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.

Follow by Email


Thursday, July 20, 2017

An Aged Veteran and “The Young Provincial”

I’ve been discussing the Rev. W. B. O. Peabody’s sketch “The Young Provincial,” published in 1829, and Jacob Frost’s 1832 claim for a pension as a Revolutionary War veteran. Together they raise interesting questions.

First, looking just at the pension file, Jacob Frost’s wound on Breed’s Hill was bad enough to disable him but not to kill him, even with months in prisons and eighteenth-century medicine and hygiene. He must have had one hell of an immune system.

That wound also wasn’t bad enough to keep Frost from reenlisting for a short stint in 1780. Probably his experience as a soldier in battle and a prisoner of war was a reason the company made him its orderly sergeant. Yet that same wound was enough to earn Frost an invalid pension after the war. I suspect it was awarded in recognition of his suffering as a prisoner as much as for actual disability.

Next the bigger question of how Frost’s experiences relate to “The Young Provincial.” Dave Marcus of the Tewksbury Historical Society spotted the strong parallels between “The Young Provincial” and Jacob Frost’s experiences, as this article from the Tewksbury Town Crier in 2014 reported.

The Springfield Republican article from 1829 confirms that connection: “all the narrative parts of it are facts, in the life of a Mr. FROST, now living in Norway, Maine.” Even more clearly it made a connection between that literary sketch and “Dr. JOSHUA FROST of this town,” the veteran’s little brother.

Tewksbury vital records confirm that Jacob Frost, born 9 July 1753, had a little brother named Joshua, born 2 Dec 1765 and thus nine years old at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, just as the newspaper stated. Dr. Joshua Frost graduated from Harvard in 1793.

(Curiously, Sketches of the Old Inhabitants and Other Citizens of Old Springfield from 1893 says that Dr. Frost was “born in Fryeburg, Me., in 1767.” Fryeburg wasn’t even formed into a town until 1777. It’s about thirty miles from Norway, where Jacob settled, but perhaps the two communities were more closely linked in the eighteenth century. But there’s some mix-up there.)

Given the Springfield newspaper’s hints, it seems likely that the Rev. W. B. O. Peabody heard stories about Jacob Frost from the old soldier himself during a visit, or from Dr. Frost, talking about his big brother.

The next question is whether “The Young Provincial” is a reliable source on Jacob Frost’s military experiences, filling out the bare-bones account that he submitted to the federal government. And on that question I’m skeptical. I think Peabody took so much literary license that we can’t accept any particular detail as reflecting Frost’s own story unless it also appears in his own account.

It’s not just a matter of how much dramatic detail “The Young Provincial” has but also how details contradict Frost’s own statement:
  • Frost stated that after the Battle of Lexington and Concord “he immediately enlisted at Cambridge near Boston for a term of eight months.” The narrator of “The Young Provincial” says he went home after the battle, joined a company in Tewksbury, and “arrived at the camp the evening before the battle of Bunker Hill.”
  • Frost was quite clear that he “was employed on the night previous to the battle of Bunker Hill on the 17th. Day of June 1775, in throwing up breast works.” The “Young Provincial” narrator describes other men doing that work; he “happened to reach the spot just as the morning was breaking in the sky.” (Veterans who worked all night digging and then had to fight the battle tended not to let anyone forget.)
  • Frost was “severely wounded in the hip” during that battle. For the narrator, “the ball entered my side,” and he also “was beaten with muskets on the head.”
  • The “Young Provincial” arrives home “on a clear summer afternoon.” Frost stated it was “the last of September.”
  • The final scene of “The Young Provincial” turns on the soldier’s family believing him to be dead, based on a report from a companion on the battlefield. In 1775 and 1776, Massachusetts newspapers published lists of provincial prisoners from the Battle of Bunker Hill which told everyone that Frost was still alive. His return home was a surprise, but not that much of a surprise.
Thus, I think we have to say “The Young Provincial” was inspired by a true story of a young soldier being wounded, imprisoned, and transported before escaping back home. But we can’t say the sketch is a true story.

(Thanks once again to Boston National Historical Park’s Jocelyn Gould for setting me off on this investigation. The photo above is the headquarters of Norway, Maine’s historical society; Jacob Frost would have known that 1828 building in its original location.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The True Author of “The Young Provincial”

The idea that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “The Young Provincial,” the sketch I quoted yesterday from The Token, for 1830, wasn’t a bad guess.

In 1830 Hawthorne wrote to the editor of that volume, Samuel G. Goodrich, proposing a collection titled Provincial Tales. The next year’s volume of The Token contained two sketches unquestionably by Hawthorne, and he wrote more for later volumes—so many that in one year Goodrich worried about publishing too many pieces by one author.

Hawthorne never claimed “The Young Provincial,” but he left some hints about not wanting some of his early literary output rediscovered. And he suppressed his 1828 novel Fanshawe altogether.

In 1890 Moncure D. Conway published a biography of Hawthorne stating positively that “The Young Provincial” was one of his early stories that had “escaped the attention” of scholars. He repeated that claim in an 8 June 1901 article in the New York Times Saturday Review.

Franklin B. Sanborn also argued that Hawthorne wrote seven previously unrecognized stories, including “The Young Provincial,” in the New England Magazine in 1898 and elsewhere. George Edward Woodbury discussed the sketch as likely Hawthorne in his 1902 biography of the author, and John Erskine accepted that possibility in Leading American Novelists (1910).

There were some doubters. Nina E. Browne said the sketch “probably was not written by Hawthorne” in her 1905 bibliography of his work. But there was enough consensus about “The Young Provincial” that variously titled editions of Hawthorne’s collected works published in 1900 included it in an appendix.

However, back in late 1829, when The Token, for 1830 first appeared for sale, the author of “The Young Provincial” was named. The 25 November Springfield Republican reprinted the story and reported:
The Token, for 1830.—This elegant little work, published S. G. Goodrich, Boston, has been before the public some weeks. We have had opportunity to read only the following story; but if this may be considered a specimen of the merits of the other articles, the book must be interesting. Its typographical execution exceeds any thing of the kind we ever saw. It will doubtless be gratifying to our readers in this vicinity, to know that the following story was written by a gentlemen of this town who has contributed much to elevate the standard of American literature; and that all the narrative parts of it are facts, in the life of a Mr. FROST, now living in Norway, Maine, and brother of Dr. JOSHUA FROST of this town. Dr. Frost, who was then about nine years of age, was “the little brother who ran to the meeting-house” to carry the tidings of the young provincial’s return from captivity.
That item was reprinted in the Essex Register, and then in the 13 Feb 1830 Columbian Centinel. Those newspapers added a phrase to the Republican’s identification of the author as a Springfield local: “[meaning, we presume, the Rev. W. B. O. Peabody.]” The Essex Register was published in Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home town, but he didn’t object to crediting the Rev. W. B. O. Peabody with “The Young Provincial.”

The Rev. William Bourn Oliver Peabody (1799-1847, shown above) was a Unitarian minister in Springfield. He wrote poems, hymns, book reviews, and short biographies for Jared Sparks’s Library of American Biography as well as sermons. The Token, for 1828 contained his poem “To an Aged Elm,” so he was definitely in touch with Goodrich.

After Peabody died in 1847, his twin brother Oliver William Bourn Peabody started to write a biography to be published with his literary work. “A few of his productions may be found in ‘The Token’,” Oliver wrote about his brother William. Oliver also dabbled in literary pursuits, publishing a poem in The Token, for 1831 himself, while working as a Boston lawyer, legislator, bureaucrat, and college professor. But in 1845 the pull of parallelism had become too strong, and Oliver became a Unitarian minister like his twin, preaching in Vermont.

In fact, that parallelism was so strong that Oliver died in 1848, just one year after his brother. The biography of William had to be completed by a friend before being published in a collection of William’s sermons. In 1850, Everett Peabody edited The Literary Remains of the Late William B. O. Peabody, D.D. He chose only reviews and poetry from the North American Review, leaving out “The Young Provincial” and everything like it.

As a result, no book credited W. B. O. Peabody with that sketch until Volume XI of the Centenary Edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne. That scholarly edition of Hawthorne’s tales cited the newspaper articles I quoted above about “The Young Provincial.” It also took four other tales that Conway and Sanborn had attributed to Hawthorne and showed they had been written by Lydia Maria Child, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edward Everett.

Ironically, the 1900 collections of Hawthorne that include “The Young Provincial” are now in the public domain and thus available on Google Book and as digital texts. The more reliable Centenary Edition is protected by copyright and priced for research libraries. Therefore, people looking into “The Young Provincial” are once again apt to come across statements that it was most likely written by Hawthorne—I did so at first. This book dealer is even selling The Token, for 1830 on the possibility that it might contain an early Hawthorne story.

But all that literary investigation is just in service of the question of whether “The Young Provincial” has historical value. Is it a reliable narration of a certain private’s experiences in the first year and a half of the Revolutionary War?

TOMORROW: Back to Jacob Frost.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

“The Young Provincial” on Bunker Hill

At the end of 1829 the writer and editor Samuel G. Goodrich published an anthology of short stories and literary sketches by various authors titled The Token, for 1830.

One of those pieces was titled “The Young Provincial,” and it began:
“Now, father, tell us all about the old gun,” were the words of one of a number of children, who were seated around the hearth of a New England cottage. The old man sat in an arm-chair at one side of the fireplace, and his wife was installed in one of smaller dimensions on the other. The boys, that they might not disturb the old man’s meditations, seemed to keep as much silence as was possible for individuals of their age; the fire burned high, with a sound like that of a trumpet, and its blaze occasionally shone on an old rifle which was suspended horizontally above the mantel.
Of course, the Revolutionary-era gun above a mantel in a New England cottage wouldn’t have been a rifle but a musket.

The story the old man tells those boys begins with him as a youth in “Tewksbury, a small town in Middlesex county.” He and the other “younger men of our village” formed a minuteman company. The story says: “Perhaps if you accent the last syllable of that word minute, it would better describe a considerable portion of our number, of whom I was one.”

The narrator of the “Young Provincial” describes experiences that closely parallel those of Jacob Frost, quoted yesterday, except in a much more elevated language. This is how Frost’s pension application of 1832 discussed the Battle of Bunker Hill:
[He] was in the battle and was then severely wounded in the hip, and entirely disabled, and he laid among the wounded until the day after the battle—when he was taken up by the British & carried to Boston & there kept a prisoner
The Token story says:
As soon as Boston was invested, we heard that our services were called for, and nothing more was wanted to fill the ranks of the army. I arrived at the camp the evening before the battle of Bunker Hill. Though weary with the march of the day, I went to the hill upon which our men were throwing up the breastwork in silence, and happened to reach the spot just as the morning was breaking in the sky. It was clear and calm; the sky was like pearl, the mist rolled lightly from the still water, and the large vessels of the enemy lay quiet as the islands.

Never shall I forget the earthquake-voice with which that silence was broken. A smoke like that of a conflagration burst from the sides of the ships, and the first thunders of the revolutionary storm rolled over our heads. The bells of the city spread the alarm, the lights flashed in a thousand windows, the drums and trumpets mustered their several bands, and the sounds, in their confusion, seemed like an articulate voice foretelling the strife of that day.

We took our places mechanically, side by side, behind the breastwork, and waited for the struggle to begin. We waited long and in silence. There was no noise but of the men at the breastwork strengthening their rude fortifications. We saw the boats put off from the city, and land the forces on the shore beneath our station. Still there was silence, except when the tall figure of our commander moved along our line, directing us not to fire until the word was given.

For my part, as I saw those gallant forces march up the hill in well ordered ranks, with the easy confidence of those who had been used to victory, I was motionless with astonishment and delight. I thought only on their danger, and the steady courage with which they advanced to meet it, the older officers moving with mechanical indifference, the younger with impatient daring. Then a fire blazed along their ranks, but the shot struck in the redoubt or passed harmlessly over our heads. Not a solitary musket answered, and if you had seen the redoubt, you would have said that some mighty charm had turned all its inmates to stone.

But when they stood so near us that every shot would tell, a single gun from the right was the signal for us to begin, and we poured upon them a fire, under which a single glance, before the smoke covered all, showed us their columns reeling like some mighty wall which the elements are striving to overthrow. As the vapor passed away, their line appeared as if a scythe of destruction had cut it down, for one long line of dead and dying marked the spot where their ranks had stood.

Again they returned to the charge; again they were cut down; and then the heavy masses of smoke from the burning town added magnificence to the scene. By this time my powder-horn was empty, and most of those around me had but a single charge remaining. It was evident that our post must be abandoned, but I resolved to resist them once again.

They came upon us with double fury. An officer happened to be near me; raising my musket, and putting all my strength into the blow, I laid him dead at my feet. But, meantime, the British line passed me in pursuit of the flying Americans, and thus cut off my retreat; one of their soldiers fired, and the ball entered my side. I fell, and was beaten with muskets on the head until they left me for dead upon the field.

When I recovered, the soldiers were employed in burying their dead. An officer inquired if I could walk; but finding me unable, he directed his men to drag me by the feet to their boats, where I was thrown in, fainting with agony, and carried with the rest of the prisoners to Boston. One of my comrades, who saw me fallen, returned with the news to my parents. They heard nothing more concerning me, but had no doubt that I was slain.
Like Jacob Frost, the “Young Provincial” narrator is kept in the Boston jail for months, then transported to Nova Scotia in March 1776. He and five other men break out of their new prison on a night that’s literally described as “dark and stormy.” He struggles through the wilderness toward Massachusetts, benefiting from strangers’ kindness. At last he arrives in Tewksbury on a Sunday.
I went to my father’s door, and entered it softly. My mother was sitting in her usual place by the fireside, though there were green boughs instead of fagots in the chimney before her. When she saw me, she gave a wild look, grew deadly pale, and making an ineffectual effort to speak to me, fainted away. With much difficulty I restored her, but it was long before I could make her understand that the supposed apparition was in truth her son whom she had so long mourned for as dead.

My little brother had also caught a glimpse of me, and with that superstition which was in that day so much more common than it is in this, he was sadly alarmed. In his fright he ran to the meeting-house to give the alarm; when he reached that place, the service had ended, and the congregation were just coming from its doors. Breathless with fear, he gave them his tidings, losing even his dread, in that moment, for the venerable minister and the snowy wigs of the deacons.

Having told them what he had seen, they turned, with the whole assembly after them, towards my father's house; and such was their impatience to arrive at the spot, that minister, deacons, old men and matrons, young men and maidens, quickened their steps to a run.

Never was there such a confusion in our village. The young were eloquent in their amazement, and the old put on their spectacles to see the strange being who had thus returned as from the dead.
Again, Jacob Frost’s 1832 account said simply that “he finally arrived at his residence in said Tewksbury the last of September 1776”—which was in fact a Monday.

“The Young Provincial” thus seems to be an elevated version of Jacob Frost’s experiences. But did the author really hear about those events from Frost? Might the story’s hero be a composite of Frost and other men with similar war records? Can we use the story’s details to fill out Frost’s bare-bones pension application, or must we assume that the author used a lot of literary license? Those were questions that Jocelyn Gould of Boston National Historical Park and I started discussing earlier this month.

The easiest place to find “The Young Provincial” now is at the end of this volume of The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1900. The picture above shows Hawthorne in 1841, or about eleven years after “The Young Provincial” was published. By then he had become locally known for his short stories, many based on New England history.

TOMORROW: But this story is not actually by Hawthorne.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Jacob Frost’s Revolutionary War

On 13 Sept 1832, an eighty-year-old man from Norway, Maine, named Jacob Frost signed an affidavit describing his experiences during the Revolutionary War.

Frost’s statement, part of his plea for a federal government pension, said:
on the 19th day of April 1775, on the alarm of the enemys being on their march from Boston to Lexington, at Tewksbury in the State of Massachusetts, his then residence, he then being a minute man, he marched to Concord in the company commanded by Capt. John Trull of the Massachusetts militia and pursued the enemy to Boston and he immediately enlisted at Cambridge near Boston for a term of eight months, in the company commanded by Capt. Benjamin Walker, in the regiment commanded by Col. Ebenezer Bridge,

and was employed on the night previous to the battle of Bunker Hill on the 17th. Day of June 1775, in throwing up breast works—was in the battle and was then severely wounded in the hip, and entirely disabled, and he laid among the wounded until the day after the battle—when he was taken up by the British & carried to Boston & there kept a prisoner until March 1776, at which time the British evacuated Boston—when he was put on board a British man of war ship, called the Centurian—& carried in Irons to Halifax in Nova Scotia
The Nova Scotia diarist Simeon Perkins wrote on 1 April that “The Centurion man of war is off the harbour.”
and there kept in prison untill the 21st. of June 1776, when he with some others found means to escape from prison, & wandered almost without clothes & entirely without money through the woods, till he finally arrived at his residence in said Tewksbury the last of September 1776, being one year & five months absent from his enlistment aforesaid until his return to his home.

In the month of July 1779 [actually 1780] he again enlisted at Tewksbury aforesaid for the term of three months, as a private in the company commanded by Capt Amos Foster, and was immediately appointed a sergeant, said company was attached to the regiment commanded by Colo. [John] Jacobs, and was marched to Rhode Island where he served said three months—and was there verbally discharged—

He further represents that he is an Invalid Pensioner, as will appear by the certificate hereunto annexed—
That certificate, dated 29 Aug 1788, stated that Frost, then aged thirty-five, had been disabled by “one Musket ball, through his left hip bone.” He was awarded a pension of 15 shillings per month.

In a separate 1832 document, Frost added:
during the period of three months, that I served as orderly sargeant in the Company commanded by Capt. Amos Foster in Col. Jacobs regiment, on Rhode Island in the year A.D. 1779—the orderly Sargeant was appointed to act as a Lieut. in consequence of the absence of one of the Lieuts—and I was thereupon appointed to fill the vacancy and served the term of three months in that capacity—and I further declare that I did not receive a warrant from any officer, but acted without one.
Other veterans attested to Frost’s work as the company’s orderly sergeant.

TOMORROW: The literary version.

(The photograph above, courtesy of Classic New England, shows the Brown Tavern on Main Street in Tewksbury, built in 1740. The prominent porch is a later addition, as is the bank branch inside.)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

“The Road to Concord” Ends in Stow, 20 July

On Thursday, 20 July, I’ll speak about The Road to Concord at the Randall Library in Stow, Massachusetts.

For this talk I plan to stress the end of the story, as Gen. Thomas Gage strove to find the cannon that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was accumulating in the countryside—particularly in Concord.

On 29 Oct 1774, that congress appointed Henry Gardner (1731-1782) of Stow as its “receiver general”—the shadow treasurer for a shadow government. The congress asked towns to send Gardner all the taxes they collected for Massachusetts instead of sending them to Harrison Gray, the royal government’s treasurer in Boston.

In 1907 Edward Everett Hale wrote for the Massachusetts Historical Society, “It would seem as if Henry Gardner might be called the first person who by public act was instructed to commit high treason against the King.”

Be that as it may, Gardner was responsible for managing payments for the cannon, carriages, and artillery equipment that the congress bought over the months before the war. Given how the economy worked, he may simply have kept track of the debts that tradesmen or wealthy Patriot merchants were accruing. Many towns apparently chose to keep their tax collections themselves rather than forwarding them on to either side.

Stow has another link to the story in The Road to Concord. It looks like that town was the farthest west that the Boston militia artillery company’s four brass cannon traveled in 1775. The town’s website says, “Cannon were hidden in the woods surrounding the Lower Common, gunpowder and other armaments in the Meeting House and a small powderhouse on Pilot Grove Hill.” I look forward to seeing those sites.

This talk will start at 7:00 P.M. at the Randall Library, 19 Crescent Street in Stow. It is free and open to the public. I’ll have copies of The Road to Concord and other books available for sale and signing.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Col. Putnam and the Cannon Balls

As shown by postings like this one, I keep my eyes peeled for stories of Continental soldiers during the siege of Boston
picking up British cannon balls for reuse.

Here’s one variation that appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on 14 Sept 1775 in a section on news from London. It was most likely printed in a London newspaper that, at least that early in the war, supported the American cause.
July 10. We hear Gen. [Israel] Putnam, who distinguished himself last war under Gen. [Jeffery] Amherst, by his ingenious inventions and invincible courage, having nearly expended his cannon ball before the King’s schooner [H.M. S. Diana] surrendered, took this method to get more from the Somerset in Boston harbour:

He ordered parties, consisting of about two or three of his men, to shew themselves on the top of a certain sandy hill, near the place of action, in sight of the man of war, but at a great distance, in hopes that the Captain would be fool enough to fire at them.

It had the desired effect, and so heavy a fire ensued from this ship and others, that the country round Boston thought the town was attacked. By this means he obtained several hundred balls, which were easily taken out of the sand, and much sooner than he could have sent to the head-quarters for them.

Other accounts say, that towards the close of the day he ordered meal bags to be filled with straw, and set up with hats on, and guns shouldered, which produced the desired effect.
This item was reprinted in New York’s Constitutional Gazette newspaper and thence in Frank Moore’s 1850s compilation Diary of the American Revolution.

However, I haven’t found any such tricks in first-hand descriptions of the fight from Massachusetts, either newspaper accounts or letters. The story fits a common “crafty Yankees” trope. I’m not convinced it actually happened.

Friday, July 14, 2017

EXTRA: A Projectile from the Plains of Abraham Pops Up

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported:
A cannonball fired by the British during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 has been unearthed at a building site in Old Quebec.

The rusted, 90-kilogram projectile was unearthed during excavation work last week at the corner of Hamel and Couillard streets and still contained a charge and gunpowder.

The work crew that found the ball picked it up and gathered around it for photographs, unaware that it was still potentially explosive.

Municipal authorities were contacted, and archeologist Serge Rouleau was called in.

Rouleau brought the cannonball back to his home, and noticed it still contained a charge.
Technically, I think the gunpowder inside makes this a mortar shell, not a cannonball. But such distinctions wouldn’t matter if someone loses an eye.

The C.B.C. report includes a photograph of the excavation workers gathered around the artifact before it was rendered harmless.

When Jefferson Investigated the Storming of the Bastille

Since this is Bastille Day, I’m linking to Sara Georgini’s article on for the Smithsonian magazine, “How the Key to the Bastille Ended Up in George Washington’s Possession.”

Here’s a taste:
On July 14, 1789, a surge of protesters stormed the medieval fortress-turned-prison known as the Bastille. Low on food and water, with soldiers weary from repeated assault, Louis XVI’s Bastille was a prominent symbol of royal power—and one highly vulnerable to an angry mob armed with gunpowder. From his two-story townhouse in the Ninth Arrondissement, the Virginian Thomas Jefferson struggled to make sense of the bloody saga unspooling in the streets below.

He sent a sobering report home to John Jay, then serving as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, five days after the Bastille fell. Even letter-writing must have felt like a distant cry—since the summer of 1788, Jefferson had faithfully dispatched some 20 briefings to Congress, and received only a handful in reply. In Jefferson’s account, his beloved Paris now bled with liberty and rage. Eyeing the narrowly drawn neighborhoods, Jefferson described a nightmarish week. By day, rioters pelted royal guards with “a shower of stones” until they retreated to Versailles. At evening, trouble grew. Then, Jefferson wrote, protesters equipped “with such weapons as they could find in Armourer’s shops and private houses, and with bludgeons…were roaming all night through all parts of the city without any decided and practicable object.”

Yet, despite his local contacts, Jefferson remained hazy on how, exactly, the Bastille fell. The “first moment of fury,” he told Jay, blossomed into a siege that battered the fortress that “had never been taken. How they got in, has as yet been impossible to discover. Those, who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories as to destroy the credit of them all.” Again, as Jefferson and his world gazed, a new kind of revolution rewrote world history. Had six people led the last charge through the Bastille’s tall gates? Or had it been 600? (Historians today place the number closer to 900.)

In the days that followed, Jefferson looked for answers. By July 19, he had narrowed the number of casualties to three. (Modern scholars have raised that estimate to roughly 100.) Meanwhile, the prison officials’ severed heads were paraded on pikes through the city’s labyrinth of streets. With the Bastille in ruins, the establishment of its place in revolutionary history—via both word and image—spun into action. Like many assessing what the Bastille’s fall meant for France, Thomas Jefferson paid a small sum to stand amid the split, burnt stone and view the scene. One month later, Jefferson returned. He gave the same amount to “widows of those who were killed in taking the Bastille.”

At least one of Jefferson’s close friends ventured into the inky Paris night, bent on restoring order. Major General Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, a mainstay at Jefferson’s dinner table, accepted a post as head of the Paris National Guard. As thanks, he was presented with the Bastille key.
I saw that key a couple of years ago; here’s that little story.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

John Pigeon’s Petulance and Property

I was tracing the political career of John Pigeon, a Boston merchant who retired to Newton a few years before the Revolution. In the early months of 1775 he went from clerk of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety to commissary of stores to commissary general of the Massachusetts army.

And within two months Pigeon decided that job was too much for him. On 20 June he petitioned to be allowed to resign. The congress instead adopted this recommendation from a committee:
Resolved, That Mr. John Pigeon, commissary general, requesting a dismission from his said office, being under a mistake, have liberty to withdraw his petition; that the conduct of said commissary general in his office, has been such as to merit the approbation of this Congress, and of the public in general; and that said John Pigeon be desired to attend his business as commissary general in the service of this province.
The legislature agreed to assist Pigeon by appointing a deputy commissary for every regiment, adding considerably to its payroll. On 25 June Pigeon told the committee of safety that he also needed a “supervisor” near each of the main camps of the American army, in Cambridge and Roxbury. Men
whose duty it shall severally be, constantly to attend said camps and examine into the supplies of each Regiment, to see that such supplies are properly delivered out in time, quantity, and quality, and timeously to advise the Commissary-General when and what articles of supplies are wanted at the respective camps, and also to take care that the empty casks are saved and returned to the Commissary-General’s office for further service.
Gotta collect those empties.

Three days later, at Pigeon’s request, the congress appointed a committee to examine his account books. This was a common way to respond to accusations of malfeasance or other criticism.

And Pigeon was getting criticism. After the Battle of Bunker Hill the army had spread out, putting more men on Prospect and Winter Hills to prevent any redcoats from charging off the Charlestown peninsula. That made it harder to supply every regiment. On 30 June Gen. Artemas Ward wrote to Pigeon:
There, are now on Prospect Hill nearly four thousand men, who at present are obliged to come to the store in [Harvard] college, for all the provisions they stand in need of. If they can be supplied with provisions at the hill, it will tend much to the safety of the lines there, for a great number of the men are now obliged daily to leave the lines that they may convey provisions to others upon the hill; and the milk especially, when it is conveyed from the store in college to the hill, is unfit for any person in camp to eat; therefore, if possible, it must be altered.
The next day, the commissary general gave the congress a list of twenty-six men he wanted appointed deputies.

But by then, apparently, Pigeon had damaged his reputation with his colleagues. On 9 August James Warren, president of the congress, told John Adams, “his temper is so petulant, that he has been desirous of quitting for some time, and, indeed, I have wished it.”

The Continental Congress’s takeover of the New England army offered a way to resolve this situation. On 19 July the Congress in Philadelphia appointed Joseph Trumbull, politically well connected and already in camp as commissary for the Connecticut troops, to be commissary general of the whole army. On 12 August the Massachusetts General Court responded by passing this resolve:
all Contracts made by our Committee of Supplies, for Victualling said Massachusetts Army, are terminated; and the Commissary General of said Continental Army, is to be considered at Liberty to purchase Supplies for Victualling said Army, of such Persons, and in such Way and Manner as he shall see fit.
Pigeon might have stayed on as Trumbull’s deputy or the Massachusetts government’s liaison to his office. Members of his staff continued to work for the army. But his accounts for the Cambridge and Roxbury stores and his ledger stop abruptly in early August, even before the legislature’s vote. (Thanks to Stephanie Dyson at the Massachusetts Archives for sending those links.)

By November 1775 the Massachusetts government was treating Richard Devens, a reliable member of the committee of safety from Charlestown, as its head commissary. No one’s found a date for his official commission; Devens seems to have slid into the office after working on other assignments, but by the end of the year he had the title.

And on 9 December, the legislature had to resolve:
Whereas, John Pigeon, the late Commissary of the Forces raised by this Colony, keeps his books at some distance from the Army, by reason whereof the Officers of the Army are prevented from settling their Rolls as ordered by this Court:

Therefore, Resolved, That the said Pigeon be, and he hereby is directed to furnish the Officers of said forces with such Accounts as said Pigeon is possessed of, necessary to the making up their Rolls at Cambridge, and that he be desired to attend there, to settle said Accounts, as long as his presence there may be necessary.
That order might be why the state archives now contains some of Pigeon’s accounts. Then again, a couple of later resolutions suggest that the legislature had to guess about what to pay men for work in the commissary department, so Pigeon may not have turned over all his records.

John and Jane Pigeon’s only daughter, Patience, died in Newton in 1777 at age twenty-four. Their sons John, Jr., and Henry both married in 1790 and started having children. Then Henry died in 1799; John, Sr., in 1800; and John, Jr., in 1801. Widow Jane Pigeon passed away in 1808.

Pigeon’s estates in Newton became the town’s poor farm for a while. But one grandson born in 1799, the Rev. Charles Dumaresq Pigeon, remembered that property fondly. He bought land in the “Riverside” area in 1846, convinced a railroad to build a stop there, and recruited other clergymen to retire nearby. The result was the genteel suburb that the Rev. Mr. Pigeon dubbed Auburndale.

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.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Birth in Braintree 250 Years Ago

On this date 250 years ago, Abigail Adams gave birth to her second child and first son.

No letters or diary entries survive from the Adams household that month. Decades later, Abigail’s husband John mentioned the event in his autobiography:
The Year before this, i.e. in 1767 My Son John Quincy Adams was born on the             day of August, at Braintree, and at the request of his Grandmother [Eizabeth] Smith christened by the Name of her Father John Quincy on the day of the Death of his Great Grandfather, John Quincy of Mount Wollaston.
Later still, John Quincy Adams himself went into his father’s papers, wrote “eleventh” in the space for the date and corrected “August” to “July.” Always the careful one.

J. Q. Adams wrote to a friend about his great grandfather:
He was dying when I was baptized; and his daughter, my grandmother, present at my birth, requested that I might receive his name. The fact, recorded by my father at the time, has connected with that portion of my name a charm of mingled sensibility and devotion. It was filial tenderness that gave the name. It was the name of one passing from earth to immortality. These have been among the strongest links of my attachment to the name of Quincy, and have been to me, through life, a perpetual admonition to do nothing unworthy of it.
John Quincy (1689-1767) died on 13 July, two days after the birth of his great-grandson. He had represented Braintree in the Massachusetts General Court for well over twenty years, in many of those terms serving as speaker. When the north precinct of Braintree became a separate town in 1792, it took the name of Quincy in his honor.