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, November 11, 2014

New Henry Burbeck Collection at the Clements Library

Earlier this year, the Clements Library at the University of Michigan acquired more than 1,600 documents in the Papers of Henry Burbeck (1754-1848), a general in the early U.S. Army.

Burbeck was born in Boston, son of William Burbeck, who became storekeeper at Castle William as well as the town’s fireworks expert. Henry did his militia service in Boston’s artillery company; I’ve used letters he dictated late in life that are now at the Massachusetts Historical Society to trace the last days of that unit in September 1774.

When the war began, Henry and his brothers joined the provincial artillery regiment under Col. Richard Gridley; their father was the unit’s nominal second-in-command, but Gridley preferred to administer through his son Scarborough.

In late 1775, Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress replaced Gridley with Henry Knox, bypassing Lt. Col. Burbeck. At the end of the siege of Boston, the lieutenant colonel refused to march to New York and thus left the Continental Army.

But Henry, then a lieutenant, remained in the army. In fact, he stuck out the whole war and then rejoined in 1786. He commanded at West Point and Springfield, served in the Northwest Indian War, and established a number of forts on the western frontier. In 1808 he presided over the court-martial of Gen. James Wilkinson, and finally he commanded troops through the War of 1812. Most of the new Clements collection appears to come from that long army career.

The longest report I’ve found about the acquisition is from the Mackinac Island News, focusing on documents of local importance:
In 1796 he peacefully received Fort Mackinac from its British garrison and then commanded the post until 1799. He was a steady officer and strict disciplinarian. A young British lieutenant who visited Mackinac in 1799 described Burbeck as “a little man, as stiff as his boots, awkwardly consequential and [who] passed for a martinet.” Perhaps Major Burbeck still harbored some animosity toward his old foes and greeted his British visitor with reserve.
The collection includes two previously unknown plans of the fort, one by Burbeck and Winthrop Sargent and one by Wilkinson, showing how it developed in those years.

That article also says the Clements’s new collection “represents only about 60% of Henry Burbeck’s entire archive. The remainder is divided among three institutions in the Northeast.” One of those is the New London County Historical Society, but I don’t know the others. A large lot of Burbeck’s papers was sold in 2011.


Anonymous said...

The New York Public Library appears to have some of his papers: http://archives.nypl.org/mss/4094

J. L. Bell said...

I saw that last night, but since it was only one folder, I wasn't sure it counted as a major collection. I guess that depends to an extent on what's in the folder.