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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Sunday, April 15, 2012

“The person chose to carry on our Military preparations”

A few years back, Boston 1775 reader Judy Cataldo alerted me to the United States Revolution collection of the American Antiquarian Society. In it are several documents linked to James Barrett, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress delegate and militia colonel who was collecting artillery and other military stores in Concord in the spring of 1775.

On 15 March, David Cheever of Charlestown wrote to Barrett on behalf of the congress’s Committee on Supplies that he was sending “a Load of Bullets,” and that “Seven Men for putting up the Cartrage and Ball will be up with you tomorrow, when you must provide for them, and a House to work In.”

Two days later Cheever wrote:
Mr John Austin the Bearer of this Letter is the person chose to carry on our Military preparations and of more men the names of whome he will aquaint you with, and desier you will Furnish them with provision and a House to Carry on our military preparations. The Committee will be up next Wednesday and ease you of the trouble
And a day after that, on 18 March, Cheever sent another load that included “a chest of Cloathes and 2 Caggs for Mr Austan’s Workmen.” That letter also said:
this teem is sent away at 10 O’clock Satturday night in a Graite pannick Just having heard that the Kings Officers have seazed a cart load of Cartrages going thru Roxbury containing 19000 which must make you and I Extremely Cautious in our carrying on
Lemuel Shattuck quoted briefly from those letters in his 1835 history of Concord, when the documents were probably still held by the Barrett family.

These letters basically confirm what Agnes Austin told Harvard librarian John Langdon Sibley about her father in 1858, as I quoted yesterday: “John Austin, with ten others, was at work nine weeks at Concord before the battle. They were collecting and arranging public stores.” There appear to have been only eight men, they were working in Concord for only a month before the war began, and they were probably making musket (or maybe artillery) cartridges rather than being in charge of all the stores.

But Agnes Austin was only six years old in 1775, and she spoke to Sibley over eighty years later. Furthermore, given that her father’s work was top-secret, there’s remarkable confirmation of her recollection.

That documentary support adds credibility to the rest of Agnes Austin’s anecdote, about how her father responded to the warning that British soldiers were on the way:
Mr. Austin told the men to dress themselves as much like gentlemen as they could, to put on two shirts as they might be captured & they would want them. & then disperse & take care of themselves.
I’ve read about men on privateers also putting on two shirts when they expected to be captured. Clothing was relatively expensive in the eighteenth century, and an extra shirt was also the equivalent of an extra pair of underwear.

On 19 Apr 1775, British soldiers reached the James Barrett farm, the far end of the march into Middlesex County, looking for the very supplies John Austin and his men had been preparing.

TOMORROW: What happened to Austin after the shooting started?

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