Richard C. Wiggin is the author of Embattled Farmers: Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1775-1783. This book is a very detailed study of all the Revolutionary War soldiers from one American town, designed to preserve their names and biographical information. In the late nineteenth century, many town histories contained a chapter with that basic goal. Embattled Farmers far outdoes those old local histories because of the depth of Wiggin’s research, using today’s computer-aided resources and rigorous judgments about evidence.
We decided to interview Rick about his research process and findings, some of those soldiers’ stories, and what Embattled Farmers might say about many similar communities that went through the Revolutionary War. Like the book itself, this conversation offers a lot of information, falling generally into three topics: the genesis of the project, the stories of Lincoln soldiers, and Rick’s research process.
The Genesis of the Project
For folks from outside Middlesex County, Massachusetts, where is Lincoln and how does it relate to the well-known locales of Lexington and Concord? How big was the community during the Revolutionary War?
Lincoln is the small town sandwiched between Lexington and Concord, which was founded in 1754 (exactly twenty-one years to the day before April 19, 1775) when portions of Lexington and Concord were carved off and joined with a portion of Weston to form the new town. Available census data indicates that the populations of Lincoln and Lexington were similar at the time of the Revolution—between 700 and 800 residents. Concord was about twice that size.
Lincoln has been largely overlooked in the narrative of the start of the American Revolution. It remains in the shadow of its better-known parent towns, but its importance to the sweep of events on April 19 goes far beyond its relative obscurity.
It was in Lincoln where Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride ended, when he was captured by an advance patrol of British officers in the wee hours of April 19. Contrary to popular perception, Revere didn’t make it to Concord.
Lincoln’s minutemen and militia companies (about 110 men, in total) were the first to arrive in Concord that morning. By the best estimates that exist, Lincoln men made up 20% to 25% of the Provincial force that later engaged the British at the North Bridge.
The British march to Concord and the return march from Concord went right through Lincoln. It was in Lincoln, on the return march, that the British column was ambushed by as many as 1,200 Provincials at a dog-leg in the road, which today we call the Bloody Angles. The name is probably of Civil War–era derivation, but it is apt because this is where some of the bloodiest fighting of the day occurred. Here the fight began in earnest: more people were killed and wounded along this stretch of road in Lincoln than at the Lexington Green and Concord’s North Bridge combined. It was here, in Lincoln, that the events of the day boiled over and passed the point of no return. This doesn’t go over well in Lexington and Concord, but I am certainly not the first historian to suggest that the running battle through Lincoln marks the point where the American Revolution might be considered to have actually started; that without the fight at the Bloody Angles, and the running fight along Battle Road, the Revolutionary War would probably not have begun on April 19, 1775.
You live in Lincoln. You’re a past captain of the Lincoln Minute Men. You’ve also been Executive Director of the Bostonian Society, which maintains colonial Massachusetts’s capitol building, the Old State House. What was your starting-point on the project that became Embattled Farmers?
Is this where I blame my father? I’m a native of this area, and often on Saturday mornings Dad would pack the family in the car for a visit to a local site of cultural or historical or natural importance. I remember visits to the Lexington Green and the North Bridge, and a fascination with the story of the minutemen. This was during the height of the Cold War, and the minutemen symbolized the triumph of freedom and liberty (i.e., the Western world) over oppressive government (i.e., Soviet-style communism). I even remember imagining Russian tanks rolling down the main street of my home town, and the absolute certainty that I would be there to resist with whatever I could get my hands on, like a modern-day minuteman. It was a very powerful image. So you can see that I developed an interest in and a personal connection with the minutemen and with colonial and Revolutionary history early in life.
When, as an adult, I moved to Lincoln, it was just a matter of time before I joined the modern reenactment company of the Lincoln Minute Men. My daughter was in kindergarten at the time, and I wanted her to own this history as I had.
Of course, this was years before Embattled Farmers was even thought of. Embattled Farmers actually came about many years later, quite by accident. The Lincoln Minute Men were developing a plan to place permanent markers on the graves of the Revolutionary soldiers buried in Lincoln. We had a list of names that we had been honoring for years in our April ceremonies, but the list was of unknown derivation and unknown provenance. It seemed appropriate to verify it before we committed it to stone (so to speak). I figured a couple of hours in the library would be sufficient. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I still don’t know who did the original list or which data sources he used, but I found a lot of fragmentary and conflicting data. To my surprise, apparently no one had ever done a systematic investigation. A couple of hours turned into days, weeks, and months. The more I dug, the more I discovered. By the time I had a corrected list that I had confidence in, I had vast quantities of new data that I knew would disappear unless I made the effort to get it published.
My initial premise was that this data was of significance only to Lincoln, which is why I approached the Lincoln Historical Society to publish it. But as I prepared the manuscript, it became increasingly clear that, as a colonial town, Lincoln was not unique. The Lincoln data was representative of many other towns as well. Slowly, I came to realize that what I had generated was the story of real people from Anytown in colonial America. I believe that’s why Embattled Farmers has been so well received. Lincoln serves as a proxy for every eighteenth-century farming village in New England, perhaps in all of colonial America.
Embattled Farmers provides a composite glimpse of life at the time—puncturing the myth of the poor subsistence farmer, highlighting the amount of mobility during colonial times, and demonstrating the interconnectedness of colonial communities. This is the other reason that this story transcends Lincoln. Consider that on April 19, 1775, Lincoln men responded to the Alarm from no fewer than seventeen different communities in two states. Overall, the 256 Lincoln individuals profiled in Embattled Farmers were also directly linked with 185 other communities in eleven states and seven foreign locations. Colonial people got around almost as much as people do today!
Embattled Farmers acquaints the reader with many aspects of the Revolutionary War that rarely appear in traditional histories, and that are not widely understood. Through individual stories, the reader comes face to face with service by under-age boys and by slaves, with economic depredation, smallpox, desertion, and capture by the enemy. The reader learns about the widespread practice of substitution, about recruitment, the draft, lengths of service, and the frequency of reenlistment.
Through the example of a specific but representative community at the heart of the opening events of the war, the story re-examines the root causes of the war, the incentives to serve and the extensive networks of kinship that characterized New England communities. Embattled Farmers is a story defined not by time or by geography, but by human experience.
Did you start with a background in historical research or train yourself along the way? What skills from other work proved useful in producing Embattled Farmers?
I’m trained as a businessman, not as a historian, per se. I have an MBA from the Wharton School, and I spent most of my working career in entrepreneurial environments in medical and life sciences companies. I’m very detail-oriented. Much of my work involved analyzing and drawing conclusions from data. And I was the Principal Investigator on a Federal Research Grant for a time. So I had the basic research skills going into this project.
What I had to learn was where to find the records that contained the data I was looking for. This meant not only finding the records but understanding the context sufficiently to interpret them correctly. Pension records, for example, are a treasure trove of primary source information, in many cases written by the individuals themselves, and often containing colorful first-person details. But they are only as accurate as forty- or fifty-year-old (or older) memories, so they suffer from some inaccuracies. More troublesome is the reality that the claims needed to conform to the eligibility requirements and the benefits structure offered by the particular Pension Act under which they were filed. So the information they contain is sometimes somewhat distorted. As invaluable a source of data as they proved to be, I had to be careful about interpreting them correctly, and whenever possible cross-checking the data.
I had to learn about eighteenth-century conventions, such as the use of “Jr.” and “Sr.” with living individuals only, thus being passed on when one of them died. In one case, the same individual appears in the records variously as Nathan Brown, Nathan Brown, Jr., and Nathan Brown, III, which as you can appreciate is a source of much confusion. I also had to learn about the fairly common practice among slaves of taking on new names upon manumission. In such cases, it can be pretty difficult to determine whether different names refer to the same individual or designate different individuals. I had to learn about eighteenth-century military recruitment, and about substitution practices, which were different then from what they are today. This was further complicated by the fact that militia practices differed from Continental Army rules, and that both changed a number of times during the course of the war. So I was constantly challenged to make sure that my interpretation of a record was consistent with the context.
How did you define the scope of this book? Did you ever worry that you’d cast too wide a net? (The book is well over 500 pages, after all.)
The scope of the project did change a couple of times during the course of it. Remember, initially, I was simply trying to verify a list of names. As I progressed, the question of who else should be on the list became unavoidable. And I soon realized that my data set contained several different categories: Lincoln natives who had left Lincoln before their Revolutionary service; Lincoln natives and newcomers who were still resident in Lincoln during the war; and non-Lincoln individuals who moved to Lincoln after their war service. And, of course, all variations in between.
When I started to compile my data for publication, I had to make a conscious decision about the scope. What constituted a Lincoln person? But by then, there were compelling stories about individuals in each of the categories, and I felt that these stories were material and needed to be told. So perhaps it was the easy way out, but I chose to be inclusive rather than to decide arbitrarily when a person became, or ceased to be, a Lincoln person. This allowed me to tell the story of Eden London, who was briefly a Lincoln slave, but had been sold out of town before the Revolution began. This allowed me to tell the full story I had discovered about James Nichols, the largely unidentified individual of whom Amos Baker gives us a glimpse, and whose personal qualms at the North Bridge have fascinated so many students of April 19th history. It also avoided the awkwardness of including four Hartwell brothers, for example, who were still in town, while having to exclude a fifth Hartwell brother (also a Lincoln native) who had recently settled on family property in Princeton and served multiple enlistments from there.
I didn’t realize how many pages of material I had until the book designer laid it out. But my objective was never defined by page count. It was to tell a comprehensive and compelling story of real people from Lincoln—ordinary people who left us an extraordinary legacy. I think I achieved that. Looking back on it, I don’t think I could have defined the scope differently without weakening the richness of the story, that is, the human dimension.
The Stories of Lincoln’s Soldiers
The battle of April 19, 1775, was of course a big deal for the farmers of Lincoln. Are there any particular experiences or anecdotes from that day that stand out for you?
Well, to start with, the Mary Hartwell story is everyone’s favorite. In the wee hours of April 19th, she left her infant child in the arms of a servant girl to carry the Alarm to her neighbor, William Smith, who was captain of the Lincoln minutemen. Later that morning, she watched the British column march by (as she said later), “in fine order, and their bayonets glistened in the sunlight like a field of waving grain. If it hadn’t been for the purpose they came for, I should have said it was the handsomest sight I ever saw in my life.” The next day, she followed the men with the oxcart who were transporting dead Redcoats to the burial ground—drawn by thoughts of the wives, sweethearts, and parents far over the sea in Old England who would never again see their loved ones. How can you not love this story?
A minute ago, I mentioned the personal qualms of James Nichols shortly before the fight broke out at the North Bridge in Concord. He had one of his friends hold his musket while he went down to the bridge to talk with some of the Redcoats. Then he returned, picked up his musket, and went home. This doesn’t conform to the narrative we expect to hear. But as a reenactor, I’ve stood where he stood, and looked down at the bridge and seen the Redcoats gathered about. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that what was going on in James Nichols’s mind was also going on in the mind of everyone else who was there as well. Do I really want to be here when…if…this turns hot? Nichols made a judgment different from most others, but don’t for a minute think that the others weren’t wondering the same thing.
Of course, I have to mention the quick response of the Lincoln men, to muster and march to Concord, and the hot action at the Bloody Angles, where the simmering events of the day boiled over into a war. But it is the individual stories—unverifiable, but preserved in family lore—that capture my imagination:
- William Thorning, who reportedly escaped the flanking party in his rear by dropping down into a shallow trench, and then after they passed, he took a position behind a large boulder, resumed firing, and killed two Redcoats.
- Daniel Child, who found himself caught between a flanking party in the field and the main column of Regulars in the road. Because neither could fire at him without endangering the other, the firing stopped, and he was able to run out from between them. Once he got out in the open, they started firing at him, but he successfully dodged the whizzing bullets and reached safety behind a rock, “verily holding my breath in my hands,” he reported afterwards.
- John Bateman, the British soldier who appears to have been held in Lincoln as a prisoner of war for a time; and Ephraim Flint, who may have captured him, taken him home, and put him to work on the farm, “peacefully.”
- I love the way nineteen-year-old Amos Baker summed up his April 19th experience many years later. With characteristic Yankee understatement he declared, “I verily believe that I felt better that day, take it all the day through, than if I had staid at home.”
We tend to end the drama of Massachusetts in the Revolutionary War with the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776. (The less said about the expeditions against Rhode Island and Penobscot, the better.) But of course there were still seven more years to go before peace, and Massachusetts provided more men for the army than any other state. How did men from Lincoln participate later in the war?
After April 19th, and during the rest of the war, Lincoln men served as militiamen in any number of militia call-ups. They served as Continental soldiers, and as privateers at sea. Immediately after April 19th, before there was a Continental Army, many enlisted in the rapidly forming Massachusetts Provincial Army.
They were infantry soldiers, artillerymen, and musicians. They served as artificers. They served stints guarding the coastline, and guarding prisoners of war. A couple served in mounted units. Two of them became Life Guards for General Washington (Jesse Smith) and General Lee (Samuel Hastings, Jr.). And they participated in virtually every major campaign of the war.
All of this surprised me. Before I started, I figured we’d find them in only a few places reasonably close to home—perhaps Bunker Hill or Dorchester Heights; maybe the Hudson Valley and Saratoga. Well, they were at all of those locations, all right. Lincoln was well represented in large numbers—at Dorchester Heights, the whole militia company (59 men) was called out and marched to Dorchester for five days; 45 to 55 men were at Bunker Hill; and 55 to 65 men were at Saratoga.
They were also at the Battle of Rhode Island, and in the Penobscot Expedition, where John Billing was killed. I agree that the Penobscot expedition was an unmitigated disaster, caused by a failure of command. But in the Rhode Island campaign, it was the departure of the French fleet that doomed that mission. (You’ll remember that the French fleet was badly battered by the wild storm and had to head to Boston for refitting. D’Estaing was vilified for doing so, and thus compromising the mission, but it’s hard to argue with his decision as fleet commander. Dismasted and rudderless, his fleet was pretty defenseless.) In the actual battle, the Americans held their ground against repeated British assaults in what Lafayette called “the best fought action of the war.” Lafayette’s statement might be viewed as damage control in the context of strained Franco-American relations, but it also reflects the reality of the battle. Lincoln men were scattered throughout the American line, and were in the thick of the action.
But to your question, Lincoln men were also in Canada, in the New York campaign, the Battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Brandywine. They wintered over in Valley Forge. They were at the Battle of Monmouth Court House, and all through the Hudson Valley. Benjamin Cleaveland participated in the storming of Stony Point. Jonathan Gage was severely wounded and taken prisoner in a British raid in Mt. Pleasant, north of White Plains. Benjamin Cleaveland was reportedly also at Cowpens, and Isaac Bussell participated in the storming of Redoubt #10 that climaxed the siege of Yorktown.
As previously noted, the Lincoln men were among the very first troops to be called into action on April 19, 1775. Lincoln men were also among the very last to be discharged (probably in 1784) after the war finally ended in 1783. On average, I found that the Lincoln men each served 3 1/4 separate enlistments. In one case, Solomon Whitney served ten separate enlistments, one right after the other, for virtually the whole war.
There were also four Lincoln men who served for the Crown. We all just naturally assume—from the space of 235 years—that everyone was a patriot. But not so. In addition to these four who actually served for the Crown, there were other Lincoln people who may not have served but were nevertheless Loyalists. We think of the Civil War as the war that split apart American families—and that is certainly true—but it was also true of the Revolutionary War.
I love the story of the Wheat family. Brothers Benjamin and Joseph Wheat (along with stepbrother Jesse Smith) served multiple enlistments for the patriot cause. But their sisters, Betty and Mary Wheat, had married brothers John and Robert Semple, Boston merchants who were Tories, and they were forced into exile with their husbands. Their father, John Wheat, who was a man of some means, made out his will in 1779, providing amply for his sons and daughters (seven children plus five stepchildren). With two exceptions. “To my daughter Betty Semple,” he wrote, “only six shillings, because she has left this state and gone as a friend to the enemies of this continent, to be paid only on condition that she return a friend to America.” And, “To my daughter Mary Semple six shillings for she has gone from this state an enemy to the country.” No record has been found to suggest any sort of reconciliation.
The bulk of Embattled Farmers is Chapter 10, which contains profiles of every man linked to Lincoln and the Continental Army. What are the big names in that chapter? Whose story would you like more people to know about?
First, you’re right to recognize that Embattled Farmers is not so much the story of the Revolutionary War as it is the story of individuals who served in the war. Leveraging my experience as a historical re-enactor, I have tried to tell the story of the campaigns from the perspective of the individual men who had “boots on the ground,” rather than from the strategic actions and decisions of the officers, or from the broad historical overview. My intent was to place the reader in the scene as a participant, in order to give the story human dimension. Readers have told me that this indeed brings the story alive as they relate to these Revolutionary soldiers as real people, rather than as faceless characters or cardboard cutouts from a bygone historical era.
Further, underscore “every man.” Embattled Farmers profiles every known Lincoln-connected individual who served in the war. This appears never to have been done before, anywhere. Embattled Farmers is the only known comprehensive compilation of Revolutionary War service from any given community anywhere in the nation. This is a departure from traditional scholarship of the war, and it blazes new ground by building the story from the ground up, individual by individual. Along the way, by actually “counting noses,” it challenges some long-held popular beliefs rooted in tradition and/or aggregate data.
So you ask, what are the big names? Define “big.” If by big names, you mean in terms of Revolutionary War prominence, then there aren’t very many in this book. Eleazer Brooks was a militia colonel who was accused of cowardice at the Battle of White Plains. (That was unwarranted—as a militia officer, he was an easy target, and the charge was made by a rival Continental Army colonel to draw credit to himself—but the charge was nevertheless widely circulated, and still misinforms many accounts of the battle.) Later in the war, Brooks became a brigadier general of the Massachusetts militia, in charge of Middlesex County. After the war, he became active in state government. So he’s a big guy locally, but that’s about as far as “big” goes.
Abijah Peirce was colonel of the minutemen on April 19th, but he doesn’t appear to have played much of a role after that. Even on April 19th, he seems to have deferred his command to militia Major John Buttrick at the North Bridge.
There were several men who became captains: Samuel Farrar, Jr., Isaac Gage, John Hartwell at Dorchester Heights, Ephraim Hartwell, Jr., William Smith… There’s a sad story in and of itself. William Smith had prominent family connections—he was the brother of Abigail Adams, brother-in-law of future president John Adams—and he was captain of Lincoln’s minutemen on April 19th, but he had some other problems. He tried desperately but failed to secure a commission as a captain in the Continental Army, went to sea as a privateer (captain of about thirty to thirty-five provincial marines), then he was brought down by his gambling and drinking addictions, and died a few years later on Skid Row.
Moses Brown was captain of a company in Col. John Glover’s regiment in the Continental Army. He probably participated in ferrying the army to safety across the East River following the Battle of Brooklyn, and later in ferrying the army across the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776. Then, just before the Battle of Trenton began, he reportedly addressed his troops: “my friends in a few minutes we shall be in the presence of the enemy, and I hope you will behave like the men I take you to be.” After the war, he became very wealthy and socially prominent as a merchant trader and shipbuilder in Beverly.
Or, if “big” is measured in other terms, Timothy Farrar (brother of Samuel Farrar, Jr.) became a prominent lawyer in New Hampshire, a senior law partner of Daniel Webster, and Chief Justice of New Hampshire’s Superior Court. Stephen Farrar (another brother) was the founding minister of the New Ipswich, New Hampshire, church, and for nearly fifty years reportedly “held as strong an influence over his parishioners as wielded by any prelate in the pomp of ecclesiastic authority and office.”
But Embattled Farmers is about ordinary men, not necessarily big names. I mentioned Solomon Whitney a minute ago—he served repeated enlistments through out the war. He appears to have been perpetually in debt—a recipient of public financial support from the town. Perhaps his repeated enlistments were financially motivated; it’s hard to know for sure. In any case, that doesn’t diminish the credit due him for his service. I was also excited to find evidence that he accompanied Henry Knox as a volunteer on the expedition to Ticonderoga to transport the cannons to Dorchester Heights.
John Whitehead enlisted as a lieutenant in a unit of artificers in Springfield (far behind the front lines), and then brought his two sons, ages twelve and seventeen, into service with him—evidently to shield them from problems with their stepmother. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a tragic decision—within six months, both sons died in service, probably from disease.
Joshua Child, Jr., was drafted for service at Saratoga but decided not to go, so he hired a twenty-one-year old slave, Brister Hoar, to serve for him. For his part, Brister Hoar, who probably never saw a penny of that money, also served at Ticonderoga, Dorchester, and Cambridge. His grave is the only marked grave for a slave or former slave in Lincoln.
These are just a few of the individual stories of the ordinary men who served in the Revolutionary army. These are the people who don’t typically show up in the history books, but deserve substantial credit for the roles they played. Without them (and thousands more like them), of course, the Revolutionary War could never have succeeded, regardless of the determination, or charisma, or strategic brilliance of Washington, or Greene, or Gates, or Lafayette, or any of the other “big” names.
Tell us more about the Lincoln men who fought on the British side of the war, either before or after living in town.
Certainly. The town’s most prominent citizen, Dr. Charles Russell, left Lincoln for the protection of Boston on April 19 when fighting broke out. He tended wounded Redcoats at the Battle of Bunker Hill, then went to live in Antigua, where he died a few years later.
Joseph Adams, Jr., was a young doctor, son of one of the town founders. He married the daughter of the town minister, and settled in Townsend. He was known to be passing intelligence to Crown authorities in Boston, and after repeated arrests during the early part of the war, he buried his papers in the yard one night and fled to New York. He joined a Loyalist militia, then became a surgeon in the Royal Navy. After the war, his wife joined him in England.
Then there is a wonderful story about Ebenezer Cutler, son of another town father, who became a merchant in the town of Oxford, Massachusetts. One day on a supply run to Boston in 1770, he flaunted his disgust for the non-importation agreement by purchasing a large quantity of British goods from another non-compliant merchant. On his way out of town, he was overtaken and set upon by one of the notorious Boston mobs, which made a spectacle of him, parading him through the streets of Boston, and then absconding with his wagon-load of merchandise. This appears to have alienated him still further from his increasingly polarized countrymen (what a surprise!), and after the war broke out, he was arrested in Northborough for his seditious statements. The patriot authorities decided he was not enough of a threat to imprison him, but they allowed him to go to Boston, where he joined a Loyalist militia. He appears to have been a member of several Loyalist militias during the war, and afterward he settled in Nova Scotia.
Rick’s Research Process
What sources did you find most useful? Were there any that you learned not to trust?
As you can well appreciate, there were a great many sources that went into this work. My bibliography is eighteen pages long. But there are two sources that stand out as being most useful.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the state of Massachusetts started to compile—from records in the state archives—a list of Massachusetts men who served in the Revolutionary War. This resulted in a seventeen-volume set published over about a ten-year period, called Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, and it remains the single most important compilation of Revolutionary War service in the state. I don’t think there are very many other states that have similar compilations. (Virginia undertook a similar, but much less intensive effort at approximately the same time, which interestingly, seems to have been motivated at least in part by a competitive instinct with Massachusetts—a desire to claim Virginia’s share of recognition for its Revolutionary War contribution.) Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors [MSS] is a marvelous resource, and it remains the “go to” source for Revolutionary War service in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, it is only as good as the records in the Massachusetts archives, which means that it is not in any way comprehensive. During the hundred-plus years between the Revolution and the creation of MSS, large numbers of records had been lost, discarded, probably sold off, or had disappeared for other reasons. So MSS is only about—and this is a gross estimate—65% to 70% complete. The data it contains is pretty accurate as far as the records themselves, but there are many more individuals who served in the war than made it into these volumes, and many additional, unrecorded enlistments for those individuals who are listed. So supplemental sources were needed.
Interestingly, my next best source was the town Treasurer’s Account Book. In it, amidst all the payments to various people for supplying firewood or food to needy families, for paying the minister and school teacher, for road and meetinghouse repairs, etc., etc., are pages and pages of war-related disbursements—for a set of accoutrements as a minuteman, for transporting food or hay to the army in Cambridge, for providing a man (i.e., a substitute) for service, and, most importantly, for service in a particular campaign.
I mentioned finding evidence that Solomon Whitney went with Knox to Ticonderoga—this was in the Treasurer’s Accounts, but it required a bit of sleuthing. It was a May 1776 payment to Col. Eleazer Brooks to reimburse him for money he paid to “ye selectmen of Stockbridge for taking Care of Solomon Whitney when Confined in that town by a wound.” I had to figure out why Solomon Whitney would have been in western Massachusetts at public (and apparently, military) expense before May 1776, and the only viable explanation I was able to find is the Knox Expedition. We know from MSS that Whitney was in service at Cambridge at least into the fall of 1775, when he was reported on furlough. MSS tells us, further, that he was back in Cambridge by February 4, 1776. And it’s entirely plausible for him to have been wounded moving the heavy guns through the Berkshires. So the Treasurer’s Accounts were a great source—not only for people being paid for serving in various campaigns, but also for other clues which, taken in context, help to round out the story.
On the flip side of this, there were three different previously-compiled lists I found of Lincoln’s Revolutionary soldiers, from 1890, 1905, and 1960. These should have been a gold mine, simplifying my work considerably, but instead they proved disappointing. There were significant differences between the lists, and no source citations by which to check them out. The most detailed of the lists, and thus the most authoritative looking, was compiled by a noted Lincoln historian and published in a widely distributed history of Middlesex County in 1890. But like the other lists, it proved to be full of inconsistencies with both MSS and the Treasurer’s Accounts. It was so unreliable, in fact, that I began to use it as my negative example, motivating me to a standard of quality that would stand the hundred-year test. I’m confident that I have succeeded, but I guess only future historians will know for sure. In any case, I learned not to trust any of the lists. They offered data points to check out, but in each case, I looked for corroborating evidence before I would allow myself any confidence in the accuracy of the information.
Are there any mysteries of Revolutionary Lincoln that you’d still like to solve? Any men that got away?
As you know, John, the nature of this kind of work is that it raises as many questions as it resolves. But let me start by telling you about a couple of mysteries that I’m proud of having solved.
The first is James Nichols, and you blogged about this in April when the book was released. Nichols was identified seventy-five years later as “an Englishman, a droll fellow, and a fine singer” by his last surviving fellow Lincoln militiaman. We are told that after Nichols left Concord before the fighting broke out, “he enlisted to go to Dorchester and there deserted to the British, and I never heard of him again.” So who was this mysterious fellow, who appears then disappears again so quickly from the historical record? Well, it turns out that he left a longer trail than most people have imagined. He overcame his North Bridge qualms and participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill, serving during the siege of Boston right through the fortification of Dorchester Heights. He didn’t desert to the British. He was back in Dorchester with the militia, ten months later, when he was recruited into the Continental Army. He did desert from the Continental Army just before the climactic battles with Burgoyne at Saratoga, but not to the British. Two months later, he’s back in service in Cambridge, guarding the British troops surrendered by Burgoyne as a result of those climactic battles. During this time, he seems to have moved from Lincoln to Weston, then to Acton (over the space of about eighteen months). There is still much we don’t know about him, but he seems to have been a good patriot after all, perhaps as much battle-phobic as he seems to have been peripatetic.
In another puzzle, I found records of Jeduthan Bemis serving both in the campaign to Canada and at the Battle of White Plains—a logical impossibility, as these were essentially concurrent campaigns. This logical impossibility was underscored by a review of his pension claim many years later, which summarily dismissed the validity of his White Plains service because of the record of his service in the campaign to Canada. And yet for both campaigns the records are unimpeachable. So, how could he have been in two places at once? An obscure detail in his pension claim provided the key for solving this mystery: in Canada, he appears to have been detached to The Cedars, thirty miles west of Montreal, in May 1776, where he was taken prisoner. By the terms of the prisoner exchange, ten days later, he was prevented from returning to the ranks, so he was discharged and sent home. A short time after arriving home, he was drafted from his home militia company for service in the New York campaign, where he found himself once again in the face of the enemy at White Plains. So despite the concurrence of the campaigns, I was able to parse the records to discover how he got from Canada to White Plains. The pieces actually do fit together, and I confess to an immense sense of satisfaction at having resolved this curious mystery.
As for the “men that got away,” there are any number of issues that I’d still like to resolve, although unfortunately, I don’t suppose I ever will. Here’s a sampling:
- Are John Barter and John Bortor and John Porter different individuals, or simply different phonetic treatments for the same individual?
- Could Peter Nelson and Peter Sharon actually be the same individual, as has been alleged (despite the lack of supporting evidence)?
- Who is Eleazer Brooks, Jr., who served in Rhode Island in 1780, and how (if at all) does he relate to Col. Eleazer Brooks? Col. Eleazer Brooks’s son Eleazer, Jr., was only age two at the time.
- Could the William Smith who had been captain of the Lincoln minutemen, then captain of a company in the Massachusetts provincial army, and captain of marines at sea, but who had been frustrated in his quest for a Continental commission, have swallowed his pride to serve as a foot soldier? Unlikely as this seems, there appears to be no better identity for the William Smith from Lincoln who enlisted for Continental service in 1780.
- Was John Bateman a prisoner of war or a British deserter? Could he have been Ephraim Flint’s prisoner of war (or in reality did Ephraim Flint even have a prisoner of war)? How long was Bateman in Lincoln, and whatever became of him?
- Where did artillerist Benjamin Cleaveland’s service in the south really take him? He reportedly was at Cowpens, but this is logically suspect, as Morgan had no artillery at Cowpens. Was he with Greene in the Carolinas as suggested by Cowpens, or at Yorktown, as suggested by his unit of record?
There are lots of other unanswered—and probably unanswerable—questions that were also raised during the course of my research. Eventually, I had to squelch my instinct to keep digging for answers, or the book would never have been finished.
What did researching the lives of the men who fought for Lincoln in the Revolutionary War tell you about their families’ lives in peacetime? About how the community functioned?
I think we need to be cautious about overstepping the limits of this work. Embattled Farmers is not a social history of Lincoln during this period. It doesn’t compare with Bob Gross’s marvelous social history of Concord, The Minutemen and Their World, or Jack MacLean’s definitive history of Lincoln, A Rich Harvest. Embattled Farmers is simply a composite story of individuals who served in the Revolutionary War. Candidly, I’m not sure it tells us much of anything about the lives of their families during peacetime.
That being said, it may be possible to offer a few observations without overstepping. The most obvious, of course, is the extraordinary extent to which networks of kinship characterized Lincoln—and by extension, eighteenth-century communities in general. This finding was not unexpected; it conforms to our general sense of colonial communities. What was surprising is the extent to which these family networks permeated the community. I have a nine-page family diagram in Embattled Farmers that connects nearly half of the 256 individuals profiled in the book—with no further separation from one to another than first cousin. I believe that this network could be extended somewhat further with only slightly more effort. I also found other, smaller, kinship networks that quite likely could be tied in, as well. I didn’t push the limits of this, by any means, because it was not the main focus of my work. Exactly how much further it could be carried is uncertain, but it does support the generalized notion that in colonial American communities, everyone really was related to everyone else.
Another observation that I touched on earlier is the extent to which colonial Americans moved around. Without motorized transportation, we tend to think of eighteenth-century people as being much less mobile than we are today. It certainly took them longer to get from place to place, but that doesn’t seem to translate into not moving about. I found substantial evidence that they circulated far more widely than one might otherwise expect.
Young people, in particular, seemed to have moved in and out of Lincoln, to and from any number of places. Although the records rarely tell us why, we can presume that the reasons were parallel to those for young people today—employment, temporary employment, adventure, connections with family and friends. (It’s tempting to add fun & frolic, but that would not likely be reflected in the historical record.) Even among the not-so-young, I found the amount of movement from town to town to be somewhat surprising.
Overall, there was an observable exodus of the subjects in my book away from Lincoln during this period, which I came to call the “Lincoln Diaspora.” Anecdotally, this appeared to be true for other towns, as well. To be fair and to keep this in perspective, few people, even today, end up living their lives where they grow up. So there may be some bias in the way the sample is structured or observed. But in general, I found an observable migration of Lincoln’s “embattled farmers” to the north and west, before, during, and after the war, into Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, western Massachusetts, and New York. This is reasonably consistent with my broad sense of demographic trends during this period, as Americans pushed into frontier regions in search of new opportunities, but I speak only of my observation, not as a demographer.
I was fascinated to discover a surprisingly high incidence of children born less than nine months after the marriage of their parents. For those who have looked at this before, I suspect that this would not be surprising, but it does seem to run counter to our popular sense of Puritanical values in colonial New England.
Economically, the Treasurer’s Accounts show that slow payments, at least from the town to its creditors, were the rule of the day, not the exception. This reflects economic realities that were quite different from today. Hard currency was in short supply, and the economy ran on substantial amounts of debt. Examples of slow payments are many: the minute men waited more than four months to be paid for their service, and more than a year (on average) to be reimbursed for their accoutrements; members of the militia company waited more than six months to be paid for their Dorchester Heights service; in many cases, Lincoln’s Revolutionary soldiers waited as much as four years to be paid for their service! The payroll check (at least from the town for military service) seems almost always to have been an IOU with a distant maturity date. The same appears to be true of other payments by the town, as well.
Incomes fell substantially during the war years. Congress and the states flooded the economy with paper money, which fueled a crippling inflation. Overall, it took the economy twenty-five years to recover pre-war levels. After the war, several Lincoln farms were lost to foreclosure, and at least a couple of Lincoln’s Revolutionary soldiers ended up in debtor’s prison. Notwithstanding all of this, the stories in Embattled Farmers are much too individual for me to try to draw broad conclusions about the lives of Lincoln families in peacetime, or about how the community functioned.
Running through the footnotes of Embattled Farmers is the story of an enslaved soldier named Peter, or rather a number of slaves named Peter. Tell us more about that historical question.
I should have known that you’d ask me to comment on this; it’s a story I would rather have go away. A couple of years ago, as I was deep into my research, a George Mason University Law professor came out with a book which purported to tell the story of a Lincoln slave named Peter, who served in the Revolutionary War. It was billed as “a remarkable feat of investigation,” and it fit a literary niche that needed filling—that of a slave narrative during the Revolutionary period. As you can appreciate, there was much excitement in Lincoln and elsewhere about this story. The document that gave rise to the story is a very poignant bill of sale for a nineteen-month-old “neagro servant boy named peter” that is found in the Lincoln town archives. I have a copy of it in Embattled Farmers.
The narrative was based on the law professor’s premise that a slave named Peter Brooks later became Peter Nelson, and still later became Peter Sharon. I was excited to think that these different records could all be connected as the same individual, and I had several conversations with the author. She offered no source citations. So I dug deeper, and I found strong evidence that Peter Brooks and Peter Nelson were two very different individuals; that Peter Brooks became known as Peter Bowes upon manumission. I couldn’t rule out the possibility that Peter Nelson might have become Peter Sharon upon manumission, but I couldn’t find (nor could the author point me to) a shred of evidence to connect the totally independent data sets—except the name Peter and an approximate similarity in age. I also examined the works of a number of scholars of slavery in New England, and I found that her suppositions were inconsistent with the existing scholarship. So I reached a very different conclusion from hers regarding these individuals.
I believe that the law professor’s story of the Peters is an unfortunate misrepresentation of the historical record. However, since I have been diligent all throughout Embattled Farmers about presenting the reader with all the available data, including source citations and other interpretations, I felt obligated to reference this story, and to explain the interpretive pitfalls to the reader. I also wanted to acquaint readers with this story within the context of what the historical record really tells us, lest this story be repeated as history by unsuspecting individuals in the future.
This may come as a surprise to you, but notwithstanding all this, in a very strange way, I have felt that I owe the law professor a debt of gratitude, for she caused me to dig deeper, and to discover further evidence that helped me to get the story right. I actually tried to give her an acknowledgement for this in my book, but my editor thought it was too weird and made me take it out.
What’s your next Revolutionary or research project?
Actually, John, for my next project, I’m moving on to the Mexican War and the Civil War. It’s a biography of Brigadier General Thomas Welsh, who was kind of a hardscrabble kid from central Pennsylvania—his father died when he was age two, and he was sent away to work in a nail factory at age nine—who served two enlistments in the Mexican war, was severely wounded, and later rose to become a general in the Civil War, before he died of malaria at Vicksburg. He was a relatively minor player in the scheme of things, but he appears to have been very highly regarded and on track for higher command when he died. He remains a hero in his home town, where I’ve been doing an annual symposium about him for several years. In the process I’ve uncovered more than two dozen previously unknown documents about him, and I think I’ve come to understand his human journey from very humble origins into history. I think this is a quintessential American story. My challenge will be to flesh out his life and times, and to bring him to life again. I hope my skills are up to the task.
But don’t rule me out for another Revolutionary War project. As I explained earlier, I’ve had a personal connection with this history since my childhood.
Further, and if nothing else, the critical acclaim and the positive reader feedback I’ve been getting for Embattled Farmers should keep drawing me back to the Revolutionary period. Embattled Farmers has been well received both locally and at multiple National Historical Parks, Revolutionary sites, and specialty booksellers around the northeast. Readers have called it “an engaging tale,” “a rare pleasure,” and “so well written.” National Park Rangers report using it for source material in their interpretive work. Others in the Revolutionary War network have credited it with enhancing readers’ understanding of the Revolutionary period with specific details and biographical data. So I’m confident that Embattled Farmers represents a material contribution to literature about the Revolutionary War. And I look forward to additional feedback from readers of the Journal of the American Revolution.