On today’s episode, we’ll discuss the often-overlooked battle of the American Revolution - the May 1775 Battle of Chelsea Creek.
The Nerds rarely get involved in the politics of reenacting. Honestly, we have better things to do with our time.
However, a video promoted earlier this week by a non-profit historical organization has caused a bit of a kerfuffle within the living history community. The now-deleted video in question depicted a group of reenactors portraying privateers (although fantasy pirates is probably a more apt description) engaged in a tactical demonstration. At the height of the engagement, and to the humor of the spectators and participants, a reenactor comically mimicked a wound to the groin.
It was clear by his subsequent conduct the display was done to entertain reenactors and the spectators alike. In their defense, the non-profit organization that supervised these reenactors argued that the incident occurred during a “private” tactical for reenactors, the public never saw these antics and those who objected are overreacting.
We get that argument and understand where they are coming from. The Nerds are quite confident there are several images or photos of us acting like idiots and yahoos at private events hosted by reenactment groups from the past thirty-plus years.
However, the problem is the non-profit organization posted the now infamous groin wound incident on a very public Facebook page and encouraged others to revel in the humor and share the experience with their friends.
|Taken From Pension Application of Veteran Solomon Parsons|
Let’s be blunt...we wouldn’t mock the experiences of a wounded Iraq War veteran, a Vietnam War veteran or a World War II veteran. Why is it acceptable to mock and make light of the experiences of the wounded from the American Civil War or American Revolutionary War?
Thanks to the romanticism of the 19th century, many people are oblivious of just how vicious and brutal combat during the American Revolution truly was. All one has to do is look at the aftermath of the Menotomy Fight of April 19, 1775, or the Battle of Oriskany to get even the slightest understanding of how destructive 18th-century combat truly was.
Furthermore, the mocking of the wounded through comical antics only serves to trivialize the sufferings of those soldiers who received debilitating wounds during the war.
How does mimicking a wound to the groin for the sake of humor bring to light the sufferings of Massachusetts Soldier Solomon Parsons? At the Battle of Monmouth, Parsons was bayoneted and shot multiple times by British soldiers before being dragged through the dirt, robbed and left for dead. As he laid suffering in an open field and exposed to the blazing hot weather, all Parsons could do was weakly plead for mercy as his assailants continued to taunt and dehumanize him. He was eventually rescued by American troops.
Perhaps the promoters of the “groin video” could explain how mocking the wounded highlights the sufferings of John Robbins. At the Battle of Lexington, Robbins suffered a debilitating wound that left him virtually a ward of the state for the remainder of his life. According to one of his earlier petitions, “That your Petitioner was on the memorable 19th of april 1775 most grievously wounded. by the Brittish Troops in Lexington, by a musket ball which passed by the left of the spine between his Shoulders through the length of his neck making its way through and most miserably Shattering his under jaw bone, by which unhappy Wound your Petitioner is so much hurted in the Muscles of his shoulder, that his Right arms is rendered almost useless to him in his Business and by the fracture of his under jaw the power of Mastecation is totally destroyed and by his, low Slop diet, weakness, and total loss of his right arm, and the running of his wound, his Situation is rendered truly Pitiable being unable to Contribute any thing to the Support of a wife and five small Children but is rather a Burden upon them.”
It is no secret that the Nerds are fascinated with research studies and reports that explore the civilian experience of the American Revolution. Of particular growing interest has been the retelling of both important and mundane events from the perspective of child witnesses.
Admittedly, the Nerds are unaware of any existing primary accounts from children that document the Battle of Bunker Hill. Instead, most, if not all of the accounts from children first surfaced in the early to mid 19th Century and are understandably subject to careful scrutiny. Similarly, by the middle to late 19th Century, grandchildren of witnesses began to share the stories of their elders.
Many historians rightfully argue that these 19th-century accounts may be tainted by either fading memories or a desire to exaggerate or sensationalize one’s role during the early months of the American Revolution. As 19th Century Massachusetts historian George E. Ellis noted, many veterans and witnesses who claimed to have participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill, "Their contents were most extraordinary; many of the testimonies extravagant, boastful, inconsistent, and utterly untrue; mixtures of old men's broken memories and fond imaginings with the love of the marvellous. Some of those who gave in affidavits about the battle could not have been in it, nor even in its neighborhood. They had got so used to telling the story for the wonderment of village listeners as grandfathers' tales, and as petted representatives of 'the spirit of '76’, that they did not distinguish between what they had seen and done, and what they had read, heard, or dreamed. The decision of the committee was that much of the contents of the volumes was wholly worthless for history, and some of it discreditable, as misleading and false."
With that context in mind, the Nerds would still like to highlight an account we came across approximately two years ago from Loyalist Dorthea Gamsby regarding her memories of June 17, 1775. Admittedly we completely forgot about Gamsby’s story until we were preparing for a History Camp presentation.
Loyalist Dorothea Gamsby was the daughter of John and Margaret Gamsby and the niece of Sir John Nutting. She arrived in Boston with her aunt and uncle at some point before April 1773. At the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, she was only ten years old.
Allegedly, Dorothea’s granddaughter, a “Mrs. Marcus D. Johnson”, recorded Dorothea’s recollections of her experiences in Boston at some point in the 1830s or 1840s. The accounts were eventually turned over to Dorothea’s great-grandson, Charles D. Johnson, the editor and publisher of a North Stratford, New Hampshire newspaper entitled The Coos County Democrat. Dorothea’s account appeared in that newspaper as a series of articles between 1859 and 1862.
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, Dorothea noted that “My uncle took a beautiful house in one of the pleasantest streets in Boston, my father went into business in Lynn a town not far off. I never visited the place but once or twice and recollected very little about it, for the country my uncle said, had gone mad, and we had better stay at home. In fact, it was on the eve of revolution, and we were visited by noble looking gentlemen without number, who talked all dinnertime of the rebelious whigs, and what the parliament had done and would do.”
Dorothea’s account to her granddaughter does discuss the Boston Tea Party but does not recount any of the subsequent political or military conflicts until the Battle of Bunker Hill. Curiously, she does reflect upon the growing tensions between the troops stationed in Boston and the town’s civilian population. As Gamsby observed “They sent a host of troops from home. Boston was full of them, and they seemed to be there only to eat and drink and enjoy themselves.”
In the early hours of June 17, 1775, Dorothea was woken from her sleep. According to her statement “one day there was more than usual commotion, uncle said there had been an outbreak in the country; and then came a night when there was bastle, anxiety, and watching. Aunt and her maid, walked from room to room sometimes weeping. I crept after them trying to understand the cause of their uneasiness, full of curiosity, and unable to sleep when everybody seemed wide awake, and the streets full of people. It was scarcely daylight when the booming of the cannon on board the ships in the harbour shook every house in the city. My uncle had been much abroad lately and had only sought the pillow within the hour but he came immediately to my aunts room saying he would go and learn the cause of the firing and come again to inform us … We were by this time thoroughly frightened, but uncle bade ‘Keep quiet’ said ‘there was no danger’ and left us.”
|"Charlestown Promontory, the ruins of the town after the Battle of Bunker Hill and General Howe's encampment", c. 1775.|
As the battle raged, Dorothea and her aunt went to an unknown location and apparently had a clear view of the engagement. According to Gamsby, “The glittering host, the crashing music, all the pomp and brilliance of war, moved on up toward that band of rebels, but they still laboured at their entrenchment, they seemed to take no heed- the bullets from the ships, the advancing column of British warriors, were alike unnoticed … Every available window and roof was filled with anxious spectators, watching the advancing regulars, every heart I dare say throbbed as mine did, and we held our breath or rather it seemed to stop and oppress the labouring chest of its own accord so intensely we awaited the expected attack, but the troops drew nearer and the rebels toiled on … At length one who stood conspicuously above the rest waved his bright weapon, the explosion came attended by the crash [illegible] the shrieks of the wounded and the groans of the dying. My aunt fainted. Poor Abby looked on like one distracted. I screamed with all my might.”
As with the pair of child witness accounts from the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Dorothea’s account also reflected upon the horrors of war. “Men say it was not much of a fight, but to me it seems terrible … Charleston was in flames; women and children flying from their burning homes … By and by, drays, carts and every description of vehicle that could be obtained were seen nearing the scene of conflict, and the roar of artillery ceased. Uncle came home and said the rebels had retreated. Dr Warren was the first to fall that day. Then came the loads of wounded men attended by long lines of soldiers ... a sight to be remembered … there is nothing but woe and sorrow and shame to be found in the reality.”
Dorothea Gamsby remained in Boston until the evacuation of March 17, 1776. Afterward, she resided first in Nova Scotia and then in Quebec. Eventually, she, her husband, and her children returned to the United States and settled in Vermont.
After April 19 and the Battle of Bunker Hill a few of the wounded men began to ask the state for help. Their wounds, in some cases, made them unable to work and make a living. Medical bills were also growing and with no income how could they pay the bills and provide for their families? Many of these petitions for a pension, or after December 1775 for lost and broken material, are in the collection of the Massachusetts State Archives spread through numerous volumes. The earliest petition for Robbins is from 1776. It gives a description of his wounds:
“To the Honorable the Colony Counsil & the Honorable the House of Representatives in general Court assembled The Petition of John Robbins of Lexington Humbly Sheweth, That your Petitioner was on the memorable 19th of april 1775 most grievously wounded. by the Brittish Troops in Lexington, by a musket ball which passed by the left of the spine between his Shoulders through the length of his neck making its way through and most miserably Shattering his under jaw bone, by which unhappy Wound your Petitioner is so much hurted in the Muscles of his shoulder, that his Right arms is rendered almost useless to him in his Business and by the fracture of his under jaw the power of Mastecation is totally destroyed and by his, low Slop diet, weakness, and total loss of his right arm, and the running of his wound, his Situation is rendered truly Pitiable being unable to Contribute any thing to the Support of a wife and five small Children but is rather a Burden upon them, & has no Encouragement from his Surgeon of his being Materialy better He therefor is under the disagrable Necessity of begging relief & assistance of this Honrrable Court by a Pension or other wise as your Honors Great wisdom & compations may suggest, and your Petitioner as in duty bound will Ever pray Lexington 14th June 1776 John Robbins”
Not only does the petition describe his ghastly wound, but he had a wife and five small children all under the age of 13 to support. For the 1776 petition, Robbins is given a pension for the year:
“The Committee on the Petition of John Robbins have heard The Petitioner Examined his wounds considered his deplorable Circumstances and Report by way of Resolve---- In the House of Representatives Nov 4th 1776-----
Resolved that there be allowed and paid out of the Publick Trsy to and for the use of the Petitioner John Robbins the sum of thirteen Pounds six Shillings and Eight pence yearly untill the General Court Shall otherwise Order it, to Recompence him for his sufferings by wounds which he recd on the 19th of Aprill 1775”
He submits petitions with the same wording till 1778 when he has another addition to his family, a daughter named Hannah. This time his petition also included a note from his doctor. It seems his body was never going to recover from his awful bullet wound from the morning of the 19th:
“To The honorable Council of the State of Massachusetts Bay. This Certificate humbly sheweth that the Bearer Mr John Robbins of Lexington receiv,d such a grevious Wound thro: the Muscles of his right shoulder Neck & Jaw Bone which last was miserably fractured: by which Wound the unhappy Man is yet so debilitated in his right shoulder that He is unable to perform but very little labor as Fatigue upon his small Farm for the support of a numerous Family of young Children and in the Opinion of the Subscriber who was his surgeon He is unhappily like to remain in such a weakned hopeless Condition during life and is a proper Object of the gracious Bounty of this State----------- Watertown July 5th .1778 sign,d Marshall Spring, N.B. He was wounded in the Morning of the 19th of april 1775 at Lexington."
Military surgeons in the late 18th and well into the 19th century described and commented on treating gunshot wounds in a variety of texts and treatises. A perusal of some of these texts as well as the pertinent sections of the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (Part One, Volume 2 and Part 2, Volume 2, 1875 and 1877 respectively) for wound effects of .69-caliber musket balls clearly demonstrate that these large lead balls could indeed inflict significant and lasting effects to hard and soft tissue as well as nerves. Once a ball enters the human body it can be deflected from a straight path through the tissue by any number of factors and exit the body after a torturous route. This is borne out by our recent live fire studies of Colonial era weapons, particularly with the shooting of British land pattern muskets. We observed, using high speed video recording, that a .69-caliber ball shot at target 25 to 30 yards away that the ball’s velocity and energy were significant enough to pass through reproduction clothing and 32 inches of tissue simulant. That is the equivalent of the body mass of two people. The ball, on exiting the tissue simulant, still had enough velocity and energy to travel between 50 and 100 additional yards before reaching its terminal velocity.
John Robbins’ pension application account of his wounding provides additional clues as to why he suffered such extensive wounds. Robbins states he was in the front rank of the Parker’s militiamen drawn up on Lexington Green. His account states the company started to disperse when the British regulars were ordered to fire. Assuming the accuracy of his account he may well have turned so that his back was partially toward the British line. On hearing the firing begin he may have instinctively ducked or bent forward so that the British ball struck his upper left back near the spinal column. If slightly bent over, as is speculated, the ball could well have been deflected by muscle and possibly striking a transverse process on one of the vertebrae. Such deflection is consistent with the ball passing around or under the spinal column and traveling up the neck, shattering his mandible, and exiting the body. Robbins’ right arm paralysis is consistent with bullet caused nerve damage, as is the damage to his jaw that no longer allowed him to chew his food. His note that the wound was still “running” suggests that his wound had not fully healed and he suffered from a residual infection. Perhaps some cloth bits or other foreign matter were still in the wound causing it to continue to fester and discharge up to at least 1776. He is lucky to have survived his wounds at all given the state of medical knowledge and treatment of the day.
Historical Nerdery’s long-awaited Season 1 podcast is finally here!!
Historical Nerdery’s long-awaited Season 1 podcast is finally here!!Entitled the “Lexington Series”, our six-episode program examines 18th Century Lexington and all things related to the events of April 19, 1775!
When one thinks of the various Loyalist military units that served during the American Revolution, the observer will often turn their attention towards units such as the Queen's Rangers, the King’s Royal Regiment, the Loyal American Regiment and the British Legion. These units, as well as others that served during the war, enjoyed the benefit of often being adequately supplied, armed and equipped by His Majesty’s government in order to sustain military operations against the American rebels.
However, not all Loyalist regiments and units were on equal footing. In fact, the experiences of those men that served in the various units that composed the “Royalist Corps” during the Burgoyne Campaign of 1778 and beyond highlight the disparity of clothing and equipment issuances that existed during the war.
From its inception, Jessup’s Corps, McAlpin’s Corps, Peter’s Corps, and other Royalist units were seen by British military officials as temporary units that were organized to support the logistical needs of a specific campaign. As a result, these units were last in line to be supplied and supported during the war effort.
For example, during its formation in late 1776/early 1777, Jessup’s Corps was in desperate need of clothing and equipment. As a result, General Carleton ordered Major Gray to acquire clothing for Jessup’s men and encouraged the major to locate “some cheap uniform clothing to keep them from the severity of the weather”. In turn, the major travelled to Montreal and had purchased “on behalf of Messr Jessup and his followers” regimental coats. As Gray would later note, the coats were “the cheapest that could be got, at Montreal, very Common red stuff turn’d up with Green as Red seemed to be their favorite colour, and being got rather than any other I gratified their taste.” In April 1777, as additional recruits poured into Canada, Gray made a second attempt to procure coats for men drawn into Jessup’s Corps. As with the January purchase, he was forced to buy the same cheap coats from the same supplier. Nevertheless, the major was able to successfully clothe all but eight of Jessup’s recruits. Inexplicably, Gray complained to his superiors that unless ordered, he would not purchase additional coats for the corps.
Research suggests that unlike the Royal Yorkers, Jessup’s received little to no other clothing issuances. As a result, the refugees that served in that unit often fielded in civilian clothing.
Yet, clothing was not the only issue Jessup’s Corps faced. Many of the recruits who arrived in Canada were unarmed and poorly equipped. As a result, the British government was forced to secure weapons and accoutrements for Jessup’s men. Whereas other, better supplied Loyalist units (such as the Royal Highland Emigrants) received “modern” British” weaponry, It is likely Carleton ordered outdated Model 1728 French infantry muskets left over from the previous French and Indian War and sitting in storage in Quebec be issued to Jessup’s men. Period accounts also suggest that many of Jessup’s men received partial “stands of arms” in the form of belly boxes and belting.
The men of McAlpin’s Corps experienced a similar lack of supplies when it was organized after July 30, 1777. According to one period account, many of the refugees who joined McAlpins “came as they could, some from prisons, and some from committees . . . naked and barefoot, but with good hearts; no money being given to clothe them.” Worse, according to period accounts, only one third of the loyalists joining Burgoyne at Fort Edward were properly armed and equipped.
Of course, Burgoyne moved to arm and supply these volunteers as quickly as possible. Because the general did not bring military weapons for incoming Loyalist recruits, it is likely these men were armed with civilian muskets seized from the local populace or taken from incoming refugees. For example, on September 7, 1777, sixteen civilian arms were delivered to McAlpin’s Corps. As subsequent correspondence noted, “Some days ago the General told me there were a dozen firelocks at Head Quarters, which would arm so many of the provincials; you will have the goodness to give directions for delivering them to the bearer a Serjeant of Captain Macalpins Corps. I am Dr. Sir your most obedient humble Servant Sm Fraser...Sept. 7th 1777; Head Quarters. Recd. Sixteen firelocks (that were brought in by Inhabitants to the Commissioners) for the use of Capt. Macalpins Corps. Thos Fraser Lieut. in Captn. McAlpin Corps.”
Following Burgoyne’s defeat and the retreat to Canada, most, if not all, of the Royalist Corps struggled to receive proper arms, equipment and clothing. Recognizing that his men were armed with a mix of old French military muskets, fowlers and commercial trade guns, McAlpin begged governmental officials that “I need not explain to His Excellency the figure an old grey-headed fellow will make at the head of a parcel of raw, undisciplined people with bad arms . . . I hope the General will be good enough to prevent me from appearing in this mortifying situation by ordering good arms to be delivered to us.” It appears McAlpin did make some progress and did receive some “good arms” in 1778. Nevertheless, as late as August 3, 1778, McAlpin still reported a “return of arms and accouterments wanting to compleat Captain McAlpin’s Corps of Volunteers . . . 35 firelocks, 35 bayonets, 35 belts and frogs, 35 cartridge boxes.”
Despite their best efforts, the men of the Royalist Corps would not receive new uniforms until November, 1778. Worse, this would be the only identified clothing the corps would receive over the next two years. To complicate matters, these coats were the highly unpopular blue coats faced white that were often worn by their New England enemies. According to a complaint filed by the officers of Jessup’s Corps, “With all Respect and due difference we the subscribing Officers of the Loyalists beg leave to represent to Your Excellency, that the Cloathing in Store at this Garrison being Blue faced with White, the same as the Uniform of many Regiments of our Enemies, we are apprehensive that should we be sent on service with this Cloathing, many fatal accidents might happen, from mistakes of Indians and our own Scouting Parties, as was actually the case several times last Campaign. We are aware that to expect this Cloathing should be totally laid aside, for such reasons, after the great expense the Crown has been at, must be deemed unreasonable; our wishes only are that Your Excellency will Order us, Red Clothing, as along as any remains in Store, and that the Blue may be made use of the last. Lieut Colonel St. Leger has been pleased at our request to suffer us to draw only half Mounting, for the present, the Blanket Coats we have purchased for the Men by his directions, supplying the place of the Coats, untill Your Excellency will be pleased to decide for us; and whatever that decision may be we shall be entirely satisfied – The Transporting the Cloathing at this Season, we are sensible will be attended with some Expense to Government, which we do not wish to burthen it with; but should Your Excellency Order us the Red Clothing we will chearfully defray the Expense of Carriage.”
Besides a lack of supplies, shelter was almost non-existent. As Sir. John Johnson correctly noted in correspondence to Haldimand regarding McAlpin’s and other corps, “I have not mentioned Tents, or Camp Equipage, tho they [are] wanting for the whole Regiment – but should your Excellency think them Necessary, I shall immediately forward them.”
Worse yet, the volunteers of McAlpin’s Corps often found themselves at odds with civilian refugees living in Sorel. Competition for limited supplies, including fresh food and clothing, proved to be a source of constant irritation. On more than one occasion, Major McAlpin described incidents of large groups of loyalist refugees engaged in fights with his soldiers.
The lack of supplies for the Royalist Corps continued into the 1780s. On November 12, 1781, British officials ordered that Jessup’s, Peter’s and McAlpin’s Corps be amalgamated into a single battalion designated the “Loyal Rangers”. Yet despite this reorganization, the problems of a proper supply chain continued.
A little more than a month after assuming command, Major Edward Jessup complained “the men in the Corps of Royalists are in great want of Cloathing and that I Beg His Excellancy will pleas to give orders for their being issued of the green Cloaths as we understand there is a sufficient Quantity of that sort to Cloath the whole Corps . . . Capt Sherwood tells us that his Coat is approved of as a pattern for our uniform which we shall Immetate but shall need some green Cloath for facings (as the Present facings are Red) I thought it would be but Little Expence if any Rat eaten or Damaged Coats Should be in the Store.” Ten days later, Jessup ordered “The Captains and Commanding Officers of Companys are to Deliver without delay to the Acting Adjutant an Exact Return of their non Commissioned Officers Drummers and Private Men in their respective Company for whosoever it will be Necessary at Present to give Cloathing.” By February 14th, the commander was still submitting requests for additional clothing. On February 21, 1782, Jessup was able to report that only one hundred and seventy-four green regimental coats faced red had been issued to his men.
In short, a 1780 inspection of the Royalist Corps correctly summarized the state of supply for units like the Royalist Corps. “[They are] in great want of Provisions; and was distressed for everything having wore out all their Shoes, Mockosins, Trowsers, Leggings, &c…”
Over the past few years, the Nerds have posted a few articles on the psychological effects of the Civilian Evacuation of April 19, 1775 and the Ipswich Fright that occurred in the days afterward.
Unfortunately, there is a perception in some historical circles that after the Ipswich Fright concluded the residents of Essex County simply chalked up the entire experience as an embarrassing experience and went on with their daily lives. In reality, this was hardly the case.
Historian Joel Bohy has been prodding the Nerds to expand our horizon and start reviewing the post-April 19th minutes and records of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Well, we finally got off our collective butts and did so. Little did we know that we were about to uncover just how rattled coastal Essex County and the Merrimack Valley were in the aftermath of the Ipswich Fright.
Many Essex County residents quickly realized that while the Ipswich Fright was nothing more than a rumor, the reality was most, if not all, of their coastal communities were not prepared for a seaborne attack. If a Royal Navy warship anchored off the coast of a town, or in the case of the Merrimack Valley, entered and sailed up the Merrimack River, it could easily bombard the communities, destroy wharves and shipyards and drive the population to the interior.
The first hint of concern over this perceived threat was raised the morning of April 26, 1775. On that day, Provincial Congress delegates from Haverhill, Massachusetts begged to be excused from their responsibilities in Watertown.
Haverhill already had a string of bad luck in April. In the days before Lexington and Concord, the town had fallen victim to a devastating fire that destroyed most of the businesses and homes near the center of town. All of the town’s militia, minute and independent companies marched for war the morning of April 19th and had not yet returned. The Ipswich Fright caused the remaining residents of the town to flee north to New Hampshire.
In the aftermath of the Ipswich Fright, many Haverhill residents were convinced it was only a matter of time before a British sloop would sail down the Merrimack River and fire the town. As a result, the Haverhill delegates pleaded to be excused from their duties. “Sir: The Congress have this day received a letter from Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant, Esq., and Jonathan Webster, Esq., acquainting them that the late dreadful fire in Haverhill, together with some public disturbances in said town, make it necessary that they should be at home at this time.”
Of course, Congress was unsympathetic and simply retorted that “ if neither of those gentlemen can attend, others should be elected.”
However, on the same day, the representatives of the Provincial Congress started to receive a string of letters and communications from other Essex County maritime towns pleading for protection from British warships that were unexpectedly observed cruising off their coastline.
The first report came from Marblehead but other communications from Newburyport, Beverly, Salem and York started to stream in as well. As the Provincial Congress noted “Many memorials ... were presented to the Congress from the maritime towns, representing that the long line of sea coast was without adequate defence; that armed vessels were hovering about the ports, ready to turn their cannon upon the villages of the shore; that the people were exhausted by strenuous exertions in the common cause; and praying for reinforcement of men, and supplies of arms and ammunition.”
The reports horrified the Provincial Congress as it came to the realization that Essex County as well as the Maine Province were completely helpless if the Royal Navy launched a coordinated attack. Of particular concern to the delegates were the Maine Province communities of York, Wells, Boothbay and Biddeford.
While many Essex County towns had some defensive capabilities in the form of iron cannons, shot and gunpowder, the Maine Province had nothing. As a result, the Provincial Congress ordered “Resolved, That it be, and it hereby is recommended to the selectmen of the towns of Marblehead, Salem and Newburyport, that they forthwith sell out of their town stock four half barrels of powder each, to said towns of York, Welles, Biddeford and Boothbay, to put the inhabitants thereof in some tolerable state of defence; and should the towns of Marblehead, Salem and Newburyport be under the necessity of having the quantities which they have delivered to the said towns of York, Welles, Boothbay and Biddeford replaced, in that case, the Congress will give orders for the same as soon as may be: the powder to be apportioned according to the number of inhabitants in the said towns: as also to Sandford, said town having made appli- cation for supplies of the same kind.
Understandably, the Essex County seaport communities opposed selling some of their military supplies to their Maine counterparts and argued that such a move would only weaken an already untenable position.
The tense situation only became worse on April 27, 1775, when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress revisited the issue and examined just how vulnerable Essex County was to a naval attack. At the conclusion of the discussion, the delegates concluded that there was nothing that could be done in the event of a Royal Navy strike. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted a stance that surely rattled the residents of Essex County even more. In short, Congress simply recommended that the coastal communities of the county should prepare for a mass evacuation in the event of an attack.
“Resolved, That it be, and it hereby is earnestly recommended to the committees of the sea port towns in the county of Essex, that they use their utmost endeavors to have all the effects of the inhabitants of their respective towns removed as soon as possible : that the Congress highly approves of the conduct of said towns in wearing a pacific ap- pearance until their effects shall be secured: that the Congress consider it as absolutely necessary for said inhabitants to be in readiness to go into the country on the shortest notice, and to avoid mixing with our enemies, as thereby their own lives will ever be in imminent danger when the colony and the continent shall attack such enemies. And it is also recommended to them that their application to Congress for advice, and this resolve in consequence thereof, be kept a secret, that their effects may more easily be removed.”
As an aside, during this same crisis, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was faced with the reality that Boston residents trapped behind British lines might be released by General Thomas Gage to relocate to the interior of the Colony. Congress listed a variety of towns to take in the Boston refugees. Essex County communities were not among those towns listed.
By mid-May, the coastal communities of Essex County continued to be on edge.
The situation only became worse when on May 23, 1775, a detachment of British sailors and officers from the HMS Scarborough rowed into Newburyport Harbor under the cover of darkness to scout the town’s defensive capabilities. According to the Essex Journal, “last Tuesday evening (May 23) a barge belonging to the man of war lying at Portsmouth, rowing up and down the river to make discoveries with two small officers and six seamen.”
Fortunately, the mission was an utter failure as the “tars not liking the employ, tied their commanders, then run the boat ashore, and were so impolite as to wish the prisoners good night, and came off.” Upon entering Newburyport, the deserters alerted the town of the mission and the location of the officers. However, “the officers soon got loose and rowed themselves back to the ship” before they were apprehended.
By the end of May, coastal communities finally had enough and started to take measures into their own hands. Over the summer, communities such as Newburyport, Marblehead, Amesbury, Salem, Beverly and Lynn started to fortify their towns in the event of a British attack. Newburyport and Salisbury instructed fishing boats to watch the horizon for signs of Royal Navy activity. Cape Ann communities started to evacuate civilians to interior communities while more than a few villages openly discussed outright abandoning their homes until the conflict with England ended.
Almost three months later, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress relented and agreed to provide military support to those coastal communities. Specifically, on July 11th, Congress declared “Whereas, many able-bodied men, who were inhabitants of the seaport towns of the colony, have removed their families into the country, and have themselves left said towns, and carried with them their arms and ammunition ; therefore. Resolved, that this Congress do approve of the conduct of such persons, so far as it respects the removing the women, and children, and valuable effects. It is recommended to the male inhabitants, fit to bear arms, that they return to their respective towns, and there continue with tliat dignity and firmness which ought ever to distinguish an American, and to defend them from the ravages of the enemy, until it shall be judged by the inhabitants of such towns, at a meeting for that purpose, expedient to vacate the same.”
Of course, Essex County’s concerns of a possible naval assault were not unfounded. In August 1775, the commanding officer of the HMS Scarborough, then anchored off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, recommended that the port town of Newburyport be bombarded. In response, Admiral Graves admitted such an operation was unlikely only due to the lack of ships. “I observe what you say about Newbury; that place and all others indeed require to be strictly attended to, but where are the Ships?” Two months later, Admiral Graves ordered Lieutenant Henry Mowat, of the HMS Canceaux to burn Salem, Beverly, Ipswich, Newburyport and other Essex County seaports to the ground. Fortunately for the county, Mowat had other plans and attacked Falmouth, Maine instead.