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, September 14, 2020

“Remissness and backwardness” at Bunker Hill

On 13 Aug 1775, Gen. George Washington issued orders for a court-martial to take place the following day with Gen. Nathanael Greene presiding.

The defendant was Col. John Mansfield (1721-1809) of Lynn. Three junior officers in his regiment had accused him “of high Crimes and Misdemeanors”—namely “remissness and backwardness in the execution of his duty, at the late engagement on Bunkers-hill.”

But there was a delay. On 17 August, Washington told Greene and the other officers to try Col. Samuel Gerrish instead. There were also hearings on officers of lesser rank in that month. As I discussed last month, Gen. Washington was happy to remove a bunch of officers from the Continental ranks.

On 20 August the commander-in-chief told his cousin and overseer Lund Washington, “there is two more Colos. now under arrest, & to be tried for the same Offences.” One was Mansfield.

Why the delay? The charge against Mansfield also involved Maj. Scarborough Gridley of the artillery regiment, who was a protégé of his father, Col. Richard Gridley. The colonel was highly respected in Massachusetts because of his service in the last two wars, particularly the 1745 siege of Louisbourg. With a half-pay pension from the Crown, he was seen as the equivalent of a British army artillerist. The Massachusetts government had even moved to promote Col. Gridley to major general on 23 June.

Gen. Washington and particularly Gen. Charles Lee were not at all impressed with Col. Gridley’s fortifications and other work when they arrived in Cambridge in July. Washington informed the Continental Congress of Gridley’s new Massachusetts rank but pointedly didn’t endorse it. The Congress commissioned him as a Continental colonel instead. But people still didn’t want to totally alienate Col. Gridley.

What’s more, for a significant time that summer the colonel was home in Stoughton recovering a wound he’d suffered at Bunker Hill. His son Scar was the only liaison between him and the army. So both politically and practically, Maj. Scar Gridley was almost untouchable for a while.

That’s where the incident with Col. Mansfield came in. Mansfield’s failing at the Battle of Bunker Hill was to listen to Maj. Scar Gridley. As Richard Frothingham explained the situation in his History of the Siege of Boston, both officers had been ordered onto the battlefield on the Charlestown peninsula but stopped before crossing the neck:
Major Gridley, of the artillery, inadequate to his position, with part of the battalion, marched a short distance on Cambridge road, then halted, and resolved to cover the retreat, which he thought to be inevitable. Col. [Joseph] Frye, fresh from the battle, urged him forward; but Gridley, appalled by the horrors of the scene, ordered his men to fire at the [Royal Navy ship] Glasgow, and batteries from Cobble Hill. He also ordered Colonel Mansfield to support him with his regiment, who, violating his orders, obeyed.
To convict Mansfield of disobeying higher orders, cowardice, or incompetence would imply that Scar Gridley was guilty of the same charges. And how would his father respond? That might have been why Mansfield’s court martial took so long to get started.

In early September 1775, however, the court-martial proceedings started again. The logjam might have been broken from below as officers in the artillery regiment fired accusations at each other.

TOMORROW: Two trials in two weeks.


Anonymous said...

...wonder...if the British had won and the patriots had lost, would history still write George Washington as a "General". ..or "Colonel". What do you think?

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting question. I can think of some times when British culture disregards the military ranks claimed by unsuccessful rebels and other times when it accepts them.