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, May 16, 2014

John Graves Simcoe in Boston

John Graves Simcoe, the British army officer whose evil twin is a character in the Turn television series, arrived in Boston as a lieutenant soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Characteristically, he came with a bright idea.

Simcoe described that idea in his postwar memoir (writing modestly of himself in the third person):
His intimate connection with that most upright and zealous officer the late Admiral [Samuel] Graves, who commanded at Boston in the year 1775, and some services which he was pleased to entrust him with, brought him acquainted with many of the American loyalists: from them he soon learned the practicability of raising troops in the country whenever it should be opened to the King’s forces; and the propriety of such a measure appeared to be self-evident.

He therefore importuned Admiral Graves to ask of General [Thomas] Gage that he might enlist such negroes as were in Boston, and with them put himself under the direction of Sir James Wallace, who was then actively engaged at Rhode island, and to whom that colony had opposed negroes; adding to the Admiral, who seemed surprised at his request, “that he entertained no doubt he should soon exchange them for whites:” Gen. Gage, on the Admiral’s application, informed him that the negroes were not sufficiently numerous to be serviceable, and that he had other employment for those who were in Boston.
Simcoe came from a naval family and, as his middle name evidenced, he was godson to Adm. Graves. The young lieutenant expected that gentleman to be his mentor and sponsor in the British military hierarchy in North America. Simcoe probably didn’t realize that Gage and Graves were already feuding, and any ideas that the admiral sent to the general were probably dead on arrival.

Since Simcoe recalled a response from Gage, that conversation must have taken place before the general sailed for England on 11 Oct 1775. That was weeks before Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, issued his proclamation promising freedom to slaves who joined his royal forces in that colony.

However, Lt. Simcoe wasn’t the first to raise that idea. American Whigs had been warning (without much evidence) that the royal authorities might instigate a slave uprising for years. As it turned out, both sides in the war freed and armed the slaves of adherents of the other side while maintaining slavery for masters on their own side.

The only thing Simcoe seems to have accomplished in Boston was buying a captaincy and thus advancing one rank in the army before the New York campaign.

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