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, February 20, 2022

“After 28 Years of active and unremitting Service”

This monument is installed in St. Paul’s Church in Bristol, England. It shows an angel mourning over a stone labeled “Monte Video” with a palm tree in the background.

This artwork was installed to honor of Lt. Col. Spencer Thomas Vassall of His Majesty’s 38th Regiment of Foot. As the inscription explains:
after 28 Years of active and unremitting Service, during which he had justly acquired a high Military Reputation [he] was mortally wounded at the storming of Monte Video in South America, on the 3rd of February 1807, at the Moment he had conducted his intrepid Followers within the Walls of that Fortress, and expired on the 7th of the same Month
Vassall’s fellow officers brought his remains back to Britain, and his wife paid for this monument.

Lt. Col. Vassall began life in 1764 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the second son of John and Elizabeth Vassall. He was born in the mansion now known as Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. The Vassall family was immensely wealthy from slave-labor plantations on Jamaica.

On 2 Sept 1774, when Spencer was ten years old, thousands of Massachusetts farmers marched up and down the street outside his house in the event later called the “Powder Alarm.” Those men demanded that several neighbors—including attorney general Jonathan Sewall, Council members Samuel Danforth and Joseph Lee, and Middlesex County sheriff David Phips—give up their royal appointments under the new Massachusetts Government Act or apologize for actions they had taken under that law.

At the end of the day the crowd surrounded Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver’s house, about a mile to the west, and threatened him into signing a resignation. The lieutenant governor was Spencer’s uncle (in two ways). Undoubtedly that experience affected the Vassall and Oliver children, but I don’t think any of them left comments or reminiscences about it.

Nobody in that 1774 crowd knew that Spencer’s father had just written to Gen. Thomas Gage offering to join the Council as well. And John Vassall didn’t want anyone to know. Within a couple of weeks, he packed up his family and moved into Boston for safety. Spencer and his siblings never saw their Cambridge home again.

By early 1776, the Vassalls were in Britain. Later that year, the family bought Spencer, aged twelve, a commission in the British army. He went on active duty a couple of years later. From October 1782 to the end of the American War, he was at Gibraltar while it was under siege from the Spanish and French. In later conflicts he served in Flanders, Antigua, France, Spain, Holland, Ireland, and South Africa. And, as related above, he died leading a British army attack in Uruguay.

One detail not mentioned on Lt. Col. Spencer Vassall’s monument is that he was born in America. His parents had spent even more of their lives in Massachusetts, and their monument in the same church also says nothing about having been born, married, and started a family in Cambridge. The Vassalls left that difficult part of their history behind.


EJWitek said...

Lt Col Vassall actually served in the 38th Regiment of Foot at the time of his death. Either the inscription on the monument is in error or a "3" is being read as a "5". He was mortally wounded after leading his regiment through a breach in the walls of Montevideo and encountering heavy resistance. His family genealogy claims his family purchased a commission for him at the age of 12 in the 59th Regiment of Foot. The 59th suffered so many casualties at Bunker Hill that it was sent back to England in 1776 to be reconstituted. It was probably then that young Vassall's commission was purchased. In any event, it appears that Vassall did see considerable action.

J. L. Bell said...

The photo is a bit blurry, but it looks like the digit in question is indeed a cramped 3 instead of a cramped 5. I fixed that line accordingly, thanks.

Vassall definitely threw himself into the life of a British army officer. His older brother John got a Royal Navy commission, but didn’t serve for so many years.