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, December 10, 2016

“We advise you to resign your arms immediately”

I’ve been exploring the turmoil in Great Barrington during the spring of 1776. The trouble surfaced when the town elected officers for its militia companies.

As described by a local Patriot leader named Mark Hopkins, a group of Anglicans who had never participated in the Revolutionary actions voted as a bloc and narrowly elected some officers who were suspected Loyalists, lukewarm Patriots, or simple embarrassments.

While some men in the town wanted new elections, others felt that now that they had chosen officers under the prescribed methods it wouldn’t be right to change things.

In addition, Hopkins told the Massachusetts Council, men from the remote part of town called the Hoplands disliked having been shunted into neighboring Tyringham’s militia company.

Over the next two years, the Massachusetts legislature and local politicians took a number of steps that forced solutions to that situation. First, the legislature decided Berkshire County should organize three militia regiments instead of two, prompting a reshuffle of companies and officers. By July the once-court-martialed Peter Ingersoll was a militia captain in the new third Berkshire County regiment.

Second, in February 1776 the General Court had passed a resolve asking every town to elect a unified “Committee of Correspondence, Inspection, and Safety,” empowered “to Inspect whether there are any Inhabitants of or Residents in their respective Towns who violate the Association of the Continental Congress.” The Continental Association had started out in 1774 as yet another non-importation agreement, but by this point it was functioning as a loyalty oath. Hopkins thus became head of Great Barrington’s Committee with a mandate to root out Loyalists.

On 9 July 1776, the Great Barrington Committee served notice to thirty-three men who had “refused to subscribe” to the Association. Hopkins and his colleagues told them:
The People of this Town are very uneasy that you have not yet Resigned your arms, and we find they are determined to take your arms in their own way unless you resign them of your own accord. In order to prevent further confusion and mischief we advise you to resign your arms immediately to Sergeant Joshua Root who the committee have desired to receive & take the charge of the same, and we have desired him to give you Notice of this our advice.
Of those thirty-three men, at least nineteen were listed as regular worshippers in the Church of England the year before. The men asked to surrender their guns also included that church’s minister, the Rev. Gideon Bostwick, and the owner of the tavern where its members hung out, Timothy Younglove.

By October, Committee member William Whiting certified that Root had collected one gun from fourteen of those men, particularly in the Van Deusen and Burghardt families. Younglove went from being elected a militia officer at the beginning of the year to being disarmed. Furthermore, town officials gave four of those muskets to other men who were going off to military service.

According to local historian Charles G. Taylor, the town also confiscated “‘a cutlash without a scabbard’ from Asa Brown, who had renounced toryism a few months previous, but found the articles of Association too stringent for his compulsory patriotism.”

As for the dissatisfied Hoplanders, the Massachusetts government let them break off from Great Barrington and form a new town in 1777. They chose, perhaps too quickly, to have the town named after Gen. Charles Lee. Its first meeting-house, a traditional Congregationalist building put up in 1780, appears above.

Hopkins didn’t see the end of that process. He left to join the Continental forces in New York, fell ill, and died at White Plains on 26 Oct 1776, two days before the battle.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Great Barrington Divided Against Itself

Yesterday I started to analyze a letter that Great Barrington militia colonel and politician Mark Hopkins wrote to the Massachusetts Council in March 1776. The town had formed two militia companies and elected militia officers, but a lot of the rank and file were coming to him with complaints about those officers.

Hopkins, little brother of the town’s Congregationalist minister, explained what he saw as the root of the problem:
It must be observed that the town consists of members of the Church of England and Dissenters [i.e., Congregationalists]; the former of which (a few excepted) have been very backward in all our late publick matters, and amongst us are denominated Tories. It is said that by their interest principally, the aforementioned officers were elected. They have never turned any men out for the publick service, which the other party have; and thus, being all present, are able to outvote the Whigs.
I was surprised to read about an Anglican church this far into the New England countryside. Most were in seaside communities where significant numbers of merchants and mariners had arrived after the early-1600s Puritan migration. In contrast, Great Barrington is in Massachusetts’s westernmost county.

It looks like geography was a big factor behind this Anglican outpost in the Berkshires as well: it was so far west that it was close to northern New York, and there was an overlap between Massachusetts’s claims and a patent issued by New York in 1705. The Great Barrington settlement therefore included a community of Dutch descent who had come east from Albany.

Those Dutch families preferred to worship more in the style of the Lutheran churches they had grown up with. The town’s adherents to the Church of England thus included men named Burghardt, Schermerhorn, and Van Deusen. The new church also gained support from some of the local gentry, such as David Ingersoll, Jr., a young lawyer from Yale like Hopkins.

Great Barrington’s Anglicans organized themselves into a parish in 1762 under the guidance of a minister from Connecticut. They started to build a church two years later. Gideon Bostwick, yet another Yale graduate, read the prayers before going to England to receive holy orders and coming back as the church’s Anglican minister in 1770. Five years later, Bostwick and his wardens could list fifty men who usually attended their services, and that was evidently a significant voting bloc in the town militia.

Having described the militia split, Hopkins discussed a possible solution based on what later generations called gerrymandering—but also said most locals weren’t ready to take that step:
A petition has been presented to me, signed by fifty-four persons, requesting an alteration in the division of said companies into East and West Companies [instead of north and south]. By the proposed new division, the main of those called Tories will be in the West Company. The petitioners imagine that, upon a choice according to this division, such officers would be chosen as would give general satisfaction. The other party say that this proposed division will give as great uneasiness as the present, and they, to the number of eighty-seven, have petitioned against the proposed new division.

The Field-Officers, upon the present appearance, are of opinion that, if the now proposed division had been made at first, it might have been for the best; but after we had proceeded to make a division, and a choice of officers has been made accordingly, thought ourselves hardly warranted to make a new division without the direction of the honourable Council; and the rest of the Field-Officers directed me to write to your Honours upon the matter. William Whiting, Esq., the Representative from the town, can fully inform your Honours of the difficulties and circumstances attending the whole matter, to whom we refer for that purpose.

I beg leave further to mention, that a part of this town, called the Hoplands, containing about thirty-eight men, is separated from the rest of this town by mountains, in such a manner that the people there cannot get to the place of parade here without travelling eight or ten miles. They lie contiguous to a part of Tyringham; we therefore determined that they should join that part of Tyringham, and so make a company; but upon notice, the said Hoplanders refused to join with Tyringham. They are so few that, by the act, they cannot be formed into a company by themselves; so that, as matters now stand, they must be obliged to join the North Company in this town; and yet they have had no voice in the choice of the officers, it not being known but that they would be willing to join with Tyringham till after the choice here.

We look to your Honours for direction in these matters, not doubting but the people will acquiesce in what your Honours shall direct in the premises.
I suspect this was the sort of problem that the legislature liked locals to work out for themselves, especially when they were on the far side of the province. But Hopkins wanted the authority of the General Court to act.

TOMORROW: Taking steps.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

“The soldiers appear to be very uneasy with the officers elected”

Yesterday I quoted briefly from a letter that Mark Hopkins of Great Barrington sent to the Massachusetts Council on 30 Mar 1776. Hopkins’s whole report (as transcribed in Peter Force’s American Archives) is an interesting snapshot of how the New England militia system worked—and didn’t work.

Hopkins, born in 1739, was a young Yale-educated lawyer who had already represented his town in the General Court. In the spring of 1776 he became a militia colonel in Berkshire County, but, as he described, that regiment had problems:
Upon the receipt of the Militia Bill, and the order of the honourable Council conformable thereto, the Field-Officers of the Regiment which I have the honour to command, met, and divided the same into companies; and, amongst the rest, divided this town of [Great] Barrington into two companies, by a line running east and west through the middle of the same, having first taken off some of the out corners of the town, and placed them to other companies for their convenience.

After which division, the companies were brought to a choice of their officers, and chose those named in the list now sent to the Secretary. The Captains of each company were chosen by a bare majority of votes, and the Lieutenants but by a few more.
New Englanders probably had more elections than anyone else in the English-speaking world: for town officials and laws, representatives to the General Court, Congregationalist ministers, and, as in this case, militia officers. But they wanted to see strong majorities pointing to community consensus. A “bare majority” was troubling.
Since the choice, a large number of the soldiers appear to be very uneasy with the officers elected. Those of the South Company say that Captain Peter Ingersoll was broke last fall by the sentence of a Court-Martial in the Continental Army, and was then declared incapable of sustaining any office in the Continental service. The First Lieutenant, Timothy Younglove, they say is a Tory, and during the whole of our troubles has manifested himself unfriendly to the common cause, and openly opposed all the measures that have been recommended by the Congress; therefore that he ought not to have any command in the Militia.

Those in the North Company say that the Captain, Hewit Root, is advanced in years, and by frequent fits of the gout, or rheumatism, is rendered incapable of doing the duties of his office. They also object against the moral character and general conduct of the First Lieutenant; and the uneasiness in both companies has risen to that height, that they say they never will bear arms under these officers, so long as they are able to earn enough to pay their fines.
Hewitt Root was born in 1724, thus turning fifty-two in 1776. Despite being “advanced in years,” in 1777 he marched with his men to Fort Edward and back. As for Root’s first lieutenant, that appears to be William Pixley (1734-1800). I can’t find anything about his “moral character and general conduct.” Pixley lost his first wife and two children that fall. He later remarried and continued to fill political offices in Great Barrington during the war.

Ingersoll, Younglove, Root, and Pixley all owned taverns in Great Barrington. That reflected both how magistrates preferred to give licenses to well established property owners and also how tavern-keepers became popular in the community. David Conroy’s In Public Houses explores the cycle of influence those patterns produced.

Younglove’s tavern, “at the fork of the roads just west of Green River,” was remembered in local history as the “headquarters and place of rendezvous” for Loyalists, which helps to explain why people called him “a Tory.” That also raises the question of how the locals chose him to be a militia officer in the first place. (Younglove’s 1796 gravestone appears above, courtesy of Find a Grave.)

Hopkins saw the explanation lying in a deeper split within his regiment and his town.

TOMORROW: “an alteration in the division.”

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

“Capt. Ingersoll was tried by a Court Martial”

In 1766, at the age of thirty-one, Peter Ingersoll opened a tavern and inn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (It still exists in greatly expanded form as a bed-and-breakfast called the Wainwright Inn, shown here.) He was from one of the town’s leading families, though not from one of its leading branches.

In 1775, Ingersoll was one of the town’s militia captains. News of the fighting at Lexington and Concord reached Berkshire County on 21 April. Ingersoll and his men assembled, and they marched east five days later. When Massachusetts organized an army for service to the end of the year, Ingersoll and many of the men signed on as part of Col. David Brewer’s regiment.

That regiment ran into problems in the fall. Col. Brewer was tried by court-martial and dismissed on 23 Oct 1775 for insisting that his son, also named David, be ranked and paid as a lieutenant. Such nepotism wasn’t uncommon, but in this case David Brewer, Jr., was back home in Berkshire County while his father was still collecting his pay. So that left the regiment leaderless, and perhaps resentful.

In early December, Capt. Ingersoll was brought up before another court martial—apparently at the regimental level since it’s not mentioned in Gen. George Washington’s general orders. Lt. Gamaliel Whiting of Great Barrington wrote in his diary, transcribed in Charles J. Taylor’s History of Great Barrington: “Dec. 4. Peter Ingersoll try’d by Court Marsh’ll.”

A more detailed account, and a different date, appear in the diary of Pvt. Samuel Bixby:
Dec. 7th, 1775. Thurs: Capt. Ingersoll was tried by a Court Martial for spreading false reports about the Country, tending to defame the General. He was fined £8, and dismissed the service. —

8th. Friday. The same Court fined one man £8.7s., and sentenced him to two years imprisonment in the New Gate Prison in Simsbury [Connecticut], for stealing & deserting; and another man, John Smith, for similar offences, was fined £8, and sentenced to six months at Newgate.
A third diarist, Sgt. Henry Bedinger of Virginia, also recorded court-martial verdicts on 7-9 December, overlapping with Bixby’s account, but not exactly. (He wrote that one man was named John Short.) So it’s not clear whose diary is most reliable. Yet it does seem significant that Bedinger didn’t mention Ingersoll’s case, nor have I found references to it elsewhere. Mike Sheehan was kind enough to look for the captain’s name in Summer Soldiers, James C. Neagles’s listing of more than 3,000 courts-martial in Continental Army records, and it’s not there. So was this proceeding deliberately kept quiet?

Perhaps manuscript records of this proceeding survive in some unexpected archive. They could offer details of what “false reports” Ingersoll spread and how they tended to “defame the General”—namely Washington. Was the tavern-keeper frustrated by the slow pace of the siege? Angry about Brewer’s dismissal? Pessimistic about the Patriot cause?

Whatever the details, Ingersoll went home to Great Barrington, probably in a huff. He went away without filing the paperwork the state would need to pay his men. Since it was already December, and people’s enlistments were up at the end of the year, his early return might not have been that conspicuous. (After all, David Brewer, Jr., had come back much earlier.)

Still, word got around town. The next March, after one of Great Barrington’s militia companies narrowly elected Ingersoll their captain, some men complained. New colonel Mark Hopkins described the problem to the Massachusetts Council:
a large number of the soldiers appear to be very uneasy with the officers elected. Those of the South Company say that Captain Peter Ingersoll was broke last fall by the sentence of a Court-Martial in the Continental Army, and was then declared incapable of sustaining any office in the Continental service.
By July, Ingersoll was out of Hopkins’s regiment and in another, still a captain. But I don’t know how long that lasted. Ingersoll died in 1785.

Local histories—even the one that quoted a neighbor and fellow officer saying he went before a “Court Marsh’ll”—treat Capt. Peter Ingersoll as an admirable contributor to the American cause. They say nothing about how he was cashiered for defaming Gen. Washington.

TOMORROW: Trouble in the Berkshire County militia.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

“Rhode Island’s Revolutionary Artillery” in Newport, 8 Dec.

On Thursday, 8 December, I’ll speak at the Newport Historical Society on the topic “The Launch of Rhode Island’s Revolutionary Artillery.” I wrote about that development in The Road to Concord, but for this talk I’m assembling more information and analysis.

Here’s the event description:
In December 1774, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to move almost all of the cannons in Newport’s Fort George to Providence in order to, as the governor stated, “prevent their falling into the hands of the King.” The Assembly also formed a new “Train of Artillery,” a military company assigned to use those cannon to defend the colony. Oddly, however, the train’s commanders were from Boston. Within a few months, Rhode Island’s artillerists became one of the most respected units of the new Continental Army.
What links the Boston Tea Party, Providence’s First Baptist Meetinghouse (shown here),  and Rhode Island’s new Train of Artillery? That’s one of the new topics I’ll discuss. I may even venture an explanation about why Rhode Island suddenly promoted Nathanael Greene from a mere private in the Kentish Guards militia company to general in command of its “Army of Observation” around Boston.

This talk will start at 5:30 P.M. in the society’s Resource Center at 82 Touro Street. Admission is $1 for members and active and retired military personnel, $5 for others. To reserve seats, visit this webpage or call 401-841-8770. I’ll happily sign copies of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War afterward.

Oney Judge and “the President’s Wishes”

As I reported yesterday, George Washington has been our richest President so far. Most of his property consisted of land, both plantations in Virginia and unsettled claims to the west, and slaves. A lot of those slaves had come to his wife Martha or her children, inherited from her first husband’s family, and George felt obliged to preserve that wealth.

When the federal government moved to Pennsylvania in 1791, that state’s law gradually ending slavery posed a problem for the Washingtons. If they brought their household servants to Philadelphia—and how could a rich couple live without their household servants?—then those people were entitled to be free after six months in the state.

On 24 April Washington’s plantation manager, Tobias Lear, wrote to him about what the U.S. Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, had said about that law:
But he observed, that if, before the expiration of six months, they could, upon any pretence whatever, be carried or sent out of the State, but for a single day, a new era would commence on their return, from whence the six months must be dated for it requires an entire six months for them to claim that right.
Lear then discussed the specific situations of several enslaved people, including: “Mrs Washington proposes in a short time to make an excursion as far as Trenton, and of course, she will take with her Oney & Christopher, which will carry them out of the State; so that in this way I think the matter may be managed very well.”

Oney Judge was Martha Washington’s personal maid. She had been born at Mount Vernon around 1774. Judge was part of Martha’s property, and the First Lady planned to bequeath her to a granddaughter. So the Washingtons made sure that she was never in Pennsylvania for six months at a stretch.

Five years after Lear’s letter, on 21 May 1796, Judge slipped away from the Presidential mansion. She later told an interviewer, “I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.” Frederick Kitt, the President’s steward in Philadelphia, placed an advertisement seeking Judge in the 24 May Philadelphia Gazette.

At the end of June, Thomas Lee, Jr., wrote from New York to President Washington in response to, as he wrote, “the desire you expressed that I should make enquiry about your runaway Woman.” Lee reported a cook saying that Judge had gone north to Boston, and he planned to make inquiries there. Washington knew multiple men named Thomas Lee, and I’m not sure which one this was, but he appears to have been pursuing Judge as a private favor.

Later that summer Elizabeth Langdon, daughter of Sen. John Langdon, recognized Oney Judge on the street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Slavery was already unenforceable in that state. According to Washington’s understanding, Langdon “was about to stop and speak to her, but she brushed quickly by, to avoid it.”

The President moved to track Judge down—but instead of continuing his efforts through private channels, he began to use the resources of the federal government. On 1 Sept 1796 he wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott:
Enclosed is the name, and description of the Girl I mentioned to you last night. She has been the particular attendent on Mrs Washington since she was ten years old; and was handy & useful to her, being perfect a Mistress of her needle. . . .

Whether she is Stationary at Portsmouth, or was there en passant only, is uncertain; but as it is the last we have heard of her, I would thank you for writing to the Collector of that Port, & him for his endeavours to recover, & send her back: What will be the best method to effect it, is difficult for me to say. If enquiries are made openly, her Seducer (for she is simple and inoffensive herself) would take the alarm, & adopt instant measures (if he is not tired of her) to secrete or remove her. To sieze, and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria which I should like better, seems at first view to be the safest & least expensive. But if she is discovered, the Collector, I am persuaded, will pursue such measures as to him shall appear best, to effect those ends; and the cost shall be re-embursed & with thanks.
The “Collector” was Joseph Whipple (1738-1816, shown above), the head of the Customs service in Portsmouth and thus a federal employee who answered to Wolcott. He had held the same position for the state of New Hampshire until 1789, and the new President had reappointed him on John Langdon’s recommendation.

Whipple wrote back to the Treasury Secretary on 10 September, “I shall with great pleasure execute the President’s wishes in the matter.” The next month, on 4 October, he wrote again, telling Wolcott that Judge had expressed “a thirst for compleat freedom” as well as “great affection & reverence for her Master & Mistress”; she was (at least initially) willing to return to Mount Vernon if the Washingtons guaranteed her freedom on their deaths.

The President replied directly to Whipple on 28 November, rejecting those terms. He also told the Collector:
…you would oblige me, by pursuing such measures as are proper, to put her on board a Vessel bound either to Alexandria or the Federal City; Directed in either case, to my Manager at Mount Vernon, by the door of which the Vessel must pass; or to the care of Mr Lear at the last mentioned place, if it should not stop before it arrives at that Port.

I do not mean however, by this request, that such violent measures should be used as would excite a mob or riot, which might be the case if she has adherents, or even uneasy sensations in the minds of well disposed Citizens. rather than either of these shd happen, I would forego her services altogether; and the example also, which is of infinite more importance. The less is said before hand, and the more celerity is used in the act of Shipping her, when an opportunity presents, the better chance Mrs Washington (who is desirous of receiving her again) will have to be gratified.
Again, this wasn’t government business. Washington was asking Whipple to do him a big favor, one gentleman for another. But Whipple was a federal government employee, and he owed his position to Washington. Today that would strike us as a clear conflict of interest.

There’s more to Oney Judge’s story, and the Washingtons’ pursuit of her. Today I’m just looking at how having the resources of government presents a great temptation to a President with private interests.

Monday, December 05, 2016

How Rich Were the Early Presidents?

Wikipedia’s entry on the wealth of U.S. Presidents has been updated with an estimate—and, in the absence of full financial disclosure, it can only be an estimate—of President-elect Donald Trump’s wealth.

The original source for the other estimates is this article and chart from 24/7 Wall St.

Until 2017, these articles say, the richest U.S. President by far was George Washington. He had extensive land holdings, many slaves, and uncommonly successful plantations. Other southern planters—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson—are also high on the list.

More recent very wealthy Presidents include several men who inherited large fortunes, such as Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, though none as large as the one Trump received on the death of his father. In the twentieth century we also see men who rose from modest upbringings to fortunes through business or marriage, such as Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson.

This list estimates the net worth of Presidents at their height. In this modern media age, that height for some Presidents came after they left office as they earned money from memoirs, speeches, and other rewards of celebrity. In the case of Bill Clinton, his wife’s earnings are bundled with his own—which takes us back to how Washington became rich in the first place.

Lyndon B. Johnson was the first President to create a “blind trust” to insulate himself from his businesses—primarily radio stations that came to him through his wife. But biographer Robert Caro found that Johnson secretly stayed in touch with the both the general manager of the station and the primary manager of that trust.

After Watergate, Congress passed laws requiring government employees to either put their assets into a true blind trust or to divulge all those assets publicly, so that the public and press can look for conflicts of interest. Since 1989 the President is no longer liable to criminal prosecution for breaking that law, but it’s still an important ethical guideline.

After all, even George Washington faced the temptation to use the assets of the federal government for his own private benefit, as I’ll discuss next.

TOMORROW: The Treasury Department and Oney Judge.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Weather Report for 4 December 1775

Last month Timothy Abbott shared on Facebook a glimpse of life in the British camp on Bunker’s Hill in late 1775. After the battle of 17 June, the British army had fortified those heights, securing the whole Charlestown peninsula from the Continentals.

On 26 Jan 1776, Abbott found, the Derby Mercury of Britain ran a brief “Extract of a Letter from an Officer in the Camp on Bunker’s Hill, dated Dec. 4”:
You would be amazed how I am able to write at this Instant, for it Hails, Rains, Snows, and blows very bleakly on my Canvass House. The Regulars and the Provincials squint at one another like wild Cats across a Gutter, and it is very probable we shall keep our Distance till the Cessation of the Winter enables us to open the Campaign.
I decided to look for how the American troops were experiencing the same weather on 4 Dec 1775. Did they complain about how it “Hails, Rains, Snows, and blows very bleakly”? Were they huddled in their barracks and around their fires?

And I found Pvt. Daniel McCurtin of the Maryland riflemen writing:
December 1st, 1775. 1, 2, 3. I have seen nothing of note,…Yet those 3 days were fine days and clear weather.

10. From the 3rd untill this day I heard nothing material…During this time the weather has been very favourable.
Hmm. Well, Pvt. James Stevens of Andover noted a little poor weather the morning before:
Sunday Des the 3 I workt on the Baruk it raind som in the fore nune
Down in Plymouth, on 4 December the Continental naval agent William Watson reported “warm weather” to the commander-in-chief’s aide Stephen Moylan. So warm that it “had a very happy influence on the minds of the people” on board a ship who had refused to sally out against the Royal Navy; “The brig sailed Sunday afternoon [3 Dec] and has had fine weather ever since.”

So the officer writing from Bunker’s Hill wasn’t huddled up against the snow and wind. He was actually experiencing a fair, warm day in his “Canvass House.”

To be sure, the two armies had experienced far worse weather in the preceding month. Here’s how McCurtin reported those days:
  • 12 November: “A very blustering cold frosty day”
  • 17 November: “monstrous deep frost. This day its as good as 5 inches deep and very blustering winds. Last night I stood Picquet, I never yet felt such cold.”
  • 18 November: “Cold frosty weather and snow.”
  • 19 November: “Desperate cold weather, snow, frost and high winds.”
  • 25 November: “Still continues colder and colder.”
  • 26 November: “a severe cold day, frost, snow, high winds, and rain sometimes.”
  • 27 November: “Very cold weather.”
So that British officer had experienced a New England chill up on Bunker’s Hill—just not when he actually wrote. He had saved up that story to tell the folks back home.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

New Education Center at the Paul Revere House

Years back, I gave a teachers’ workshop at the Paul Revere House in the North End. It took place upstairs in the neighboring Pierce-Hichborn house.

As I recall, we had about two dozen people crowded into a small, irregularly shaped room with sloping ceilings. It really gave one a sense of what it must have been like to live in that neighborhood in a family of fourteen.

Now the Paul Revere House has a lot more space. This weekend it opens its new Education and Visitor Center at Lathrop Place. The museum bought another neighboring building—an old tenement put up in 1835—and fixed it up into new exhibit, meeting, sales, and office space. In the process, the Revere house became wheelchair-accessible as well.

All told, this project required raising more than $4 million and overseeing extensive construction. As museums have to do these days, several of the new spaces are named for donors. Thus, there’s an Revere Education Room, a Curtis Classroom, and a Citizens Bank Enrichment Center [get it?].

I visited the new building last night along with other friends of the site. It’s a very impressive expansion—all the more impressive when one sees photographs of the same rooms before renovation. Lathrop Place will be open to the public all this weekend. There will be refreshments, music, and demonstrations of tinware and basketmaking.

This diorama is part of a new permanent exhibit about Revere’s many businesses, including as a silversmith, engraver, and dentist. It shows pre-industrial production in Revere’s shop.
Ben Edwards, Boston tour guide and Revere descendant, told me that this scene was originally made for the Boston Museum of Science maybe fifty years ago. After years on display there, the diorama was retired. Later, when that museum decided to throw it out deaccession it, a manager called to ask if the Paul Revere House wanted it. The scene spent several more years in storage until the house had just the right spot to display it, and now it does.

To go with its new building, the Paul Revere House also has a new website with good resources for people who can’t get to the North End.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Putting Down Rebels

The first ten issues of the Rebels comic book have been collected in a single volume from Dark Horse.

The series was conceived and scripted by Brian Wood on the model of his Northlanders series about Vikings: a variety of stories—different characters, different points of view, different lengths—all drawn one from extended historical conflict.

Most of this volume consists of a story titled “A Well-Regulated Militia,” illustrated by Andrea Mutti; it tracks a soldier from Vermont through the war. Then come much shorter stories following two women, a Native American, a British soldier, and (as seen through the eyes of the hero of “A Well-Regulated Militia”) a black Loyalist; each of those stories has art from a different artist.

I looked at the first issue of Rebels back in August 2015. I hoped the comic’s depiction of Revolutionary events would improve. It didn’t.

In a word, the historical content of this book is godawful. Wood presents such events as the conflict over land grants in Westminster, Vermont; the mission to bring heavy cannon from Lake Champlain to Boston; and the battles of Bunker Hill, Harlem Heights, Saratoga, Cowpens, and more. He mixes real people in with his original characters. But very little is accurate.

The errors aren’t at the level of “The author hasn’t read the latest scholarship” or “He hasn’t read Don Hagist’s guest posting about Pvt. Mathew Kilroy leaving the British army in 1776.” They’re more like “He didn’t bother to check Wikipedia for basic information.” Or if he did, he ignored it.

For example, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys fight at the Battle of Bunker Hill, with Gen. George Washington and Benedict Arnold nearby. Henry Knox heads out to Fort Ticonderoga in the summer of 1775, already a major general. A sergeant, not an officer, commands an artillery company. The Continental Navy flag of late 1775 (the “Grand Union Flag”) flies over a British fort in the Ohio Valley in 1755. Every long firearm is called a “rifle.”

Many errors reveal not just carelessness but basic misunderstandings about the Revolutionary conflict and the society in which it took place. Sometimes those arise from old nationalist assumptions. Thus, we see army regulars getting involved in real-estate disputes in the New England backcountry. The one British soldier we meet in depth is forced to enlist to avoid prison. Sometimes the problems grow out of modern inclusive preferences, not acknowledging how different society was. A woman of color owns a printing press in Boston, operates it entirely on her own, and posts anti-Stamp Act placards years after the Stamp Act has been repealed—which causes the British army to lock her up in Connecticut’s New-Gate Prison. And some errors are just plain errors: U.S. military officers interview people about government pensions instead of distant civil bureaucrats making the decision as they almost always have.

The art is quite good, in a range of realistic styles. Wood often gives the artists free rein for dramatic pages, sometimes wordless. But there are visual anachronisms blazing on every spread. Eighteenth-century British-American men appear with sculpted beards, mustaches, and sideburns. Women wear modern hairstyles and no caps. Civilians often appear in nineteenth-century clothing. Mounted hussars with tall, furry caps charge up Breed’s Hill. An 1802 dining room features furniture, fenestration, and houseplants out of the 1980s.

Even forcing myself to read this collection as stories from another universe, not rooted in Revolutionary history, left me unimpressed. In the first episode the hero and his father shoot at a group of redcoats. One teenager in uniform makes the choice to desert and ends up part of the hero’s family—but we’re just told about that change in a caption. We never see that character make a decision. We never see the family decide to take him in. And we never see major consequences from that arrangement—the character and the potential drama fall away.

A second volume of the Rebels series is slated for next year, following the son of the hero of “A Well-Regulated Militia” through the naval conflicts of the early republic. At this point, I don’t expect much better.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

John McMurtry: “He did not know it was loaded”

On 1 Dec 1775, Pvt. Aaron Wright, stationed in Cambridge, wrote in his diary about a fellow rifleman:
John M’Murtry, in Capt. [James] Chambers’ company, killed John Penn, by his rifle going off, when, he says, he did not know it was loaded. He was cleaning the lock, and put it on and primed it to see how she would “fier.” It shot through a double partition of inch boards, and through one board of a berth, and went in at Penn’s breast, and out at his back, and left its mark on the chimney. Penn put his hand on his breast, and as he turned round, fell down dead, and never spoke more.
I haven’t been able to find out anything more about John Penn.

John McMurtry was in his early twenties. He grew up in Somerset County, New Jersey, but went to Pennsylvania to sign up with a rifle company after the Continental Congress started to raise troops for its newly adopted army in June 1775.

After the shooting, McMurtry reenlisted in the Continental Army for the following year. In fact, he was promoted to corporal on 1 July 1776. According to his pension application, he saw action at White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown.

McMurtry recalled becoming a sergeant major and then an ensign on 1 Oct 1779. He resigned from the army on 1 Aug 1780. But then, he said, he went to Philadelphia and signed aboard a privateer named the Fair America under Capt. Stephen Decatur.

McMurtry and his new wife settled in what became Tennessee. He died in 1841. His pension application did not mention John Penn or any other event of note during the siege of Boston.