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, February 28, 2023

History Camp Boston 2023—Time to Propose Your Presentation!

History Camp Boston 2023 has been scheduled for Saturday, 12 August, at Suffolk University.

Now’s the time to submit proposals for presentations. Slots get filled in as qualifying presentations arrive, so while the final submission deadline is 12 June it’s likely that all the spaces will be reserved before then.

If, therefore, you have a historical topic you want to share with fellow history buffs, public historians, reenactors, educators, students, and others in the field, visit History Camp’s call for presentations page. That explains the process in great detail and what organizers need to hear from you before they can assign a slot.

When I say spaces might fill up early, I’m thinking about the first History Camp Valley Forge, which will take place on Saturday, 20 May. The announced final deadline for presentations was 10 April. However, all the slots were filled by 15 February, or almost two months ahead of time!

Check out the current lineup on the History Camp Valley Forge webpage.

Among those scheduled sessions is mine:
“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”: Franklin’s Warning and How It’s Been Misused

According to an oft-retold anecdote, at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what the result was. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.” This talk looks at the evidence for that exchange, as recorded by another convention delegate in Philadelphia. It then traces how that anecdote has been distorted in the retelling, starting with that delegate’s own newspaper essays in the early republic and blossoming in the twentieth century. As a result, we have lost sight of the circumstances of the conversation, the accomplished woman Franklin spoke with, and the real political concern they shared.
Yes, in May I’m taking Boston 1775 on the road to Pennsylvania.

Monday, February 27, 2023

“Rebellion or Revolution?” from the U.K. National Archives, 3 Mar.

On the morning of Friday, 3 March, the National Archives of Great Britain will host an online discussion on the topic “Rebellion or Revolution?: Understanding the American Revolutionary War.”

This event is connected to the institution’s current exhibit “Treason: People, Power & Plot,” looking at documents and artifacts related to treason cases throughout British history.

The American Revolution presents a challenging case, given that modern British culture regards the U.S. of A. as generally a Good Thing, even if we do take things too far sometimes, and feels parental pride in the American republic. Nonetheless, there were a lot of laws broken.

The event description asks:
How do we define loyalty? Rebellion? Resistance?

And how were these concepts understood in the context of the American Revolutionary War?

Join 18th-century record specialists, Philippa Hellawell at The National Archives and Corinne Porter of the USA’s National Archive & Record Administration (NARA), for a unique collaboration discussing devotion and duplicity during the American Revolutionary War.

This talk uses highlights from both collections to help us understand both British and American perspectives, including the British reaction to the Boston Tea Party, George III’s Proclamation of Rebellion following Congress’ initial petition for independence, and the subsequent American Declaration of Independence accusing the British King of being the traitor.
A traitor to the natural rights of men and the constitutional rights of Britons, that is. Or was the royal government’s betrayal far outweighed by the Americans’ rebellion and secession?

I like the idea of sitting in on a discussion from the U.K. National Archives, where I’ve had some of my happiest archive moments finding documents that connect to stories I’d started researching in American libraries.

Still, there’s the time difference to bear in mind. This event is scheduled for 14:00 G.M.T., which I believe is 9:00 A.M. Boston time.

Pay-what-you-can tickets are available through this page. As of this evening, the British pound is worth $1.20.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy’s “Letter[s] to a Friend”

Yesterday I took note of a pamphlet that the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy published in 1774 about the Boston Port Bill couched as a “Letter to a Friend…” and ascribed to “T.W. A Bostonian.”

The form of a friendly letter to a fellow gentleman was a common trope for framing such commentary on current events and issues. Chauncy had published his first such essay nearly twenty years before.

That pamphlet appeared in August 1755 under the title:
A Letter to a Friend; Giving a concise, but just, Account, according to the Advices hitherto received, of the Ohio-Defeat; and Pointing out also the many good Ends, this inglorious Event is naturally adapted to promote: or, Shewing wherein it is fitted to advance the Interest of all the American British Colonies. To which is added, Some general Account of the New-England Forces, with what they have already done, counter-ballancing the above Loss.
That was a political and theological response to Gen. Edward Braddock’s defeat at the start of the French & Indian War. As in his 1774 essay, Chauncy adopted the signature “T.W.”

That publication was such a hit, or rather military affairs moved so quickly, that before the end of the year Chauncy added:
A Second Letter to a Friend; Giving a more particular Narrative of the Defeat of the French Army at Lake-George, By the New-England Troops, than has yet been published: Representing also the vast Importance of this Conquest to the American-British-Colonies. To which is added, Such an Account of what the New-England Governments have done to carry into Effect their Design against Crown-Point, as will shew the Necessity of their being help’d by Great-Britain, in Point of Money.
Even that title page makes clear “T.W.” was commenting on political matters.

In between the imperial crises of 1755 and 1774 Chauncy used the “letter to a friend” trope differently in a couple of his religious pamphlets:
The Opinion of one that has perused the Summer Morning’s Conversation, concerning Original Sin, wrote by the Rev. Mr. Peter Clark, In TWO Things principally: FIRST, That he has offered that, which has rendered it impossible the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity, should be true in the sense it is held by Calvinists. SECONDLY, That tho’ he pretends to be a friend to the Calvinistical doctrine of imputed guilt, yet he has deserted this doctrine and given it up into the hands of its enemies, as it teaches the liableness of all mankind, without exception, to the torments of hell, on account of the first Sin. To which is added, A few remarks on the recommendatory preface by five reverend Clergymen. In a Letter to a Friend.
That one, from 1758, was signed “A.B.”
A Letter to a Friend, Containing Remarks on certain Passages in a Sermon Preached, by the Right Reverend Father in God, John Lord Bishop of Landaff, before the Incorporated Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, at their Anniversary Meeting in the Parish Church of St. Mary-Le-Bow, February 20. 1767. In which the highest Reproach is undeservedly cast upon the American Colonies.
This one actually had Chauncy’s name on the title page and his own initials at the end.

Finally, toward the end of 1783 Dr. Chauncy published:
Divine Glory Brought to View in the Final Salvation of All Men: A Letter to the Friend to Truth
This pamphlet had no author’s name or initials, but it laid out the liberal theological ideas Chauncy had become known for in Boston. By labeling this “A Letter to the Friend to Truth,” he turned the label from suggesting a friendly private letter between gentlemen into a challenge to the reader. Don’t you want to be a “Friend to Truth”?

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Exploring the Sid Lapidus Collection Online

Princeton University announced this month that alumnus Sidney Lapidus had completed the gift of a large collection of pamphlets and other political material from the broadly defined Revolutionary Era.

Lapidus started his collection in 1959 as a recent graduate, well before entering what turned out to be the rewarding field of private equity. He first bought a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man from a London bookshop. (Paine’s cottage in New Rochelle, New York, was across the street from Lapidus’s high school.)

The Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection on Liberty and the American Revolution at Princeton now includes “more than 2,700 original books, atlases, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines relating to human and political rights, liberty, and independence around the time of the American Revolution.”

In addition, Lapidus provided funds to digitize the material and make the collection keyword-searchable for anyone.

I tried out the site by asking to see all the material that used the phrase “Intolerable Acts.” That search produced several hits, but the phrase didn’t appear in the original texts, only in the dealers’ descriptions and other metadata attached to those items. As I wrote years ago, the phrase “Intolerable Acts” didn’t become widely used until the late 1800s.

One writer in Revolutionary America who used the word “intolerable” a lot was the Rev. Thomas Bradbury Chandler, author of A Free Examination of the Critical Commentary on Archbishop Secker’s Letter to Mr. Walpole, published by Hugh Gaine of New York in 1774. Chandler was a Loyalist, and what he found intolerable wasn’t a stricter Parliament but the “Hardship” of an ocean voyage, the “Licentiousness” of a totally free press, and the writer he was responding to.

I also searched for all material published in 1774 and mentioning Boston. That brought up the official texts of Parliament’s new Coercive Acts, the responses from the First Continental Congress, sermons and almanacs with commentary on current events, and so on.

One item that caught my eyes was A Letter to a Friend. Giving a Concise, But Just, Representation of the Hardships and Sufferings the Town of Boston is Exposed to and Must Undergo in Consequence of the Late Act of the British-Parliament; Which, by Shutting Up It’s Port, Has Put a Fatal Bar in the Way of that Commercial Business on which it Depended for It’s Support, published by Joseph Greenleaf.

That pamphlet from the summer of 1774 is signed “T.W. A Bostonian.” However, it was widely known that the author was the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy. Usually ministers stayed out of secular political disputes, preferring to work behind the scenes or through sermons, but Chauncy felt no compunction when the economic well-being of his town was in danger.

On page 22 of this pamphlet Chauncy embarked on a long footnote complaining about a Customs service policy that required firewood ships signing into Marblehead to completely unload and reload before going on to Boston. So he really was writing about earthly concerns.

Now the text of this Letter to a Friend is already scanned and transcribed on the web. So the arrival of this digital version from Princeton isn’t a revelation. But anything that makes research easier is welcome.

TOMORROW: Charles Chauncy’s friends.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Two Deaths in Pondichéry

At Nursing Clio, Jakob Burnham examines two deaths in the French colony at Pondichéry, India, in 1726.

One was a French soldier named Le Bel who had thrown himself into a well and drowned. The other was a 75-year-old local man named Canagesabay, found hanging from a tree.

Both men had been ill, Le Bel with a “lung abcess” and Canagesabay with debilitating stomach pains. The soldier had made arrangements for his death days earlier while the local man’s sons reported that he had spoken of throwing himself into the street. So it appears both men became physically ill, despaired of recovering, and killed themselves.

Burnham writes that French law required “French subjects who were determined to have committed suicide to hang by their feet in the gallows; have their bodies dragged through the street; be denied Christian burial; as well as have their personal goods and assets confiscated.” Not that this was always applied to the letter.

However, there was a changing attitude:
By the seventeenth century, public officials in France and elsewhere increasingly concerned themselves with suicide as a matter of public order and as part of a larger effort to investigate the circumstances around suspicious deaths. This greater attention to the circumstances of death contributed to what has been called a “medicalization” of suicide, especially at the turn of the eighteenth century. Testimonies from investigations into reported suicides revealed that witnesses and family members began amplifying connections between chronic illness and suicide during this period. Official reports, witness statements, and even interviews with survivors made references to “melancholy, mental and physical maladies over which they reputedly had no control.”
This led to the thinking that someone’s illness may have “transport au cerveau” (gone to his head) and led to suicide.

In Pondichéry, the surgeon-general used just that phrase to explain the soldier Le Bel’s death. However, the same doctor said nothing about the medical conditions preceding Canagesabay’s suicide. And this different approach continued with how the authorities treated the two men’s corpses.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Minutemen and Robert A. Gross Panel, 26 Feb.

On the afternoon of Sunday, 26 February, I’ll be part of the Friends of Minute Man Park’s 2023 Winter Lecture, “Minutemen Revisited: Rethinking Concord’s Role in the Revolution. A Conversation with Robert Gross and Friends.”

The event description says:
The Minutemen and Their World, first published during the Bicentennial year of 1776, offered a novel view of Concord’s path to Revolution. The book, which won the Bancroft Prize, showed that the townspeople took a moderate stance on British taxes and enforcement measures until the summer of 1774; only when the royal government threatened to seize the right of local self-government did the community rise up and mobilize for war. The reasons why were deeply rooted in the social history of the town.

Does this interpretation still hold up? In 2022, the author published a revised and expanded edition of The Minutemen and views Concord more broadly in relation to its neighboring towns, introduces new details on the tense atmosphere in the run-up to April 19, 1775, and adds fresh material about Concord’s role as a center for incarcerating Loyalist and British prisoners of war. In this talk, he will discuss the additions and changes of The Minutemen in conversation with leading American Revolution experts.
Those folks posing questions to Bob Gross will be:
  • Joel Bohy, expert in militaria at Bruneau & Co., frequent appraiser on Antiques Roadshow, and contributor to the Concord Museum’s April 19 exhibits.
  • Jim Hollister, lead interpreter at Minute Man National Historical Park, organizer of many reenactments and historical demonstrations, and recent recipient of the Robert Gross Award for service to Concord history.
  • myself. 
But the real star of this event is of course Robert A. Gross, the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. In addition to The Minutemen and Their World, he wrote a sequel The Transcendentalists and Their World (2021), which won the most recent Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize.

Bob Gross is a former assistant editor of Newsweek and has written for such periodicals as Esquire, Harper’s Magazine, the Boston Globe and New York Times, The American Scholar, The New England Quarterly, Raritan, and The Yale Review. For several years he was the book review editor of the William & Mary Quarterly. After working at various universities, for the past several years he has lived in Concord.

This is an online panel discussion scheduled to start at 2:00 P.M. on Sunday, 26 February, and to run about ninety minutes with questions. It’s free, but viewers must register through this link.

This program is co-sponsored by the Friends of Minute Man and Minute Man National Historical Park. It’s supported in part by a grant from the Concord Cultural Council, which in turn is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Reading Nathanael Greene, Quartermaster General

The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia has just finished digitizing its collection of Nathanael Greene Papers.

All the scans can be read through the Revolutionary City portal, created by the A.P.S., the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The A.P.S. collection comes from Gen. Greene’s years working as the quartermaster general, 1778 to 1780, and doesn’t contain any private correspondence.

As Thomas Johns III writes on the society’s blog:
As Quartermaster General, Nathanael Greene struggled with, but ultimately improved, the transportation of troops and supplies that the Continental Army depended upon. The need for supplies fluctuated throughout the war, but their successful transportation remained essential to the American cause. . . .

During the Philadelphia Campaign, fear of impressment caused many Pennsylvanians to conceal their wagons, horses, oxen, etc. When property was taken, those affected sought to have their damages repaid. Attempts at this, both formal and informal, are documented in the collection. Further, this collection mentions legislation from the General Assemblies of Rhode Island and New York that limited the impressment of articles and wagon-teams by the Continental Army.
Greene was the most successful quartermaster general the Continental Army produced. He took the job reluctantly months after Thomas Mifflin had resigned the post for the second time, and was able to stabilize the office and hand it off to Timothy Pickering.

Mifflin and Pickering were both merchants, so they understood bargaining for goods, but Greene brought a different sort of peacetime experience. As manager of his family’s anchor-making workshop in Rhode Island, he oversaw a proto-industrial factory with a skilled workforce to manage, supplies to obtain, customers to satisfy. Very few men in the young U.S. of A. had that sort of knowledge.

Understanding logistics and supplies for the whole army in turn helped Greene in waging that southern campaign in the last years of the war—but that’s beyond the timeframe of this documentary collection.

The largest collection of Nathanael Greene Papers is in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. A small collection is in Manuscripts and Archives at Yale.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

“A Negro Boy named Jack, Alias Emannuel who was a slaive”

In 1882 the Newport Historical Magazine published a transcription of a document “so badly mutilated as to be nearly illegible.”

It read:
BOSTON, New England, The 6th. October, 1705.

This Day by me The subscriber was Exposed to publick Sale by the Candle at Mr. Skinners, The Swan Taverne, A Negro Boy named Jack, Alias Emannuel who was a slaive Taken from the Portuguese by the Pirate Sen’r Quares and his crew in the Brigt. Anna and brought into this port among other things, And by order of the Govemt. here the said Slave was Exposed to Sale after some Days Notification at the Coffee House & other Publick Places in writing, and was Sett up at 19 G’s, the highest bidder appearing at the Sd. Sale was Henry Shaw who had him fairly for Twenty pound this money at Eight Shillings p. ounce Troy.

SHANNON, Vendue Master.
Much the same language appears on the certificate of sale of Joachim, alias Cuffee, that I discussed yesterday. The date, place, and vendue master are the same—I think that auctioneer was Nathaniel Shannon (1655–1723), also the port’s naval officer and later a notary.

The document about Joachim was sent to the Colonial Office in London because of a legal dispute over the sale. It went into a government file and was preserved well. Evidently the similar certificate about “Jack, Alias Emannuel” stayed in private hands in America and got tattered.

In that legal dispute, Paul Dudley argued that he had bought Joachim at a fair price because, as an archivist summarized, “there was another negro sold at the same time at the same price.” That must have referred to Jack/Emmanuel, sold to Henry Shaw.

I think the Joachim certificate says he was “Sett up at 19£,” meaning the starting price in the auction was £19. Dudley was the last bidder at £20. If the transcription of the Jack certificate is right, then the starting price to own him was 19 guineas, or £19.19s, but I suspect that both auctions actually started at £19 and ended at £20. There wasn’t what we’d call a bidding war.

Both Joachim and Jack were involved in another legal proceeding: the 1704 trial of Capt. John Quelch and members of his crew for attacking and capturing Portuguese ships. At the time, Britain and Portugal were allies. The letter of marque that authorized Quelch to attack enemy shipping didn’t apply.

According to this summary of the trial record:
Joachim and Emmanuel were both called upon to testify against Quelch and certain members of his crew. Emmanuel specifically identified Christopher Scudamore as the murderer of his master Bastian, while both men [sic] testified that Quelch and his crew ordered them to claim that they had been Spanish enslaved people rather than Portuguese upon returning to Boston in order to cover up the crimes against Portuguese ships.
It’s notable that both boys testified under Christian names. When being resold the following year, Joachim was called “alias Cuffee,” presumably his original birth name. In contrast, Emmanuel was called “Jack, Alias Emannuel,” so had he taken (or been assigned) a new name in the English colony?

Monday, February 20, 2023

The Power of Specific Names and Details

This month the First Parish in Roxbury published a report by Aabid Allibhai that details the slave-holding by members of its congregation in the colonial period.

I have to admit no surprise at the fact that there were enslavers worshipping in a long-established meetinghouse in a large, prosperous town near Boston in the 1600s and 1700s.

The value of reports like this one (which can be downloaded in P.D.F. form) is bringing personal details out of the records. Here’s one example.

As Wayne Tucker wrote at the Eleven Names Project, in 1916 Great Britain published a volume of its Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, covering the years 1706-1708. Its entries summarized the documents and files stored in the Public Records Office. Like indexes and other compilations, such calendars were a valuable way for researchers to know where to look on different topics.

A few of those entries summarized documents in a court dispute involving Massachusetts chief justice Paul Dudley, privateer co-owner John Colman, and an enslaved “negro boy.” See the summary of document 532.i below.

In his report Allibhai reprints a scan of that actual certificate, showing that the child in question was named “Joachim alias Cuffee.”

That name was important enough in 1705 for auctioneer N. Shannon to put it into his certificate. But the archivist summarizing that document two hundred years later didn’t think researchers would want to know the boy’s name. That omission reflected the thinking of that time. He wasn’t an important person in this event, just the object of a dispute.

Simply by naming the enslaved child, Allibhai’s report helps to restore his individual humanity. Furthermore, as Allibhai and Tucker show, knowing the boy’s names makes it possible to find other references to him. He was baptized, presumably changing the African day name “Cuffee” for the Christian name “Joachim.” He was no more than fourteen years old. He testified at the trial of the privateering sailors.

The original certificate describes Joachim’s “Publick Sale by the Candle.” This was a form of auction in which a small burning candle served as a timer, and people had to get their best bids in before the candle went out or melted past a certain spot. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on 3 Sept 1662 about such an auction:
pleasant to see how backward men are at first to bid; and yet when the candle is going out, how they bawl and dispute afterwards who bid the most first.

And here I observed one man cunninger than the rest that was sure to bid the last man, and to carry it; and inquiring the reason, he told me that just as the flame goes out the smoke descends, which is a thing I never observed before, and by that he do know the instant when to bid last, which is very pretty.
The modern equivalent of waiting until the last second to enter your eBay bid.

Was Joachim present during that auction, watching that candle? The specifics—of the scene, of the boy’s name—can’t help but make the historical moment more compelling.

TOMORROW: A similar document.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

“I am in a tremor”

This is the last of the series of postings analyzing Dr. Benjamin Church’s 24 Sept 1775 letter to Maj. Edward Cane, now preserved in the files of Gen. Thomas Gage.

As I wrote before, Henry Belcher published this letter in The First American Civil War but didn’t identify the writer. Books about Dr. Church and his spying didn’t discuss this letter. So I believe these postings are the first time this document has been analyzed in the context of Church’s life.

Toward the end of the letter Church warned his handler about a possible Continental Army attack on Boston, then pushed that off because of the gunpowder shortage:
I am very Certain it has been Concluded on in a Council of War as soon as ever they found Great Britain was determined to push Matters still farther, then they woud attack the Town, but then Sir this determenation was in Consiquence of the News that they had so large a Quantity of Powder close at hand, At present I am full as much persuaded there will be no more done this Season as that there will be, but Sir, this you may rely on I will give you the Earliest notice in my power by this ferry Man that comes over—that you must write me by him if you can trust him to deliver me a line privately which he can if he will.
Having laid out his value to the British command, Church then went on to ask for more money, to be sent out by that ferryman as discussed here.

By this point Church had been secretly delivering information to the British command for at least eight months. He had become the surgeon general responsible for the health of soldiers on one side of the siege lines while aiding the army on the other. He had seen war break out and stalemate.

Church was feeling more and more strain, as shown by his attempt to resign from the Continental Army that month and the postscripts to this letter:
N.B.—The poor people that have got out of Boston some time are in great Want Good God what are we to do I know not.

Excuse my incorrect manner of writing for I am in a tremor.
Two days after Dr. Church penned this letter, a baker in Newport named Godfrey Wenwood took a document to the Patriot authorities. Some sleuthing revealed that Church had tried to send that ciphered letter into Boston in July. By month’s end, the doctor’s career as both an army surgeon and a spy was over.

Apparently, the immediate prospect of being hanged restored Church’s sang-froid. In October he faced an army court-martial and in November a trial by the Massachusetts General Court, at both tribunals calmly insisting that he was innocent. American authorities never had enough evidence to prove his guilt, but never so little as to clear him.

Over two years later, after a proposed prisoner exchange thwarted by a riot, the state put Dr. Church on James Smithwick’s ship Welcome bound for Martinique. The ship, the captain, and the doctor were never seen again.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

“Find out the Officer that gives intelligence to this Camp”

One of the most intriguing parts of Dr. Benjamin Church’s espionage letter on 24 Sept 1775 was his discussion of a possible American spy inside Boston.

The doctor’s contact, Maj. Edward Cane, had hunted such spies back in June, when he was involved in the arrest of schoolteachers James Lovell and John Leach.

In September Church wrote to him:
It has not yet been in my power to find out the Officer that gives intelligence to this Camp, and you must think me much Mistaken, that there is no such Man, but I am as Certain you have such a person as I am of my Existance, when ever there is an opportunity some one that is well knowing how things are like to go Convay it to General Washington by some person that is coming out of town, there was a letter came out last Saterday in a private manner that was instantainusly sent of to the General, the intimations given by one of the Communitty [committee?] concieved how, and from what Quarter it came, remember I now inform you of what you may know.
Evidently Dr. Church suspected an “Officer” in the British military was slipping useful information to Gen. George Washington, but Maj. Cane was skeptical. Was the doctor feeling a little paranoid, given his own situation as an informant? Was the major too quick to trust his fellow officers?

In fact, Gen. Washington had sent a secret informant into Boston in July. That was John Carnes, a former minister who had been running a store in the South End for a few years.

Church had even taken advantage of the communication channel to Carnes to slip his own note to his handlers. But he hadn’t used that message to expose the courier or spy; he probably just asked for money.

Carnes was still in Boston and sending out information as of mid-August. Perhaps he was also the source of the letter that “came out last Saterday in a private manner,” as Church wrote. Or perhaps Washington had other sources of information. Or perhaps that letter wasn’t what Church thought.

Carnes family tradition held that he came to be “suspected by General Gage” and expelled from Boston. Thomas Gage sailed for Britain in early October. If that tradition is true, therefore, Carnes’s espionage career was nearly over.

But so was Dr. Church’s.

TOMORROW: Final words.

Friday, February 17, 2023

“Major, that was worth you seeing”

engraved portrait of Israel PutnamIn the middle of his 24 Sept 1775 spy report to his handler inside Boston, Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., offered this word picture of a scene in the Continental lines:

but of all seens that ever happen’d not long since our people got a famous New large Standard, Got upon the Hill

Doctor [Abiel] Leanard made amost Solem prayer over the Standard

Genll. [Israel] Putnam pulled of his hat, gave the Signal for three Chears which was given, Cleargeman and all of us huzzard at once, than the Indeans gave the war hoop and to conclud, of went Cannon, Major, that was worth you seeing.
Church’s report on this incident puzzles me, and not because of what it describes. The little mystery is why Church described the scene at all.

This flag-raising took place on Prospect Hill on 18 July. Three days later the New-England Chronicle reported on it in detail:
Last Tuesday Morning, according to Orders issued the Day before, by Major-General Putnam, all the Continental Troops under his immediate Command assembled on Prospect-Hill, when the Declaration [of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms] of the Continental Congress was read, after which an animated and pathetic Address to the Army was made by the Rev. Mr. Leonard, Chaplain to General Putnam’s Regiment and succeeded by a pertinent Prayer; when General Putnam gave the Signal, and the whole Army shouted their loud Amen by three Cheers; immediately upon which a Cannon was fired from the Fort, and the Standard lately sent to General Putnam was exhibited flourishing in the Air, bearing on one Side this Motto, AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN--- and on the other side, QUI TRANSTULIT SUSTINET.

The whole was conducted with the utmost Decency, good Order, and Regularity, and to the universal Acceptance of all present.----And the Philistines on Bunker’s Hill heard the Shout of the Israelites, and being very fearful, paraded themselves in Battle Array.
The newspapers did not report the detail about Native Americans from Stockbridge shouting in their style, but Lt. Paul Lunt did confirm that detail in his diary: the ceremony ended with “a war whoop by the Indians.”

So did Church’s retelling of this flag-raising have any intelligence value?
  • This was a public event, already described in newspapers.
  • It occurred more than two months before Church wrote. The British army knew about it immediately if they responded with a parade of their own.
  • The letter’s description offers no useful military information, not even a description of the “New large Standard” in case British officers might want to recognize it.
In sum, there appears to be no benefit to the British in Boston from this passage. Was Dr. Church just casting about for something to say to justify his employment? Or was he looking at notes he’d made back in July but hadn’t had a chance to transmit?

Later in the letter Church wrote:
The last Week you killed one Man Wounded another, so that he lost his Leg and broke another Man thigh on Plowed hill.
That was more recent news. In his History of the Siege of Boston, Richard Frothingham wrote:
The British paid special attention to the new works at Ploughed Hill. . . . on the 20th and 21st, after a furious cannonade of shot and shells at the works, and at a fatigue party near them, they killed an ox and wounded two men.
The British command might at least have been pleased to hear that some of their artillery fire caused damage.

TOMORROW: Suspicions about another spy.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

“Except these boats all in a hurry”

Continental surgeon general Benjamin Church’s secret letter to Maj. Edward Cane of the British army contained three warnings about attacks on the British forces by water.

Early on in that 24 Sept 1775 missive, Dr. Church wrote:
The distroying the Ships in the manner I wrote you before they began to dispair of tho’ the former of the Machine is full of faith that he can do it, Works on hardly and so let him, I say.
This is probably the same “mashine” that engineer Jeduthan Baldwin wrote about in December:
went in the afternoon to Dotchester point to See the mashine to blow up Shiping, but as it was not finished, it was not put into the water.
Church’s letter suggests that the man forming that machine was at work months earlier, in September.

But what was the machine? David Bushnell’s submarine is one possibility. We know he was at work on that invention by August 1775, and that in October people in the American camp were hoping to see it soon. But the dates don’t quite match up; Bushnell was still toiling in the Connecticut River on 7 December, so what did Baldwin see kept out of the water one week later? The machine at Dorchester Point might never have been finished while Bushnell’s Turtle actually went into battle in September 1776.

Church alerted his Crown contacts to other water-borne threats:
This day a floating battery hid herself under Mr Tempels Wharf, from Mistick bridge.

One hundred 50 flat bottom boats are ordered to be Compleated within 30 days they are building them as fast as they can at Water town and Cambrige I see them every day, this you may depend on. And I am not a little Surprised to find them so Engaged in making these boats, for I know the people in general think it impossible ever to go into Boston, you in it. ————. . . .

Our Assembly has been sitting 3 days they have been debating by what means they can keep the Coast Clear of tenders, but have not yet Concluded.

No News from the Congress some days things look as if our General intended to do something soon, than again I am strongly persuaded that nothing will be done, in fact war you out you could not satisfy yourself there is nothing that looks like matters Except these boats all in a hurry.
“Mr. Tempels Wharf” meant the wharf on the Mystic River that led to Robert Temple’s farm in Medford, shown above in a detail from Henry Pelham’s map of the siege.

In October, a couple of weeks after Dr. Church wrote, the Continental troops did try to attack the British in Boston with floating batteries. It didn’t go well, as these posts describe.

Gen. George Washington was indeed eager for an amphibious assault on Boston, but his council of war kept voting down his plans. Even the move onto Dorchester Heights included a contingency attack across the Charles River if the British tried to counterattack. But in the end all those flat-bottomed boats were never used in battle.

TOMORRROW: The flag-raising. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

“They ordered out both their Regiments to fire on Each other”

In his 24 Sept 1775 intelligence report, Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., didn’t just describe dissatisfied enlisted men in the Continental Army.

He also wrote about the disputes among officers in the forces besieging Boston.

One paragraph of Church’s letter described a conflict that I haven’t found mentioned anywhere else:
A Quarrell happened between Col. Bruer and Col. Patterson, at length they got so high, that they ordered out both their Regiments to fire on Each other, but were Quelled by a third that was ordered to fire on them both in case they did not disperce which they did,
“Col. Patterson” was John Paterson (1744–1808, shown here) from Lenox by way of Connecticut. His regiment was assigned to Gen. William Heath’s brigade and thus stationed near the center of the lines.

Identifying “Col. Bruer” is less certain because the Continental Army had two colonels with the surname Brewer: Jonathan of Waltham and David of Palmer. They were in fact brothers, born in Framingham.

Col. Jonathan Brewer’s regiment was part of Gen. Nathanael Greene’s brigade, centered on Cambridge and Charlestown. Col. David Brewer’s regiment was assigned to Gen. John Thomas’s brigade, thus in Roxbury. I don’t know which was closer to Paterson’s position.

I suspect Paterson quarreled with David Brewer, who in October was cashiered for paying his teen-aged son as a lieutenant while the boy was back on the farm and other petty matters. The court-martial record said this Col. Brewer acted “contrary to the repeated remonstrances of the Officers of the regiment,” so it makes sense for another colonel to criticize him as well.

On the other hand, back in the spring Jonathan Brewer got a reputation for arguing with other officers about recruiting. So it’s possible Paterson harbored some hard feelings from that.

Cols. John Paterson and Jonathan Brewer reenlisted in 1776. Brewer, who had been wounded at Bunker Hill, shifted to the Massachusetts regiment of artificers later that year. Paterson (shown above) went on to become a major general.

Another conflict Church was happy to report on:
They begin to try Colonels and Captains for bad behaviour at Bunkers Hill battle, three Colonels have been Cashired and several Captains for their Cowerdice—and could the Army in General have their will General [Artemas] Ward wou’d go for one, for he never so much as gave one Written order that day.
There was indeed a short series of courts-martial in late 1775 removing officers from the army, either for misbehavior at Bunker Hill or for similar failings. (Sometimes, it seems, an officer’s behavior in that battle wasn’t bad enough on its own but left the man with no more chances to screw up.)

Gen. Artemas Ward definitely had his detractors. But he had exercised control during the Bunker Hill battle, sending spoken orders to the commanders on the Charlestown peninsula and to the other sections of the siege lines, which he also had to maintain.

TOMORROW: Dr. Church’s secrets and tales.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

“The Soldiers are tired of the Camp”

Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., had plenty to tell his British intelligence contact, Maj. Edward Cane, about the state of the Continental Army.

The Continental surgeon general wrote in his 24 Sept 1775 letter:
A difficulty will soon cause one much greater than perhaps they are aware of at this time, tho’ many of them (that is the Officers) begin to Quake what they will do in December, then the time is Expired for which they inlisted for, and the Soldiers are tired of the Camp, wish for home, many will come in their Stead I am sensible, but they will not so readily get another Army together as they have this.

The return that was made to the General of the Army last week was 22,540 Men. . . .

Great disturbences in the Camp of late with Mutinying, many Soldiers are now Confined in Guard for Mutiny.
There were indeed two mutinies in the Continental ranks earlier in that month.

One was the uprising of the Pennsylvania riflemen described here. They were protesting about a sergeant being confined, and then about one of those protesters being confined, and ultimately thirty-two more men were confined. A court-martial fined them a rather small amount, for the benefit of Church’s hospitals, but they lost a lot of their privileges as riflemen.

Around the same time, the soldiers assigned to the armed schooner Hannah refused to sail out of Beverly, probably angling for better prize money. Gen. George Washington had Col. John Glover (shown above) mobilize the local militia, arrest those men from his own regiment, and march them to Cambridge. On 22 September, the general orders announced that thirty-six men had been found guilty of “Mutiny, Riot and Disobedience of orders.” One was sentenced to be whipped 39 times and drummed out of the army.

At the same time, other parts of the Continental Army were still gung-ho. There were those thousand volunteers who marched off to invade Canada this same month, for example.

As Church noted, the real looming problem would come at the end of the year. The New England colonies had enlisted their armies only until then. In October, Washington would meet with his generals, delegates from the Continental Congress, and local political leaders about recruiting a new army for 1776. But the transition from one set of men to the next was a scary prospect.

Church’s letter in Gen. Thomas Gage’s files shows that the British command inside Boston was aware of that transition. But they didn’t try to take advantage of the besiegers’ weakness over the winter, as Washington feared. The British generals wanted to leave.

TOMORROW: Officers behaving badly.

Monday, February 13, 2023

“We had not one half lb: of powder left that night”

Returning to Dr. Benjamin Church’s intelligence report dated 24 Sept 1775, he had a couple more things to say about the Continental Army’s gunpowder shortage.

Having addressed that topic at length at the start, Church returned to it with this remark:
If you will believe me Mr. Pidgeon the Commessary General then, now declairs that we had not one half lb: of powder left that night the bunker hill was taken and had you pursued, the Camp must have been broken up—this they Confess.
John Pigeon was a Boston merchant and insurance broker who had moved out to Newton several years before the war. (I wish I knew where he and his family, as Anglicans, went to church. There weren’t a lot of options in rural Massachusetts. Did he ride to Cambridge or into Boston?)

As a country gentleman, Pigeon pushed his new town toward supporting the Whig cause. He bought the local militia company two cannon. He served in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, becoming clerk of the committee of safety in November 1774, commissary of stores in February 1775, and commissary of the provincial army as it officially formed on 19 May.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Pigeon was, as Church wrote, “the Commessary General then.” He submitted a resignation shortly afterward, only for the provincial congress to reject it on 20 June. Gen. Artemas Ward sent Pigeon a letter listing the army’s needs ten days later. Pigeon responded by requesting a larger staff. James Warren decided he was becoming “petulant.”

A few weeks later the Continental Congress took responsibility for the New England army and appointed Joseph Trumbull, son of Connecticut’s governor, as commissary general. Pigeon soon went home, which caused problems toward the end of the year when the army needed his account books.

Church’s 24 September letter suggests that he had been in touch with Pigeon recently, and that Pigeon felt the New England army’s supply chain hadn’t been working back in June.

Another remark on gunpowder from later in the letter:
I heard General [John] Sullivan say at a Court of inquiry where I was that had they only powder Sufficient they would keep up a Continual fire on the town, and force you and your ships to go off, but says he what can we do without it, and that it was a happy thing that General [Thomas] Gage was not made acquainted with our matters.
By writing that, Church was of course making Gen. Gage acquainted with the gunpowder situation. The British commanders knew that they were in no danger of “Continual fire.”

TOMORROW: Internal disputes.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

He, She, and We the People

Last year a woman running (unsuccessfully) for the Republican nomination for a House seat from Florida tweeted, “There are no pronouns in the Constitution.”

Many people responded by pointing out that since that text begins, “We the People…,” its first word is a pronoun.

So many people pointed that out with such pleasure, in fact, that I expect the exchange will continue to circulate online like a fish in an aquarium, sliding back into view every so often.

Of course, we all know that everyone uses pronouns all the time. When today’s right-wingers complain about “pronouns,” they’re really complaining about social pressure to be considerate of other people, even expressing nostalgia for the freedom to express contempt for fellow citizens.

But what if we adopt the restrictive right-wing reference to “pronouns” as all about identifying individuals with a gendered pronoun that doesn’t accord with how their gender was listed at birth?

In that case, there are still “pronouns” in the Constitution.

Article 1, Section 2, states:
No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.
Article 1, Section 3, states:
No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.
The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.
Article 2, establishing the Presidency, has many more examples of “he/him” pronouns—dozens in all. Masculine pronouns describing officeholders who could be either male or female. 

But those references to elected officials as “he” all appear in the original Constitution. The Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote and, by extension, the right to serve in all elected offices. We have female Representatives, Senators, and presently a Vice President. So only after that milestone should we expect to see the Constitution’s pronouns reflect both genders, right?

No, the non-gendered “he” was still used in the 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967 decades past when women started to serve in the U.S. Congress and Cabinet. It says:
Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
As Dennis Baron pointed out at the Web of Language, there’s a long line of American legal precedents for interpreting “he/him” to cover both men and women. A lot of those cases came from women trying to argue that criminal laws written with “he” couldn’t apply to them. A rare example providing rights instead is how the Fifth Amendment famously guarantees any defendant, male or female, with protection against being “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

That means the U.S. Constitution uses “he/him” pronouns to refer to elected officials even if they were listed as female at birth. That was presumably the case for the Florida woman running to become a U.S. Representative and foolishly tweeting about “no pronouns in the Constitution.”

Saturday, February 11, 2023

2023 Conference of the American Revolution in Williamsburg, 17–19 Mar.

Yesterday I received some books and word of another Revolutionary history conference for the public.

America’s History L.L.C. will hold its tenth annual Conference of the American Revolution on 17–19 March in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Bruce Venter and conference head of faculty Edward G. Lengel, now Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum, have been organizing this annual event for several years, weathering some difficult times in the pandemic. The gathering spot is once again the Woodlands Hotel of Colonial Williamsburg, allowing easy access to the historic area.

The 2023 presenters and their topics are:
  • Maj. Gen. Jason Bohm, U.S.M.C.: “George Washington’s Marines: The Origin of the Corps and the American Revolution”
  • John “Jack” Buchanan: “‘Picked Men, Well Mounted’: The Battle of Musgrove’s Mill, 1780”
  • Benjamin L. Carp: “‘Many Circumstances Lead to Conjecture That Mr. Washington Was Privy to This Villainous Act’: George Washington and the Great New York City Fire of 1776”
  • Kaitlin Fergeson: “Thompson’s Black Dragoons: A Study in Loyalist Cavalry in the American Revolution”
  • Kylie Hulbert, “America’s Revolutionary War Privateers: The Untold War at Sea”
  • Cole Jones, “Captives of Liberty: British, German and Loyalist Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance”
  • Mark Edward Lender, “Fighting for the Key to the Continent: Fort Ticonderoga, 1777”
  • Margaret Sankey: “Oh the Things They Said: The Yorke Family’s Opinions of British Generals”
  • Eric Schnitzer, “In Memoriam: Rediscovering the Stories of Americans Who Died in the Battles of Saratoga”
  • David O. Stewart, “The Real Miracle at Valley Forge: George Washington’s Political Mastery.”
As with the Fort Plain conference described yesterday, attendees can arrive a day before the presentations and take a bus tour of nearby historic sites with an expert guide. In this case, Dr. Glenn Williams, retired from the U.S. Army Center for Military History, will be showing and discussing sites of the siege of Yorktown. As of now, however, all the seats on that bus have been filled, so the organizers are keeping a waitlist.

For all the details and registration info, visit the conference webpage.

Friday, February 10, 2023

2023 Revolutionary War Conference in the Mohawk Valley, 9–11 June

On the weekend of 9–11 June, the Fort Plain Museum will host its annual Revolutionary War Conference in the Mohawk Valley.

This year’s session is called “Conference 250,” with several presentations looking back at events in 1773 and others looking forward to the Sestercentennial.

The lineup of speakers includes:
  • James Kirby Martin in conversation with Mark Edward Lender, professor and former student discussing the Revolutionary War and its 250th anniversary
  • Friederike Baer, “Hessians: The German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War”
  • John “Jack” Buchanan, “The Battle of Musgrove’s Mill, 1780”
  • Benjamin L. Carp, “The Boston Tea Party at 250: Reflections on the Radicalism of the Revolutionary Movement”
  • Vivian E. Davis, ”Over 250 Years Ago!: The Battle of Golden Hill, January 19, 1770”
  • Holly A. Mayer, “Congress’s Own: A Canadian Regiment, the Continental Army, and American Union”
  • Steven Park, “250 Years of Remembering: The Changing Landscape of Gaspee History”
  • Nina Sankovitch, “The Abiding Quest of a Forgotten Hero: How Josiah Quincy Battled Overwhelming Odds to Bring Together the Northern and Southern Colonies in 1773”
  • Eric H. Schnitzer, “Picturing History: The Images of the American War for Independence”
  • Sergio Villavicencio, “St. Eustatius and the American Revolution”
  • Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, “Jellas Fonda, a Letter, and the Boston Tea Party: A Look Back 250 Years Later”
  • Terry McMaster, “A Revolutionary Couple on the Old New York Frontier: Col. Samuel Clyde & Catharine Wasson of Cherry Valley”
  • “New York State and the 250th: Where Things Stand” presented by Devin R. Lander, New York State Historian; Phil Giltner, Director of Special Projects, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; and Lauren Roberts, Saratoga County Historian
  • Norman J. Bollen, Fort Plain Museum board chairman, “The Fort Plain Museum & Historical Park’s Grand Enhancement Plan: Rebuilding the Blockhouse for the 250th”
Before the conference and under a separate registration, there will be a bus tour of “Forts and Fortified Homes of the Mohawk Valley” led by Bruce Venter, Wayne Lenig, and Norm Bollen. This is a new, in-depth tour of the historic forts, fortified homes, and other sites that formed the defensive perimeter around Fort Rensselaer (Fort Plain). Lunch will be included.

The conference will take place in the theater of Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, New York. Based on past events, I expect an excellent selection of Revolutionary history books to be on sale.

For the full schedule as currently planned, additional information, and registration forms, visit this website.

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Richard Palmes, Hot-Tempered Apothecary

One of the people of pre-Revolutionary Boston I’m collecting information on is Richard Palmes.

He was born and raised in New London, Connecticut, and moved to Boston as a young man to set himself up as an apothecary. That meant he had genteel status, but not at the top rank of society.

In the wake of Nathaniel Wheelwright’s financial failure [subject of the first essay made available to Boston 1775’s “Buff and Blue” supporters], Palmes declared bankruptcy. He had announced his business just a few months before, so he was not off to the best start.

The man was at the Boston Massacre, at the front of the crowd talking to Capt. Thomas Preston. In fact, some writers have misread the record of that event and blamed Palmes for starting the violence. Palmes was quite clear that he swung his cane around after some of the soldiers fired their guns. But he did swing his cane.

By “Palmes was quite clear,” I mean he testified about the Massacre in more venues than any other witness. He testified at a coroner’s inquest and both major trials. His words appeared in both the Short Narrative and the Fair Account. When he didn’t think the published trial transcript was accurate, he published his version of his own testimony in the newspapers over a year after the event.

During the war, Richard Palmes became an officer of the Continental Marines. Even by the challenging standards of American naval officers, he appears to have been quarrelsome and hard to work with.

After the fighting was over, Palmes settled in Charleston, South Carolina, and started a mercantile business there. He bought a black woman from New York named Elizabeth or Liss as a slave, contrary to the seller’s agreement with her former owner, Robert Townsend.

Palmes is thus a figure in Claire Bellerjeau and Tiffany Yecke Brooks’s book Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth.

Bellerjeau will speak about that book on Sunday, February 12, as part of Fort Ticonderoga’s Author Series. This is an online event, free to members and $10 for other registrants.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Ben Carp on the New York Fire, 10 Feb. and More

On Friday, 10 February, the New York Military Affairs Symposium will host an online talk by Benjamin L. Carp on his new book, The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution.

The teaser text:
It’s New York City, summer of 1776, and an unruly rebel army under General George Washington’s command repeatedly threatened to burn the city rather than let it fall into the hands of the British. In August, after the Patriots’ defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn, Washington made a miraculous escape with his army across the East River to Manhattan. The British captured New York City, then much of it mysteriously burned to the ground.

Carp explores that fire and why its origins remained a mystery even after the British investigated it in 1776 and 1783. Uncovering stories of espionage, terror, and radicalism, Carp paints a vivid picture of the chaos, passions, and unresolved tragedies that define a historical moment we usually associate with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Ben Carp is the Daniel M. Lyons Associate Professor of American History at Brooklyn College. He taught at Tufts University several years back, and is also the author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America.

This online talk is the first of several events listed on Carp’s website. If you can’t tune in on Friday, you’ll have more chances to hear him speak on the New York Fire in the coming months.

Thursday, 23 February, 7:00 P.M.
Putnam History Museum

Thursday, 2 March, 6:30 P.M.
Six Bridges Book Festival

Thursday, 20 March, 6:30 P.M.
Gotham Center for New York City History

Thursday, 27 April, 7:00 P.M.
Fred W. Smith National Library

There will also be in-person events in greater New York.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

“To transport these Men to Kennibeck”

When Dr. Benjamin Church wrote his intelligence report on 24 Sept 1775, the latest big event along the Continental lines was the departure of volunteers heading north.

Those men were under the command of Col. Benedict Arnold (shown here), respected for his part in taking Fort Ticonderoga and other Crown positions along Lake Champlain.

Church knew Arnold. In fact, the doctor had been the ranking member of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety who had signed Arnold’s orders for that mission to Ticonderoga on 3 May. In August he headed the committee to review the colonel’s expenses, an interaction that didn’t go so smoothly. (Ironic moments, since Church was already supplying the Crown with secrets and Arnold would do so later.)

In late August, Arnold met with Gen. George Washington and gained approval for a quick thrust through Maine to Québec, meeting up with Gen. Richard Montgomery’s force advancing from New York. The commander’s general orders for 5 September called for “such Volunteers as are active woodsmen, and well acquainted with batteaus,” to march under Arnold’s command. About a thousand men responded, and most of them left Cambridge on 13 September.

Although the destination of that column was supposed to be secret, lots of people suspected. For example, on 13 September Jesse Lukens, a volunteer from Pennsylvania, wrote:
Col. Arnold having chosen one thousand effective men, consisting of two companies of riflemen, (about one hundred and forty,) the remainder musqueteers, set off for Quebec, as it is given out, and which I really believe to be their destination. I accompanied on foot as far as Lynn, nine miles.
Starting on 20 September, newspapers in New York and Philadelphia reported on Arnold’s departure for Québec, citing reports from Cambridge. New England newspapers were more cagy about his destination, but the secret was out.

Dr. Church mentioned the overall Canada campaign three times in his letter, starting with the second sentence and ending just before his request for money:
The fifteen hundred Men that you had news of going to Quebec are going to Halifax (I believe) to destroy that place, . . .

An Express from Ticondiroga, says that they had been Ambushed but foursed their way through with the loss of 13 Men and they on their advancing forward found on the ground ten Indians dead, that the Army was within one Mile and a half of St. Johns, on which they sent a party of Men to Cut of the Communication between Montreal and the Fort. . . .

The Vessells I mentioned that was fiting at Salem was to transport these Men to Kennibeck as I find since, I am not Certain they are gone to Halifax but it is thought and believed they are.
This letter shows that even the British commanders inside Boston had received word of “fifteen hundred Men…going to Quebec” and asked Church about it. But the doctor suspected they were headed to Nova Scotia. When he began this dispatch he was certain about that; by the end, he wasn’t so sure but still thought that was most likely.

In fact, the Continental generals had talked about an attack on Halifax. Immediately after hearing about the shortage of gunpowder on 3 August, Washington and his council of war discussed raiding Crown outposts with powder stores. Col. John Glover leased a schooner called the Hannah.

By mid-September, however, plans had changed. Washington had ordered the Hannah to try attacking British supply ships instead. He wrote to the merchant Nathaniel Tracy to arrange for several more ships to carry Arnold’s one thousand men from Newburyport up to the mouth of the Kennebeck River.

Church’s expectation of an attack on Halifax might have been accurate at one point, but not any longer.

COMING UP: More details from the Continental camp.

Monday, February 06, 2023

“Go down to the ferry ways so as to see Charls”

Even after the siege of Boston began, the nearby ferries continued to operate, at least intermittently. Those boats offered ways to transmit information or goods, sometimes illicitly.

There was a ferry between Boston’s North End and Charlestown, operated by a man named Enoch Hopkins (d. 1778). On 15 June 1775, a Boston magistrate named William Stoddard wrote to James Littlefield in Watertown:
Your letter and the last, dated the 13th instant, by Mr. Hopkins, I have received. I waited on the Admiral [Samuel Graves] this morning, and have got you a fishing pass for your boat and three men, to come in and out of this harbour, which I now send you. You will carefully observe the pass; you must observe to go a fishing from Salem, before you come up here, and then you may come in and go out. I hope you will not meet with any obstruction at Salem; not forgetting, if in your power, to bring up veal, green peas, fresh butter, asparagus, and fresh salmon.

Mr. Miles went away yesterday in the afternoon, by water, in order to come to you, and we suppose he is with you before this. I hope you have received a cloak, with a bag of brown sugar, I sent over yesterday by Mr. Hopkins’s son. I have paid some of the ferrymen, and I shall pay them all for their trouble, when I have done with them. Do not pay them any thing; if you have, let me know; keep that to yourself. . . .

I wish you would send me last Monday’s newspaper, and this day’s paper. I shall be much obliged to you, if you can, before you go for Salem, send me some fresh butter, and half a bushel of green peas. I now send you two dollars in this letter, and an osnaburgh bag, by Mr. Hopkins’s son, to put the peas in. What other charges you are at I will settle with you hereafter.
On 28 July, Joseph Reed, Gen. George Washington’s military secretary, wrote about getting a secret message into Boston via “a Waterman” operating north of Boston, possibly Hopkins. And at some point during the siege, a Boston shopkeeper warned Gen. Thomas Gage that ferrymen named Hopkins and Goodwin were “as bad Rebels as any”:
I have seen them bring men over in Disguise—and they are up in Town every Oppertunity they have gathering what Intelegence they can and when they return communicate it to the Rebels the other side, and they again to the Rebel Officers.
This may be the same Enoch Hopkins who with his wife and seven children arrived in Concord as war refugees in November, as Katie Turner Getty has written about.

The British army took the Charlestown peninsula two days after the Stoddard letter above. That meant the ferry across the Charles River was fully within royal territory, and the Mystic River now defined the siege line. There were two ferries crossing the Mystic to Charlestown, one from Malden called the Penny Ferry and one from Chelsea called the Winnisimmet Ferry (spelled variously, of course).

On 6 August, British army raiders burnt the Penny Ferry landing house in Malden, and it was never rebuilt.

At Chelsea, Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin was in charge, stationed at the ferry landing. On 28 July he became part of Reed’s chain of men sending information into Boston, and in return he sent headquarters several reports about people coming over the Winnisimmet Ferry.

As I quoted yesterday, in the summer of 1775 Dr. Benjamin Church discussed using the Winnisimmet Ferry as a conduit for information and what he really wanted, money:
If I am to Continue in your Service Major be so good to send me out a little Cash, Charly the ferry Man if you can trust him may give it me—Slyly—by heavens Major I shou’d loose my life if it was known by these people.

I attempted some time ago to write you, over Chalsey ferry but the Committy would not let me go down to the ferry ways so as to see Charls. After that I did not try but went to Newport and from thence wrote.
Clearly the local Patriot authorities (“the Committy”) understood that people might use that ferry for nefarious purposes and didn’t let Church, or probably anyone, go there alone. 

I’ve tried to identify this ferryman named “Charly” or “Charls” (or, presumably, Charles) without success. While the men granted the right to run a ferry sometimes show up in the records, Charly may well have been an employee instead.

Stymied by that route, Church instead sent information through Newport, and ultimately that led to his arrest.

TOMORROW: Church’s report on the Arnold expedition.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

“I shou’d loose my life if it was known by these people”

In the before times, not only before the pandemic but before I launched Boston 1775, I looked at the 24 Sept 1775 letter from Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., that I’ve started analyzing.

It’s in the Thomas Gage Papers at the Clements Library in Michigan. I was there doing some of the research that eventually became The Road to Concord.

At the time I wasn’t so interested in events after the war had started, so I didn’t transcribe the letter. I merely noted that this document was in the same handwriting as other letters from Church.

That was before cell phones had cameras in them. These days, many researchers spend more time in archive reading rooms photographing than reading, taking home lots of images to decipher later.

Fortunately for me, Henry Belcher transcribed the letter and published it in The First American Civil War (1911), and that’s now available for everyone. He called the document only “An American Spy’s Report,” not recognizing Church as the spy.

Allan French’s General Gage’s Informers (1932), which confirmed Church (and Benjamin Thompson) as secret agents for Gage, didn’t discuss this letter. Neither did John Nagy’s 2013 biography of Church.

I’m sorry if I’ve missed another study, but as far as I know yesterday’s posting was the first discussion of this letter in the context of Church’s espionage career. So over several days I’m going to analyze all the parts of this letter.

Toward the end is a passage that reveals something of Church’s spycraft:
If I am to Continue in your Service Major be so good to send me out a little Cash, Charly the ferry Man if you can trust him may give it me—Slyly—by heavens Major I shou’d loose my life if it was known by these people.

I attempted some time ago to write you, over Chalsey ferry but the Committy would not let me go down to the ferry ways so as to see Charls. After that I did not try but went to Newport and from thence wrote. I am forced to act with the greatest Caution in this Matter, but now Sir I think a way is open by which I can let you know how matters go with us if you Requist it, If you do not, I am very much obliged to you for your kindness and friendship attested toward me & am Yrs &c. &c.
The “Major” whom Church wrote to was almost certainly Maj. Edward Cane of the 43rd Regiment. He was the addressee on Church’s ciphered letter that I discussed in the last couple of days. Back in June, Cane had participated in the arrest of a couple of suspected spies within Boston.

Almost all of Church’s surviving spy reports include a plea for money, like this one. That pattern strongly suggests that money motivated Church’s betrayal of the Patriot cause.

The passage above also shows the doctor clearly knew he was committing a hanging offense. Yet from the moment of his arrest to when he was sent into exile, Church denied being a spy.

TOMORROW: The ferrymen.