Thursday, March 21, 2019

Unexpected Discoveries at the David Library by Dusty Marie Dye

Guest blogger Dusty Marie Dye is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland. During her residency as a 2018-19 David Library Fellow last summer, she came across some  passages in orderly books, correspondence and diaries that were both insightful, and strange. 

My fellowship at the David Library of the American Revolution lasted for the month of June, 2018, and I have to say it is one of the best experiences of my scholarly career. It goes without saying that I was tremendously excited to have the extensive collection at the library at my fingertips on a 24/7 basis, but I could not have expected how amazing my discoveries would be. My dissertation focuses on eighteenth-century mourning customs and how those customs give us insight into the lives of the soldiers and civilians who experienced the turmoil of the American Revolution, the separation of Great Britain from its North American colonies, and the formation of an entirely new nation with citizens who struggled to develop new national identities. With such a peculiar starting point, I have had to be creative in the sources that I have employed to examine my subject and the collection at the library has been an absolute treasure of valuable (and sometimes quirky) information. I found, for example, instructions in an orderly book for New York soldiers to “furnish 3 Sargts & 30 privates to Burrey the dead bodys & carkesses & cover the other putred matters” in and around Yorktown in October 1781. In addition, I found sheet music for funeral dirges and an officers’ handbook (Thomas Simes' Military Guide for Young Officers) that listed, in detail, the order that soldiers should march in funeral processions, what the usual funeral expenses should be, and what should be done with a fallen soldier’s belongings, whether he be an officer or a “common soldier.” As for civilians, the personal papers and diaries that can be found at the library are awash with accounts of attending funerals and lamentations on the deaths of loved ones and friends, including fears for those marching off to battle and consolations to others who lost family members to the war.
Page from Simes' Guide

In the course of my research, I also found other insights into military life, such as when orderly books included prohibitions against soldiers throwing apples at one another or lounging about naked after bathing. There were frequent reminders that the soldiers who fought the Revolution were ordinary men and boys, such as when they noted in their diaries that they missed their families or relieved their boredom by doodling in the margins of orderly books.
A doodle in the margin of an orderly book
In the letters between soldiers and their wives, in between descriptions of battle, there were affectionate jokes and references to mundane matters such as the management of crops and the state of household accounts. In short, the collection at the David Library allowed me a glimpse into the world of the Revolutionary generation and the lives that were shaped both by everyday cares and personal connections and the tremendous disruptions of war. It is my hope that my work, which will be built upon the discoveries that I made during my fellowship, will help others to connect on some level with those who fought in the Revolution and helped to build the nation we live in today.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

"Beyond America: The East India Papers of Lords North and Cornwallis," by Adam Nadeau

Guest blogger Adam Nadeau is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He recently completed a four week residency as a 2018-19 David Library Fellow conducting research for his dissertation examining British imperial reform during the Revolutionary era.   

My project seeks to explore the crisis of empire leading up to, during, and immediately following the American Revolutionary War from a British imperial perspective, as well as it intends to incorporate the story of contemporaneous events in British East India into a transoceanic narrative spanning the years from roughly 1763 to about 1793. As such, I had sought out a fellowship at the David Library in order to work through parts of the Library’s vast microfilmed collection of eighteenth-century British imperial papers. 

Charles Cornwallis by John Singleton
 Copley, c. 1795. Wikimedia   
While many researchers venture to the David Library to utilize its British imperial holdings, I was particularly drawn to the Library’s copies of the papers of Lords North and Cornwallis, and I was hopeful that such collections contained materials relating to British rule in India during the 1770s, 80s, and 90s. In this respect, the David Library far exceeded my expectations. Upon my arrival, I realized that not only did the David Library have the few East India documents that were intermixed with Cornwallis’s American materials; they held the entire Cornwallis collection, much of which concern the general’s career beyond America. 

The English (later British) East India Company was chartered by Elizabeth I in 1600 and granted a monopoly on English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope in an effort to compete with England’s main commercial rival at the time, the Dutch republic. After about a decade or so of activity in Southeast Asia, however, English merchants recognized that Company profits would be greatly increased by shifting their commercial focus to the textile-rich markets of the Indian subcontinent, and where English commerce went English diplomacy followed. 

By the turn of the eighteenth century, Britain had become thoroughly drawn into Indian dynastic politics, and the entry of the French East India Company into subcontinental affairs in the 1720s ensured that the imperial wars fought between France and England during the first half of the eighteenth century would play out in the East Indian theatre as well.
Lord Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757, 
by Francis Hayman, c. 1760. National Portrait Gallery, London.
During the Seven Years’ War, France and Britain exchanged victories up and down India’s Coromandel Coast until in June 1757, British East India Company troops faced a combined French and Bengali force at Plassey on the banks of the Hooghly River. There, Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, and installed Mir Jafar as nawab in exchange for £1 million for the defrayment of troops and almost £700,000 in loot. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 barred the French from making any further military incursions into Bengal, and in August 1765, the Company acquired from Mughal emperor Shah Alam II the diwani, or right to collect the imperial revenue of Bengal, valued at some £3 million annually.

A series of parliamentary regulations during the 1770s and 80s integrated the presidencies of Bombay, Madras, and Bengal under the civil jurisdiction of the Governor General and Supreme Council of Bengal and placed the Company under the oversight of a ministerial Board of Control in London. All the while, Company influence continued to expand in India as British officials negotiated subsidiary alliances with a series of Indian rulers, oftentimes carving up autochthonous territories in the process.

 The East India papers present in the David Library’s North and Cornwallis collections cover this crucial period of Company reform and imperial expansion in India during the 1770s and 80s, including documents relating to the administrations of governors Warren Hastings and John Macpherson, which cast light on the civil affairs of British India and on the various military operations against hostile Indian polities that are coterminous with the chronology of the American Revolutionary War. 

A scan of a letter to the Governor General of 
Bengal from the court of the Nawab,  
May 2, 1785. PRO 30/11/7, fol. 360.
Cornwallis’s papers are especially illuminating. Four years after returning to Britain, Cornwallis accepted the position of Governor General of Bengal in 1786 on the condition that he also be made Commander-in-Chief of British India, becoming the first governor to hold both posts simultaneously from 1786 to 1793 and again in 1805. Cornwallis amassed a significant amount of materials during his time in India, and it appears to me that the bulk of Cornwallis’s papers in fact relate to his career in the East, covering the period of two of the wars fought between the Company and the kingdom of Mysore in the 1780s and 90s.

The Anglo-Mysore Wars were partially a theatre of the French Revolutionary Wars in Europe in that they saw the Mysorean ruler Tipu Sultan backed by France and republican Europe against monarchical Britain. The result of the Anglo-Mysore Wars, however, was the defeat of one of the last remaining Indian polities that was capable of resisting Company rule, leaving the Indian subcontinent open to British territorial expansion which would persist into the twentieth century. 

The East India papers of Lords North and Cornwallis are a hidden gem among the David Library’s collections and may very well be the largest assortment of such materials on this side of the Atlantic. These documents will become increasingly relevant as trends in scholarship continue to move towards transoceanic analyses of Britain’s eighteenth-century empire and as historians of colonial America and the West Indies begin to expound upon the fiscal and military interconnectedness of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.

Further Reading

Bowen, H. V., Elizabeth Mancke, and John G. Reid, eds. Britain’s Oceanic Empire: Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, c. 1550–1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Eacott, Jonathan. Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Marshall, P. J. The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America, c. 1750–1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wickwire, Franklin and Mary. Cornwallis: The Imperial Years. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Real Houswives of Worcester County

 Guest blogger Ken Miller tells us about his research on three Massachusetts women during the American Revolution. 

The American Revolution carried grave consequences for Bathsheba Spooner, a suspected loyalist in Worcester County, Massachusetts. The daughter of the reviled Tory, Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, the thirty-two-year-old Spooner orchestrated the murder of her well-to-do husband, Joshua, in early March 1778 with the help of three co-conspirators—her young lover, the teenaged Continental soldier, Ezra Ross, and William Brooks and James Buchanan, two British prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Saratoga. After beating their victim to death and disposing of his corpse in the family well, his assailants hastily divided their spoils. Apprehended, tried, and convicted for the grisly crime soon thereafter, all four malefactors perished at the gallows on July 2, 1778. Tragically, revolutionary authorities chose to disregard legal precedent and hang Spooner even though she had reached an advanced stage of pregnancy, with her post-mortem exam revealing a five-month old fetus.

I spent the month of February at the David Library researching the Spooner case as a short-term residential fellow. I’m approaching the controversy as the centerpiece of an anticipated microhistory designed to illuminate the perils of loyalism across Massachusetts during the initial years of the Revolutionary War. To contextualize the murder, I conducted extensive research in Britain’s loyalist claims and colonial office records, the British headquarters papers, and the correspondence of the Massachusetts general, William Heath. I also perused the papers of Robert Treat Paine, the case’s prosecuting attorney, uncovering long neglected trial testimony.

My investigations ultimately shed light on the wartime travails of Spooner’s more obscure Worcester County neighbors, underscoring the painful costs of allegiance for Whig and Tory alike. Among the loyalist claims, for example, I located the petition of the widow Ann Greenleaf, a Bolton resident who courageously defied local Whigs by carrying intelligence to the enemy until she was finally discovered and forced to take refuge behind British lines in late 1778. Sarah Duncan, by contrast, the wife of a loyalist merchant, refused to abandon her home and family, prompting her devoted husband to remain in Worcester and brave the wrath of vengeful patriots. The stories of these diverse Massachusetts women illustrate the wide range of female experiences during Americans’ first civil war.

As for Bathsheba, the site of her husband’s slaying, the infamous Spooner well, remains an historic landmark, located just off East Main Street in Brookfield, Massachusetts. Alas, two hundred and forty years after the crime that sent her to the gallows, Bathsheba’s final resting place remains unknown.

Ken Miller is associate professor of early American history at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and the author of "Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence," just released in paperback by Cornell University Press.

Friday, February 23, 2018

For Black History Month, The Story of Elizabeth Freeman, or "Mumbet"

W. E. B. DuBois
W. E. B. DuBois was born on February 23, 1868 and is celebrated as a sociologist, historian, educator and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.  

DuBois' maternal great great grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave born in West Africa around 1730, who briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.  DuBois also liked to claim that he was a descendent of Elizabeth Freeman, the first enslaved African American woman in Massachusetts to sue for and win her freedom. It's more likely, though that they were only vaguely related by marriage (perhaps Elizabeth Freeman was Tom Burghardt's mother-in-law).  Nonetheless, one cannot blame DuBois for wanting to claim Freeman as an ancestor, because she is an exceptional figure.   

Elizabeth Freeman
Born into slavery and known as "Mumbet," or sometimes just "Bett," the woman who would later choose to rename herself Elizabeth Freeman was given to John and Hannah Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts in her early teens. During her enslavement to the Ashleys, she had a child called Betsy. (It is Betsy who may have become the later life second wife of DuBois's ancestor Burghardt, but Betsy was not the mother of any of Burghardt's children, and therefore no relation to DuBois.)

In 1780, Hannah Ashley struck at Betsy with a heated shovel.  Bett intervened, shielded her daughter, and receive the blow intended for Betsy.  This resulted in a deep wound on her arm that left her scarred for life.  She later said, "I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam, 'Betty, what ails your arm?' I only answered,  'ask missis!'" 

Around the same time, Bett heard the Massachusetts Constitution read aloud, either at a public gathering in Sheffield, or perhaps at a meeting John Ashley held in his home.  These words from Article 1 captured her imagination:

“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

Inspired, she sought out Theodore Sedgwick, a Stockbridge attorney and abolitionist, to represent her as she sued for her freedom under the newly ratified state constitution. The case was heard in the Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in August 1781.  When the jury ruled in Bett’s favor, she became the first African American woman to be set free under the Massachusetts constitution.  Her case, Brom and Bett v. Ashley, served as precedent in the State Supreme Court case that brought an end to the practice of slavery in Massachusetts.

After Freeman won the lawsuit, the Ashley family asked her to return to work for them for wages, but she refused.  Instead she was employed by Thomas Sedgwick as governess to his children.  Additionally, she became a well known midwife in Stockbridge, and a practitioner of the healing arts.  When the Sedgwick children were all grown, Freeman retired and moved to her own house in Stockbridge near Betsy, and Betsy's children.  

Catherine Maria Sedgwick
One of Sedgwick's daughters was the popular novelist Catherine Maria Sedgwick, who remained devoted to her old caregiver, and wrote about her.  When Freeman died, Catherine Sedgwick arranged for her to be buried in the Sedgwick family plot in the Stockbridge Cemetery, in a section called "The Sedgwick Pie" because of its shape and layout.  Freeman is the only non-family member interred there. 

Catherine Sedgwick composed Freeman's epitaph, which reads, 

"ELIZABETH FREEMAN, also known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28th 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years; She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell."

Fun facts:  When Freeman's story was told in the animated children's series Liberty's Kids, her voice was provided by actress Yolanda King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Among the modern-day descendants of the Sedgwicks are actresses Edie Sedgwick (of  Warhol Factory fame) and Edie's cousin Kyra Sedgwick (one degree from her husband, actor Kevin Bacon).

Interesting Legacy: A women's shelter in Berkshire County, Massachusetts that serves victims of domestic violence is called the Elizabeth Freeman Center in honor of Freeman's spirit of righteousness.   

Elizabeth Freeman's headstone in the "Sedgwick Pie" at Stockbridge Cemetery.

UPDATE, April 3, 2018:  It has been announced that Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer ("The Help," "The Shape of Water, "Hidden Figures") will serve as Executive Producer of a feature film about Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman.  The screenplay, tentatively titled "Mumbet," is by Stephen Glantz, and is based on the book “A Free Woman on God’s Earth” by Jana Laiz and Ann-Elizabeth Barnes. Casting has not been announced, but Ms. Spencer seems a good choice to play Elizabeth Freeman.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Things You Find While Making a Finding Aid

David Swain
Our steadfast and industrious volunteer David Swain is currently working on a finding aid on the British Colonial Papers for Georgia.  Previously, David toiled for three years at the David Library creating a finding aid for the British Colonial Papers for East and West Florida. David notes that in the run up to the Revolution, Georgia is an interesting place, located between more “patriot” South Carolina and more “loyalist” East and West Florida.  Recently, he came across a rather extraordinary letter written by Georgia Governor James Wright in Savannah to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Earl of Dartmouth, in London.  David wrote the following introduction to Wright's letter to put it in historical context.  His transcription of the letter follows in italics.  

By August 1774, Royal Colonial Governor James Wright of Georgia had become a frustrated man.  As governor since 1760, Wright combined the practical skills of a political and administrative leader with the ideals of a strongly patriotic British gentleman.  For most of 14 years, Wright’s two most important preoccupations had been economic development, especially through a nascent silk industry, and maintaining peaceful relations with the Indians on whose lands Georgia was founded and was expanding.

In the early years, loyalty to British sovereignty was a given not to be questioned.  Wright never questioned it, but, beginning with the controversy in 1765-66 over Britain’s Stamp Act, inhabitants of the American colonies began, in varying degrees, to question America’s proper relationship with the British Empire.

By 1774, questioning led to debates, which led to protests and resolutions asserting American rights, which led to royal governmental attempts to quash “illegal” activities, which further fanned the flames of insipient rebellion.

Georgia played something of a transition role geographically.  In Charleston, South Carolina to the north, the Sons of Liberty were active and influential.  In St. Augustine, East Florida to the south, virtually no rebellious movement developed.  In Savannah, Georgia, more of a protest movement developed than Governor Wright wished for, but it remained relatively weak—partly at least because of the Governor’s considerable political and administrative skills and his rock-solid British loyalism.

Still, in August 1774, Wright had grown both frustrated and pessimistic.  In an extraordinary letter dated August 24, Wright allowed himself to express his personal uncertainties and fears to his “boss,” Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Earl of Dartmouth.  This was an official, numbered letter, yet it strayed from the usual content of reports, justification of actions taken, and requests for assistance into a morass of personal doubt and uncertain speculation.  The convoluted nature of Wright’s sentence structure suggests the unrest within his mind.  Yet, through this fog, Wright’s pessimistic speculations were remarkably on target for what was to come starting the following April in faraway Massachusetts Bay—an American revolution, which eventually swallowed up Wright’s royal colony of Georgia.

Savannah in Georgia the 24th of Augst 1774

My Lord

In mine of July the 25th No. 23 & August the 13 No. 24 I acquainted your Lordship that I should give you a full account of the Conduct & Proceedings of the Liberty People here, as soon as I knew for certain what they did or meant to do, and I mentioned that Some Papers were preparing by which I believed it would appear that these Resolutions were not the voice of the People, but unfairly & insolently made by a Junto of a very few only but which Papers are not yet Completed. 
everything my Lord was done that would be thought of, to Frustrate their attempt, but this did not totally Prevent it.  They have been strongly invited by the Carolina Sons of Liberty, who have been Suffered to do whatever they Pleased without the least mark of disapprobation or attempt to Check them, that I have heard of.  and now again my Lord as in the time of the Stamp act, I am to be Reflected upon & abused for opposing the licentiousness of the People and its thrown out “Why should our Governor do so & so when the People in Carolina have gone Greater Lengths than we have, and the Governor has not taken any notice of it”  In short my Lord at such times as these if a man has Resolution & integrity Enough to stand forth & attempt to do his duty its Like being set up as a mark to be shot at, and Raising the Resentment of great numbers against him  However altho’ this is very disagreeable I shall not Regard it.

I have been Informed of another Summons & meeting to be in St. John Parish on the 30th inst, and my Lord as long as these kind of Summonses and meetings are Suffered a Private Man to take upon him to Summons a Whole Province to Consult upon & redress Public grievances, or support Grievances, I apprehend there will be nothing but Cabals & Combinations and the Peace of the Province & minds of the People continually Heated disturbed & distracted and the Proclamation Issued against them is termed arbitrary & oppressive & an attempt to debar them of their natural and Law 

full Rights & priviledges.  In short my Lord if these Calls & meetings are considered as illegal & improper it will require the interposition of higher Authority to remedy the Evil.  for the executive Powers of Government in the Colonies are too weak to rectify such abuses, and Prosecutions would only be Laughed at and no Grand Jury woud [would] fine [find] a Bill of Indictment and the Persons ordering & carrying them on probably Insulted and abused.

James Wright
And now I am mentioning these matters Permit me my Lord to say how things appear to me.  and I conceive that the Licentious Spirit in America has received Such Countenance & Encouragement from many Persons, Speeches, and declarations, at the time of the Stamp act, and ever since in Great Britain, and has now gone to so great a length and is at such a height, that neither Coercive or Lenient measures will settle matters and Restore any tolerable Degree of Cordiality & Harmony with the mother Country.  And in short things & circumstances in America have increased so fast, and at this time so amazingly exceed what at the first Settling and Planting the Colonies could Possibly have been Supposed or expected and America is now become, or Indisputably ere long will be, such a vast, Powerfull & opulent Country or Dominion, that I Humbly Conceive in order to Restore & Establish Real & Substantial Harmony affection & Confidence & that Great Britain may receive that benefit & advantage which She has a Right to expect from the Colonies it may be found advisable to Settle the Line with respect to Taxation &c by some new mode or Constitution, and without which my real and candid opinion is, that however matters may be got over at present & whatever appearance there may be of amity & union the Flame will only be smothered for a time & break out again at some future day with more Violence.

But be these things as they may I doubt not that your Lordship will Judge it is absolutely necessary that they are brought to a Point & Clearly Settled and Established Some how or other, and not Suffered to Remain as they are, nothing but Jealousies, Rancour, and ill Blood.  Law & no Law, Government & no Government, Dependence and Independence, if I may be allowed the expressions and every thing unhinged and Running into Confusion, so that in short a Man hardly knows what to do, or how to act and its a most disagreeable State to one who Wishes to Support Law Government & Good order & to discharge his duty with Honor and integrity.

I beg Pardon my Lord for Presuming to Touch on the Grand & very delicate Point, but Trust that my Zeal for His Majesty’s Service & to discharge my duty in every Respect with the Utmost integrity will Plead my excuse, But my Lord if any alteration should be thought of yet Previous to any thing of this kind intire Submission & obedience to the Sovereignty of Great Britain, and Satisfaction for all Private damages & Injuries ought to be exacted & fully Complied with in & by all the Colonies.

                                    I have the Honor to be with Perfect

                        Esteem my Lord your Lordships most Obliged

                                    and most Obedt Hble Servant

                                                            J. Wright

Friday, September 15, 2017

History: It's a Family Thing

Jacob Quasius
Guest blogger Jacob Quasius was an undergraduate fellow at the David Library this summer through the Library's partnership with Lycoming College, where Jacob is now a senior.  When asked to write about his experience as a resident researcher at the David Library, he wanted to describe how he shared it with his family.

Growing up in northern New Jersey, I was naturally surrounded by history. I live an hour away from New York City, two hours from Philadelphia, a half hour from Morristown, etc., so for as long as I can remember, summer always included at least one “history trip,” whether it was a day trip or a weekend excursion. Even our “normal” vacations typically involved a stop at a museum or a historically significant site. As a future history major, I loved every minute of it.
From an early age, I was an active participant in historical discussions, frequently pestering the tour guides and reenactors with my questions, while other kids my age paid no attention. As I got older, I became increasingly interested in the American Revolution. Trips with my family to Boston, Philadelphia, Trenton, Morristown and Valley Forge piqued my interest, and this interest has continued to this day.  (My friends have gotten used to me pulling over to the side of the road to read historical markers.) 
My parents and grandparents noticed my interest in history, and always encouraged me to expand on my historical knowledge. When I was still in high school, my Grandma gave me her collection of books, covering a wide variety of historical topics, and I frequently used gift cards to add books to this collection, including David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing and David McCullough's 1776. These books later became the inspiration for the project I researched this summer at the David Library, which is centered on militia involvement in the New Jersey campaign of 1776/1777.
Now busy with college, I have less time to go on historical trips with my family, but it doesn't mean I've stopped exploring.  There may be fewer of those family trips, but thankfully, there have been a number of trips sponsored by Lycoming College.  Even during my month as a fellow at the David Library, I had the opportunity to take trips to nearby Washington Crossing Historic Park, Valley Forge National Historic Site, and some of the many historic sites in Philadelphia.
While I value the opportunities my school and this fellowship have given me to explore my passion for history, I couldn’t help missing my family enjoying it with me. Luckily, near the end of my fellowship, I had the opportunity to share the David Library of the American Revolution with my family. When they visited me at the library, I felt like I was able to offer my parents and grandparents the same exciting feeling of making new discoveries that they provided to me throughout my childhood.
After introducing them to the David Library reading room and showing them the online catalog,  each pursued an area of special interest.  My grandparents looked at how everyday citizens in the Early Republic petitioned their elected officials.  Mom looked at New Jersey census records, searching for family names with which she was familiar, while Dad perused the Washington Papers. 
The David Library is a wonderful place that I grew to love through my fresh encounters with surprising collections of manuscripts, and enjoyable interactions with other scholars and like-minded history lovers.  However, it was truly an amazing experience to share the incredible collections of the David Library of the American Revolution with my family.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Penobscot Expedition by Geoffrey Fisher

Geoffrey Fisher, who completed a practicum at the David Library this past spring for credit toward his M. A. in public history from American Public University System, has prepared this article on the Penobscot Expedition, which occurred 238 years ago this month. You can come to the Library and hear Geoff make a presentation on the Battle of Brandywine on Saturday, September 9 at 3:00.                          

The Penobscot Expedition, July 19-August 15, 1779, was the largest naval event during the Revolutionary War.  Other than to eliminate the threat on the Penobscot River, the Americans did not have a clear strategic impetus for this naval engagement that resulted in a debacle for the rebel forces. The British, on the other hand, held a clear strategic vision for the river's and island's defenses, and the fortification that housed the enemy soldiers. First, the construction of a fort would protect British interests to harvest the wood from the surrounding area. Also, a fort would project enough naval power to protect British ships while inhibiting any designs from the Americans on seizing this strategic resource for their fledgling navy. Second, the construction of a fort would ensure sanctuary of the Loyalist population with the British on Nova Scotia, which was not far off. Third, the fort could serve as a base of operations for British naval campaigns off New England.[1]

            For the Penobscot Expedition, the Massachusetts State Board of War delegated Brigadier General Solomon Lovell to command 1,500 militiamen. General Lovell shared leadership with Commodore Dudley Saltonstall. Saltonstall who led 40+ naval vessels during the expedition. All told that amounted to about 344 guns. Commodore Saltonstall also oversaw 300 marines.[2]

                Saltonstall's orders were two-fold. First, he was to take capture or eliminate all of the enemy's sea and land forces. Second, he needed to seek a cooperative working relationship with the ground commanders on the ground so that both, the militia and the navy, could neutralize the enemy's forces.[3]

            Arriving on the 25th of July, the American fleet entered Magebagiduce harbor and saw three British ships for a total of 56 guns. As they went up the waterway, the Americans came face to face with the British northern defenses, that included "a large fort on a regular eminence, below which were two batteries, on the south side another battery was forming; the whole made a pretty formidable appearance." As the Americans approached, they noticed Fort George's daunting exterior. So they lobbed a few shells, which in turn led to a return of fire from the fortified British and spirited cannonade between the two sides ensued.  This barrage of cannon fire would not lead to any ground invasions.[4]

            The American assault on Fort George is broken down into three or four main attacks. The first attack began on the 25th with General Lovell launching his militia forces against Fort George and the island that it was on, Magabagiduce. The cannon fire that broke out between the fort's defenders and the ships holding the landing parties did not produce the positive results that General Lovell was hoping for when he started his offensive. Eventually, he called off his attack due to contrary winds that prevented his entire force from landing. Lovell did not see any reason to land the militia against a well prepared defensive position piecemeal.[1]

            Even though Lovell called off his attack against the fort and the island, the American navy, under Commodore Saltonstall, went ahead with their attack in the early hours of 26th by successfully landing on another island. This attack saw close inter-service cooperation during this stage of the first assault since "about 150 marines, led by Captain John Welsh of the Warren and covered by the guns of the flotilla, landed on Nautilus island directly opposite the British fort and commanding the mouth of the harbor. The Americans drove off its defenders and captured four pieces of artillery and some ammunition. Despite inclement weather, they also managed to get some heavier guns ashore." A possible reason for the successful landing and the close cooperation between the services is that this night time assault did not experience any contrary winds rather than the attempted invasion commanded by General Lovell. Subsequent attacks would not be so promising.[2]

            The second attack began before the sun had risen on the morning of July 28. Commodore Saltonstall and Brigadier General Lovell launched another attack that commenced with another showing of inter-service cooperation. The American brig Tyrannicide with its fourteen guns was to remove the British from the woods by firing into them so that the landing point was devoid of the enemy. The Americans landed with three units: the marines on the right, two divisions of militia on the left and center, respectively. As the Americans put their landing parties ashore, they received assistance from "a heavy cannonade of round and grape shot." The Americans sustained a loss of "a great number of men," while the British losses were "inconsiderable." Despite sustaining heavy casualties during the landing, the American landing parties continued to hold the initiative.[3]

            Although there is no way to fully ascertain from the primary sources how or why the American's second attack fizzled out, the secondary sources do mention the close inter-service relationship that was seen in the early hours of 26th and the opening stages of the second attack began to fall apart at the most critical part of the battle, the taking of Fort George. An American primary source reads that after Tyrannicide cleared the landing point, the rebels were able to land six or seven hundred men that

killed sixteen men, and wounded as many; our men with great resolution returned the fire, ascended the almost impassable precipice, routed them and took possession of the hill, killing (as they supposed) about as many as they lost, and taking a few prisoners; from thence they advanced to a battery near the large fort, and possessed themselves of it, with considerable artillery and baggage.

The above American primary source reads very differently from the British account exacting a heavy toll on American invaders while downplaying their losses.[1]
            On July 31st the Americans began to plan their third attack onto the island to take the fort. The plan for this attack was to get all of the marines ashore by midnight and to work with the troops on land so that an attack on a breastwork south of Fort George, which was close to British shipping, would sever the lines of communication amongst the fort and ships. On August 1st, the Americans launched their assault around two in the morning that opened up with a lot of energy and determination to meet their objective. However, the defenders found their resolve by sending out fifty men "who soon drove the enemy back, tho' allowed to be in number above three hundred."[2]

            From August 2nd-15th, it is up to debate on whether or not the fourth attempt to take Fort George was an actual attack in the literal sense. In between these two weeks, Commodore Saltonstall convened war councils on August 6th, 9th, and 10th. For the August 6th attack, the proposed operation was dropped, however, because Lovell's men were an unruly lot of men who could not be counted on meeting their objective. The August 9th attack was canceled due to the risky proposition of exposing American ships to Fort George's canon without being able to return fire. As for the third and final proposed attack on August 10th, General Lovell advocated for an attack on the British fort, the harbor, and to bait the enemy in the smaller batteries to leave their defensive positions and to come and fight the Americans out in the open. The Americans attempted to do that on August 11th, but the majority of the rebels beat a hasty retreat to their fortifications before their operation was underway. On the night of August 11th, General Lovell called for a war council on the Americans next moves. He believed that his forces did not have the necessary martial strength to counter the British on the grounds of their previous amateurish performances and cowardice, which made it easier for him to promote the lifting of the siege that started on 12th.[3]
            In the evening of August 13th, the Americans decided to lift the siege and load the militiamen and marines back onto the boats. While the Americans left their cannon, accoutrements, and clambered onto their ships, the British fortified and completed another defensive position "where they are secure[d] against us; which at our arrival was only a breastwork, containing five or six-pounders, which then, in all probability, we could have reduced very easily, as also their shipping, as they have since acknowledged." The American leadership, Commodore Saltonstall, and General Lovell could not get on the same page on what should be done from one day to the next.[4]
            On August 14th, British reinforcements entered the Penobscot bay with a half dozen vessels. Though the Americans still held superior numbers in ships and men, their hampered leadership and lackluster performance over nearly four weeks made their strategic and tactical initiative in Penobscot Bay untenable. This terrible turn of events threw the navy and army into hysteria considering that it could effect their escape out of the bay. On August 15th, some 200 militiamen, "sailors, and marines" began their escape back to friendly territory.[5]
            From the beginning of the expedition July 25th-August 15, the Americans lost about 500 killed or captured. One could certainly say and make an argument that the expedition was a failure due to a deficiency in military training and untested militiamen, marines, and sailors. With that said, attributing the American defeat to lackluster training and unproven militiamen lets the leadership, Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, and General Solomon Lovell, off the hook. Upon closer inspection of the primary sources, it is not so much the rank and file's sub standard presentation during the attacks on the island and Fort George as it was their leaders' incompetence and lack of inter-service cooperation between the militiamen and the navy that doomed the operation. The Americans fought well in the taking of Nautilus Island on July 26th and on July 28th, the first and second attacks respectively. One could also say that there was not a defined strategic logic and that affected the mission's objective.[1]

[1] Blanco and Sanborn eds. The American Revolution, 1290.

 Close up of the data plate of the Revolutionary War cannon on display at Norumbega Parkway in Bangor, Maine. It was on a sloop that was destroyed during the Penobscot Expedition in August, 1779.  The cannon was recovered in 1876.

Penobscot Bibliography

Primary Sources:
  1. Author Unknown. "Operations in Maine in 1779: Journal found on board the Hunter, Continental Ship," Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquity, History and Biography of America 8 (1864): 51-54.
  2. "Journal of the Attack of the Rebels on His Majesty's Ships and Troops, Under Command of Brig. Gen. McLean and Capt. Henry Mowatt, Commencing 24th July, 1779 at Majebiguiduce in Penobscot Bay." From the Nova Scotia Gazette, Halifax, September 14, 1779. Communicated by Joseph Williamson, Esq., of Belfast. Collections of the Maine Historical Society 7 (1876): 123-126.
  3. Goold, Nathan. "Colonel Jonathan Mitchell's Cumberland County Regiment: Bagaduce Expedition, 1779." Collections and Proceedings of the Maine Historical Society 10, no. 2 (1899): 143-148.

Secondary Sources:
  1. Blanco, Richard L. and Paul J. Sanborn eds. The American Revolution, 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia, vol. II: M-Z. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993.

[1] Author Unknown, "Operations in Maine in 1779," Historical Magazine, 52.
[2] Ibid; Ibid., 53; Journal of the Attack of the Rebels on His Majesty's Ships and Troops, 125.
[3] Author Unknown, "Operations in Maine in 1779," Historical Magazine, 54.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Goold, Nathan. "Colonel Jonathan Mitchell's Cumberland County Regiment: Bagaduce Expedition, 1779." Collections and Proceedings of the Maine Historical Society 10, no. 2 (1899): 147.
[6] Blanco and Sanborn eds. The American Revolution, 1290.

[1] Blanco and Sanborn eds. The American Revolution, 1289.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.; Journal of the Attack of the Rebels on His Majesty's Ships and Troops, Under Command of Brig. Gen. McLean and Capt. Henry Mowatt, Commencing 24th July, 1779 at Majebiguiduce in Penobscot Bay. From the Nova Scotia Gazette, Halifax, September 14, 1779. Communicated by Joseph Williamson, Esq., of Belfast. Collections of the Maine Historical Society 7 (1876): 123.

[1] Richard L. Blanco and Paul J. Sanborn eds. The American Revolution, 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia, vol. II: M-Z (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993), 1288.
[2] Ibid., Ibid. 1289.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Author Unknown, "Operations in Maine in 1779: Journal found on board the Hunter, Continental Ship," Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquity, History and Biography of America, 8 (1864): 51, 52.