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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Sunday, April 19, 2020

Lt. Jacob Rogers and the “Confusion” in Charlestown

One of the more unusual accounts of the start of the Revolutionary War came from Jacob Rogers, former commander of the Royal Navy ship Halifax.

In 1774 Lt. Rogers left the navy (more on that eventually), married Anne Barber, and settled in her home town of Charlestown.

Most of that town was on a peninsula between the Charles and Mystic Rivers, as shown here. The common spilled onto the westerly side of the neck connecting that peninsula to the rest of Massachusetts.

In October 1775, Rogers related his experiences on 19 April in a petition to the Massachusetts legislature. He wrote:
We were alarmed with various reports concerning the king’s troops, which put everybody in confusion

About ten in the morning I met Doctor [Joseph] Warren riding hastily out of town and asked him if the news was true of the men’s being killed at Lexington; he assured me it was. I replied I was very glad our people had not fired first, as it would have given the king’s troops a handle to execute their project of desolation. He rode on.

In the afternoon Mr. James Russell [a town official and appointee to the mandamus Council] received a letter from General [Thomas] Gage, importing that he was informed the people of Charlestown had gone out armed to oppose his majesty's troops, and that if one single man more went out armed, we might expect the most disagreeable consequences.

A line-of-battle ship lying before the town; a report that Cambridge bridge was taken up [at the site of the Anderson Memorial Bridge]; no other retreat but through Charlestown: numbers of men, women, and children, in this confusion, getting out of town.

Among the rest, I got my chaise, took my wife and children; and as I live near the school-house, in a back street, drove into the main street, put my children in a cart with others then driving out of town, who were fired at several times on the common, and followed after. Just abreast of Captain [John] Fenton’s, on the neck of land, Mr. David Waitt, leather-dresser, of Charlestown, came riding in full speed from Cambridge, took hold of my reins, and assisted me to turn up on Bunker’s Hill, as he said the troops were then entering the common.

I had just reached the summit of the hill, dismounted from the chaise, and tied it fast in my father-in-law [William Barber]’s pasture, when we saw the troops within about forty rods of us, on the hill. One [Daniel?] Hayley, a tailor, now of Cambridge, with his wife, and a gun on his shoulder, going towards them, drew a whole volley of shot on himself and us, that I expected my wife, or one of her sisters, who were with us, to drop every moment.

It being now a little dark, we proceeded with many others to the Pest House, till we arrived at Mr. [Samuel] Townsend’s, pump-maker, in the training-field; on hearing women’s voices, we went in, and found him, Captain [Nathan] Adams, tavern-keeper, Mr. Samuel Carey, now clerk to Colonel [Thomas] Mifflin, quartermaster-general, and some others, and a house full of women and children, in the greatest terror, afraid to go to their own habitations.

After refreshing ourselves, it being then dark. Mr. Carey, myself, and one or two more, went into town, to see if we might, with safety, proceed to our own houses. On our way, met a Mr. Hutchinson, who informed us all was then pretty quiet; that when the soldiers came through the street, the officers desired the women and children to keep in doors for their safety; that they begged for drink, which the people were glad to bring them, for fear of their being ill-treated.

Mr. Carey and I proceeded to the tavern by the Town House, where the officers were; all was tumult and confusion; nothing but drink called for everywhere. I waited a few minutes, and proceeded to my own house, and finding things pretty quiet, went in search of my wife and sisters, and found them coming up the street with Captain Adams.

On our arrival at home, we found that her brother [Edward Barber], a youth of fourteen, was shot dead on the neck of land by the soldiers, as he was looking out of a window. I stayed a little while to console them, and went into the main street to see if all was quiet, and found an officer and guard under arms by Mr. David Wood’s, baker, who continued, it seems, all night; from thence, seeing everything quiet, came home and went to bed, and never gave assistance or refreshment of any kind whatever. Neither was any officer or soldier near my house that day or night.

The next morning, with difficulty, I obtained to send for my horse and chaise from off the hill, where it had been all night, and found my cushion stole, and many other things I had in the box. Went to wait on Gen. [Robert] Pigot, the commanding officer, for leave to go in search of my children; found Doctor [Isaac] Rand, Captain [Joseph] Cordis, and others, there for the same purpose, but could not obtain it till he had sent to Boston for orders, and could not find them till next night, having travelled in fear from house to house, till they got to Captain [Daniel] Waters’, in Malden.
Rogers wrote this account in an attempt to absolve himself of the accusation of having helped the British military in some way. Because he had been a Royal Navy officer himself until just one year before the war broke out, many people suspected him, even after his wife had lost her teen-aged brother to British gunfire.

For more of Rogers’s attempts to clear his name, see Katie Turner Getty’s article for the Journal of the American Revolution. But see also her quotation from Rogers’s petition to Parliament in 1783, when he portrayed himself as a Loyalist and claimed that he “gave every relief and assistance in his power…to his Majesties’ troops on their retreat to Charles Town in refreshing the Officers and Men [and] procuring surgeons to dress the wounded.” So Lt. Rogers might have been even more busy on the night of 19 Apr 1775 than his first account suggested.

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