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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Thursday, July 05, 2012

“The wretched blunder of the over sized balls”

In the summer of 1775, a letter from a British army officer in Boston circulated widely in London. Dated 5 July 1775 and stripped of a signature, it reported critically on the Battle of Bunker Hill. On the performance of the Royal Artillery, the officer wrote:
As they were marching up to attack, our artillery stopped firing, the General on enquiring the reason was told they had got twelve pound balls to six pounders, but that they had grape shot; on this he ordered them forward and to fire grape. . . .

The wretched blunder of the over sized balls sprung from the dotage of an officer of rank in that corps, who spends his whole time in dallying with the Schoolmaster’s daughters. God knows he is old enough—he is no Sampson—yet he must have his Dalilah.
By 1780 that letter was published in London in a pamphlet titled The Detail and Conduct of the American War. People interpreted the “officer of rank” to be Col. Samuel Cleaveland of the Royal Artillery. He was around age fifty-eight, perhaps “old enough,” according to the European Magazine’s report of his age when he died in August 1794 near Lymington, England.

Cleaveland had approved Benjamin Lovell, son of Master John Lovell of the South Latin School, as the artillery corps’s storekeeper. He later signed off on John Lovell, Jr.’s petition for support from the Crown. Was the artillery commander so close to the Lovell family because he was flirting with the schoolmaster’s daughters?

According to his biography in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, John Lovell had three daughters: Priscilla and Elizabeth, baptized six weeks apart in 1749 [?!], and Mary, baptized in November 1752. So they were “old enough” for dallying, too.

Cleaveland’s own report on the battle doesn’t suggest any problem with the artillery supplies—but of course it wouldn’t. It might be more telling that the accusations in the letter don’t appear to have hurt his career. He remained in charge of the Royal Artillery in North America and became a brigadier in 1776. Interestingly, Cleaveland held those ranks under Gen. William Howe, who some later authors speculated (without apparently any evidence) was the officer who wrote this letter.

Regardless of the letter’s accuracy, because it was published so early, the colonel’s affair with the schoolmaster’s daughter has long been part of the historiography of the Battle of Bunker Hill. For example, in his address on the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Alexander H. Everett referred to Cleaveland’s “Fatal error!”; “delusion”; “superannuated gallantry”; and “slumbering in the lap of some beauteous Delilah.”

I won’t be able to drop such phrases into my talk at Anderson House in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday since that will focus on the American artillery in 1775. Which is a shame since (a) it’s a tidy story with a neat moral, whether or not it’s true; and (b) sex sells.


John L Smith Jr said...

So true, J.L.!

Unknown said...

I have a different take on this story, and the cause of the blunder. I'll just whet your appetite with that, and will post my theory on my blog soon...