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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Thursday, October 07, 2021

Solving the Mystery of “Lilley P.”

I’m taking the liberty of sharing a collaborative exchange between two Revolutionary War reenactors dedicated to studying the daily lives of Continental Army soldiers.

Earlier this year, John U. Rees, author of ‘They Were Good Soldiers:’ African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 and many detailed articles, posted on Facebook:
This is for the New England foodies out there. I was asked what “Lilley P.” was…and have come up short. I’ve checked the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the book Saltwater Foodways, and tried Google search in various forms.

The quote comes from Lt. Samuel Armstrong [1754-1810], 8th Mass. Regiment, who wrote on 19 December 1777, the day the army marched to Valley Forge, “our Boy[s] went to work to Bake Bread and of this we Eat like Insatiate Monsters ’till they had made some Lilley P., of which we [eat?] ’till our Guts began to Ake…”
The Armstrong diary was transcribed and published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1997. The New England Historic Genealogical Society has digitized it here, and the page with the passage in question is here with a detail shown above.

A fellow researcher and reenactor, Steve Rayner, soon provided Rees with the answer from the journal that Dr. Isaac Senter (1753-1799) wrote out to record Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition against Québec. It was first published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1846, and the manuscript is now at Fordham University.

Dr. Senter wrote:
Wednesday, Nov. 1st. – Our greatest luxuries now consisted in a little water, stiffened with flour, in imitation of shoemakers’ paste, which was christened with the name of Lillipu.

Instead of the diarrhea, which tried our men most shockingly in the former part of our march, the reverse was now the complaint, which continued for many days.
The use of the same term (in two forms) two years apart in different campaigns suggests that this soldiers’ slang had staying power. Perhaps almost as long as the Lillipu itself.

I should note that there’s another diary manuscript from Dr. Senter, now at the Rhode Island Historical Society, first transcribed and published by Stephen Darley in Voices from a Wilderness Expedition. It appears to be part of the manuscript that Senter actually wrote during the expedition and later copied and expanded into the journal published in 1846.

Those surviving pages don’t cover 1 November. Therefore, we can’t confirm Senter wrote “Lillipu” in 1775. It’s possible that he added the term to his original entry while expanding the text. However, since Dr. Senter wasn’t in the army after 1776, he was unlikely to have picked up short-lived Valley Forge soldiers’ slang.

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