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 16, 2014

The South Boston Parade’s Legend of John Henry Knox

Today the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is scheduled in South Boston, sponsored by the local Allied War Veteran’s Council under the leadership of John “Wacko” Hurley.

A while back, a nice person from one of greater Boston’s history museums contacted me, aghast at the parade’s “History” webpage. That page declares:
The History and the Defined Truth of the South Boston, St. Patrick's Day Parade

General John Henry Knox brought the 55 cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga. In March, the troops positioned the cannons on
Dorchester Heights.

They had cut down trees to cannon size, hollow them out and blacken them over fire to look like cannons. Surprise was just around the corner..

On March 17th, 1776, orders were given that if you wish to pass through the continental lines, the password was "St. Patrick". The British had seen all the cannons on the Heights and left Boston.

During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress appointed general officers to lead the Continental Army. They were usually distinguished community leaders and statesmen, and several had served as provincial officers in the British Army. While there were some general officers who were promoted to the grade from lower ranks, most held their ranks by initial appointment and then with such appointment at the pleasure of the Congress, to be expired or revoked at the end of a particular campaign.

More History to be inserted here and down...
Even beyond the non-sequiturs, shifting tenses, and poor punctuation, this page contains an awful lot of sheer bunk. John Henry Knox was a nineteenth-century British politician. The officer who hauled 58 artillery pieces (not 55) to Boston from Fort Ticonderoga and (the usually omitted) Crown Point in New York was Col. Henry Knox. At History Camp we joked about a hybrid of John Henry and Henry Knox building a railroad through the Berkshires.

Not all those cannon went onto the Dorchester peninsula, but some did. However, there’s no evidence for the besieging army creating fake cannon out of tree trunks; in the right circumstances that ruse might keep an enemy from advancing toward a particular position, but it wouldn’t help at all in what the Continentals wanted to do—make the Crown forces leave Boston.

The name of Michael Bare appears in the midst of that copy, probably as a credit for the photo of the Dorchester Heights monument. Bare devoted a lot of time and energy to sharing the history of Evacuation Day before his death in 2010. This text is not an appropriate tribute to him.

I suspect that the whole website was constructed in haste and left unfinished. The F.A.Q. and Contact Us pages lead to a 404 message with dummy text in Latin. Given how the parade organizers say their event is all about veterans and families, surely they planned to add information about veterans’ services and family activities. Right now there’s only a honking big link pointing to a list of South Boston bars. (That page lists Sam Adams Beer, which I understand has canceled its sponsorship this year.)

When I first saw this South Boston Parade webpage, I thought of dropping the organization a line with some corrected copy. But as planning for this year’s parade unfolded, it became clear that the organizers don’t want outside advice or participation. So I decided just to share this “History and Defined Truth” here. Happy holiday.

TOMORROW: Was the American password on 17 March really “St. Patrick”?


Anonymous said...

Thanks to you for all of your great info and thanks to Emily for the indignation that inspired this!

J. L. Bell said...

I opted not to identify the informant or institution in case there might be any resentment, but yes, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this page without Emily’s tip.