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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Friday, December 20, 2013

Rhode Island’s First Major General

A few days back, I quoted Samuel Ward’s December 1774 letter describing how Rhode Island was putting itself on a footing for war by, among other things, appointing the first major-general in the colony’s history. That was not Nathanael Greene, who sprang from the rank of private to that of general only after the war had begun. So who was it?

The Rhode Island legislature appointed Simeon Potter (1720-1806) of Bristol. He had gained wealth and notoriety as a privateer during the mid-century imperial wars and allegedly helped to lead the raid on the Royal Navy’s Gaspée in 1772.

According to Beggarman, Spy: The Secret Life and Times of Israel Potter, by David Chacko and Alexander Kulcsar, Simeon Potter was not a mild-tempered man. For instance, in 1761 he beat up a seventy-four-year-old minister. (To be fair, the minister had told Potter, “There is whoring wherever you go.”)

What did Maj.-Gen. Potter do in the spring of 1775? On 19 April, two members of the Massachusetts Provincial CongressJames Warren of Plymouth and Dr. Charles Pynchon (1719-1783) of Springfield—came to Providence to consult with Rhode Island legislators about the outbreak of fighting in Middlesex County. One of the Rhode Island politicians, Stephen Hopkins, sent Potter a letter reporting:
The King’s Troops are actually engaged butchering and destroying our brethren in the most inhuman manner. The inhabitants oppose them with great zeal and courage.
Hopkins asked Potter to come to Providence to consult with Lt. Gov. Darius Sessions, who had been put in charge of the colony’s military preparations.

Potter never took the field. According to Beggarman, Spy, he “claimed to have received a letter from the commanding general of the Massachusetts Militia telling him that no troops were needed.” Unfortunately, Chacko and Kulcsar don’t quote that letter, and their citation isn’t specific or clear.

That book’s notes mention “Simeon Potter’s letter of September 3, 1774 to his nephew Nathan Miller of Warren in WHS [Warren Historical Society] that is only partially reprinted in NDAR [Naval Documents of the American Revolution].” The second volume of N.D.A.R. does include a letter from Potter dated 3 Sept 1775, saying it went to Col. William Turner Miller and is at the Rhode Island Historical Society. But that letter says nothing about the April crisis or a message from Massachusetts. It’s conceivable that that published transcript is based on an incomplete, mislabeled copy and that the Warren Historical Society holds a longer document, but I wish the information were more solid.

In any event, the Rhode Island legislature cleaned house in May 1775. It replaced Lt. Gov. Sessions with Nicholas Cooke, and later pushed out Gov. Joseph Wanton in favor of Cooke as well. It made Greene a brigadier-general commanding three regiments of infantry and an artillery company outside Boston. For its own defense, the colony chose a new major-general: William Bradford (1729-1808), also of Bristol. In October Bradford became lieutenant governor and Joshua Babcock (1707-1783) of Westerly became the new major general.

As for Potter, one of these days I’ll quote that September 1775 letter to show his resentment about the whole situation. Potter did end up providing cannon for the Continental Army—at a price. In 1776 the Rhode Island legislature even appointed him an Assistant, or member of the upper house. But Potter didn’t show up for sessions, the next year he stopped serving in town offices, and he refused to pay taxes to the new government. That didn’t save him from losing his mansion in a British raid in 1778. Potter had to move into a smaller house, which is now a bed-and-breakfast.


Chaucerian said...

It astonishes me that someone who was furious, did not brook correction, probably lied about his responsibilities, and failed to show up for his duties was able to live till age 86. Most of the people I know with that profile are dead by their 60's. But perhaps he was conserving his energy.

J. L. Bell said...

I get the impression that even Death might have been a little afraid of Simeon Potter.