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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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Deborah Champion Encounters the Army

This week I’m dealing out an analysis of the Deborah Champion letter about traveling from Connecticut to Massachusetts in October 1775. Dr. Samuel Forman, who launched this inquiry, has posted the two variant transcriptions of the letter on his website. (There is no known original.)

After offering an extraordinarily level of detail about Deborah Champion’s journey through Connecticut, the letter omits nearly all details about her important destination, Gen. George Washington’s headquarters. Despite being addressed to a friend whose brother was in the American army, the letter says nothing about the condition of those soldiers.

The version of the letter at the Library of Congress offers an explanation for this reticence:
Just as I finished that sentence father came into my room and said “My daughter if you are writing of your journey, do not say just how or where you saw General Washington, nor what you heard of the affairs of the Colony. A letter is a very dangerous thing these days and it might fall into strange hands and cause harm…”
But nothing like that sentence appears in the transcriptions published in 1912 and 1926.

Nevertheless, the Deborah Champion letter does offer a glimpse of the military—the other military. The high point of suspense is when the writer and her elderly slave encounter a royal army patrol. “The British were at Providence, in Rhode Island,” the letter says. I quote from the 1912 version:
I heard that it would be almost impossible to avoid the British unless by going so far out of the way that too much time would be lost, so I plucked up what courage I could and secreting my papers in a small pocket in the saddle-bags, under all the eatables mother had filled them with, I rode on, determined to ride all night. It was late at night, or rather very early in the morning, that I heard the call of the sentry and knew that now, if at all, the danger point was reached, but pulling my calash still farther over my face, I went on with what boldness I could muster.

Suddenly, I was ordered to halt; as I could n’t help myself I did so. I could almost hear Aristarchus’ teeth rattle in his mouth, but I knew he would obey my instructions and if I was detained, would try to find the way alone. A soldier in a red coat proceeded to take me to headquarters, but I told him it was early to wake the captain, and to please to let me pass for I had been sent in urgent haste to see a friend in need, which was true if ambiguous. To my joy, he let me go on, saying: “Well, you are only an old woman anyway,” evidently as glad to get rid of me as I of him. Will you believe me, that is the only bit of adventure that befell me in the whole long ride.
Again, the text at the Library of Congress differs on significant details, quoting Aristarchus as saying, “De British missus for sure.” Really.

As Derek W. Beck and I both saw immediately when we read this text, this is bunk. There were no British redcoat checkpoints in New England during the siege of Boston. The Royal Navy was operating gingerly along the coast, but all the king’s troops were inside Boston—that’s why there was a siege. Providence was the site of Rhode Island’s rebellious Patriot government and never in redcoat hands. Far from it being “almost impossible to avoid the British” troops on the road in October 1775, it was impossible to find them.

Conversely, the 1912 letter repeatedly refers to going to Boston:
  • The writer says she’s been “To Boston! Really and truly to Boston.”
  • Her father tells her, “ride as fast as may be until thou comest to Boston town.”
  • “When I arrived in Boston, I was so very fortunate as to find friends who took me at once to General Washington…”
  • “I stayed a week in Boston, every one was so kind and good to me, seeming to think I had done some great thing…”
  • “Did I tell you that I saw your brother Samuel in Boston?”
(The text at the Library of Congress offers a completely different description of meeting Washington and no statement about staying a week in Boston.)

Again, the whole point of the siege of Boston is that it was impossible for Gen. Washington, his troops, and their family visitors to get into that town. Washington was in Cambridge. The Connecticut troops were camped there and in west Charlestown and in Roxbury. If Deborah Champion’s father had really been so worried about her, he would have made sure she knew which towns to visit and which to avoid.

TOMORROW: More anachronistic details.


Byron DeLear said...

Yes, it was impossible for the American patriots to get into Boston, hence the British pejoratively referring to Prospect Hill—the American fortified high-ground overlooking the siege—as “Mount Pisgah,” the Old Testament mountain where Moses could see the “Promised Land” but never go there; the British message being, you (rebels) can see Boston, but can never go there!

John L. Smith said...

“When I arrived in Boston, I was so very fortunate as to find friends who took me at once to General Washington…” seems doubly doubtful to me. Cambridge and Boston back then were two distinctly different locals (unlike today...sort of). She couldn't have gotten the two places confused. Plus - would she really have been taken at once directly to Gen. Washington rather than an aide-de-camp?

J. L. Bell said...

A lot of the improbable nineteenth-century lore about the Revolutionary War that I’ve encountered—maybe even up to 80%—involves a personal meeting with Gen. Washington. It's almost like a royal laying on of hands. The 1912/1926 version of the Deborah Champion letter positively gushes about Washington's personal qualities. The Library of Congress version skips all that because, supposedly, her father advised her to be more discreet about what she found "in Boston."

Unknown said...

This line is just awesome: "Far from it being “almost impossible to avoid the British” troops on the road in October 1775, it was impossible to find them." Job well done!

John L. Smith said...

Derek Beck - agreed! The single sentence very well sums up what the situation REALLY would've been like!

sam1775 said...

You folks are unkind. Not only does her letter, "an historic fact" residing at the Library of Congress, prove that Deborah Champion was a heroine, but she could find British troops in Rhode Island when nobody else could.