boston secretly, but once he was outside town his only worry was being stopped by British army officers sent to patrol the roads ahead of the march. They nearly caught him in Charlestown, and did catch him in Lincoln.

One person even had to ask Revere to keep it down: Sgt. William Munroe, guarding the parsonage in Lexington. According to his recall in 1825:
About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested, that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house. “Noise!” said he, “you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.”
“Warnin’ shots and bells” were definitely part of the Massachusetts militia alarm, though not from Revere himself. People in rural towns used church bells and alarm guns to summon their neighbors; many British officers described hearing those signals during the march west. Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould even testified that he heard cannon.

(Caricature above courtesy of The New Yorker.)