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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Monday, January 21, 2019

“Five field Officers, to enquire into the circumstance of the Riot”

The morning after the fight between British army officers and town watchmen that I reported yesterday, the higher authorities swung into action.

That morning six selectmen met at Faneuil Hall: John Scollay, John Hancock, Thomas Marshall, Samuel Austin, Oliver Wendell, and John Pitts. The record of that session says: “Mr. [Benjamin] Burdick & other Constables of the Watch, appeared and complained to the Selectmen of great abuses received from a number of officers of the Army, the last Night.”

The selectmen must have asked the watchmen to produce sworn testimony because that afternoon “Mr. Isaac Pierce, Mr. Joseph Henderson & Mr. Robert Peck & Mr. Constable Burdick gave in their Depositions.”

Gov. Thomas Gage, who was also the general in charge of the soldiers, took steps the same day—a politic move to calm the town. Lt. John Barker wrote in his diary, “A court of Enquiry is order’d to set next Monday, consisting of five field Officers, to enquire into the circumstance of the Riot.”

The prospect of punishment might, however, have made some officers more resentful. The merchant John Andrews wrote on 22 January:
The Officers’ animosity to the watch still rankling in their breast, induc'd two of them to go last night to the watch house again at about 10 o’clock and threaten the watch that they would bring a file of men and blow all their brains out.

The watch thereupon left their cell and shut it up, and went and enter’d a complaint to the Selectmen—some of whom waited on the Governor at about 12 o’clock, who was very much vex’d at the Officers’ conduct, and told the Gentlemen that he had got the names of three that were concern'd in Fryday night’s frolick, and was determin’d to treat them with the utmost severity—and likewise order’d a guard to patrole through every street in town and bring every officer to him that they should find strolling or walking.
Fortunately, the 22nd was a Sunday, so nobody really expected to be out having fun in Boston, anyway.

On Monday, 23 January, the court of enquiry met. It was headed by Lt. Col. George Maddison of the 4th regiment, with two other lieutenant colonels and two majors on the bench. They took testimony every day from Monday to Saturday, according to records in Gen. Gage’s files.

Barker wrote, “it is supposed it will be a tedious affair, and will not be finished for some time.” Andrews also reported:
Yesterday the Officers were all examin’d at the New Court house, respecting fryday night’s affair, being carried there under arrest, nine in number (after which the General is to deal with them): being a great number of evidences they were oblig’d to adjourn till [to] day.
The list of witnesses included:
  • five army captains, including Hugh Maginis of the 38th, who had fought with the watch back in November.
  • twelve lieutenants from the army and Marines, including Gage’s aide de camp Harry Rooke; Lt. House of the 38th, who had sustained a cut on his forehead; William Pitcairn of the Marines, son of the major commanding that unit; and William Sutherland of the 38th, who would later leave a detailed report on the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
  • seven ensigns, including Ens. King of the 5th, whose sword had been taken.
  • a sergeant and at least five privates.
  • “Mr. Winslow,” who had been escorting Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver’s wife Elizabeth home from “Mr. Vassall’s,” probably her brother, John Vassall.
  • watchman William McFadden.
  • “Thomas Ball Esqr. late Capt. in the Royal Irish Regt. of Foot,” who testified that townspeople were yelling at the soldiers to fire.
At the start of the inquiry John Andrews had high expectations: ”the Captain of the Guard [John Gore] at least will be broke, for being drunk when on duty.”

Meanwhile, some of the town’s justices of the peace held their own hearings.

TOMORROW: The magistrates’ findings.


Charles Bahne said...

This is January 1775, right? So we have Cambridge residents Thomas Oliver and John Vassall living in exile in Boston, following the powder alarm of September 1774. They seem to have resumed their social life, though.

Paul Vinson said...

This blog & content is a great gift. I'm a researcher and continuously looking for additional Samuel Adams materials, which are generally quite difficult to obtain.

With gratitude,

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Charlie, Thomas Oliver moved into Boston the night after the Powder Alarm of 2 Sept 1774, and his family was with him within a couple of days. John Vassall and his family followed by the end of the month. They didn't realize they'd never see their Cambridge homes again.

Since Thomas Oliver and John Vassall had married each other's sisters and lived close to each other, the families were intimately connected. So it's not clear whether Elizabeth Oliver's visit to her brother and (twice over) sister-in-law was part of a formal social affair or just familial.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your kind words, Paul.