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, June 20, 2021

“Hardly men left enough to saddle their goat!”

Francis Grose (1731-1791, shown here) had a short career in the British army, filling the lowest officer’s rank of cornet during the 1740s. He later became a militia captain and adjutant. But his heart was in historical research.

Grose, a hard-working if not particularly talented draftsman, published four volumes of images of Britain’s medieval ruins from 1772 to 1776. 

During the American War, Grose’s militia unit was activated to defend the home country, and that caused him trouble in two ways. First, he couldn’t spend his summers traveling and sketching, as he’d come to like. Second, he had to administer the finances of camp, which he did poorly, putting him into debt.

As a result, Grose had to publish a lot more books in the years after the war. In addition to more sketchbooks, he came out with his oft-cited Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) and A Provincial Glossary, with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (1787).

Grose also drew on his military experience. In 1783 he was the anonymous author of Advice to the Officers of the British Army, an acerbic satire on how the army operated in the recent war. And in 1786 he collected stories from many sources into Military Antiquities Respecting a History of the English Army.

One of those sources was Maj. Robert Donkin’s Military Collections and Remarks. In a footnote on pages 265-6 of his 1788 London edition, Grose quoted (though inexactly) what Donkin’s book said about the Royal Welch Fusiliers, their gilt-horned goat, and the disrupted St. David’s Day dinner of 1775. Grose’s reprinting of that anecdote ensured it remained available to readers into the next century even when Donkin’s book became rare.

In 1818 Samuel Swett published his first essay on the Battle of Bunker Hill as an appendix to an edition of David Humphreys’s short biography of Gen. Israel Putnam. In a footnote he provided a somewhat garbled explanation of the 23rd Regiment’s goat tradition:
From a tradition that a former Prince of Wales had ridden from his principality into England on a goat; a very large one, with gilded horns, was always maintained by the corps, and they celebrated the anniversary of the feat by a procession, rejoicing and exultation.
As the sources from the 1770s indicate, the fusilier officers observed St. David’s Day, but perhaps this was how some old Bostonians understood the ritual.

The next figure in the spread of 23rd Regiment goat lore was James Fenimore Cooper, the New York novelist. Three of his first five books—the three that were most successful—were stories of eighteenth-century America. Cooper made a plan to write thirteen more novels about the Revolution, using actual historical figures and events, one for each original state in the union.

The first of those books was Lionel Lincoln, or The Leaguer of Boston, published in 1825 to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war. Cooper put a lot of effort into depicting historical events such as the Battle of Bunker Hill, but the plot was his usual overcooked melodrama. That might not have been a problem except that for some reason Cooper thought that his public wanted to read about an aristocratic Loyalist antihero.

Lionel Lincoln was a critical and sales failure, and remains so to this day. Cooper abandoned his plan to write more books like that. His next novel was The Last of the Mohicans.

In Lionel Lincoln one character discussing the British casualties at Bunker Hill says: “the Fusileers had hardly men left enough to saddle their goat!” Cooper then showed off his research with a footnote:
This regiment, in consequence of some tradition, kept a goat, with gilded horns, as a memorial. Once a year it celebrated a festival, in which the bearded quadruped acted a conspicuous part. In the battle of Bunker-Hill, the corps was distinguished alike for its courage and its losses.
Cooper probably relied on Grose’s Military Antiquities or Swett’s footnote, or both, for his information, which is notably vague on the particulars. Either way, it’s clearly an allusion to how the Royal Welch Fusiliers celebrated, not how they entered battle.

But that’s not how people chose to read it.

TOMORROW: Putting a goat on the battlefield.

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