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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Monday, March 06, 2023

“I hear that General How said…”

For decades authors have quoted Gen. William Howe seeing the Continental fortifications on Dorchester heights and remarking: “These fellows have done more work in one night than I could have made my army do in three months.”

Few if any of those authors cited a primary source for that remark. Many presented the quotation with variations on the phrase “It is said…,” admitting they have no direct source and/or acknowledging some doubt.

Indeed, when seeing pre-20th-century American authors report what a British commander said privately within a besieged town, we should be skeptical. How did they know? Americans had access to only a few sources from the British side in those years. 

In this case, however, I traced the quotation back to March 1776, with a provenance pointing to Gen. Howe. On 10 March, Massachusetts Council member James Bowdoin wrote:
Mr. [John] Murray, a clergyman, din’d with the General [George Washington] yesterday, and was present at the examination of a deserter, who upon oath says that 5 or 600 [British] troops embarked the night before without any order or regularity; the baggage was hurried on board without an inventory; that he himself helped the General’s [Howe’s] baggage on board, and that two hospital ships were filled with sick soldiers, and the utmost horror and confusion amongst them all.

The General [Washington] recd. a l[ette]r. from the selectmen informing him that in the midst of their confusion they apply’d to Mr. Howe, who told them that if Mr. Washington woud order a cessation of arms and engage not to molest him in his embarkation, he woud leave the town without injuring it; otherwise he would set it on fire. To which the General replyed that there was nothing in the application binding on Mr. Howe. He therefore could not take any notice of it.

The deserter further says that Mr. Howe went upon a hill in Boston the morning after our people took possession of Dorchester Neck, when he made this exclamation: “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?”
Abigail Adams told the same story in a letter to her husband on 17 March:
I hear that General How said upon going upon some Eminence in Town to view our Troops who had taken Dorchester Hill unperceived by them till sun rise, “My God these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my Army do in three months” and he might well say so for in one night two forts and long Breast Works were sprung up besides several Barracks. 300 & 70 teems were imployed most of which went 3 load in the night, beside 4000 men who worked with good Hearts.
The Adams letters were widely reprinted in the 1800s. That put the quotation into circulation among American authors, with “My God” quoted more often than Bowdoin’s “Good God!” 

Of course, the reliability of the Howe quotation still rests on believing the Rev. John Murray and that unidentified “deserter.” But as far as Revolutionary traditions go, tracing this story back to within five days of when it reportedly took place is about as good as we get.

TOMORROW: Digging for that “deserter.”

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