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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Saturday, March 18, 2023

“We Perceived A Battery Erected On the Hill on Dorchester Neck”

As I continue to recount merchant John Rowe’s experience of the end of the siege of Boston, I’ll skip his diary notes on the weather, socializing, and sermons unless they offer some unusual or pertinent detail.

Rowe had apparently gotten comfortable with life inside the besieged town, but that changed on Sunday, 3 Mar 1776:
This night The People from the Battery at Phipps Farm thro many Shells into Town which put the Inhabitants into great Fear—and they have done Damage to Many Houses Particularly [Joseph] Sherburne [shown here] [Samuel?] Fitchs Geo Ervings & [Thomas] Courtney the Taylor— . . .

afternoon I went to Church Mr. [Samuel] Parker Read prayers & Mr. [William] Walter preached . . . this was a serious Sensible Sermon & Well adapted to the Situation of our Present Disturbed Situation . . .

This Evening Capt. Johnson was burried.
Rowe’s habit of referring to “the People” outside town and “the Inhabitants” within avoided political labels. Writing “the Inhabitants” also distanced himself from the danger and emotion of the siege.

I haven’t been able to identify “Capt. Johnson of the Minerva” who had killed himself on 2 March. Rowe had an interest in the Minerva since he mentioned that ship multiple times in his diary, but how big a financial interest I can’t tell.

4 March:
All the Preceding Night The Town has been fir’d at by the People witho. from Every Quarter. I dont hear of Much Damage being done

The Guns from Cobles Hill on Charlestown Side have thrown there shot the farthest into Town one of them Struck [John] Wheatleys in Kings Street
5 March:
Southerly Wind & Warm—

This Morning We Perceived A Battery Erected On the Hill on Dorchester Neck—this has alarmd us very Much—

abo. 12 the Generall sent off Six Regiments—perhaps this day or to morrow determines The Fate of this truly distressed Place

All night Both Sides kept a Continuall Fire

Six Men of the 22d. Are Wounded in A house at the So. End—one Boy Lost his Leg— . . .

A Very Severe Storm WSo.So.E—it Blew down My Rail Fences Both Sides the Front of the House
It’s remarkable that Rowe’s fences had survived this long with firewood being a precious commodity in town.

Rowe’s bald line “abo. 12 the Generall sent off Six Regiments” referred to how Gen. William Howe ordered an amphibious attack on the Dorchester peninsula. But once he saw the stormy weather was making that mission even more impossible than it already was, Howe called it off and sped up his original plan.



G. Lovely said...

I'm curious about Rowe's observation that "...Capt. Johnson of the Minerva drown’d himself"

In 18th century parlance does that clearly mean it was suicide, or might it just be referring to a negligent act? Given the frequent reports of sailors drowning as a result of all sorts of mishaps, is there any further evidence that Capt. Johnson's death was an intentional act? How would Anglican clergy and congregants have treated a case of suicide?

J. L. Bell said...

I think the phrase does indicate suicide. There were others inside besieged Boston, reflecting the stress of the situation. However, I haven’t been able to find out anything more about this man that would shed more light.

At this time the churches and society were more understanding about suicides than they had been a couple of centuries earlier. Most references to people killing themselves treat the act as an unfortunate outcome of madness, more pitied than condemned.