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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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Regimental Goat and “Memory Creep”

The stories of the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ goat and the Battle of Bunker Hill are a good example of what I call “memory creep.”

As one writer picks up a story from another, he or she can change it slightly—either through error or through wishfully reading sources in a more dramatic or meaningful way. And then the next writer changes it further. The earliest sources can get buried or stay hovering in brief quotations or citations, lending an air of reliability, when in fact they don’t say what the latest writer says they said.

Thus, a man who was serving in the provincial army during Bunker Hill becomes a soldier who fought in the battle—even if he was stationed on the other end of the siege lines. A man turning out for several short-term militia activations over the course of the war becomes a Continental soldier who served the length of the war. A plausible but undocumented travel route gets marked with stones and steel signs that seem beyond doubt.

In the case of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the British casualty lists after the Bunker Hill battle included many officers from the flank companies of that 23rd Regiment, but none from the other companies. For decades authors assumed that all the companies suffered losses at the same rate but some records weren’t available. That made the American fire more effective, the regiment’s sacrifice more gallant—both sides won.

In fact, British army sources were very good at reporting the names of all killed and wounded officers. (Enlisted men, not so much.) The less dramatic but more accurate interpretation of the evidence is that the rest of the 23rd Regiment’s companies just didn’t fight in that battle.

Likewise, the solid evidence that by 1775 the 23rd Regiment was in the habit of “passing in review preceded by a Goat” became a picture of the regiment marching into battle on 17 June 1775 behind that goat. That’s a very striking picture which can be hard to resist once one thinks of it.

That sight should also have been striking to the men who fought that battle, especially the provincials. Yet no eyewitness ever reported seeing a goat on the field, much less one leading a redcoat company or butting its way into the redoubt. Left without supporting evidence, authors quoted James Fenimore Cooper’s otherwise-unread novel for support, even though his character didn’t even say the goat was in the battle.

Significantly, claims that the Royal Welch Fusiliers marched into the fight behind a goat appear almost exclusively in books and articles about the regiment. It’s a claim that requires good evidence and comes with little to none. I haven’t found a single mention of the animal in books about the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In 1777 a British officer, Maj. Robert Donkin, set down a story that the regimental goat had bucked off its rider at the 1775 St. David’s Day dinner. A version of that anecdote was reprinted many times in the nineteenth century. But for one train of authors, the story became more meaningful after they interpreted Donkin’s words to mean that the the rider had died. That made a comic moment into something portentous. But no drummer was actually killed in the making of that anecdote.

I can’t trace the story of the Royal Welch Fusiliers adopting a “wild goat” on the Bunker Hill battlefield the same way, but I think it arose in recent years through the same process. Someone saw that the historical record of the regiment’s goat goes back only to 1775, and claims that a goat led the Fusiliers at Bunker Hill, and put those ideas together to create an entertaining story: The 23rd adopted their first goat on the Bunker Hill battlefield!

Again, the historical sources actually say the Royal Welch Fusiliers was known for parading with a goat before 1775, even if no one had bothered to write it down. But no one testified to seeing a goat, wild or saddled or gilt-horned, during the Battle of Bunker Hill. The mascot of the 23rd Regiment must have sat out the battle in Boston with most of the Fusiliers. The real question is how it survived the hungry weeks of the siege that followed.


Bill Harshaw said...

Thought you might be interested to know: if you google "memory creep" you get hits for "memory leak"--describing a common computer problem.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Another colorful undocumented Revolutionary anecdote dispatched, sigh. Just when will the unbridled iconoclasm STOP!

Anyone wishing to enjoy their American history untrammeled by actual contemporary evidence would do well to avoid the pages of "Boston 1775!"

J. L. Bell said...

The inspiration for “memory creep” came from “mission creep,” which is established enough to have its own Wikipedia entry. But then so does “memory leak.”

J. L. Bell said...

I have to admit I found this battlefield goat story dubious from the start. But I learned a lot from looking into its genesis and evolution.

Selden said...

This story and your detective work were great. Thank you.