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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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Sight, Sound, and Taste of Battle

Minute Man National Historical Park just published Thompson Dasher’s article “Enlightened Senses: A Sensory History of April 19, 1775.”

After a discussion of how Enlightenment philosophers portrayed our sensory powers, it analyzes the reminiscences of three people involved in the Battle of Lexington and Concord by focusing tightly on their perceptions:
  • Lexington militiaman Elijah Sanderson on what he saw and (because of smoke) couldn’t see during the fighting on his town common. 
  • Rebecca Fiske’s memory of hearing gunfire as the British army column and the provincial pursuers moved back through Lexington in the afternoon.
  • Ens. Jeremy Lister’s account of small tastes of food and drink he begged after he was wounded at Concord’s North Bridge and traveled back to safety in Boston. 
Back in 2006 I wrote about a historiographical trend of articles and books focusing on the senses, then including Richard C. Rath’s How Early America Sounded and Elaine Forman Crane’s article “‘I Have Suffer’d Much Today’: The Defining Force of Pain in Early America.”

Dasher’s article cites the more recent The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses by Carolyn Purnell, which looks like a distillation of that scholarship.

I’m still underwhelmed by the new insights produced by this approach. There doesn’t seem to be much new in realizing that the Boston Massacre was loud, or eighteenth-century battlefields smoky, or water wet. The link between philosophical discussions of senses and how people actually experienced a moment still feel attenuated. (Crane’s article is an exception.)

But this approach does encourage keen attention to the immediate experiences of individual actors. That alone brings more life to historical moments. The power of an article like Dasher’s is how it allows or presses us to reimagine the events of 19 April through the eyes, ears, and mouth of particular people.

(The photo above comes from a smoke-filled reenactment of frontier skirmishes at Wilderness Road State Park in Virginia, courtesy of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation.)


Anonymous said...

In the 1898 Vital records of Lexington Mass for early births, marriages, death on page 212 listed as Soldiers and Strangers..there are listed at least 5 soldiers- 3 have no names except being described as soldiers and vital date; only two are named: 1 is a Hessian soldier who died in 1780; the other is a Thomas Cromain who died July 1775 described as a "Regular"-now a "Regular" at that time ment the British Army-tHE QUESTION IS who was he-- a deserter? Had he been captured April 1775?

J. L. Bell said...

After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, some British soldiers were left in the countryside after being wounded, being captured, or deserting. There was a prisoner exchange in May 1775, but other British men remained in provincial hands. I’ll see if we can find anything more about this Thomas Cromain.