Monday, October 1, 2012

The Devastated Deacon - V

   As war broke out after the fateful skirmishes at Lexington and Concord and the bloody British retreat back to Boston, thousands of New Englanders rallied to the cause and surrounded Boston - the siege of Boston had begun. Deacon Church, father to two well known and dedicated Patriot sons, one of whom was very prominent in the leadership, and a man who had always supported the Whig cause, fled along with thousands of other Bostonians from the city. The precise day he left is unknown but it was very early in the siege. The Deacon, his wife, and presumably the wife and children of his son Doctor Church traveld to the Rhode Island border to stay with the Crocker family in Taunton, Mass.

   The Deacon returned to Boston in April, 1776, perhaps one year after he had departed; the British had evacuated the city on March 17, 1776. Deacon Church was not prepared for what he found. Within several weeks of Lexington and Concord, Boston, a town of some 15,000, had plummeted in population to only some 3,000 colonials. General Gage, the Governor of Massachusetts, in fact, facilitated the departure of the town's population feeling he did not need all of those "troublemakers" on his hands.All possessions except plate and firearms could be taken from the town; of course, there was insufficient means of transportation for the citizens to take more than would fit on a wagon, horseback, or on their backs. British troops searched everything going out of the city and were rather indiscriminate as to what what they allowed to pass. As terrified Bostonians fled the town, equally terrified Loyalists, many of whom had suffered for their loyalty to the Crown from their neighbors, streamed into the town. As the siege progressed, food and fuel (wood) supplies became ever more scarce. In addition to the bombardment of the town by the rebels causing indiscriminate damage, depredations to property by British soldiers became worse and worse. General Gage tried to stop this with severe punishments but  he was largely unsuccessful. Storms and fires took their toll. In March 1776, the Patriot bombardment of the town increased in intensity and that's when widespread looting broke out. Bands of Loyalists looted Whig homes, occupied or not. There was an element of revenge as word had been coming in of Patriot confiscation of the properties the Loyalists had left behind.

British Evacuation of Boston, 1776. A 1911 print by A.J. Aylward

   The scene that the returning Bostonians faced was one of utter devastation. The town was in shambles; many homes were unrecognizable. Some had been torn down. Paint peeled from their sides, broken windows glistened in the sunlight, and shutters hung loosely from their fastenings. In the South End, some residents found fortifications where their homes had once stood. Limbs of trees from the Commons were placed across manure-filled streets, and caltrops were scattered on the ground. In homes near the main avenue into town residents found loaded shells with trains of powder covered by straw.

   Personal property damage ran into enormous sums for some. Not only were homes and stores destroyed, but in some instances, the fleeing British soldiers "destroyed the furniture of the houses, broke the windows, chairs, desks, tables &c. They loaded their vessels so deep that they threw overboard much of their lumber, which floats on water."

   Deacon Church arrived in Boston to find his fine "double brick home" severely damaged and his possessions looted. Not only had he been unable to earn any income for approximately one year, but now he discovered that his business was destroyed. His son Edward spoke of his father and mother "reduced from affluence to a state of needy dependence."  The town appointed him to a committee to investigate the damage suffered by the inhabitants of Ward 11 during the siege.

   The Deacon was now 72 years old and lived in a town that by 1780 would only reach a population of approximately 10,000 and teetered on the edge of economic collapse.

   Then, less than six months after he had returned to Boston, the Deacon received word that his son and namesake, Dr Benjamin Church, Jr had been arrested for "criminal correspondence." The Deacon was devastated and, to his dying day, believed in his son's innocence. And, he was now faced with providing financial support for his son, his daughter-in-law and Benjamin Jr's children.

   When Benjamin Jr was transferred to custody in the Boston jail in the summer of 1776, the Deacon supported his son who otherwise might have starved. On August 5, 1776, he appealed to John Hancock, sitting as President of the Continental Congress, for help. Hancock had to have been well acquainted with the Deacon:

It is hard upon me - in my present distressed Circumstances - as I am oblig'd to support Him {Benjamin Jr}, and family - as there is no provision made for his subsistance - I have been robb'd of everything valuable in the Town of Boston by those Robbers that lately possess'd the same - vizt L500 Steling in furniture - Merchantize - &c. And at present is no business - Mr. Bodwin {sic, probably James Bowdoin then President of the Massachusetts Provisonal Congress' executive council} &c Advis'd me to apply to Capt Bradford  for the sale of prize goods - as Auctioneer - I have seen Him - and He has inform'd me, He has no power to appoint - being restricted by Your self - but shou'd be ready to serve me, yea in preference if in his power - considering my present Scituation & many distressing difficulties - pray Sir consider me - One line from Your self will be sufficient.
   The Captain Bradford referenced in the letter is John Bradford, prize agent in Boston for the Continental Navy. He was responsible for, among other things, disposition of any prizes and their cargoes that would be seized and brought to Boston harbor. John Hancock, had he been so inclined, could have given the Deacon a commission to serve as auctioneer for prizes seized and disposed of in the port of Boston.

   The Deacon's financial difficulties continued and on March 28th, 1778, he wrote to John Hancock , in what must have been in extreme desperation, to attempt, once again, apparently, to obtain back pay for his son  for the approximately two months when he served as "Surgeon General" of the Continental Army! This is three months after Benjamin Jr was sent into exile, placed on a ship and subsequently lost at sea.

Hon. Sr.
   You may remember some time past I, by my son's desire, requested the favour of two months pay months pay as Surgeon Gen'll to the Hospitall at Cambridge, viz't from July to Sep'ber 1775 at which unhappy for Him - He was taken up and confined for writing a L'tr, to he brother Fleming which was deemed by some prejudiciall to his country, but to me and others He has repeatedly affirmed the contrary, that He never meant to injure, but to save his country, which He said if He might be admitted to triall He would have evinced to all mankind - but that could not be obtained - and now alas! he is banished! His demand for the service above is 252 Dollars - wherefore if, Dear Sir, through your interest it could be obtained. I have full power to receive the same - Hon'd Sir; as a grateful acknowledgement for favours' rec'd please to accept the following essay to perpetuate Your memory - from Yr Humble Serv't. Benjamin Church.

   The essay is a Latin acrostic spelling "Johannes Hancock Jus."

   Obviously, the Deacon's request was never fulfilled.

   In 1779, the Deacon was still looking out for his son's interests as he engaged in proceedings to keep his son's house out of the hands of an unscrupulous land speculator. By this time his daughter-in-law was resident in England and was helpless.

   The Deacon died on October 10, 1781, two days after his 77th birthday. Still uncertain of his namesake's fate and still believing in his innocence, he stipulated in his will that Benjamin should receive five pounds, the same amount as the rest of his children:
Item - I give unto my Son Benjamin if alive (for alas! He is now absent - being cruelly banish'd his Country - and whither living, or dead God only knows) five pounds sterling, and the remains of my broken library - but if He shou'd be deceas'd - to his son James Miller Church now in London -
   The probate inventory lists over 200 books in English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French. The Deacon must have, at one time, possessed one of the finest libraries in Boston.  Also included in the inventory are thirty two pictures under glass in the large brick house indicating, perhaps, the extent and value of the deacon's possessions prior to Lexington and Concord.

   The Deacon's personal possessions were only valued at approximately L142. A "small building and 170 square foot of land (mortgaged)" were valued at L120. The only other item in the estate was the Deacon's double brick house that he had acquired when he first arrived in Boston, unvalued.

   Hannah Church, the deacon's wife, was named executrix of the estate and a report of the commissioners on April 8, 1783 showed claims of L1154, 11s 5d., against the estate and the balance in the hands of the executrix as L129, 3s, 7 1/2 d. Hannah died in April 1794, almost thirteen years after her husband, without completing the settlement of the estate. It was only after litigation from her heirs that the Deacon's brick double house, the prized possession he had manged to hold on to throughout all the years of financial difficulties, was sold for L1900 pounds so that the estate could be settled.


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