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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Monday, September 12, 2011

Studying Off Someone Else’s Notes

This weekend I was looking at Google Book’s version of Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington, digitized from a copy in the Harvard library. I noticed that someone seems to have written all over it.

Well, not just anyone—a line on the title page says that Phinney gave that copy to Lemuel Shattuck, historian of Concord (shown here, courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services). That suggests that one of those two men made the notes.

The list of American casualties on pages 27-30 includes handwritten titles and corrections of spellings and an omission: Luther Blanchard of Acton, wounded at the North Bridge.

Starting on page 41, the note-taker copied a few items from contemporaneous newspapers. (These page images appear repeatedly, so it’s a little confusing.) There’s the first London Gazette report on the battle, as reprinted in the Philadelphia Ledger; notes on men named to the Massachusetts Council in 1774; and lastly on page 68 an acrostic on the name of Thomas Gage.

Most interesting, pages 55-64 are a list of “General and Staff Officers of the Army in N. America in 1774-75 taken from the Register of 1775,” followed by lists of officers for His Majesty’s Marines, and 10th, 5th, 4th, 18th, and 23rd Regiments of Foot. These include the names of chaplains, adjutants, quartermasters, and surgeons, who don’t always show up in other sources—particularly since some of those appointees never set foot in North America.

All of those names would need to be verified, of course. Still, I thought it might be a useful starting-point for someone. And an interesting glimpse of a historian at work.


Jari Backman said...

Thank you for this interesting entry. It has occupied my mind for several days.

First, looking on the autograph and the notes at the back of the book, they look to differ a great deal. Not an expert, but I found it much easier to read the notes than the autograph. And while comparing some letters, like 'w', the difference was evident. Of course, an expert is needed for verification.

Secondly, the annexed testimonies were interesting.

In the first one Elijah Sanderson names the third rider stopped by the British patrol as the son of Dr. Prescott. Samuel Prescott and Elijah were about the same age, around 23 years old. So maybe he was just not yet recognized as a practising doctor, and as he was killed only two years later, he was remembered by the local people as the son of Dr. Prescott.

The testimony of William Munro was interesting, as it was recorded in March 1825. As the current Wikipedia page on William Munroe indicates that he died in 1820, the testimony first sounded inaccurate as the reference in wikipedia was quite precise (American Mercury (CT), Nov. 20, 1820, p. 1). But then I found that the Munroe Tavern website states that he was a proprietor there until 1827 and the reliability of the wikipedia reference sunk in my mind.

Do you happen to know when William passed away? Unfortunately, his age at the time of the testimony isn't given as with many others, but James Phinney Munroe reveals on the preface of his forged letter that William was 47 in November 1789, which makes him to be around 33 in April 1775.

Thank you for this interesting blog.

J. L. Bell said...

There must be a typo in the Wikipedia entry about William Munroe (or it was misled by a typo elsewhere). The same obituary it dates to 1820 shows up in a Pittsfield newspaper in 1827, which accords with the Munroe Tavern information.

The Sanderson deposition does indeed reflect the view of the world from when he gave that information, remembering the elder Dr. Prescott more clearly than his long-dead son. Remarks from 1775 show that people of the time did see Samuel Prescott as a doctor, albeit a young one.

Working further up your interesting comment, the note on the title page is doubly curious because it’s written in the third person, so I’m not sure whether Phinney wrote it to show he was presenting the copy to Shattuck, or whether Shattuck wrote it to remind himself he got the copy from Phinney. But whoever wrote that line didn’t write the notes.