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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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Letters from Gen. Phillips to Gen. Heath Up for Bid

After my mention of the Convention Army yesterday, Boston 1775 reader Christopher Hurley alerted me to the auction on 1 November in Marlborough of six letters related to those prisoners of war.

The Skinner auction house describes the lot as:
Six Letters…dated April through October 1778, from Major General William Phillips to Major General William Heath written from Cambridge, Massachusetts, relating to conditions, clothing, and monetary needs for the Convention Army surrendered after the battle of Saratoga.
Unfortunately, the auction house’s online description doesn’t give the dates for those letters or offer other details on their contents.

Gen. Phillips (1731-1781) became the highest-ranking officer in the Convention Army after Gen. John Burgoyne was paroled and sailed for home. (To confuse matters a little, there was a prominent Boston merchant and politician with the name William Phillips, whom I also mentioned last week.)

Meanwhile, Gen. William Heath (shown above) had been named American military commander of the region. He thus had responsibility for finding housing and supplies for all those prisoners, treating them humanely but also making sure they didn’t disrupt local life too badly. The low point came when a young American sentry shot and killed a British officer for venturing too far from camp.

As a result, Phillips and Heath exchanged a lot of letters in 1778. Each man probably kept a copy of his own letters, at least the most important ones, so there were two parallel collections. And neither appears to have survived intact.

The Massachusetts Historical Society became the guardian of the William Heath Papers in 1859. However, when the society published a third volume of transcriptions in 1905, its editor stated:
In spite of the enormous mass of papers preserved by General Heath it is certain that many documents, some of them of considerable importance, had disappeared before the collection came into the possession of Mr. [Amos A.] Lawrence [around 1838], as stated in the preface to the second part of the Heath Papers.

A striking illustration of this occurs in connection with the controversy, in 1778, between General Heath and General Phillips of the Convention troops. In General Heath’s Memoirs and in our previous volume are numerous letters bearing on the subject, and it was supposed by the Committee that in one or the other place would be found everything of interest or importance relating to it; but in the “Report on American Manuscripts in the Royal Institution of Great Britain,” issued in London at about the same time as our volume [in 1904], are a number of letters printed or calendared from copies sent over to England, of which neither originals nor copies now exist in the Heath Papers. They contain no new facts, but they should not be overlooked in any thorough study of the episode of the Convention troops; and it is not easy to see how they could have been lost, except through carelessness after the death of General Heath.
The Boston Public Library has one letter from Heath to Phillips dated 7 April, apparently Heath’s draft. The Gilder-Lehrman Collection has two more, dated 9 June and 1 August.

Three letters from Phillips to Heath, dated 23 April, 14 May, and 16 July, are part of the Lloyd W. Smith Collection at Morristown National Historical Park, according to Robert P. Davis’s 1999 biography of Phillips.

Which means multiple institutions might like to add this batch of correspondence to their collections.

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