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, March 18, 2013

“He began scattering the crowfeet about”

Lt. Jesse Adair of the British Marines was one of the officers who was on the march out to Concord on 18-19 Apr 1775, stopping provincial horsemen along the way.

He was also one of the last British military officers to leave Boston during the evacuation on 17 Mar 1776, as Martin Hunter (then a lieutenant, later a general) described in his memoir:

Lieutenant Adair of the Marines, an acting engineer, was ordered to strew crow-feet in front of the lines to impeded the march of the enemy, as it was supposed they should attack our rear. Being an Irishman, he began scattering the crowfeet about from the gate towards the enemy, and, of course, had to walk over them on his return, which detained him so long that he was nearly taken prisoner.
The photograph above from Britain’s National Army Museum shows a crow’s foot or caltrop from the seventeenth century. They were developed to stop cavalry charges as well as slow down infantry. Minuteman Treasures shows another type.

I don’t think any American source describes Continental soldiers trying to capture Lt. Adair, so I suspect that part of Hunter’s story is jocular exaggeration. After all, what’s an ethnic joke without wild exaggeration?


Anonymous said...

A bit off topic, but I read your old posts that mentioned two books by Harlow Unger (Tea Party and John Hancock). Have you read his biography of John Quincy Adams, published in 2012? I'm thinking of buying it but would appreciate any thoughts. Thanks!

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't read that book. I did sample Unger's Hancock biography, and didn't find much in there that I hadn't seen in biographies published a generation or two back. His books strike me as standard American narrative history. Paul Nagel's books on J. Q. Adams and his mother are more challenging, though not necessarily the last word.

Charles Bahne said...

I read Harlow G. Unger's biography of John Hancock several years ago. I really enjoyed it and I learned many things about Hancock that I wasn't already aware of, even though I had read Bill Fowler's "Baron of Beacon Hill". I thought Unger's effort was a fine, thorough book, and was a bit surprised that my first inkling of it had been to find it in a remainder bin -- I was never aware of it when it first came out.

A year or so ago, I read Mr. Unger's book on the Boston Tea Party, expecting that it would be equally illuminating. About halfway through, I started wondering if both books had been written by the same author. I never had a chance to pull the older Hancock book off my shelf and make direct comparisons between the two volumes; but there seemed to be parts of the Tea Party book that contradicted items that I'd read in the Hancock biography. Perhaps my memories were false, or perhaps Mr. Unger's opinions had changed over the years between the two books. But my first impression was that they were very different books.

J. L. Bell said...

For the Tea Party book, Unger seems to have adopted Charles Beard's approach to the Revolution, emphasizing the financial motives of the American protest organizers. And his portrait of Samuel Adams depends on the biographies that treat him as a never-satisfied propagandist. The Hancock biography, as I recall, treats him as a heroic businessman. The irony of playing up the profit motive for Hancock and treating it as suspicious for the anti-tea movement may be part of the contradiction you sensed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you both for the insight. I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my question. I really enjoy this blog.