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, March 10, 2013

The Truth about Thomas Machin

I’ve been discussing the early life of Thomas Machin, commissioned a lieutenant in the Continental Army artillery on 18 Jan 1776. But what had he been doing before then?

His family left an account that had Machin born to a distinguished British scientist, working for a duke, coming to America in 1772, and quickly joining the movement that led to independence. But there’s no evidence for any of that, and strong evidence against it.

And then there’s this 27 July 1775 entry from the journal of Lt. Richard Williams of His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot:
Last night Thos. Machin, soldier in our Regt. deserted when sentry on the fire boat in the river near the neck. he went off in the Canoe go to this float, he took the other man’s firelock with him, as it was that man’s turn to lay down, this fellow will give them good intelligence of our Works, for he was a pretty good Mechenik & knew a little of fortification. he invented a new carriage for guns on a pivot &c. his books & instruments were sent for to the General’s.
Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble also noted the desertion that night of a man from the 23rd, “a sensible intelligent fellow, some knowledge of fortification and Gunnery.”

The 23rd Regiment’s muster rolls record that Thomas Machin had enlisted in Maj. Harry Blunt’s company on 17 Feb 1773 and sailed to New York that spring. The regiment arrived in Boston in August 1774. Machin was thus in the army during the Battle of Bunker Hill—but in the British army.

Several people on the American side noted Machin’s arrival, though most didn’t record his name. Col. William T. Miller of Rhode Island wrote on 29 July that “it is thought [he] will prove a very serviceable man to our army, as he is able to give a plan of all the works and fortifications in Boston, and knows all their plans.” The old veteran Jedidiah Preble said he was “as sensible intelligent a fellow as I ever met with.”

Most important, Gen. George Washington wrote down “An Acct. of the Killed & Wounded in the Ministerial Army” based on a conversation with a man he recorded as “John Machin.” The commander-in-chief assigned the deserter to work with his young aide-de-camp, John Trumbull, to draw plans of the British fortifications. (One product of their collaboration appears above.) Later Machin worked for quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin and was most likely a scout during an 8 Jan 1776 raid on British positions at Charlestown.

Machin’s entry in American National Biography says nothing about that activity, accepting the family story of a genteel life in England and a respectable arrival in America. But Machin was a British army private, a deserter, and part of “Washington’s First Spy Ring” during the siege of Boston. I’ll divulge more secrets of the general’s early intelligence efforts this afternoon in Lincoln at an event sponsored by the Friends of Minute Man National Park.

(Thanks to Bob Vogler for posting the quote from Lt. Williams’s diary above to the Revlist in 2002. That sent me hunting for the elusive Thomas Machin.)

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