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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Tuesday, March 07, 2023

“Came to Head Quarters and gave the following Intelligence”

After Continental troops moved onto Dorchester heights on the night of 4–5 March 1776, Gen. George Washington and his commanders waited anxiously for the British response.

As of 8 March, Gen. Horatio Gates was telling John Adams that headquarters still didn’t know what was going on inside Boston “as neither Townsman, nor Deserter, has yet come in to acquaint us!”

But some men were making their way out of Boston, bringing intelligence. Maj. Samuel Blachley Webb (shown above, courtesy of the New-York Historical Society), stationed with Gen. Israel Putnam’s brigade in Cambridge, wrote in his journal on 8 March about “Capt. Erving, of Salem, who last night stole out of Boston.”

Four different letters sent from Washington’s headquarters on 9 March, the next day, described that man in slightly different ways:
After looking at Salem vital records, which provide yet more variant spellings, I think this captain was most likely named Ervin, so I’m going to refer to him that way.

At first I thought Capt. Ervin was the most likely person to have reported Gen. William Howe’s exclamation on seeing the Dorchester heights fortifications. His rank as a captain in command of a “Transport,” or troop ship, suggested that the general was more likely to have spoken frankly in front of him.

However, the timing doesn’t quite work. In one of his 9 March letters Gen. Washington wrote that it was “Yesterday evening,” or 8 March, when this captain “came to Head Quarters and gave the following Intelligence.” James Bowdoin understood that the general questioned the source we’re looking for at or after midday dinner on 9 March.

In addition, Bowdoin used the term “deserter.” None of the headquarters letters used that word for the sea captain, even when Washington described him as “A Captain of a Transport,” presumably working for the Crown.

But Maj. Webb did use that language in describing another man in his diary on 9 March: “Three Inhabitants and one Soldier last night deserted to us from Boston—they confirmed the accounts Rec’d yesterday…” If that soldier reached Washington’s Cambridge headquarters on 9 March, then the general would have seen him as an army deserter and questioned him that day, as Bowdoin described.

Finally, while Ervin and the deserter told the same basic story about the British authorities preparing to leave, they provided different details—about numbers, hospital ships, and so on.

It therefore looks like Gen. Washington spoke to Capt. Ervin on the evening of 8 March, received a letter from the Boston selectmen with similar news (as discussed here), and dispatched reports based on all that information to the Congress and nearby colonies in the middle of 9 March. Later on that day the deserting soldier arrived, offering yet more corroboration and the story of Gen. Howe exclaiming, “Good God! These fellows have done more work in one night than I could have made my army do in 3 months. What shall I do?”

TOMORROW: Digging into these intelligence sources.

No comments: