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 13, 2016

William Dawes After His Ride

Most histories of the start of the Revolutionary War don’t say much about William Dawes after he escaped the British army officers who caught Paul Revere. (I discussed Dawes’s amusing anecdote about that episode here.)

According to David H. Fischer, after losing his horse and his watch, Dawes went back to Lexington and went to bed. There’s a family story that a few days later he went back to the site in Lincoln where he fell off his horse and found his watch. But anything else?

In 1878 descendant Henry W. Holland, relying on family traditions and published sources, wrote:

Dawes at once joined the Continental troops at Cambridge, and, it is said, fought at Bunker Hill, but never, I believe, took commission in the regular army. When Boston became unsafe, he moved his family to Worcester, one of the great centres of rebellion; and when the siege ended, and the war was removed from New England, he was appointed commissary at Worcester by Congress.
Holland’s sources were older relatives born after the war, so he relying on thirdhand information. I’m not sure about that Bunker Hill thing (so many family insisted their ancestors were at Bunker Hill), and I suspect Dawes did take a formal military role.

Below are the entries in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War for men named William Dawes. Each has a separate entry in the state archives. However, some of these could pertain to the same man. And of course some could pertain to multiple men with the same name.
Clearly we can connect the assistant commissary of August 1779 with Dawes, based on his family recollection (as well as a period complaint about how he shortchanged prisoners of war).

But what about the adjutant? What about the major of the Boston militia regiment?

We know that in 1768 Dawes joined the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, then an organization of men who wanted extra training to become militia officers. In April 1772 the printer John Boyle listed Dawes as “Junr. Adjut. Lieuts. Rank” in the Boston militia regiment. In early 1775 Massachusetts Committee of Safety contacted Dawes about getting cannon out of Boston [as discussed in my upcoming book, The Road to Concord], and of course Dr. Joseph Warren sent him out to Lexington.

In short, Dawes had experience in military administration and the trust of the Massachusetts Patriots. And there was a war on. It makes sense for him to serve as Gen. William Heath’s adjutant in the first months of the war, and to become a major (another position of administrative responsibility) in the Boston militia regiment after the British evacuated. But then he resigned and went to Worcester.

As for the first entry, that William Dawes was a junior officer in the Continental Army from January 1777 to May 1778, with a possible short service in late 1776. That stretch doesn’t directly contradict the other entries, but they seem to refer to a younger man.


Mr Punch said...

Seems right, and entirely consistent with Holland's third-hand report. May '75 is immediately after April; Heath was at Bunker Hill; Mass. But not Continental ("regular") commissions.

J. L. Bell said...

Heath and his regiment were on duty on 17 June 1775, but they didn't take part in the Battle of Bunker Hill. I think they were stationed down at Roxbury, across the Neck. The memory creep from "in the army during Bunker Hill" to "in the Battle of Bunker Hill" is a common one, so that may have happened with the Dawes family's recollections.

That Dawes would leave the regiment after only a couple of months when it became the Continental Army seems strange, however. He was obviously one of the Committee of Safety's most trusted and committed Bostonians at the start of 1775. The family tradition suggests that he moved out to Worcester during the siege, and it includes a story of him smuggling gold coins as buttons. However, that story doesn't make sense with what else we know about the siege, and the records above say Dawes was in Boston in 1776, Worcester in 1779.

There are no direct contradictions and some recurring patterns in these records and traditions, but still a lot of gray area.