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, April 30, 2024

“The healing power of Mesmerism and Pure Water”

At the end of the year 1840, Walton Felch, “Teacher of the Science of PHRENOLOGY, otherwise known as the author of a new theory of language,” came to Worcester.

Felch’s advertisement in the Worcester Palladium, illustrated with a man’s profile, stated that he had “been employed, within the last 2 years, to deliver nearly 40 courses of from six to eight Lectures, before not less than 11 or 12,000 persons.”

He now offered the people of Worcester his expertise on:
Phrenology, and its Application
to Government, Education, Social Intercourse, the Philosophy of Language, and of Rhetoric, and the Moral, Intellectual, and Physical Improvement of Mankind.
And the first lecture in the Town Hall was absolutely free, if that’s how you wanted to spend the evening of 25 December.

In April 1842 Felch offered eight lectures on phrenology in Boston’s North End, followed by seven in the vestry of the Fifth Universalist Church. After that, notices of his talks stop appearing in newspapers.

Felch continued to show an interest in phrenology. In November 1851, he assisted another practitioner, Dr. Noyes Wheeler, in lectures in Boston and then served as “chairman” of a meeting of Wheeler’s friends voting him a commendation.

By that time, however, Walton Felch had moved on to some other forms of healing. The first sign of this appears in a curious stretch of newspaper items in 1847 that stars with the 26 March Barre Gazette report of a robbery of James H. Desper’s store of goods and silver worth about $112.

Two weeks later, the Barre Patriot reported that “Dr W. Felch” had helped to found the Barre Falls Lyceum for the “easterly part of town.” He became its president, and Desper was steward. (I can’t help but wonder if that was the result of some dispute within the Barre Lyceum.)

On 28 May the Barre Gazette ran a notice saying:
Veto! Veto!! Veto!!!!

I, JAMES H. DESPER of Barre, having lately heard a variety of Reports apparently designed to raise a public prejudice against Dr. W. Felch, and theredy [sic] hinder him from giving proofs of the healing power of Mesmerism and Pure Water as applied by himself;—1st, that he was turned out of my house; 2d, that he injured the health of my wife and others while boarding here;—3d, that he has been suspected of breaking open our store, &c. &c. I hereby give notice, and my wife sets her signature with mine, that all these reports are most villainous falsehoods; which character, we doubt not, is common to all the reports against the same individual. . . .

And the enemies of reform ought to know that persecution is very much like a kicking gun—there is only one thing certain about it—that is, the kicking over of the fool that fires it off.
“Pure Water” was a sign that Felch, now styling himself a physician, had adopted hydrotherapy as his principal field.

In 1850 the Water-Cure Journal and Herald of Reform reported that “Dr. W. Felch” had just opened the Green Mountain Water-Cure in North Adams. That year’s U.S. Census located Felch in Adams.

In 1854 both the Water-Cure Journal and William Garrison’s Liberator told readers that Dr. Felch was the physician at the new Cape Cod Water-Cure in Harwichport. “Ellen M. Smith, (a young lady of medical education,)” was his assistant, though elsewhere listed as a hydropathic physician herself.

To be sure, the Boston Semi-Weekly Advertiser for 28 Jan 1854 said “Dr. W. FELCH, of Cambridge,” was lecturing every Sunday “on the Philosophy and Evidence of Ghost-seeing.” I can’t say for sure that was Walton Felch, but the 1855 state census and 1860 federal census found him and his second wife Nancy in Boston. His son Hiram had become a city official.

(I’m assuming Walton Felch was not the “W. Felch” quoted in advertisements for “Dr. Hill’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum” in 1855, stating he “had the misfortune to contract the veneral affection of the most aggravated character.” Mostly because this writer had nothing to say about his own medical knowledge.)

By 1870 Hiram Felch had moved out to Boxborough, and Walton and Nancy were back in the Coldbrook Springs part of Oakham.

In 1872, now over eighty years old, Felch made his will. He left his books to be divided equally among Nancy and three grown children and his real estate to be sold to support his widow.

Walton Felch died in Boxborough later that year, apparently visiting his son; his body was returned to “Coldbrook” for burial. That May, the Massachusetts Spy reported that the man’s estate included $700 in real estate and $300 in personal property.

TOMORROW: But what happened to the British soldiers’ skulls?

Monday, April 29, 2024

“The lecture room has been filled every evening”

In April 1840, Walton Felch brought his phrenological lectures to Concord.

As quoted back here, on 1 April twelve-year-old Edmund Quincy Sewall, Jr., went to the town’s Lyceum Hall expecting to hear Felch speak on phrenology. He saw a collection of skulls laid out on the lectern, including at least one skull of a British soldier killed in 1775.

But then those teaching aids were taken away, and Edmund heard another speaker instead. Two days later, he corrected what he’d written in his diary about Felch:
I said he had not come up from Boston. He had been engaged on the supposition that Mr Haskins would not come but as Mr H. did come he had to give place.
On that evening, 3 April, Edmund finally heard Felch deliver his talk on phrenology. The twelve-year-old judged it to be “pretty interesting.”

It looks like that lecture wasn’t officially part of the Concord Lyceum program, according to records kept by Edmund’s teacher Henry David Thoreau. Instead, those weekly lectures were on such topics as Roger Williams of Rhode Island and the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson on “The Present Age.” But Felch did apparently speak in Lyceum Hall.

On 18 April, the Yeoman’s Gazette of Concord took notice of Felch’s “course of lectures”:
The lecture room has been filled every evening, and we understand that his audience have generally expressed much gratification at the manner in which the subject has been treated. . . . We understand that the popular favor has been attested by numerous and increasing audiences.
The newspaper also praised the phrenologist for allowing anyone to attend, asking only “voluntary contribution.”

Of course, those lectures were marketing for Felch’s services. He quoted from his good reviews in a long advertisement in the 12 June Barre Gazette, closing with:
Mr. Felch will wait on individuals and families who may wish to avail themselves of his skill as an Experimental Phrenologist.
Weeks later, on 24 July, that local newspaper published a long article of “Mr. Felch’s Lectures on Phrenology.” The topic was no longer novel, it said, and, “The country has been deluged with lecturers, who…palm off the most miserable quackery and ignorance.” But Felch was different!
That his design is the collection of money, no one believes who knows him. He is imbued with a strong love of the subject, a full conviction of its truth and of its capacity to promote the welfare of mankind. He has studied well and deeply, and we doubt if even a few can be found in the country who are more intimately versed in the theory and details of the science.
However, this reviewer did have two criticisms. First, Felch went on for too long: “The shortness of the evenings at least should have cut short some of the reasonings and illustrations.” And while speaking of phrenology Felch indulged another of his hobby-horses:
Nor can we pass over what seems to us a faulty digression upon the subject of grammar. Mr. Felch is an enthusiast on this subject and is the author of a work touching it. . . . But we are unable to discover the connection which the lecturer supposes to exist between the two subjects, and could only feel a breakage when he passed on Monday evening from one to the other. Perhaps the lateness of the hour was an incentive to the feeling—but we trust yet that they will not be again chained fist and fist together.
Notably, I haven’t found any reviews from this period that criticized Felch for displaying human skulls, or for having British soldiers’ bodies dug up. Apparently people accepted those acts as necessary for science.

TOMORROW: The peregrinations of Walton Felch.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

“Mr Felch is delivering a course of Phrenological Lectures”

Walton Felch was born in Royalston, Massachusetts, in 1790, youngest in a large family. Eventually his parents and some siblings moved to Vermont, forming the village of Felchville in Reading.

Walton Felch appears to have gone to work in one of Rhode Island’s early industrial mills as a teenager. Ambitious and eager for knowledge, he rose to management ranks. He then did something even more unusual, turning his experience into poetry.

In 1816 Felch published The Manufacturer’s Pocket-Piece, or, The Cotton-Mill Moralized: A Poem, with Illustrative Notes. The notes about how mills of this time really operated appear to have had more lasting value than the poetry.

Felch continued to write poetry his whole life. He composed verses on fire, the stars, his ancestors, and other topics. When he died, a big part of his legacy to his family was hundreds of unpublished poems.

The year before The Manufacturer’s Pocket-Piece appeared, Felch married Lydia Inman of Smithfield, Rhode Island. He was then listed as living in Attleboro, and the couple may soon have moved to Medway. Walton and Lydia had at least three children: Hiram (house builder and assessor who stayed in Massachusetts), Walton Cheever (trained as a printer, moved to California in the Gold Rush), and Sarah (married a man named Dunbar).

Walton Felch was living in Hubbardston in 1831 when he married again, to Mrs. Nancy Sullivan. By 1840 he was in the area of Oakham called Coldbrook Springs, and he was living there at the end of his life—but didn’t necessarily remain there the whole time.

Felch was certainly intellectually restive. He enjoyed the lyceum movement of the time, particularly the Barre Lyceum, right over the town line. He spoke there in 1834 on the subject of geology. The next year, he participated in a debate: “Does the strength of temptation lessen the turpitude of crime?” In 1837 he spoke on the costs and benefits of government-sponsored South Sea exploration.

One of Felch’s most consuming interests was grammar. In December 1834 he lectured on his “Architectural System of the English Grammar.” He then published A Comprehensive Grammar, Presenting Some New Views of the Structure of Language (1837) and Grammatical Primer: Comprising the Outlines of the Compositive System (1841). The Norfolk Democrat credited Felch with “a very amusing and instructive Lecture” on the topic in January 1840.

The Barre Gazette of 23 Feb 1838 signaled a new interest:
Oakham Lyceum Meets on Monday evening, the 26th inst. Lecture by Mr Felch on Phrenology.
Phrenology was a relatively new scientific pursuit—diagnosing people’s personalities, strengths, and deficits from the bumps on their skulls, usually as felt through through hair and skin. By the next year, Felch felt he had mastered it enough to publish A Phrenological Chart: And Table of Combinations.

On 15 Nov 1839 the Christian Freeman and Family Visitor of Waltham published this item:
Phrenological Lectures.

Mr Felch is delivering a course of Phrenological Lectures in Rumford Hall [shown above]. We perceive from letters in his possession, that he shares the confidence of Mr [George] Combe, and has given great satisfaction where he has lectured. He has not only read extensively on the science upon which he lectures, but is a close observer of mankind, and an original thinker. We were pleased and instructed by his lecture last Tuesday evening, which was the first of a course of six, to be delivered on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Admission 12 1-2 cents each evening.
That expertise seems to have been enough to persuade the selectmen of Lincoln to let Felch take the skulls of two British soldiers killed on 19 Apr 1775 from the town’s old burying-ground. Indeed, according to Henry David Thoreau’s understanding, Felch actually had those skulls “dug up” particularly for his phrenological investigation.

TOMORROW: When Felch took his skulls to Concord.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

“Dug up–and took away two skulls”

In the summer of 1840, shortly after twelve-year-old Edmund Quincy Sewall, Jr., got to see part of a British soldier’s skull with a bullet hole through it, his teacher John Thoreau proposed marriage to his sister, Ellen Sewall.

The Rev. Edmund Quincy Sewall, Sr., opposed that union. Then Edmund’s other teacher, Henry David Thoreau, proposed marriage to Ellen as well. And the Thoreau family drama built from there.

In the decade that followed, John Thoreau died of tetanus. Henry moved in with the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson, then moved out to a cabin in Walden Woods, then moved back in. He became a published author. He spent time in jail for protesting the Fugitive Slave Act by refusing to pay his taxes.

During those years, Henry David Thoreau kept a diary. In the late spring of 1850 he wrote this entry:
I visited a retired–now almost unused graveyard in Lincoln to-day where (5) British soldiers lie buried who fell on the 19th April ’75. Edmund Wheeler—grandfather of William—who lived in the old house now pulled down near the present—went over the next day & carted them to this ground—

A few years ago one Felch a Phrenologist by leave of the select men dug up–and took away two skulls

The skeletons were very large—probably those of grenadiers. Wm Wheeler who was present–told me this—He said that he had heard old Mr. Child, who lived opposite–say that when one soldier was shot he leaped right up his full length out of the ranks & fell dead. & he Wm Wheeler–saw a bullet hole through & through one of the skulls.
There were multiple families named Child in Lincoln around 1775, so it’s hard to identify which one gave that description of the dying redcoat to Wheeler.

The skull with the bullet hole was undoubtedly the same one that young Edmund Quincy Sewall had seen at the Concord Lyceum in 1840. The schoolboy had even recorded that it had come from Lincoln. Perhaps another of the skulls put out for the phrenologist was also from a regular’s body.

Concord had built a large monument near the gravesite of the first two British soldiers killed on 19 Apr 1775. Those weren’t the only redcoats buried in that town, but those two bodies were the most significant because they showed the Americans effectively fighting back.

In contrast, more regulars had died on 19 April in Lincoln, but that town was less concerned about memorializing them. Some soldiers were buried near where they fell, or near the houses where they died days later. Those graves weren’t marked, even with “rough stones” as originally in Concord. It was up to men like William Wheeler to pass on the increasingly vague knowledge of where those bodies lay.

As for the British soldiers in the town burying-ground, Abram English Brown’s Beneath Old Roof-Trees (1896) would quote Mary Hartwell of Lincoln about the aftermath of the battle:
I could not sleep that night, for I knew there were British soldiers lying dead by the roadside; and when, on the following morning, we were somewhat calmed and rested, we gave attention to the burial of those whom their comrades had failed to take away.

The men hitched the oxen to the cart, and went down below the house, and gathered up the dead. As they returned with the team and the dead soldiers, my thoughts went out for the wives, parents, and children away across the Atlantic, who would never again see their loved ones; and I left the house, and taking my little children by the hand, I followed the rude hearse to the grave hastily made in the burial-ground.

I remember how cruel it seemed to put them into one large trench without any coffins. There was one in a brilliant uniform, whom I supposed to have been an officer. His hair was tied up in a cue.
In 1884 the town of Lincoln installed a marker in that cemetery stating simply:
SLAIN APRIL 19, 1775
The approximate locations of other soldiers’ graves along the Battle Road in Lincoln have also been marked now.

But the diaries of Edmund Quincy Sewall, Jr., and Henry David Thoreau tell us that parts of the soldiers’ bodies were removed from the Lincoln burying-ground over forty years before the town marked the remains.

TOMORROW: To advance the cause of science.

Friday, April 26, 2024

“One of the skulls was that of a British soldier”

Edmund Quincy Sewall, Jr. (1828–1908), was the son of the Unitarian minister at Scituate. Both father and son bore the surnames of two of Massachusetts’s eminent families.

The Rev. Edmund Quincy Sewall, Sr., had studied for the ministry with the Rev. Dr. Ezra Ripley in Concord. There he had met his wife, introduced by two members of the Thoreau family.

At the age of nine, Edmund started keeping a journal, on the advice of Bronson Alcott. He kept up this habit for his whole adult life but, as with John Quincy Adams, had trouble maintaining the momentum at first.

In the spring of 1840 Edmund started to attend a boarding school in Concord, living with his teachers: the brothers John and Henry David Thoreau. They reenergized his journal-keeping for that season.

The American Antiquarian Society has shared transcripts of Edmund’s childhood journals, including this entry from 1840:
April 1st. I had a nice sail on the river yesterday after school. Messrs John and Henry T[horeau]. rowed and Jesse [Harding] and I were passengers.

We went up the river against the wind and then sailed down to the monument where we got out with the intention of all embarking again, but Mr. J and Jesse being near the monument and Mr H. and I near the boat we jumped in and went across to the abutment of the former bridge on the opposite side.

I suppose that we should have come back for them if they had staid but they went off with the sail which we had left on the bank. Mr. H. rowed up the river a little way and got out. We had not the keys of the boat and should have been obliged to leave her without being securely fastened or have hauled her up on the shore if Joseph had not come down with the keys. He got two wet feet for his pains.
Three years after Concord had dedicated its monument to the 19 Apr 1775 fight, that obelisk and the nearby “abutment of the former bridge” were landmarks for boaters. But because there was no longer a bridge nearby, once the Thoreau brothers and their pupils disembarked on opposite sides they couldn’t easily get back together.

That same entry in Edmund’s diary reported:
We then went to the Lyceum expecting that a Phrenologist would lecture. His apparatus was there but the lecturer had not arrived. A man there set out his casts and several real skulls on the desk but immediately put them back again.

One of the skulls was that of a British soldier who fell in the Battle of Concord. It was dug up in Lincoln. It was only the upper half of the head. There was the bullet hole through which the ball which killed him had passed.

A Mr. Haskins lectured on Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island—a description of his life. Bought 2 cents worth of burnt almonds going home.
In one busy spring day, young Edmund Quincy Sewall, Jr., had seen the gravesite of two British soldiers and the half the skull of a third. Plus, burnt almonds!

TOMORROW: A walk to Lincoln.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

“About erecting a monument on the battle-ground”

In his 1835 History of the Town of Concord, Lemuel Shattuck wrote that the spot by the former North Bridge where two British soldiers lay buried “deserves to be marked by an ever-enduring monument,” not just two rough stones that only locals could recognize.

On 7 Dec 1835, the Boston Evening Transcript apparently reported that the town was running with that idea:
We learn from a friend who recently visited Old Concord, that the inhabitants of that town are about erecting a monument on the battle-ground, on the spot were the two first British soldiers fell and where they were buried, and where their grave-stones still are.

The land belonged to the reverend and venerable Dr. Thayer, now in his 83d year, and still continues in the ministry, who has given it to the town for that purpose.
I wrote “apparently” because the newspaper database I use includes only two of the four pages of that issue of the Evening Transcript, but other newspapers quoted that article the next day.

The 8 December Boston Courier also had the pleasure of pointing out, “For ‘Dr. Thayer,’ we presume the Transcript intended to say Dr. RIPLEY.” And indeed that evening’s Transcript acknowledged the error.

It was a curious mistake since at that point the Rev. Dr. Ezra Ripley (shown above) had been Concord’s preeminent clergymen longer than most people had been alive. He had succeeded the Rev. William Emerson in 1778 and was still watching over the town almost sixty years later.

The Evening Transcript’s brief report also left out how Concord had started to build a monument to the start of the Revolutionary War in 1825. But back then voters had chosen to locate that landmark in the town center rather than where any fighting had taken place. Some objected to the location, or to spending the money, and then a bonfire damaged the cornerstone.

Robert Gross lays out that drama in The Transcendentalists and Their World, so I don’t have to go over it here.

The upshot is that Concord finished building a monument out by the remains of the North Bridge in 1836. Its inscription was composed by a committee of local worthies including Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Rep. Samuel Hoar. It was dedicated in 1837; at that ceremony the public first heard Emerson’s phrase “the shot heard ’round the world.”

The three points I want to emphasize about the building of that monument are:
  • The obelisk wasn’t just coincidentally where the two British soldiers were buried. It was located at that spot because those soldiers’ remains lay nearby.
  • The creation of the monument attracted attention from Boston and neighboring towns. Concord’s leading citizens were involved. The Rev. Dr. Ripley, who lived till 1841, was especially interested.
  • There were also people in Concord who had reasons to look askance at the new erection, and would have been happy to share embarrassing stories about it.
I’ll come back to those points in a few days.

TOMORROW: A day on the Concord River.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

“Two rough stones mark the spot”

Back in 2013, Boston 1775 published a series of postings about the British soldiers killed at the North Bridge in Concord, and what happened to their bodies.

Based on reports from army officers, the royal authorities complained in print that a soldier left wounded at the bridge had been “scalped” and otherwise mutilated.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress vigorously denied that charge. It published this deposition, taken down by justice of the peace Duncan Ingraham:
We, the subscribers, of lawful age, testify and say, that we buried the dead bodies of the King’s troops that were killed at the North-Bridge in Concord, on the nineteenth day of April, 1775, where the action first began, and that neither of those persons were scalped, nor their ears cut off, as has been represented.

Zechariah Brown,
Thomas Davis, jun.

Concord, May 11th, 1775.
Privately, however, militiamen who had been at the bridge deplored what they had seen. To begin with, that soldier had still been alive. Thomas Thorp of Acton recalled in 1835: “I saw him sitting up and wounded, as we had passed the bridge.” His killing “was a matter of horror to us all.”

In June 1775 the Rev. William Gordon acknowledged in print that “A young fellow…very barbarously broke his scull and let out his brains, with a small axe.” Gordon did not excuse that act, but he did insist it wasn’t scalping.

Still, Gordon’s source, the Rev. William Emerson of Concord, and other locals kept the young killer’s name secret. Charles Handley of Acton recalled: “The young man man who killed him told me, in 1807, that it had worried him very much; but that he thought he was doing right at the time.” It took more than a century before his name came out: Ammi White.

As for the dead soldiers, in 1827 the Concord minister Ezra Ripley wrote: “The two British soldiers killed at the bridge were buried near the spot where they fell, both in one grave. Two rough stones mark the spot where they were laid.”

In 1793 the town of Concord built a new bridge downstream. The span of the old bridge was dismantled, but some end portions remained. The pieces on the south side served as another landmark reminding locals where the two British men were buried.

TOMORROW: Erecting a monument.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

“When forty-two countrymen Sure bid their friends adieu.”

Ezra Lunt and Henry-Walter Tinges printed the Essex Journal in Newburyport with the financial backing of Isaiah Thomas, who made a hasty move from Boston to Worcester in April 1775.

On 26 May, the Essex Journal published this verse in a section of the back page titled “The Parnassian Packet”:
A Funeral ELEGY, to the Immortal Memory of those Worthies, who were slain in the Battle of CONCORD, April 19, 1775.

AID me ye nine! my muse assist,
A sad tale to relate,
When such a number of brave men
Met their unhappy fate.
At Lexington they met their foe
Completely all equip’d,
Their guns and swords made glitt’ring show,
But their base scheme was nipp’d.
Americans, go drop a tear
Where your slain brethren lay!
O! mourn and sympathize for them!
O! weep this very day!
What shall we say to this loud call
From the Almighty sent;
It surely bids both great and small
Seek GOD’s face and repent.
Words can’t express the ghastly scene
That here presents to view,
When forty-two brave countrymen
Sure bid their friends adieu.
To think how awful it must seem,
To hear widows relent
Their husbands and their children
Who to the grave was sent.
The tender babes, nay those unborn,
O! dismal cruel death!
To snatch their fondest parents dear,
And leave them thus bereft.
O! Lexington, your loss is great!
Alas! too great to tell,
But justice bids me to relate
What to you has befell.
Ten of your hardy, bravest sons,
Some in their prime did fall;
May we no more hear noise of guns
To terrify us all.
Let’s not forget the Danvers race
So late in battle slain,
Their courage and their valor shown
Upon the crimson’d plain.
Sev’n of your youthful sprightly sons
In the fierce fight were slain,
O! may your loss be all made up,
And prove a lasting gain.
Cambridge and Medford’s loss is great,
Though not like Acton’s town,
Where three fierce military sons
Met their untimely doom.
Menotomy and Charlestown met
A sore and heavy stroke,
In losing five young brave townsmen
Who fell by tyrant’s yoke.
Unhappy Lynn and Beverly,
Your loss I do bemoan,
Five of your brave sons in dust doth lye,
Who late were in their bloom.
Bedford, Woburn, Sudbury, all,
Have suffer’d most severe,
You miss five of your choicest chore,
On them let’s drop a tear.
Concord your Captain’s fate rehearse,
His loss is felt severe,
Come, brethren, join with me in verse,
His mem’ry hence revere.
O ’Squire Gardiner’s death we feel,
And sympathizing mourn,
Let’s drop a tear when it we tell,
And view his hapless urn.
We sore regret poor Pierce’s death,
A stroke to Salem’s town,
Where tears did flow from ev’ry brow,
When the sad tidings come.
The groans of wounded, dying men,
Would melt the stoutest soul,
O! how it strikes thro’ ev’ry vein.
My flesh and blood runs cold.
May all prepare to meet their fate
At GOD’s tribunal bar,
And may war’s terrible alarm
For death us now prepare.
Your country calls you far and near,
America’s sons ’wake,
Your helmet, buckler, and your spear,
The LORD’s own arm now take
His shield will keep us from all harm,
Tho’ thousands gainst us rise,
His buckler we must sure put on,
If we would win the prize.
This tribute to the local men killed the previous month started with the town of Lexington, not just because redcoats had fired the first fatal shots there but because that town lost more men than any other.

Seven Danvers men were killed in and around Jason Russell’s house in Menotomy, so that town got the next mention—which the newspaper’s Essex County audience probably appreciated.

Eventually the poet got to individuals, naming a couple of men at the top of society—Capt. James Miles of Concord and Isaac Gardiner, Esq., of Brookline—and Benjamin Pierce of Salem, also killed at the Russell House. Other dead officers went unnamed, however.

Ezekiel Russell printed this poem at the bottom of his “Bloody Butchery of the British Troops” broadside, shown above. You can peruse that page more closely through the American Antiquarian Society, founded by Thomas.

The Russell broadside contained some errors (a missing “brave,” “young” became “your,” another “your” dropped out), suggesting that shop hastily copied the text out of the newspaper. I would have expected the transmission to go the other way: from the Russell print shop, which was known for publishing a young woman’s elegiac verses, to the Essex Journal.

That in turn suggests that Russell didn’t issue the “Bloody Butchery” broadside until more than a month after the battle. Maybe he needed that time to engrave all those coffins.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Washington on Franklin on Gage on Lexington

In 1789, President George Washington went on a tour (I might even say a progress) through the northern United States.

This is how he recorded his travel through Massachusetts in his diary on Thursday, 5 November:
About sunrise I set out, crossing the Merrimack River at the town, over to the township of Bradford, and in nine miles came to Abbot’s tavern, in Andover, where we breakfasted, and met with much attention from Mr. [Samuel] Phillips, President of the Senate of Massachusetts, who accompanied us through Bellariki to Lexington, where I dined, and viewed the spot on which the first blood was spilt in the dispute with Great Britain, on the 19th of April, 1775. Here I parted with Mr. Phillips, and proceeded on to Watertown, intending (as I was disappointed by the weather and bad roads from travelling through the Interior Country to Charlestown, on Connecticut River,) to take what is called the middle road from Boston.
Washington didn’t mention where he dined in Lexington, but other sources confirm that it was at the tavern of William Munroe, who had been a militia sergeant back in April 1775. That building is now one of the museums of the Lexington Historical Society.

The President’s travelogue sounds rather dry, but this item in the 7 Jan 1790 Berkshire Chronicle suggests he was actually in a cheerful mood:
When the President of the United States, in his late tour, was at Lexington, viewing the field where the first blood was shed in the late war; he with a degree of good humor, told his informant, that the Britons complained to Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin, of the ill usage their troops met with at Lexington battle, by the Yankies getting behind the stone walls, and firing at them. The Doctor replied, by asking them whether there were not two sides to the wall?
Well, it’s not exactly Abraham Lincoln’s joke about Ethan Allen, but we rarely get to hear Washington tell funny stories at all.

Washington’s comment echoes a poem published in the 27 Nov 1775 Boston Gazette called “The King’s Own Regulars.” Written in the voice of the redcoats, it includes this couplet about Gen. Thomas Gage:
Of their firing from behind fences, he makes a great pother,
Ev’ry fence has two sides; they made use of one, and we only forgot to use the other.
The following spring, Charles Carroll described this poem to his wife as “a song made by Dr. Franklin.” It looks like Franklin might have written those lines while visiting Gen. Washington in Cambridge in October 1775, then left them behind for the local press. And President Washington remembered the doctor’s pithy point years later.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Death of Daniel Thompson

Yesterday I quoted Maj. Loammi Baldwin’s diary noting the death of Woburn militiaman Daniel Thompson on 19 Apr 1775.

The published Woburn vital records say Daniel Thompson was born on 9 Mar 1734, making him forty-one years old at the Battle of Lexington and Concord (unless that’s an unlabeled Old Style date). He and his wife Phebe had three children, born 1761–1765.

According to a family history, The Memorial of James Thompson, of Charlestown, Mass., 1630-1642, and Woburn (1887), this was the story of Thompson’s death:
He was a man of ardent temperament, full of activity and enterprise. Previous to the Revolutionary war he was one of the guards of the royal governor [most likely the horse guard], and yet, in the troubles which preceded that event, he ever zealously espoused the cause of his native country.

On the morning of the 19th of April, 1775, hearing of the march of the British toward Concord, he mounted his horse and hurried to the north village, a mile distant, for the purpose of rousing his friends to oppose the march of the enemy. There is a tradition that of all the men he met only one hesitated, and when that one asked him if he were not too hasty and likely to expose himself to great danger, he instantly replied, “No! I tell you our tyrants are on their march to destroy our stores, and if no one else opposes them to-day, I will!” Immediately hurrying away to the scene of action, he boldly took his position and poured his fire into the ranks of the British.

On the retreat of the enemy, he took a station near the road. Stepping behind a barn to load, and then advancing round the corner of the building, he fired diagonally through the platoons of the enemy, so as to make every shot effectual.

A grenadier, who watched his movements, was so enraged that he ran around the corner of the barn and shot him dead on the spot, while he was in the act of reloading his gun. Tradition says that a well directed ball from another Woburn gun prevented the grenadier from ever rejoining his comrades.
I’m skeptical about that quotation, though the aggressive attitude seems to fit with going too close to the road and being cut down by a flanker. Abram English Brown’s Beneath Old Roof Trees (1896) added the comforting claim that one of Daniel Thompson’s own brothers killed that grenadier and brought his firelock back home to Woburn.

More certainly, we know that Thompson died within the borders of Lincoln. His body was brought back to Woburn. On 21 April there was a joint funeral with Asahel Porter, detained by the regulars in the early hours of the 19th and killed in the shooting on Lexington common.

Thompson’s gravestone appears above, courtesy of Find a Grave. It says:
Here lies Buried the Body of
slain in Concord Battle on ye. 19th.
of April 1775. Aged 40 Years.

Here Passenger confin’d reduc’d to dust,
lies what was once Religious wise & Just.
The cause he engaged did animate him high,
Namely Religion and dear Liberty.
Steady and warm in Liberties defence,
True to his Country, Loyal to his Prince.
Though in his Breast a Thirst for glory fir’d,
Courageous in his country’s cause expired.
Although he’s gone his name Embalmed shall be,
and had in Everlasting Memory.
The phrase about “Loyal to his Prince” suggests the Thompson family erected this stone in 1775 when most Americans still professed allegiance to King George III and saw themselves as fighting corrupt British ministers rather than the whole British constitutional system. If the Thompson family had had to wait another year for the stonecarving, the elegy would surely have praised Thompson’s loyalty to his country but not to his “Prince.”

Daniel and Phebe Thompson’s daughter, born in 1762 and also named Phebe, married Josiah Pierce in 1787 and settled in Maine. Josiah was a younger half-brother of Benjamin Thompson, who by then had moved from Woburn to Europe on his way to becoming Count Rumford.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

“A ball came thru the Meeting house near my head”

Yesterday we left Maj. Loammi Baldwin and his Woburn militiamen skedaddling east from Brooks Hill in Concord with the withdrawing British column on their tail.

Baldwin’s account in his diary, as transcribed in this copy with line breaks for easier reading, continues:
we came to Tanner Brooks at Lincoln Bridge & then we concluded to scatter & make use of the trees & walls for to defend us & attack them—We did so & pursued on flanking them—(Mr Daniel Thompson was killed & others[)]. till we came to Lexington. I had several good shots—
“Tanner Brooks” referred to the tannery owned by the Brooks family. Analysts of the battle say the Woburn companies engaged the British troops somewhere around the Hartwell Tavern within the borders of Lincoln.
The Enemy marched very fast & left many dead & wounded and a few tired I proceeded on till coming between the meeting house and Mr Buckmans Tavern with a Prisoner before me when the Cannon begun to play the Balls flew near me I judged not more than 2 yards off.

I immediately retreated back behind the Meeting house and had not been there 10 seconds before a ball came thru the Meeting house near my head.

I retreated back towards the meadow North of the Meeting house & lay & heard the ball in the air & saw them strike the ground I judged about 15 or 20 was fired but not one man killed with them. They were fired from the crook in the road by Easterbrooks—
The picture above, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, shows a “small cannon ball, said to have been found on the side of the road near Lexington” at some point. The webpage for this artifact says: “It is made of lead and was the type of projectile fired from a smooth-bored cannon.”

In The Road to Concord I argue that the presence of cannon in Concord, and particularly the brass cannon of the Boston militia train, was crucial to Gen. Thomas Gage’s decision to order an expedition there.

But the provincials moved most of those cannon further west in the days before that march. They probably weren’t all equipped for use, anyway. On the British side, the expedition under Lt. Col. Francis Smith marched with no artillery for maximum speed.

But Col. Percy’s reinforcement column did come out with field-pieces, and those were the cannon that Loammi Baldwin and his Woburnites ran into. By deploying heavy weapons for the first time that day, Percy was able to make time for the combined British forces to regroup in Lexington, tend their wounded, and set off for Boston.

As for Maj. Baldwin, his diary stops as quoted above. The transcripts don’t resume until May, when he was an officer in the provincial army. Baldwin probably decided that having marched into Concord and back, fired “several good shots,” and taken a prisoner, his unit had done their dangerous duty for the day. He and his men may have followed the British column east for some more miles, but they stayed out of cannon range.

Friday, April 19, 2024

“Soon heard that the regulars had fired upon Lexington People”

For Loammi Baldwin of Woburn, 18 Apr 1775 was not a good day.

As he wrote in his diary, “My Brother Ruel departed this life after a short illness of 5 or 6 days, Pleurisy fever.” Loammi was there, along with his parents.

Reuel Baldwin was twenty-seven years old. He left his wife Keziah and three young children—Reuel, Ruth, and James—with another child on the way, eventually named Josiah.

The next day, Loammi Baldwin had to muster as a major in the Middlesex County militia. An officer in a horse troop, Baldwin rode instead of marched.

I don’t know if Loammi Baldwin’s diary still exists, but there are two handwritten transcripts of select dates in the Harvard libraries, and much of his entry on 19 Apr 1775 was published in the first volume of D. Hamilton Hurd’s History of Middlesex County in 1890.

There’s an old joke that a man with a watch always knows what time it is, but a man with two watches never does. Likewise, with one transcript we’d feel confident about what Baldwin originally wrote, but with three there are some reasons for doubt about the details.

Here’s how Maj. Baldwin described his experience of the start of the war according to this transcript, with line breaks added to make reading a little easier:

April 19. Wednesday

This morning a little before break of day we was allarmed by Mr. Ledman [probably Ebenezer Stedman] Express from Cambridge—Informd us that the Regulars were upon the move for Concord

we musterd as fast as possible—The Town turned out extraordinary & proceeded towards Lexington & Rode along a little before main body and when I was nigh Jacob Reeds I heard a great firing proceeded on soon heard that the regulars had fired upon Lexington People & killed a large Number of them

we proceeded on as fast as possible and came to Lexington and saw about 8 or 10 dead & Numbers wounded was informed that the Regulars rushed upon our Lexington men and hollowed damn you Disperse Rebels & fired upon the Lexington Company

we proceeded to Concord by way of Lincoln meeting house come to Concord ascended the hill & pitched & refreshed ourselves a little

about [blank] o’clock the People under my command & also some others came running of the East end of the hill while I was at a house refreshing myself & we proceeded down the road & could see behind us the regulars following
A transcript with a more modern handwriting but more alternative spellings and the name “Stedman” starts at seq. 15 in this document. I can’t tell if this is more accurate to what Baldwin originally wrote. Fortunately, none of the discrepancies so far seriously affect his meaning.

TOMORROW: Cannon fire.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Launch of Concord’s Arrowhead Ridge

As Patriots’ Day season continues, Boston 1775 is pleased to welcome back our old friend Christopher Lenney, author of Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England, as a guest blogger.

In this posting, Chris discusses the origin of a name that has come to appear in maps and descriptions of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but which the locals of 1775 didn’t use.

The mile-long ridge running parallel to Lexington Road from Meriam’s Corner to the center of Concord has long been a looming presence in the landscape and the history of the town. However, until the mid-twentieth century, it had no single, well-established name. At various times, various parts have been known as ye Hill above ye Meeting house, Meriam’s Hill, Heywood’s Hill, or simply the hill (or hills).

Its present name, Revolutionary Ridge, likely first appeared about 1915 and was popularized as the original name of Ridge Road. It was officially adopted by the U.S. Geological Survey on the 1943 Concord quadrangle map and has become widely accepted.

So anachronistic a name as Revolutionary Ridge has obvious drawbacks when recounting the events of April 19, 1775. It presupposes what hasn’t yet occurred. Something less glaringly modern, please!

Since the 1960s, Arrowhead Ridge, a name of even more recent coinage and one borrowed from another war, has come to fill the void. While a few arrowheads have coincidentally been found there, this is not how the name came about.

Arrowhead Ridge originated almost accidentally with military historian John R. Galvin, who brought a shrewd eye for terrain to the study of the battle. In the text of his book The Minute Men (1967), he employs the term purely descriptively—lowercase—four times:
  • “A long ridge, shaped like an arrowhead, runs eastward from the center…The arrowhead points directly at Lexington”
  • “At Meriam’s Corner, just below the east tip of the arrowhead ridge”
  • “the British were preparing to march out along the arrowhead ridge”
  • “climbing up the slope of the arrowhead ridge”
Gen. Galvin was a Massachusetts native (Melrose and Wakefield) who had a lifelong interest in the battle. The term could only have occurred to someone studying a U.S.G.S. topographical map, and then perhaps only to a military topographer. It is inconceivable that Galvin, who was a cadet at West Point from 1950 to 1954, could have been unaware that Arrowhead Ridge (uppercase) was also the name of a fierce October 1952 battle of the Korean War.

To illustrate Galvin’s account, Arrowhead Ridge was understandably, but misleadingly, given equal weight with other place names on the endpaper map of the first edition of his book. From there it slowly spread. A decade later Arrowhead Ridge resurfaced on a map in The Minute Men 1775–1975, a booklet published locally by the Council of Minute Men in 1977.

Relatively few have ever seen the original Galvin map, as most copies of the 1967 edition are now locked away in local history rooms and the map was omitted altogether from the much-revised and more widely available 1989 edition (although use of “arrowhead ridge” persisted in the text). Still fewer have seen the Council of Minute Men publication, which is something of a rarity.

However, virtually everyone interested in the events of April 19, 1775, has seen Arrowhead Ridge where it truly came into its own: on the map of the British retreat on page 223 of David Hackett Fischer’s now classic Paul Revere’s Ride (1994). Although not original to Paul Revere’s Ride, the influence of that book has assured that use of the term would survive and thrive: notably in Time-Life’s The Revolutionaries (1996). Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill (2013), and Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming (2019). It has even made its way into a 2005 National Park Service report.

While Fischer refers to Galvin at least twenty-four times, the term Arrowhead Ridge never actually appears in the text of Paul Revere’s Ride. It was perhaps introduced by the cartographer, who compiled the map from Galvin and other sources. Its use is somewhat surprising in that Fischer twice takes exception to anachronistic terminology in his footnotes: Hardy’s Hill for Brooks Hill and, more famously, Bloody Angle for Bloody Curve. The latter is especially singled out for criticism as a Civil War name being reused for a battle in the Revolutionary War.

Ironically, in the use of Arrowhead Ridge we can see an example of much the same thing. Only in this case it was not a Civil War name that was borrowed, but one with ultimate origins in the Korean War.

We might ask whether Concordians of 1775 ever thought of that high ground as arrowhead-shaped since they weren’t used to picturing the world from above, the way we are in this era of widespread maps, plane travel, and satellite views.

Thanks, Chris!

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Mercy Warren in History

Since I’ve been writing about the Warrens of Plymouth in 1775, it seems appropriate to mention that there’s a push to increase Mercy Warren’s visibility as the Sestercentennial proceeds.

Last month Nancy Rubin Stuart published this profile of Mercy Warren as “America’s First Female Historian” in the Saturday Evening Post.

Michele Gabrielson portrayed Warren in two episodes of the Calling History podcasts, which records first-person interpretations of historical figures.

And those folks and others launched a nonprofit organization called Celebrate Mercy Otis Warren, which can be found on Facebook.

One of that group’s goals is to have a bust of Warren installed in the Massachusetts State House, perhaps in the one empty spot in the senate chamber.

A bill promoting that plan has been moving through the legislature. As of today, the proposed language is:
The superintendent of state office buildings shall, subject to the approval of the State House Art Commission as to size and content, install and maintain in a conspicuous place of the Art Commission’s choosing in the State House, a memorial honoring Mercy Otis Warren, of Barnstable, Massachusetts, a leading author, playwright, satirist, and patriot in colonial Massachusetts, whose essays contributed to the creation of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, and whose book, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution became this country's first published history of the American Revolution. Said memorial shall be the gift of Cape Cod artist David Lewis who will bear all costs associated with the creation, transportation, and installation of the artwork.
Lewis has already created a full-size statue of Warren shown above. It towers in Barnstable, the town where she was born.

Now I realize part of the Massachusetts legislature’s job is to boost the state’s products, but there were histories of the American Revolution published before Warren’s in 1805. At the time people pointed to David Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution from 1789. Michael Hattem’s superb chronology of the historiography likewise pairs Ramsay and Warren.

(A year even before Ramsay came the Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America. I suppose it doesn’t get counted as “this country’s first” because it was printed in Britain, and in some part written there. However, Gordon clearly composed a lot of material while living in Roxbury. Like Mercy Warren, he knew most of the local players.)

Of course, by coming later Warren’s book could cover the establishment of the federal government. Her final chapter describes the Shays’ Rebellion, the Constitutional Convention, and George Washington’s terms as President, with particular attention to the Jay Treaty. And then some remarks on John Adams that caused a deep rift between him and the Warrens.

I think that although Warren wrote history (just as she had earlier written poetry and closet dramas), her calling and strength were as an opinion writer. She didn’t disguise her feelings about Adams or the Federalist program overall. Writing in a Jeffersonian era, however, Warren was optimistic:
The wisdom and justice of the American governments, and the virtue of the inhabitants, may, if they are not deficient in the improvement of their own advantages, render the United States of America an enviable example to all the world of peace, liberty, righteousness, and truth.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

“The Inhabitants of Boston are on the move”

Among the items in the London newspapers that arrived in Marblehead in the first week of April 1775 was this:
Yesterday a messenger was sent to Falmouth, with dispatches for General [Thomas] Gage at Boston, to be forwarded by a packet boat detained there for that purpose.
It didn’t take long for the Massachusetts Patriots to figure out that if this report had gone into the newspapers, and those newspapers had traveled to New England, then those dispatches could have made it to New England, too. And in that case, the royal governor might already be preparing to act on them.

Decades later, Mercy Warren wrote of the royal authorities in Massachusetts: “from their deportment, there was the highest reason to expect they would extend their researches, and endeavour to seize and secure, as they termed them, the factious leaders of rebellion.”

I can’t actually find those italicized words in the writings of royal officials, and “deportment” is a lousy basis for such a conclusion. But the Patriots may have had a more solid basis for expecting arrests, possibly from sympathetic people in Britain.

On behalf of the imperial government, the Earl of Dartmouth had written to Gage: “the first & essential step to be taken towards re-establishing Government, would be to arrest and imprison the principal actors & abettors in the Provincial Congress.” That letter didn’t arrive in Massachusetts until 14 April, but it looks like Patriots anticipated it after those Marblehead arrivals.

Most of the rest of the letter from James Warren to his wife Mercy that I’ve been discussing is about that worry—that Gage’s government would start arresting resistance leaders. On 6 April, James wrote from Concord:
The Inhabitants of Boston begin to move. The Selectmen and Committee of Correspondence are to be with us, I mean our Committee, this day. The Snow Storm yesterday and Business prevented them then. From this Conference some vigorous resolutions may grow. . . .

I am with regards to all Friends and the greatest Expressions of Love and regard to you, your very affect. Husband, JAS. WARREN

Love to my Boys. I feel disposed to add to this long letter but neither time nor place will permit it.
Then on 7 April James went back to his letter with more information and a warning:
I am up this morning to add. Mr. [Isaac] Lothrop [another Plymouth delegate] is the bearer of this and can give you an Acct. of us.

The Inhabitants of Boston are on the move. [John] H[ancock] and [Samuel] A[dams] go no more into that Garrison, the female Connections of the first [Lydia Hancock and Dorothy Quincy] come out early this morning and measures are taken relative to those of the last [Elizabeth Adams, who didn’t make it out before the siege]. The moving of the Inhabitants of Boston if effected will be one grand Move. I hope one thing will follow another till America shall appear Grand to all the world.

I begin to think of the Trunks which may be ready against I come home, we perhaps may be forced to move: if we are let us strive to submit to the dispensations of Providence with Christian resignation and phylosophick Dignity.

God has given you great abilities; you have improved them in great Acquirements. You are possessd of eminent Virtues and distinguished Piety. For all these I esteem I love you in a degree that I can't express. They are all now to be called into action for the good of Mankind, for the good of your friends, for the promotion of Virtue and Patriotism. Don’t let the fluttering of your Heart interrupt your Health or disturb your repose. Believe me I am continually Anxious about you. Ride when the weather is good and don’t work or read too much at other times. I must bid you adieu. God Almighty bless you. No letter yet. What can it mean? Is she not well? She can't forget me or have any Objections to writing.
James Warren appears to have gone home to Plymouth a few days later and then immediately gone on to Rhode Island to try to convince that elected government to help prepare a New England army. He was in that colony when word came of shooting at Lexington.

Monday, April 15, 2024

“Concord, where a provincial magazine was kept”

Now we come to the part of James Warren’s 6 Apr 1775 letter to his wife Mercy that I like to quote in talks.

James was in Concord for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and he wrote frankly about military preparations:
All things wear a warlike appearance here. This Town is full of Cannon, ammunition, stores, etc., and the Army long for them and they want nothing but strength to Induce an attempt on them. The people are ready and determine to defend this Country Inch by Inch.
Earlier in the letter James alluded to news from London that the imperial government would insist on making Massachusetts obey Parliament’s laws. He told Mercy: “you well know my Sentiments of the Force of both Countrys.” That appears to refer to the strength of Britain and Massachusetts—or perhaps New England or even America. Whatever his “country” was, James expressed confidence that his side would be strong enough to prevail.

All that adds up to a very different picture from how later American historians liked to portray the Patriot cause: as poorly equipped and unprepared for war. For example, in publishing the records of the provincial congress, which are full of references to artillery and other weapons, William Lincoln wrote: “It is not improbable, that in the confusion occasioned by the sudden march of the British troops to Concord, the documents exhibiting the weakness of the province in martial stores, as well as the strength of its patriotism, were destroyed.” The provincials had to be the underdogs in the fight.

I’m not saying James Warren’s confidence was more realistic than those later assessments. He and his colleagues did overestimate their military preparations—how ready for use those cannon were, how much gunpowder was on hand, and so on. But knowing that Warren saw lots of weaponry around him and felt his faction’s force was the stronger helps us to understand his political decisions.

James’s remark about Concord being full of cannon also connects to a passage that Mercy Warren wrote decades later in his history of the Revolution:
When the gentlemen left congress for the purpose of combining and organizing an army in the eastern states, a short adjournment was made. Before they separated they selected a standing committee to reside at Concord, where a provincial magazine was kept, and vested them with power to summon congress to meet again at a moment’s warning, if any extraordinary emergence should arise.
The records of the provincial congress and its committee of safety (the same ones published by William Lincoln) do mention “the gentlemen [who] left congress for the purpose of combining and organizing an army in the eastern states.” The Massachusetts Patriots designated envoys to Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island—the last group including James Warren.

But those records don’t mention this “standing committee to reside at Concord.” I’d like to know who they were, what they did when the British column arrived. I’m keeping my eyes open for signs.

TOMORROW: Run away!

Sunday, April 14, 2024

“We shall have many chearful rides together yet”

As I quoted yesterday, in his 6 Apr 1775 letter to his wife Mercy, James Warren started by telling her that the latest news from London made a political solution to Massachusetts’s conflict with the Crown less likely.

And that had kept the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Concord from adjourning as he’d hoped.

Warren went on:
However my Spirits are by no means depressd, you well know my Sentiments of the Force of both Countrys, you know my opinion of the Justness of our Cause, you know my Confidence in a Righteous Providence. I seem to want nothing to keep up my Spirits and to Inspire me with a proper resolution to Act my part well in this difficult time but seeing you in Spirits, and knowing that they flow from the heart.

How shall I support myself if you suffer these Misfortunes to prey on your tender frame and Add to my difficulties an affliction too great to bear of itself. The Vertuous should be happy under all Circumstances. This state of things will last but a little while. I believe we shall have many chearful rides together yet.

We proposed last week a short adjournment and I had in a manner Engaged a Chamber here for my Beloved and pleased myself with the health and pleasure the Journey was to give her; but I believe it must be postponed till some Event takes place and changes the face of things.
There was deep affection between the Warrens, just as there was between their friends, John and Abigail Adams. At this time James was forty-eight years old, Mercy forty-six. They had five children, all boys; the youngest was George, who turned nine that year. Looks like James thought that was old enough for Mercy to come to Concord for some private time with him while the congress wasn’t in session.

At the end of his 6 April letter, James returned to that personal message for Mercy:
But to dismiss publick matters, let me ask how you do and how do my little Boys, especially my little Henry [second youngest, born in 1764], who was Complaining. I long to see you. I long to sit with you under our Vines etc and have none to make us afraid. Do you know that I have not heard from you since I left you, and that is a long while. It seems a month at least. I can't believe it less. I intend to fly Home I mean as soon as Prudence Duty and Honour will permitt.
The line about “Vines” was another Biblical allusion (Micah 4:4; also 1 Kings 4:25; Zechariah 3:10). The Warrens knew that phrase well enough that James could cut it off with an “etc.”

That verse was also a favorite of George Washington, another gentleman planter. And through him it got into the lyrics of Hamilton.

TOMORROW: Concord’s cannon.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

James Warren: “News we have”

On 6 Apr 1775, James Warren was in Concord, representing Plymouth in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

He started writing home to his wife, Mercy, that day. That letter contains a passage I’ve quoted many times in my Road to Concord talks, but there’s a lot more going on, too.

So over the next few days I’ll analyze of Warren’s whole letter.
My Dear Mercy,—

Four days ago I had full Confidence that I should have had the pleasure of being with you this day, we were then near closeing the Session. Last Saturday we came near to an Adjournment, were almost equally divided on that question, the principle argument that seemd to preponderate, and turn in favour of sitting into this week was the prospect of News and News we have.

Last week things wore rather a favourable aspect, but alas how uncertain are our prospects. Sunday Evening brought us accounts of a Vessel at Marblehead from Falmouth, and the English Papers etc by her. I have no need to recite perticulars. you will have the whole in the Papers, and wont wonder at my forgoeing the pleasure of being with you. I dare say you would not desire to see me till I could tell you that I had done all in my power to secure and defend us and our Country.

We are no longer at a loss what is Intended us by our dear Mother. We have Ask’d for Bread and she gives us a Stone, and a serpent for a Fish.
That last line is an allusion to Matthew 7:9–11.

The British news that Warren alluded was printed in the Essex Journal of Newburyport before spreading to other papers. “Capts. Barker and Andrews” had sailed from England on 17 February, bringing the latest.

The Essex Journal reprinted a long report on debate in Parliament on 5 April and an even longer one on 12 April. Those two articles don’t agree in all the details, but they’re clear on the basic developments.

For years the Massachusetts Whigs had hoped that their pleas, protests, and persistence would prompt a change in British government policy. Instead, the Lords refused to hear the latest petitions from America.

The Earl of Chatham, formerly William Pitt and still America’s favorite, moved that Parliament repeal the Coercive Acts and remove troops from Boston. Other peers argued for “compelling the Americans to the immediate obedience of the legislature of the mother country.” Ultimately the House of Lords rejected all of Chatham’s proposals by margins like 77 to 18.

Furthermore, on 9 February both houses of Parliament had signed off on an address to the king that declared in part:
…we find that a part of your majesty’s subjects in the province of Massachusetts Bay have proceeded so far to resist the authority of the supreme legislature; that a rebellion at this time actually exists within the said province. . . .

we consider it as our indispensible duty, humbly to beseech your majesty that you will take the most effectual measures to enforce due obedience to the laws and authority of the supreme legislature; and we assure your majesty that it is our fixed resolution, at the hazard of our lives and properties, to stand by your majesty against all rebellious attempts…
The king’s official response was to promise “the most speedy and effectual measure for enforcing due obedience to the laws, and the authority of the supreme legislature.”

And that was just the official record. The London newspapers also threw in comments like “Lord N—h is determined that the Americans shall wear chains.”

TOMORROW: Keeping up spirits, keeping up defenses.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Thomas Machin on the Firing at Lexington

On 9 August 1775, Jedediah Preble (1707–1784, shown here) was visiting Cambridge.

A veteran of the wars against the French, he had been the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s first choice to command its forces back in October 1774, but turned down the job on account of his age and health.

During that visit Preble wrote in his diary: “This morning met with a man that deserted from the regulars this day fortnight, as sensible and intelligent a fellow as I ever met with.”

A fortnight, or fourteen days, before was 27 July. There was one man who deserted from Boston around that date, remained with the Continentals, and was praised for his intelligence by men on both sides: Thomas Machin, captain in the American artillery from 1776. So I believe Preble recorded the former private Machin’s observations on the start of the war.

Preble wrote:
He was at Lexington fight. He says he came out with Lord Percy, and that he asked a young fellow of his acquaintance who fired first.

The soldiers when they first came where the Provincials were, one of them flasht his piece, on which a regular officer fired and swung his gun over his head, and then there was a general fire. They had 75 killed and missing, 233 wounded.
Alas, the antecedent for “one of them” is ambiguous: “soldiers” or “Provincials”?

Machin’s informant certainly blamed some “regular officer” for aggravating the situation. On the other hand, this version of events doesn’t have Maj. John Pitcairn or other officers ordering the redcoats to fire, which became the official provincial line soon after the battle.

There are further considerations. Machin’s information was secondhand, and he may have felt pressure to tell Americans what he thought they wanted to hear. Nonetheless, these comments ring true as a British enlisted man’s perspective: What did officers expect their soldiers to do when one of them was firing his gun and waving it around?

Preble went on:
He was also at Bunker’s Hill, where there was killed and died of their wounds 700, and 357 wounded that recovered. He took the account from Gen’l Robinson [actually James Robertson]. He says before he came out there died eight men of a-day, one day with another, and that they could not muster more than 6000 men.
Again, we know from Gen. George Washington’s files that Machin had brought out those casualty figures, as well as drawings of the British fortifications. He must have planned his desertion carefully.