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, July 16, 2012

A Peek at Gershom Foster’s Orderly Book

While I was at Anderson House in Washington, D.C., last week, I spent a couple of days in the Society of the Cincinnati’s library. Like the David Library of the American Revolution in Pennsylvania, it’s tightly focused on Revolutionary America and its cultural legacy. There’s a solid endowment for acquiring books and hiring helpful staff, an excellent collection of published material, and an archive of rare books and manuscripts that scholars should be aware of.

One of the items I looked at was the orderly book of Gershom Foster from the Continental artillery regiment in early 1776. This document shows the arrival of Henry Knox as the regiment’s new colonel; the Continental Congress had voted on his appointment in the fall of 1775, but he was away from the siege lines in New York until the end of January.

Each daily record in Foster’s orderly book starts with the orders coming down from Gen. George Washington’s headquarters. Every day, Foster left space to write the parole and countersign words, but about half those entries are blank—i.e., the security information never seems to have reached him.

Orderly books are also supposed to record the brigade or regimental orders from the officers overseeing the company. On 3 January, Foster recorded this directive from Lt. Col. William Burbeck, acting commander:
That every orderly Sergent of the Artillary Quarterd in or near Cambridge do attend at the Ajudants Room at 2 oClock every day there to Receive Orders.
There’s no further word from Burbeck. It’s not clear how the lieutenant colonel expected orders to reach the artillery companies spread out in the southern wing of the siege lines.

Everything changed on 28 January. Foster penned a big headline: “Regimental Orders.” And we hear the voice of Col. Knox:
It is of the utmost Importance the Regt. of Artillary in the Service of the United Colonies Should be well Regulated & well disciplined. The great number of [sites] which we are Oblge to occupy: necesary occasion the Regt. to be dispersed or detached in consequence of this, the Commanding officers of the artillary at the Differnt posts have a much greater Call for the exercise of every Millitary abillity then if the Regt. was together they will have the praise if their detachments are perfect in their proper Exercise & they will have the blame if on the Contrary they either neglect their duty or behave in an unsoldierlike manner.

Perhaps their never was a period of time in which a good officer could better obtain the greatefull applause of his Country then the present—
Knox’s emphasis on order, hierarchy, and discipline matched Washington’s priorities. The remarks on praise, blame, and “greatefull applause” seem to reflect his own aspirations to gain honor and rise in society. I don’t believe those regimental orders from Knox have ever been published.

TOMORROW: More of Col. Knox’s new orders.

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