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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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gen. Charles Lee’s Recruiting Tactics

This is another extract from the diary of Pvt. Simeon Lyman of Connecticut, stationed on the north wing of the Continental siege lines in the fall of 1775. Although it says nothing about the powder horn Lyman carved in October, I think it has a direct connection to the military career of horn-carver Ephraim Moors, as I’ll discuss at the Concord Museum on Thursday.

The Connecticut soldiers’ enlistments were due to run out in early December. Gen. George Washington and his field commanders were worried that the departure of those men would leave the army too weak to contain the British inside Boston. They wanted those men to reenlist for the new year, or at least to stay until the arrival of fill-in militia regiments. And they weren’t above using any tactic to get the men to agree.

Lyman wrote:

December, Friday, 1th. We was ordered to parade before the general’s door, the whole regiment, and General [Charles] Lee and General [John] Solivan came out, and those that would not stay 4 days longer after their enlistments was out they was ordered to turn out, and there was about 3 quarters turned out and we was ordered to form a hollow square, and General Lee came in and the first words was “Men, I do not know what to call you, [you] are the worst of all creatures,” and flung and curst and swore at us, and said if we would not stay he would order us to go on Bunker Hill and if we would not go he would order the riflemen to fire at us, and they talked they would take our guns and take our names down, and our lieutenants begged of us to stay and we went and joined the rest, and they got about 10 of their guns, and the men was marched off and the general said that they should go to the work house and be confined, and they agreed to stay the four days, and they gave them a dram and the colonel told us that he would give us another the next morning, and we was dismissed. There was one that was a mind to have one of his mates turn out with him, and the general see him and he catched his gun out of his hands and struck him on the head and ordered him to be put under guard.

Saturday, 2th. I was on quarter guard in the morning. They was paraded before the colo[nel’s] door and he gave us a dram, and then they read some new orders to us and they said that we must not go out of our brigade without a written pass from our captain, and before night there was a paper set up on the general’s door not to let the soldiers have any victual if they would not stay 3 weeks longer, and they said that they was 50 miles in the country, and some was mad and said they would not stay the 4 days, and the paper was took down as soon as it was dark, and another put up that General Lee was a fool and if he had not come here we should not know it.
When Lee had arrived in Massachusetts in July, he was welcomed as a celebrated military expert. He was still the most respected professional soldier in the army, soon to be detailed to Newport and New York to oversee defenses there. So that message from the Connecticut men was a bold show of disrespect. But of course he was accusing soldiers who had served their promised time of being no better than deserters.


Anonymous said...

The more I learn about Gen. Charles Lee, the less I like him -- and at one time I was inclined to like him a lot, as my aunt and uncle's family own his home in what is now West Virginia. Supposedly he can be heard pacing back and forth in the attic, still mad at Washington. -- Joe Bauman

J. L. Bell said...

Lee’s such a volatile personality. In 1775-76, he and Gates were the American generals who expressed the most respect for the soldiers in the abstract, yet he expressed the most contempt as well. He (and Gates) were far ahead of the other American commanders in advocating republican independence, but he was also a real snob. Somehow I doubt his ghost would be at his old home, simply because he never settled down anywhere. Then again, Lee explicitly wrote in his will that he shouldn’t be buried in a churchyard, and he was buried in a churchyard, so his ghost might have something to grumble about.