Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Gunpowder Incident

    While we concentrate on the situation in Boston and vicinity during the fateful month of April 1775, it might be informative to relate just what was going on in Virginia in the same month and just how volatile the situation was there for its Royal Governor, John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, and how the military aspirations of Patrick Henry who, like John Hancock, thought that the Revolution would give him the opportunity to win military glory were to be disappointed.

   On the night of 20-21 April 1775, a day after the battle of Lexington, Lord Dunmore, who could not have heard of the outbreak of war and who had a very restive and rebellious colony on his hands ( Dunmore had dissolved the Virginia Assembly three times between 1772 and 1774), ordered a detachment of marines from a British schooner at anchor in the James River to use his wagon to ferry fifteen half barrels of gunpowder, located in the Williamsburg Magazine, to their ship harbored in the river. Dunmore's attempt at secrecy was thwarted when several townsmen spotted the marines and sounded the alarm. A crowd soon gathered in front of Dunmore's mansion and demanded the return of the gunpowder. It was only the calming words of several leaders, to include Peyton Randolph, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, that prevented the crowd from storming the mansion. The city council voted to demand the return of the gunpowder averring that it was the property of the colony and not of the Crown. Dunmore averted its return by telling the council and the crowd that the gunpowder had been removed to protect it from seizure from a rumored slave uprising. This mollified the crowd and it dispersed peacefully.

Williamsburg Magazine
    The news of the removal of gunpowder was spread by couriers and it inflamed Virginians.  Soon thousands of militiamen were making ready to march on Williamsburg and demand its restoration. On  Tuesday the 25th of April, the independent company of Fredericksburg notified their Colonel, George Washington, that, with his approval, they were prepared to start to march on the capital on Saturday. Other independent companies followed suit. On Saturday, 102 men, representing four companies of light horse, had assembled at Fredericksburg, and it was only after receiving assurances by letter from Peyton Randolph and heeding the the counsel of Washington that they decided  not to march on Williamsburg.

Patrick Henry
  When Patrick Henry, at home in Hanover County, heard of the "tame" response by the militia at Fredericksburg, he resolved to take matters in his own hands and that, among other things, " the revolution should  be set in actual motion in the colony."  He summoned his independent company of militia, along with the county council, to meet on May 2nd in New Castle, VA, some 60 miles northwest of Wiliamsburg. The assembly voted to put itself under Henry's command and to march to the capital to either recover the gunpowder or to take "sufficient reprisals on the King's property to replace it." By sunset of the following day the militia had reached a point about sixteen miles from Williamsburg. Word of Henry's march, with about 150 armed men, spread rapidly and reports were soon coming in that as many as five thousand men were responding to Henry's bold declaration. At first, Lord Dunmore reacted by sending his family to safety and stationing armed marines, from the British navy vessels harbored in the river, to defend the capital. On second thought, however, Dunmore decided to avert an armed attack and sent a messenger who reached Henry just after daybreak, and, after the militia had resumed their march, offered monetary compensation for the gunpowder that Dunmore had removed. Subsequently, Henry received a draft for L330 from a wealthy Virginia planter in payment for the gunpowder. Henry was treated as a hero in Virginia but Dunmore issued a proclamation declaring Henry an outlaw and forbidding citizens to assist him in any way. Henry was given armed protection as he journeyed to Philadelphia where he was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
  Henry's supporters used this incident as a means to have him appointed as Colonel of the first Virginia Regiment and Commander-in-Chief of all Virginia forces. However, the Virginia convention, not trusting Henry's military ability, made him subordinate in all military matters to the Convention and the Committee of Safety. It was, in fact, a paper command for Henry was subjected to all kinds of civilian direction and interference. Subsequently, Virginia never saw fit to give Henry command of any forces that might see battle, passing him over for other officers. The final straw came when Henry was passed over for a Brigadier General's commission in February 1776 and he felt he had no choice but to resign.
   Most of the senior Virginians, to include Washington, were very much aware of Henry's limitations as a military leader so it is not surprising that they gave him a commission without power or responsibility. Henry was a hero in Virginia; his fiery advocacy of liberty and his insistence on marching on Williamsburg to recover the gunpowder meant that politicians could not just openly refuse to give him a military command that most feared would result in disaster and the unnecessary death of soldiers. So, they chose this way.
  I doubt that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress could or would have handled Dr Joseph Warren in this way. He was just too powerful.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Upcoming Posts

   I have had a couple of  telephone conversations recently in which readers have expressed some frustration on the difficulty of leaving comments in response to posts on the blog. I am at the mercy of the leviathan known as "Google" and will attempt to decipher the incoherence that Google labels as instruction to see if something can be done about it. Believe me, any comments are very, very welcome and most appreciated. Should anyone wish to take advantage of it, I also have established an email account solely dedicated to this web site: Yes, my other main historical interest is the last days of the Roman Republic - the one on this planet, not the one portrayed by HBO in its Rome series.
   I am now working on posts that will detail the life and background of John Fleeming, John Mein's partner and Dr Church's brother-in-law. It was to Fleeming that Church addressed the intercepted ciphered letter that led to his downfall. Fleeming has his own part to play in the narrative leading up to the revolution.
   In addition, I have been asked to detail my views on Paul Revere's ride which, for those of you who know me, take on a slightly different perspective than some historians.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dr Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill - Heroic or Foolish?

   The title of this entry is perhaps too provocative, but it's intentional. I had a conversation the other day about Dr Joseph Warren with a friend and reiterated my long standing belief  that Warren has gotten a free pass from historians for his actions on June 17th, 1775 at Bunker Hill. Although Samuel Adams' name has not diminished down the ages, few Americans today, outside of New England, have any idea of just who Warren was and his importance in the struggle against the British that culminated in revolution and eventually independence. But I suppose dying a hero's death does warrant some less scrutiny for actions that some might consider just plain risky and foolish.
   On June 17th, 1775 Warren was the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and Chairman of the Committee of Safety. There was no more senior official in Massachusetts and perhaps no one knew as much about the state of affairs from the Patriots side as he did. He had struggled for years along side Samuel Adams and was as important and as prominent a Patriot as there was. Warren had turned 34 only six days earlier and all contemporary accounts describe him as a young, attractive man and politician who was enormously respected. That he was a man of high courage there is no doubt. After giving the order to Paul Revere to alert Samuel Adams and John Hancock  and the other couriers to alert the countryside that "the regulars were out", he received news of the clash at Lexington. He immediately rode out of Boston in search of the action, even at one time running into the rear of General Percy's relief column and being asked by two British officers if he knew where the troops were. Eventually Dr Warren found himself attached to BGen William Heath and stuck by his side as he attempted to control the actions of the militias during the British retreat back to Boston. At one point in Cambridge while standing next to Heath, a "musket ball came so near his head as to strike the pin out of the hair of his earlock." (An earlock is a curl of hair hanging in front of the ear.)

Dr Joseph Warren - 1765

   Three days prior to Bunker Hill, the Provincial Congress voted to offer him a commission as a major general, making him the second major general of Massachusetts Forces. The Congress had originally determined to give him a commission as a "physician-general" but Warren preferred a "more active and hazardous employment'" so he received a "regular commission." Unlike many others in the Patriot ranks, Warren had absolutely no military training or experience, either in the militia or in actual service or combat. To say that he was unqualified for the commission is putting it mildly.
   On the morning of June 17th, Warren had thrown himself on his bed, suffering from a nervous headache. After the alarm was given that the British were out, Warren rose from the bed, said his headache was gone and headed for the action. Warren reached the Charlestown neck sometime between two and three in the afternoon when the British artillery bombardment was at its peak and made his way up the northwest side of Bunker Hill.

   He then obtained a musket from a wounded soldier. Gen Israel Putnam caught sight of Warren and came over to ask for orders. The doctor refused saying he had come as a volunteer. After asking where he could be of most use, Putnam directed him to the redoubt on Breed's Hill where Colonel Samuel Prescott was in command. Prescott asked Warren if he had any orders to give and Warren replied that he had none and that "the command was yours." He further stated that "he had come as a volunteer, with my musket, to serve under you, and shall be happy to learn from a soldier of your experience." Warren also told the troops in the redoubt that 2,000 reinforcements were on the way.
   And just what what did Dr Warren expect to learn, armed with a musket in a redoubt as a volunteer, that would in any way give him the experience or knowledge to lead troops into battle, plan strategy, master logistics or tactics or any of the other practices of command and war that a Major General is expected to know before he even gets a commission. Not to mention the confusion surrounding command roles that his very presence on the battlefield caused. His death would remove one of the most prominent and important political leaders of the rebellion and his capture certainly could lead to an intelligence bonanza for the British, not to mention the blow to Patriot morale.
   Brave - certainly. Foolhardy - most certainly.
   On the third British advance to to take the redoubt, Warren was last seen by Prescott, through the swirling and choking dust, since he was one of the last to leave the redoubt. There was hand to hand fighting between the militia and the British regulars. There are conflicting accounts of just what happened next, but Warren was struck in the back of his head, on the right side, by a bullet. Reflexively clasping his hand to the wound, he dropped down dead. Eventually his body was recognized by the British and he was buried on the field. The British found six letters on his person and promptly had all six individuals, residents of Boston, arrested.
  And so Warren passed into legend. While recognizing his bravery, an honest historian must recognize that Warren's presence on the battlefield was foolhardy, reckless, and militarily unsound. He not only had no combat experience, he had no military experience. And one doesn't master the art of war with ignorant enthusiasm.
   Warren's wife had died two years earlier, leaving their four children motherless. At the time of his death, the children were living with his fiancee, Mercy Scollay, and were left penniless as well as fatherless. Scollay took care of the children but it wasn't until Benedict Arnold stepped in and obtained a pension from the Continental Congress that their support was assured.
"The Death of General  Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill" was painted by John Trumbell in 1785-1786. Trumbull was the son of the Governor of Connecticut and served in the Continental Army. At the time of the battle, Trumbull was stationed in Roxbury just across the neck and could hear the sounds of the battle. He knew and met many of the participants in it. Although the uniforms, dress  and other details of the painting can be taken as accurate, the scene itself is not and must be considered iconic.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mein Wars - Denoument

    By late 1768, John Mein had run up substantial debts to two major London suppliers - Thomas Longman, a bookseller located on Paternoster Row in London for approximately L1660 and a firm of stationers, Thomas Wright & William Gill for approximately L300. In July 1769, Longman wrote to John Hancock seeking his assistance in collecting his debts. It's not known when Hancock received this letter nor has his reply survived but Hancock apparently agreed to assist Longman, asking for a power of attorney by letter dated 24 October 1769. Hancock must have been thrilled to receive this serendipitous request from Longman just as the struggle between the Non-Importation Agreement merchants and Mein was at its height and Mein was savaging Hancock and his allies. In his letter to Hancock advising him of Mein's debts, Longman only asked Hancock to recommend someone to whom Longman could send a power of attorney to act for him in this matter. The fact that Hancock, busy as he was, volunteered to act as Longman's agent speaks for how delighted he must have been to receive this request. Mein, of course, believed that it was Hancock who was the driving force behind Longman's actions.
    Before Longman could respond to Hancock and furnish him the power of attorney, Mein had his run-in with the Boston mob and had to flee Boston for London. Longman then executed a power of attorney, had Wright &Gill execute one too and forwarded the documents to Hancock in Boston. They arrived on 1 March 1770 and, that very day, John Adams, acting as attorney for Hancock in this matter, filled out the appropriate writs and had the Deputy Sheriff seize Mein's property, which included his stock of books and, most importantly, "Seven frames on which are sixty-five cases with the types &c. Two Printing Presses with all the Materials thereto, and "One Composing Stone."

John Adams - 1766
    At this point, James Murray, Mein's merchant friend and staunch Tory, stepped in and tried to provide surety until the suit could be settled amicably; but Hancock wanted complete payment and nothing short of it. It's apparent that Hancock knew that he had Mein boxed in and wasn't about to let him off of the hook. In any event, the matter went to trial and after appeals and new trials was not settled until December, 1771. Reading through the various depositions and motions in this matter, one comes to two conclusions: The British legal system was everything Charles Dickens made it out to be; and two, John Adams, like lawyers through out time, knew how to milk a case and run up those legal fees. In any event, eventually the two cases were settled in the creditors' favor and three appraisers, all booksellers-stationers, one of whom was Henry Knox, settled on a figure of L1,038, 8s, 5d, for the books. After deductions for certain expenses, Hancock signed a receipt for approximately L956. Wright & Gill realized only approximately L94 after deductions and accounting for the fact that half of the printing gear belonged to Mein's partner John Fleeming, Dr Church's, by then brother-in-law.
   Mein was later confined to a debtors prison in London and assisted the British government in writing propaganda against his old enemies in Boston. He then fades from history. Fleeming attempted to keep the Chronicle going but finally had to cease publication with the edition of June 25, 1770, for a lack of patronage.
   That the Boston Chronicle was the best newspaper technically in New England  and the most ambitious endeavor in newspaper printing that the colonies had yet seen, there is little doubt. It was the best printed and cheapest paper in the colonies. It often printed 1500 copies each week and was frequently oversold. It was only when Mein decided to attack the Boston merchants that its troubles started. Mein's motivations will never be certain. Some writers have recently stated that the Chronicle was started as a government propaganda tool, but I doubt that.  Fleeming was a gifted printer and the partners had a technically superior product that was unrivalled in its typographical appearance. Mein, perhaps out of conviction or personality or both, decided to take on the Boston merchants and he soon found himself riding a tiger he could not control.