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, April 14, 2013

The Mystery of James Nichols, Reluctant Soldier

One of the most striking anecdotes of the confrontation at the North Bridge in Concord is the story of an Englishman who mustered with his local militia, but decided to go down to talk to the redcoats at the bridge. After that chat he took his gun and went home, not wanting to be part of the fight. However, only one witness recounted this story, and that seventy-five years after the battle. Back in the spring of 2001, D. Michael Ryan pondered the mystery for Concord Magazine, wondering if it was just a legend.

Richard C. Wiggin, author of
Embattled Farmers: Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1775-1783, has found a longer trail for that Englishman, with a different ending from what the one witness recalled. I asked Rick to share that essay from the book here as a guest blogger.

In 1850, 75 years after the battle at Concord’s North Bridge, Lincoln’s Amos Baker recalled an interesting anecdote about one of the men present:

Before the fighting begun, when we were on the hill, James Nichols, of Lincoln, who was an Englishman, and a droll fellow, and a fine singer, said, “If any of you will hold my gun, I will go down and talk to them.”

Some of them held his gun, and he went down alone to the British soldiers at the bridge and talked to them some time. Then he came back and took his gun and said he was going home, and went off before the fighting. Afterwards he enlisted to go to Dorchester and there deserted to the British, and I never heard of him again.
The story has fascinated generations of history buffs. Amos Baker may never have “heard of him again,” but James Nichols did leave a small trail in the historical records through which we can piece together the rest of the story...and test the mental acuity of the 94-year-old Baker.

The record tells us that shortly after leaving Concord, Nichols enlisted in the provincial army besieging Boston, and he participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He served through that summer and fall, and into the following spring. He appears to have served through the fortification of Dorchester Heights—but without deserting to the British. Baker, too, served at Dorchester Heights, albeit in a different unit.

That summer (1776), Nichols appears to have left Lincoln, gone to Weston, then taken up residence in Acton, perhaps an itinerant worker moving from job to job. By wintertime, he was back in militia service at Dorchester—this time in the same unit as Baker, and they evidently renewed their friendship. During their three-month stint, Nichols was recruited into the Continental Army, and one January day Baker discovered his friend gone.

The Continental unit Nichols joined had a handful of other Lincoln men in it. They were marched northward in chase of the British army of General John Burgoyne, who was threatening to split the country along the Hudson River/Lake Champlain corridor. In September 1777, after eight months of Continental service, Nichols was reported as having deserted. He may have become disillusioned at the not-so-rosy life of a Continental soldier. Or gotten cold feet with the approach of what was certain to be a climactic battle. Or perhaps he simply succumbed to itinerant tendencies. The historical record does not reveal what was going on in his head. Two months later, he appears to have returned to militia service in Cambridge, guarding the British and German troops surrendered by General Burgoyne following the climactic battles at Saratoga.

Somewhere along the line, Amos Baker learned of the reported desertion by Nichols, probably from one of the Lincoln men serving in the same unit. Perhaps in the years that followed, he occasionally thought about the good times they had together—the singing, the humor, the storytelling. He recalled the incident at the bridge. He remembered last seeing his friend at Dorchester....

Seventy-plus years later, Baker was feted as the last known surviving participant of the fight at the Concord bridge. Old memories returned, a little worn with age. He was coaxed to write them down for posterity. And he left us with a wonderful snippet of the human side of the developing conflict. He got it almost right; he passes the acuity test. But even he did not know the rest of the story.

Thanks, Rick! The launch party for Embattled Farmers, published by the Lincoln Historical Society, is on Monday, 15 April (Patriot’s Day), at 5:00 P.M. in the Lincoln Public Library.


EJWitek said...

Could it be that Mr. Nichols was taking advantage of the bonuses paid by various militia units to enlist? In 1777 the Continental Army would only pay $10 in continental script for an enlistment while militia units would pay three or four times that amount; and the militia units would often pay in goods or livestock rather than in paper dollars.

J. L. Bell said...

There may well have been an economic aspect to James Nichols's choices. I suspect there was also a psychological aspect. He seems to have been good company, and joined a lot of groups, but he didn't stay with units for long (or at least as long as expected). In away, Nichols's behavior on 19 Apr 1775, when he defied his local community to have what a chat with soldiers from his native country, might reflect his whole military career in miniature: happy to make friends, not so excited about long-term fighting. I wonder what ever happened to him.