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, April 15, 2013

The British Plan to Burn Harvard College

On 22 Nov 1775, the Rev. Isaac Mansfield, Jr., a Continental Army chaplain, preached a Thanksgiving sermon in the camp at Roxbury. He leveled this accusation about the British military’s plans the previous April:
What, but the hand of Providence preserved the school of the prophets from their ravage, who would have deprived us of many advantages for moral or religious improvement.[?]
Okay, most of Mansfield’s listeners would probably have had little idea of what he was talking about. “School of the prophets”? But when he published this sermon the following year after becoming minister in Exeter, New Hampshire, Mansfield added a footnote:
“General Gage, as governor of this province, issued his precepts for convening a general assembly at Boston, designing to enforce a compliance with Lord North’s designing notion; they were to be kept as prisoners in garrison, till under the mouth of cannon and at the point of the bayonet they should be reduced to a mean and servile submission. To facilitate this matter, he was to send out a party to take possession of a magazine at Concord; presuming that this might be done without opposition, the said party upon their return from Concord were to lay waste till they should arrive at Cambridge common; there, after destroying the colleges [i.e., Harvard] and other buildings, they were to throw up an entrenchment upon the said common, their number was to be increased from the garrison [in Boston], and the next morning a part of the artillery to be removed and planted in the entrenchment aforesaid. This astonishing manoeuvre, it was supposed, would so effectually intimidate the constituents, that the general assembly by the compliance designed would literally represent their constituents.”

The author is not at liberty to publish the channel through which he received the foregoing; but begs leave to assure the reader, that it comes so direct that he cannot hesitate in giving credit to it. He recollects one circumstance, which renders it highly probable; Lord Percy (on April 19.) suspicious his progress to Concord might be retarded, by the plank of the bridge at Cambridge being taken away, brought out from Boston several loads of plank, with a number of carpenters; not finding occasion to use them, he carried them on his way to Concord, perhaps about a mile and an half from the bridge: About an hour after the plank were returned. If he had intended to repass that river at night, he must have reserved the plank; if he designed to stop in Cambridge, the plank must be an encumbrance. This conduct, in returning the plank, may be accounted for upon supposition of the foregoing plan of operation.
Mansfield thus accused the British commanders of planning to capture the Massachusetts legislators, destroy Harvard College, and fortify Cambridge common. He refused to identify his source for that inside information about enemy plans. And of course he was speaking in the midst of a war, when rumors and accusations fly at their fastest.

In fact, Mansfield’s claims don’t make sense. Gen. Thomas Gage did issue a call in September 1774 for the Massachusetts General Court to convene, but they were to gather in Salem, not Boston, and he quickly canceled that summons after the “Powder Alarm.” (The politicians gathered in Salem anyway, out of his reach, and formed a Provincial Congress instead.) There was no call for a legislature in April.

There was also nothing in Gen. Gage’s orders about Harvard. Indeed, the college was so little on Col. Percy’s mind on 19 April that he had to ask tutor Isaac Smith, Jr., which road led from there toward Concord. Percy didn’t have entrenching tools, and Cambridge was a poor place to stop and defend. So when Percy brought the column back through Cambridge, they didn’t pause at the college or the common, nor tried to recross the bridge over the Charles River, but pushed straight on to Charlestown, which was closer to the troops in Boston and more easily defended.

Not many authors repeated Mansfield’s accusations, but one who did say the British planned to burn Harvard was Frank Warren Coburn in The Battle of April 19, 1775, published in 1912. Coburn had found no further evidence of this plot. He merely wrote, “Mr. Mansfield fully believed such plans to have been made and states that his information came so direct that he could not hesitate to accept it…”

Coburn’s was one of the last histories of the Battle of Lexington and Concord written without access to many British sources or much interest in what the British actually planned or experienced, as opposed to what the provincials assumed and published about them. And however sincere those stories and accusations were, they aren’t solid evidence.


Charles Bahne said...

J. L. correctly notes that, as the regulars were returning from Concord, when they got to the place where the roads to Cambridge and Charlestown divided, the regulars chose to go to Charlestown. At this point the American forces tried to blockade the Charlestown road, to force the regulars toward Cambridge instead. The Americans had removed the planks from the bridge over the Charles River, just outside of Harvard Square, and hoped to trap the regulars at that location. This action by the Americans, if successful, would have made it very easy for the regulars to burn Harvard if they were so inclined; and the Americans seemed to be unaware that the destruction of the college was a likely consequence of their actions. Luckily for the college, the regulars used cannon to blast their way past the blockade so they could go to Charlestown as they intended. A marker commemorating this fight now stands on Elm St., Somerville, near the corner with Beech St., Cambridge.

cinnamonblue said...

Hi J. L. -
After that terror in Boston today, just hope you and yours are all ok...

J. L. Bell said...

All the folks I know are fine, but the region is heartsick.