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, July 15, 2016

When Minutemen Marched into Marshfield

So in 1775 there were a hundred British soldiers stationed in Marshfield, mostly on the estate of Nathaniel Ray Thomas. Their commander was Capt. Nisbet Balfour of the 4th Regiment.

And on the morning of 20 April, according to Isaac Thomas (who was nine years old at the time), the Marshfield militia was summoned by musket shots and drum.

I wouldn’t just leave the story there, would I?

The colonel of the Plymouth County militia was Theophilus Cotton (detail of his gravestone shown above, courtesy of Find-a-Grave). We have many documents about militia companies that he commanded that day, such as this roster from Hanson. That’s because the men who turned out in April 1775 expected to be paid, so the Massachusetts government asked for and kept paperwork with their names and days of service.

However, we don’t have, to my knowledge, contemporaneous narratives of what happened in Marshfield, from either the locals or the British troops. Instead, we have accounts written decades later by the historians of nearby towns, based and focused on the activities of men from those towns.

Dr. James Thacher’s History of the Town of Plymouth (1832) relates two detailed and flattering anecdotes about how Plymouth’s “watchful sons of liberty” intimidated British officers visiting from Marshfield. As for the military activity in Marshfield, he wrote:

Capt. Balfour, with his company remained at Marshfield for several weeks unmolested, but the day after Lexington battle, governor [Thomas] Gage, apprised of their danger, took off his troops, by water, to Boston.

At this period minute companies were organized in town, and immediately on hearing of the bloodshed at Lexington, Col. Theophilus Cotton, of this town, marched to Marshfield with a detachment of militia under his command. There were at the same time about sixty fishing vessels with their crews on board at anchor in Plymouth harbor. The fishermen voluntarily left their vessels, and speedily marched to Marshfield with their arms, resolutely determined to attack the company of British troops. When arrived at Marshfield, their numbers had increased to near one thousand men, collected from the different towns, burning with the feelings of revenge: they might have surrounded and captured the whole company before they could get to their vessels, but were restrained by Col. Cotton, who it is said had received no orders for the attack.
A more detailed account appeared seventeen more years on in Justin Winsor’s History of Duxbury (1849):
Immediately after the news arrived of the bloodshed at Lexington, Col. Cotton with his regiment formed for an attack on Balfour’s party. On the 20th Col. Cotton and Maj. [Ebenezer] Sprout met in Duxbury, at Col. Briggs Alden’s for consultation. Maj. Judah Alden, who was in Rhode Island when the news came of the fight, had just returned, having ridden all day on horseback, and soon after learning the circumstances of the case, he met Cato, a negro who had been sent by Capt. Balfour to ascertain the numbers of the men who were marching against him. Maj. Alden suspecting his design, told him to tell Balfour, they were coming in a host after him, and dismissed him.

Col. Cotton again returned to Plymouth; and, about 7 o’clock, on the morning of the 21st, marched for Marshfield with a portion of his regiment, consisting of the Plymouth company under Capt. [Thomas] Mayhew, the Kingston under Capt. Peleg Wadsworth, and the Duxbury under Capt. Geo. Partridge. They proceeded to Col. Anthony Thomas’ [sic], about a mile N. W. of Capt. John Thomas’, where were Balfour’s troops.

At this juncture Col. Cotton and Lt. Col. Alden held a long conference, as to the course to be taken. At noon there were assembled about 500 men, including the crews of many fishing vessels in the harbor. In the afternoon Capt. [Earl] Clapp’s company from Rochester and Capt. [Jesse] Harlow’s from Plympton arrived. Capt. Peleg Wadsworth was greatly dissatisfied with the delay, and moved forward his company until within a short distance of the enemy, and then halted as his numbers were too small to venture an attack.

About 3 o’clock, P. M., two sloops hove in sight and anchored off the Brant rock. Balfour then conveyed his company through the Cut river [Green Harbor] in boats, and reaching the sloops soon sailed for Boston, leaving however several sentinels behind to watch the movements of the Americans, who also set guards for the night.

The British watch finally left and in going to their boats, they passed one of the American sentry posts, where were stationed Blanie Phillips, and Jacob Dingley, both of Duxbury. Dingley was seized, and conveyed to their boat, when they concluded to release him. Phillips escaped, fired his gun, and gave an alarm, which roused the country for many miles around.

Balfour, it is reported, said that if he had been attacked, he should have surrendered without a gun. In their hurry to escape they left much of their camp equipage behind.
That final detail is the sort that always makes me skeptical: no source for information from the other side of the war, flattering to the author and readers as local descendants. In the following sentences Winsor cited “an inhabitant of Duxbury” whom Balfour spoke with in New York later in the war, so it’s possible the captain told that person. But it’s also possible that’s what the Plymouth County men told themselves.

With Capt. Balfour and the regulars went Nathaniel Ray Thomas, who settled in Nova Scotia, and possibly some other Marshfield Loyalists. His Patriot son John regained the mansion at the center of the estate after the war. Later Daniel Webster bought that house and enlarged it, creating the Victorian structure which (after a fire) is now reproduced on the property. Locals point out that could have been the site of the second battle of the Revolutionary War.

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