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, April 20, 2016

Isaac Royall and “the very Day the battle happen’d”

Like the Rev. David McClure, Isaac Royall of Medford was caught by surprise in Boston when the war began.

Earlier this week on Facebook the Royall House and Slave Quarters quoted Royall’s 29 May 1779 letter to his former tutor, the Rev. Samuel Cooke of Menotomy, on how he came to be there:
I packed up my Sea Stores and Cloathes for the passage and came to Boston after attending the public Worship on the Lord’s Day Evening before the Battle of Lexington [i.e., on 16 Apr 1775] to take leave of my children and Friends intending to have gone thence to Salem to embark for Antigua but unfortunately staid in Boston two or three Days and din’d with the Hon’ble Captain [George] Erving the very Day the battle happen’d after which it was impossible to get out of Town for Gen. [Thomas] Gage had issued Orders to prevent any one coming in or going out
Erving was Royall’s son-in-law.

The timing of Royall’s statement matches what Samuel Winship told the Medford committee of safety on 9 Apr 1778:
That, on Sunday before said battle, said Royal went in his coach to Boston, and took with him a pair of pistols and a carabine, but for what end he did not know, nor never heard; that, at the same time, he left in his house two firearms, which Mr. Poor, some days after, carried to Watertown.
However, Royall’s suggestion that Gen. Gage had prevented him from going home to Medford is disingenuous. Gage did make leaving town more difficult, but a lot of people got out. Royall had already planned to leave in the other direction, by sea, and within a few weeks he did.

Royall’s motives and loyalties had become a legal issue in 1778 because the state of Massachusetts was moving to confiscate the property of absentees who supported the British Crown. Royall insisted to some friends in Medford that he wasn’t in that category. Dr. Simon Tufts, for instance, testified:
he knew of nothing said Royal had said or done against the country; but, on the contrary, he believed him to be a friend of the American cause. That said Royal being in Boston at and before the battle of Lexington, the confusion which that battle occasioned in the country made him afraid at that time and afterwards to return home; and that said confusion, which prevailed in Boston, made him afraid to stay there; accordingly he went to Halifax, and from thence retired back into the country, and afterwards went to England.
However, Tufts had received Royall’s power of attorney, giving him every reason to keep the estate from being confiscated.

Peter Tufts testified:
That, about a fortnight before Lexington battle, Colonel Royal told him that it would not do for us to resist Great Britain, for they were too strong for us, and would send over ten thousand Russians, who would subdue us; and that, by his conversation, it appeared to him (the said Tufts) that said Royal was for surrendering up all to Great Britain, rather than make resistance.
Yet Isaac Hall said:
That, the winter before said battle, he went to settle accounts with said Royal, at his house; and that said Royal showed him his arms and accoutrements (which were in very good order), and told him that he determined to stand for his country, &c.
But which country would that be? In the end, Medford’s selectmen ruled that Royall had chosen the side of the Crown and was therefore a Loyalist, making his property vulnerable to confiscation.

Still, as of 1779, Royall was writing to Dr. Tufts to insist that he hoped “to return home as soon as my health will admit of.” He died in Britain two years later, but not from a disease his health was suffering from when he wrote that letter—instead, from smallpox.

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