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.

Follow by Email


Thursday, January 11, 2018

“I will come and help you a second time.”

Yesterday I shared a story that the Continental Army veteran Jacob Francis told about Gen. Israel Putnam helping to build a fortification on Lechmere’s Point during the siege of Boston.

It’s a terrific story—compact, offering insight into Putnam’s character, and providing a neat little moral. Francis told that tale to the government in 1832 as he applied for a pension from his home in Flemington, New Jersey.

Seven years later, on 22 Oct 1839, the North American published in Philadelphia printed this story:
THE CORPORAL.—During the American revolution, an officer not habited in the military costume, was passing by where a small company of soldiers were at work, making some repairs upon a small redoubt.

The commander of the little squad was giving orders to those who were under him, relative to a stick of timber, which they were endeavouring to raise to the top of the works. The timber went up hard, and on this account the voice of the little great man was often heard in his regular vociferations of “Heave away! There she goes! Heave ho!” etc. The officer before spoken of stopped his horse when arrived at the place, and seeing the timber sometimes scarcely move, asked the commander why he did not take hold and render a little aid.

The latter appeared to be somewhat astonished, turning to the officer with the pomp of an Emperor, said, “Sir, I am a corporal![”]

‘You are not though, are you?’ said the officer; ‘I was not aware of it.’ And taking off his hat and bowing, ‘I ask your pardon, Mr. corporal.” Upon this he dismounted his elegant steed, flung the bridle over the post, and lifted till the sweat stood in drops on his forehead.

When the timber was elevated to its proper station, turning to the man clothed in brief authority, “Mr. Corporal,” said he, “when you have another such job, and have not men enough, send to your Commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you a second time.”

The corporal was thunderstruck! It was Washington.
The same story appeared in the Norwich Courier up in Connecticut the next day, which makes me think both those newspapers had picked it up from a common source without credit, as printers often did. But the North American is the earliest appearance I’ve found.

Many other newspapers reprinted the same story in the following months. It appeared in the Rural Repository magazine in 1850 and continued to pop up in publications through the end of the century. At some point an artist illustrated it, as shown above. I just found a few examples of blogs retelling the same tale and deriving valuable lessons about life from it.

Now this is obviously the same story that Jacob Francis had told in 1832, except the general is Washington instead of Putnam. Other details have changed, and the specified place and time have disappeared entirely. But the lines “Sir, I am a corporal!” and “I beg/ask your pardon, sir” appear in both Francis’s anecdote and in the newspapers, so the stories definitely seem to be related.

Given Gen. Washington’s emphasis on hierarchy, discipline, and military appearances, the anecdote doesn’t seem authentic to him at all. But it does fit what else we know about Gen. Putnam.

Jacob Francis told that tale as part of proving to the government that he really did serve under Putnam. It was therefore framed as a memorable anecdote revealing that general’s personality. I don’t think Francis would have made it up or adopted some anecdote that was floating around because the account of his military service he swore to had to be convincing or he wouldn’t get a pension. Francis’s tale went into a file in Washington, D.C., and wasn’t published until 1980.

Meanwhile, it appears that someone heard Francis’s story—perhaps while he was applying for the pension, perhaps at a Revolutionary War commemoration, perhaps while he was just telling stories. And that person recast it with a more famous general, restructured it to have a twist ending, and reinforced the moral to remove all subtlety.

In doing so, that storyteller not only replaced Putnam but also erased Pvt. Jacob Francis. (No African-Americans in the picture above, are there?) But now, with the publication of Francis’s pension application in John Dann’s The Revolution Remembered, his story is circulating as well.

1 comment:

Don Carleton said...

Keep scraping the barnacles of myth off these anecdotes of the Revolution, John, although I fear the fabulists may have too much of a head start on you...!