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, November 11, 2012

“Your Country will do ample Justice to your Merits”

Gen. George Washington was displeased that Gen. Joseph Spencer stormed home to Connecticut in July 1775 in a snit over rank, but he probably didn’t worry too much about losing the man. The real threat was that Gen. John Thomas of Plymouth, Massachusetts (shown here, courtesy of Find a Grave), might do the same.

Since April, Thomas had been second-in-command of the provincial troops, leading the forces massed in Roxbury against a British advance down Boston Neck. There are some signs that Thomas operated almost independently of Gen. Artemas Ward in Cambridge. Observers such as James Warren of the Massachusetts government thought Thomas was the better commander. Yet the Continental Congress ranked him low on its list of brigadiers—below Gen. William Heath, who had actually been reporting to him.

Fortunately, Warren saw a solution on that same list. On 4 July he and Joseph Hawley of Northampton wrote to Washington:
As [first-ranked brigadier Seth] Pomroy is now Absent, and at the distance of an hundred miles from the Army, if it can be consistent with your Excellencys Trust and the Service to retain his Commission untill you shall receive Advice from the Continental Congress, and we shall be able to prevail with Heath to make a concession Honourable to himself, and advantageous to the publick, We humbly conceive the way would be open to do Justice to Thomas.
In sum, if we slip Thomas into Pomeroy’s top slot, then he’ll once again outrank all the other Massachusetts generals but Ward. The only man moved ahead of Thomas would then be Israel Putnam. Washington didn’t have the authority to make that change, but the suggestion made its way to Philadelphia.

For weeks Thomas stewed in Roxbury, making noises about resigning and going home. On 23 July, both Washington and the celebrated Gen. Charles Lee wrote to him about the matter. Washington said:
For the Sake of your bleeding Country, your devoted Province, your Charter rights, & by the Memory of those brave Men who have already fell in this great Cause, I conjure you to banish from your Mind every Suggestion of Anger and Disappointment: your Country will do ample Justice to your Merits—they already do it, by the Sorrow & Regret expressed on the Occasion and the Sacrifice you are called to make, will in the Judgment of every good Man, & lover of his Country, do you more real Honour than the most distinguished Victory.
Characteristically, Lee was both more expansive and more egocentric:
You think yourself not justly dealt with in the appointments of the Continental Congress. I am quite of the same opinion, but is this a time Sir, when the liberties of your country, the fate of posterity, the rights of mankind are at stake, to indulge our resentments for any ill treatment we may have received as individuals? I have myself, Sir, full as great, perhaps greater reason to complain than yourself. I have passed through the highest ranks, in some of the most respectable services in Europe. According then to modern etiquette notions of a soldier’s honor and delicacy, I ought to consider at least the preferment given to General Ward over me as the highest indignity, but I thought it my duty as a citizen and asserter of liberty, to waive every consideration.

On this principle, although a Major General of five years standing [a largely honorary rank from the king of Poland], and not a native of America, I consented to serve under General Ward, because I was taught to think that the concession would be grateful to his countrymen, and flatter myself that the concession has done me credit in the eye of the world; and can you, Sir, born in this very country, which a banditti of ministerial assassins are now attempting utterly to destroy with sword, fire and famine, abandon the defence of her, because you have been personally ill used?
Four days before, the Congress had voted to make Thomas the senior brigadier general. A backdated commission was rushed up to Massachusetts, and on 4 August the commander-in-chief was able to report, “General Thomas has accepted his Commission and I have heard nothing of his retirement since, so that I hope he is satisfied.”

TOMORROW: Dealing the generals into three piles.

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