Sunday, October 5, 2014

Was Dr Benjamin Church Jr involved in the Battle of Bunker Hill?

 We left Dr. Church on June 17th, 1775 as he returned from his nearly month long absence from Cambridge only to be greeted with the chaos of a battle in progress - Bunker Hill. Before we go on with Dr. Church's story, we must first deal with the allegation that Dr. Church was involved in Bunker Hill and was somehow actively aiding British efforts in that battle.

Cambridge 1776

Emory Washburn
   The original information indicating Dr. Church's involvement in the battle arose some 50 years after Bunker Hill in the publication in the "Worcester Magazine and Historical Journal" (Vol II, No.2, June, 1826) of "Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester" by Emory Washburn (1800-1877), a native of Leicester and a distinguished lawyer and politician who served, among other political offices, a one year term as Governor of Massachusetts (Jan 1854-Jan 1855). He eventually became a Professor at Harvard Law School where he taught for 20 years. Washburn had a life long interest in local and state history and as early as 1826 published his history of Leicester.
   Leicester in 1775 was a very small town some 6 miles west of Worcester and 50 miles west of Boston. Leicester provided a company of minutemen who were incorporated into Artemus Ward's regiment just prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill. Emory Washburn's grandfather, Seth Washburn, a veteran of the French and Indian War, served as a company commander in that regiment. This is how Washburn first reports the incident involving Dr Church in 1826:

On the 17th June, the Col. of the regiment was absent and it was commanded by Lt. Col. Barnes. The Regiment left the camp, on that day, about noon, and halted some time at Lechmere Point - the reason for which is not known. As the Regiment came to the foot of Bunker Hill, it was met by the famous Dr. Church, of Boston, who for so long a time, acted the double part of seeming patriot and actual traitor, who informed the commander, that orders were sent to stop any troops going on to the field, and the Regiment halted. Capt Washburn, overhearing these orders, exclaimed in a loud voice that they were "tory orders", and turning to his company, asked which of them would follow him. Every man of them marched from the line, and followed him into the action. The Regiment this broken was not again collected during the day. This company came into the engagement about a quarter of an hour before a retreat was ordered. They took post at the rail fence nearest the redoubt, and were engaged until the whole American line retreated. No one of the company was killed, though all except two, were in the action. Capt Washburn received a ball in his cartouch box, four passed though his coat, and one through his wig. 
Map of Boston and Charlestown. Lechmere Point is to the southwest of Charlestown neck and is indicated on the map.

   Seth Washburn died six years before Emory Washburn was born so he could not have received this information directly from him; but Emory Washburn claims that six men who were involved in this action were still alive when he wrote this history to include Seth Washburn's brother, Capt Rueben Washburn.

   We shall return to Emory Washburn and his history of Leicester later.

   In 1847,  Artemus Henshaw Ward , grandson of Maj Gen Artemus Ward, who commanded the Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut forces at Bunker Hill, published his "History of the Town of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts from its settlement in 1717 to 1789. " Shrewsbury is located about seven miles northeast of Worcester. Henshaw Ward was a Harvard graduate, a failed lawyer, and a customs agent by profession. Maj Gen Ward was born in Shrewsbury and lived most of his life there. Shrewsbury provided a company of its men for his Regiment. Artemus Henshaw Ward was sixteen when his grandfather died and he purposefully engaged him in a number of conversations to get his views on certain events. He specifically questioned him about Bunker Hill given the criticism that his grandfather has suffered for his conduct of the battle. The grandson had a life long fascination with history and engaged in a massive search of records and interviews to compile his history of Shrewsbury. Here is the version of the incident with Dr. Church as described by Ward in his history of Shrewsbury:
Artemus Ward

When it was ascertained that a reinforcement of British troops had been sent over to Charlestown, and their disposable force in Boston thereby so reduced as to make an attack upon headquarters improbable, reinforcements were ordered from Cambridge. Col Jonathan Ward [actual Commander of Artemus Ward's Regiment on 17 June] then stationed at No.4 , was directed, as appears by the General's Orderly Book, to march his regiment with the utmost dispatch, by the way of Leechmere's Point to Charlestown, keeping a strict look out towards Boston, while on his march. It is known that this regiment did not reach its place of destination.
Col.Ward, with his regiment, having nearly reached Charlestown Neck, there met a gentleman (said to have been Dr. Benjamin Church, one of the Committee of Safety, and who afterwards proved himself a traitor) coming from Charlestown on horseback, who inquired of Col. Ward to what point he was marching his regiment. To the hill, was the answer. "Have you not had counter orders?" "I have not." "You will have soon. Halt here." The regiment advanced no further. Some few found means to leave it and cross the neck, but soon met the Provincials retreating. Capt. Aaron Smith, of this town, who was in that battle, and died at the age of 89, in 1825, related the forgoing to me, about a year before his death, and which he said was told him by one who said he was an eye and ear witness to what passed and took place between Col. Ward, and the person on horseback. Smith was in service most of the revolutionary war, and had been a soldier in the French war...Being intelligent, and a close observer of men and things, his relation of the battles in which he had been engaged, where and under what circumstances fought, and the exciting through which he passed while in service, never failed to interest the listening ear...Having related this much and more, I inquired of him, with a view to ascertain his understanding of the matter, why reinforcements were not sent from Cambridge? he replied, "It was expected the enemy would come over from Boston, and landing at the point, make an attack upon head quarters."
In 1860, Emory Washburn decided to update his 1826 history of Leicester and publish it as a book ("Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester, Massachusetts, Boston, 1860). He mentions that he used Henshaw Ward's history of Shrewsbury and the work of Richard Frothingham relating to the siege of Boston in his rewrite. Here is the way he rewrote the incident with Dr. Church in the 1860 edition.

Gen Ward, as commander-in-chief, was stationed at Cambridge, and gave directions what regiments should march to Charlestown on the occasion of occupying the hill, and the next day, to help maintain it. A part, at least, of his own regiment, under Lieut-Col. Ward, was stationed at what was called Fort No. 2, which is said to have been what is known as Dana Hill. It was here that Capt. Washburn's company were stationed. Though the enemy landed about one o'clock, it was past three o'clock in the afternoon, according to the account given by Mr. Frothingham, before the actual battle commenced. He speaks of a part of Lieut-Col. Ward's regiment arriving at a critical time of the battle, and of the part taken by Capt. Washburn's company, with other companies mentioned, in maintaining the position of the American troops at the rail-fence, and "gallantly covering the retreat."
The British finally took possession of the hill about five o'clock, so that the heat of the action must have lasted about two hours.
With this preliminary statement, drawn from other sources, I propose to give a detailed account, as near as I have been able to gather it from those who took part in them, of the movements of the Leicester men on that day. I am chiefly indebted for my facts to Mr. Nathan Craige, a member of the company, given many years since, when a clear and unimpaired memory and a character for honesty and integrity which was never impeached, gave to his statement the force of truth. Nor will it be found to conflict with any well-authenticated account of the details of the battle. 
It seems that between one and two o'clock, a re-enforcement had arrived from Boston to join the troops which had previously landed at Moulton's Point. This, according to a statement in Ward's "History of Shrewsbury," - the connection of whose author with Gen Ward gave him an opportunity to understand something of the motives of his movements, - so far satisfied the general that the enemy would not attempt to land, and attack his position in Cambridge, that he ordered Lieut.-Col Ward to march his regiment with the utmost dispatch by the way of Lechmere Point to Charlestown, keeping a strict look-out towards Boston in its march. The regiment, according to Mr. Craige's recollection, were paraded under arms, ready for marching, soon after noon. On reaching Lechmere Point, they halted for near an hour. The reason for this delay he never understood. While here, they heard the "cracking of the musketry over in Charlestown," as well as the roar of the cannon. The were then ordered to march to Charlestown neck, in order to reach the scene of the battle, which had already begun. Before they arrived at the neck, they were met by a man on horseback (said to be Dr. Church), who told the Commander to halt his men; that orders had been sent, that no more troops should go into action.* Major Barnes, who was then in command, gave the order to halt. Whereupon Capt. Washburn, stepping out of the column, addressing his men, exclaimed in a loud voice, "Those are Tory orders: I shan't obey them. Who will follow me?" Every man of his company at once left the column, and passed on towards the hill. Capt. Wood of Northborough, with his company, and as appears by Mr. Frothingham's narrative, Capt. Cushing also, left the regiment, and came into the action about the same time that Capt. Washburn did.
          * The same circumstance, though in a little different language, was repeated by a member of another company in the regiment, as stated by Mr. Ward, in his history.
   Before going further, some background information may prove useful. On June 17th, 1775,  forty-seven year old Maj Gen Ward was suffering from a debilitating attack of kidney stones and was somewhat immobilized in his headquarters which was located in the Hastings/Holmes House in Cambridge ( It's no 18 on the Cambridge 1776 map at the intersection of the Menotomy and Charlestown Roads.) The Hastings/Holmes House was also the place where the Committee of Safety met and most of its members were there on June 17th. As mentioned before, the Committee of Safety was an executive committee and was responsible for the procurement of supplies, disposition of troops, etc. and members could give military orders. Dr. Church had been an original, long serving, and continuous member of the Committee of Safety since its formation. In fact, he had only been replaced as its Chairman less than a month previous in a "bloodless and even noiseless coup" by Joseph Warren. Indeed it was Dr Church, as chairman of the Committee, who signed the orders authorizing the fortification of Bunker Hill in May 1775.
From Justin Winsor's Memorial History of Boston. The door to the right opens into the room where the Committee of Safety and Ward's Council of War metThis house was torn down in 1884.

   Members of the Committee of Safety were actively involved in giving advice to Ward and it was a member of the Committee, Richard Devens, who decided that Colonel Prescott on the redoubt must be reinforced. Ward was pressured into giving approval to send the New Hampshire regiments to support him. Ward was a cautious man who was worried about a British attack on his center in Cambridge via Willis Creek. He was also acutely aware of the severe shortage of gunpowder. It was only when Ward received word that, with the wind against her and the tide turning, a British schooner carrying five to six hundred men, had abandoned an attempt to land at Willis Creek that he stopped worrying about a British attack on his center. Some have criticized Ward, and with some justification, for being so immobile that day. But, in his defense, he had a ten mile front to worry about, an amphibious attack on Cambridge, and a lack of competent staff.

   It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time that Ward's regiment was confronted by the man on horseback, presumed to be Dr. Church, but the earliest would be around two o'clock. We do not know precisely what time Dr. Church arrived in Cambridge on June 17th, 1775, only that it was while the battle of Bunker Hill was in progress. Given the noise of the artillery and musket fire, Church would have known that some type of action was in progress long before he got to Cambridge. It would be reasonable to assume that his first destination upon arrival would be the Hastings/Holmes House, the meeting place for the Committee of Safety and where he could find out what was going on. We have only sketchy details about the actions of the Committee of Safety that day and Church could have been present without it being remarked. We know that Committee members were out and about during the battle so perhaps so was Church. We also know that there was a shortage of horses for the Provincials and a man on horseback would have been somewhat unusual. And we know that Church arrived in Cambridge driving a sulky but accompanied by a servant on horseback. So we know he had access to a horse.
A contemporary sketch made just after the battle commissioned by Lord Rowden, a 21 year old lieutenant in the 5th Regiment of Foot, who participated in the second and third British assaults at Bunker Hill

   Dr. Church was not a military man and had no delusions of military glory like Maj Gen Joseph Warren or Col John Hancock.  ( See my blog post on Warren at Bunker Hill, dtd. January 5, 2011) The closest he had ever gotten to anything military was his service as a surgeon on the Province Snow Prince of Wales during the French and Indian War and I doubt he came anywhere close to any action. Ward was very concerned with  the attack on Charlestown as a British feint and as cover for an attack on Cambridge itself. His insistence on halting the provincial forces at Lechmere Point is then totally understandable. Could he have dispatched or could Dr. Church have volunteered to visit the point and insure that troops went no further? Could he have been aware of Ward's concerns and when he came upon the troops passed on his orders?

  What is curious to me is the specific identification of the man on horseback. The troops making the identification were from the Worcester area but Church was as well known as any other Massachusetts Whig and the identification was specific.

   Was Church the man on horseback who gave orders to elements of Ward's Regiment on the afternoon of June 17,1775 ? I just don't know. There is no other information other than the accounts presented in these histories of the towns of Leicester and Shrewsbury; and the earliest publication of them is some 50 years after Bunker Hill, even if they are based on eyewitness accounts..The information is plausible and credible. If the man on horseback was Church, there is little reason to infer that he was up to some nefarious activity as concluded by Clifford K. Shipton who, in his 1960 biographical sketch in Sibley's Harvard Graduates of Church, after quoting the Washburn accusation about "tory orders" set forth in the Worcester magazine of 1826, states:

After this partial success [the tory orders to Washburn], the Doctor sought out James Warren, who succeeded Dr . Warren as president, and delivered his information which was here, too, regarded as too secret to be put into writing. He must have had some bad minutes during the courts-martial held to find out who was responsible for the crippling confusion behind the American lines during the battle.

   I do find it  plausible that Dr. Church was out and about during Bunker Hill, but hardly plausible that he was giving orders to confuse the Provincials. And given the rather conflicting lines of authority amongst and between the various Provincial regiments, there is little Dr. Church or anyone else could do to confuse the issue further. It is also possible that Dr. Church was passing on direction from Ward that had been superseded. In any event, it seems to me that the anecdote about Capt. Washburn refusing "Tory orders" and rushing into battle is one of those many anecdotes from this period that became family lore and legend that served to enhance the reputation of the patriotism and courage of the family involved and came to be accepted as factual history.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.