Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Joseph Palmer Papers Finding Aid

The Swain Report, Number 14

Joseph Palmer Papers

by David Swain

Biographical information and context of the Papers

Joseph Palmer (1716-1788) seems to have held a number of prominent public positions (or at least to have been directly involved in public affairs) during the Revolutionary War period at the town level (Braintree), county level (Suffolk), and “province” level (Massachusetts Bay). Evidently he was an attorney because “Esq.” usually follows his name on addresses. He also served as Colonel and then Brigadier General of the Suffolk County Regiment of the Massachusetts Militia. He seems to have been entrusted, during his public service, with the drafting of a number of public documents. At least this is the impression gained from perusing his papers, as microfilmed by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The papers also include some correspondence (notably from Benjamin Lincoln and Thomas Legate concerning military matters).

This collection of microfilmed manuscript documents may be of most interest to those seeking information on how logistics of the Revolutionary War were planned and carried out, especially from a state and local militia perspective. While the documents have no collective continuity, they offer multiple snapshots during a short and crucial period of American Revolutionary history during which high-level citizen-militia officers were trying to deal with the myriad details of how to recruit, equip, supply, train, and move a citizen army.

These documents of Brigadier Joseph Palmer present a startling contract with the diaries of common soldier Ebenezer Wild, also of Braintree, MA (whose papers are reviewed in another report), who marched and marched as a Massachusetts Bay militia man in the Continental Army from 1775 to 1781. Palmer’s view was distinctly top-down, while Wild’s was decidedly bottom-up, and they played very different roles in the same war.

Microfilmed Documents

Several generalizations may be helpful in understanding the scope of the Palmer papers:

-- The documents were “catalogued,” presumably by Palmer himself, probably because he kept them in some sort of file and could then retrieve documents he needed later. The “cataloguing” was done by noting the writer/recipient/content/date of the document in just a few words on the back of the page. Most of the documents were written on sheets of paper with two side-by-side pages on each side, sheets that could then be folded. Many of the “catalog” entries were written at the top of a fold at 90 degrees (or sometimes upside down) from the direction of document writing.

-- Palmer’s method of writing and filing documents resulted in many blank pages and, as noted, writing on both sides of sheets. The microfilm appears to contain everything, including both sides of every sheet, and including the many blank pages.

-- Many of the documents were handwritten by Palmer himself. These include in particular marked up drafts of public documents, copies of such documents, and, less frequently, copies of letters/documents he sent to others. Also included in the papers are letters/documents he received from others—these clearly having been written by others, including some documents presumably written by public scriveners in clear, regular handwriting for public reading.

-- Reading these documents becomes problematic less from poor handwriting or use of the English language than, unfortunately, from the fading of quite a number of the documents (probably not related to the microfilming process). Most of the few documents dating from 1780 to 1786 are badly faded and are very hard to read at all. Still, a large number of copies and drafts of documents written by Palmer himself, along with the “catalog” entries, are easily read.

-- Most of the documents are dated, and most of the dates run from 1774 through 1777, with a smattering in 1778, 1779, 1780, and 1786. By 1774, Massachusetts Bay was preparing for possible armed conflict with the British, and public officials saw many signs of a coming conflict, which did indeed break out in April 1775 at Lexington and Concord. Following those incidents, planning and preparations began in earnest within the Massachusetts Bay Militia, as citizen soldiers (including Palmer) threw themselves intensively into figuring out how to equip, train, and move an army toward war (including eventual incorporation into the new nation’s Continental Army in 1776).

-- The most prevalent subject matter of the documents is the logistics of revolutionary war, defined broadly. Palmer seems to have been intimately involved in these logistics, apparently through public positions held at the Braintree and Massachusetts Bay Province levels, but most importantly as first a colonel and then brigadier general for the Massachusetts Bay Militia for Suffolk County (which then apparently included Braintree, Boston, and other surrounding towns). Logistical matters dealt with in the documents are diverse, including planning and orders for at least the following:

                    --attracting two wire-drawing mills (was this actually for military for purposes or for economic
                    -- construction of fortifications, especially in the Boston area
                    -- acquisition of equipment and supplies
                    -- recruiting militiamen
                    -- organizing the militia into a functional army
                    -- By 1776, preparing for and to carrying out the movement of militia troops from one place to

Benjamin Lincoln appears to have been the “head” brigadier general over all of the Massachusetts Bay Militia and therefore Palmer’s military boss. The fairly numerous “letters” from Lincoln to Palmer in the papers are actually orders, which begin “Dear Sir” in the formal language of gentleman-to-gentleman communication at the time and conclude with some version of “your most humble and obedient servant,” despite the fact that the communication was actually an order from military superior to subordinate.

Several examples of documents related to military planning and preparation include the following:

-- A quote from an order by Lincoln (in Watertown) to Palmer (in Braintree) dated May 7, 1776 illustrates the flowery and formal use of language: “You are hereby required forthwith to make a Return to me, of the number of men in each Company in your Regiment—and also the quality of the Powder & Ammunition, & of the number of arms & how they are equipped in each man’s possession….”

-- In another order of May 19, Lincoln calls on all of his officers to put the Massachusetts Bay Militia “into such a state as to march upon service at the shortest notice.” These two documents and others suggest that Palmer spent a good deal of time and energy on a high level of logistical detail, even “administrivia.” But then, one must remember that this military lacked telephones and typewriters, much less computers and e-mail.

-- An interesting page contains calculations for how many men Massachusetts Bay would have to recruit to contribute to a continental army apparently proposed to number 18,000 men. Several calculations on the same page figure Mass Bay’s contribution to be between 8,300 and 8,400 men.

-- Lists of officers by name also appear in a couple of documents.

-- In April 1777, the Massachusetts Bay Militia was being requested to send troops for a St. Johns River, Nova Scotia campaign. In August, the provincial government apparently decided to delay responding. By then, General Lincoln and some of the militia were involved in the military campaign north of Lake George, NY, which culminated that fall in Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga.

-- In September 1777, Palmer’s Suffolk County militia were being ordered to march to Tiverton (RI) on a “secret Expedition.” No further information appears about this mysterious order.

-- Sometime in 1779, Palmer received a letter with details about the Quebec campaign.

Some other documents (mostly copies and/or drafts of provincial or Suffolk County documents) were circulars or resolutions seeking to influence the public to support the effort sanctioned by the provincial government to preserve their American freedoms from British oppression. For example:

-- A 1774 resolution exhorted the people to organize for resistance to the British, while slathering on a heavy layer of “rights of the people” rhetoric.

-- In a July 1775 resolution, the General Provincial Congress of Massachusetts Bay Colony referred to itself as an “oppressed colony.”

-- A March 1775 resolution warned that if General Gage’s troops were to move from Boston, that would signify that the British were trying to enforce “unconstitutional” parliamentary laws.

-- An April 1778 draft speech offers news of a French/US treaty, warns against a rumor that the US and General “How” were negotiating a cessation of arms (without clear US victory), and exhorts the people to “persevere for peace & liberty & security.”

-- Additional documents do not fit into convenient categories. For instance:

-- One document is a 1774 tax roll for the “Province of Massachusetts Bay.” Prominently listed first in alphabetical order is John Adams, Esq.. Was this perhaps a separate tax levied for war-preparation purposes?

-- Even while military matters were apparently prominent in public business, other matters had to be attended to. A couple of documents are personal petitions from citizens seeking some sort of relief or public action for their private benefit—not discernibly related to relations with Britain or military matters.

-- In August 1776, a security matter arose about ships coming and going in Boston harbor. A particular problem seemed to be the movements of “prize” ships, apparently those captured by privateers. Later on, a provincial resolution calls for taxation of the value of the captured ships and their cargos, presumably to support the war effort.

-- By the end of 1776, the provincial government was fixing prices for “necessaries of life.” A couple of documents list what were then considered such necessities. Interestingly, “West India Rum” and “New England Rum” were the only items (necessities!?) listed with no fixed price but allowed to be sold “at retail” prices.

-- In December 1776, a draft provincial congress act calls for establishment of a committee “to consider of & report, the most proper measures to be adopted, in order to the establishing a new & good constitution & form of government.”

-- An official provincial document from late 1776 (curiously dated in the 16th year of George III’s reign, which began in 1760), moved the Suffolk County “Superior Court of Indicature” to alternate its operation between Braintree and Dedham because the Boson court building “is now made a garrison of the Ministerial Army & a common Receptacle for the Enemies of American Liberty.”

-- A fascinating document of April 15, 1777 called on the state to set up a “sinking fund” in which members of the public could invest in life annuities, apparently aimed at people such as the aged, orphans, etc. Did such an unlikely scheme ever pass and get put into practice?

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at tatum@dlar.org

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