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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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The First Continental Death Under Gen. Washington

Back in February, the Journal of the American Revolution ran Patrick H. Hannum’s article “America’s First Continental Army Combat Casualty.” Hannum confined his search to the riflemen from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, categorizing the New England troops already at the siege of Boston as militia. He named Pvt. William Simpson as the first man from those rifle companies to die.

I was among the commenters responding that by the end of May 1775 the New Englanders were legally enlisted as full-time soldiers for the rest of the year. And the Continental Congress adopted the colony armies around Boston at the same time it recruited men from the south and appointed George Washington, Philip Schuyler, Charles Lee, and other generals. Thus, all the troops around Boston were Continentals.

Another such commenter was Jim Gallagher, who went on to explore the question of who was the first soldier from
any unit of the Continental Army to die under Washington’s command. I’m running his findings as a guest blogger on this anniversary.

We can identify the first fatal casualty of the Continental Army according to Gen. George Washington’s reports to Congress. In his first report of 10 July 1775, addressed to John Hancock, the new commander reported a successful action with no American casualties (driving British troops from an outpost at Brown’s house/store).

In his second report, written 14 July, Washington reported the action of 12 July; the first engagement under his command which resulted in casualties. Casualties consisted of one soldier wounded and another killed on Moon Island in Boston Harbor. This soldier was killed while covering the withdrawal of a party burning hay to prevent its use by British troops.

According to a letter from Richard Cranch to John Adams the valiant soldier killed in this expedition was a “Mr. Clarke, of Stoughton.”

Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War verifies the death (pg 562), listing this soldier as Nehemiah Clark, of Stoughtonham, who marched on the alarm of April 19 and then enlisted on 8 May 1775 in Col. Joseph Reed’s 20th Reg’t, Capt. Samuel Payson’s Co., killed at Squantom 12 July 1775. Squantom is the town nearest to, and incorporates, Moon Island, and this engagement is known colloquially as “the Battle of Squantom”.

Nehemiah Clark’s story is equally compelling and offers glimpses into the relationships between the soldiers, their cause, and their families. Nehemiah was born 23 Feb 1741, son of Ichabod and Sarah Clark of Stoughton.

He married Judith Payson, sister of the man who became his company commander, on 9 Aug 1764, in Sharon, where the couple lived. At that time Sharon was an unincorporated area of Stoughton; an area from which today one can see the lights and hear crowd noise from Gillette Stadium, home field of the New England Patriots. The couple had six children, four of whom survived to adulthood. One of the twins born ten months after their marriage died shortly after birth, and another child died in 1774 at seven months of age.

Nehemiah left his wife and four children behind. Following his death, records show that his pay and the value of the “bounty coat” he never received were collected by his lieutenant on behalf of the family. Judith Clark never remarried, and died in 1786 of jaundice and scurvy. (“Clarks of Sharon”, 1999, Dr. Frank O. Clark.)

Thanks to Jim Gallagher, and to Patrick H. Hannum, for bringing to light the names and details of those unfortunate men, making them more than casualty figures again.

The photograph above shows Moon Island today, connected to the mainland by a causeway. It now belongs to Quincy, and is used by the Boston Police and Fire Departments for training.

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