The Author’s Corner With J.L. Bell

ConcordJ.L. Bell is a historian and blogger at Boston 1775. This interview is based on his new book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War (Westholme Publishing, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Road to Concord?

JLB: I grew up in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, during the Bicentennial. In fact, during the crucial 1975-76 year I was in fifth grade, when the state curriculum guidelines had students study the American Revolution. So between my surroundings, my school, and our national anniversary, I got a triple dose of the Revolution in New England. I knew that history had been told and retold for two centuries. I liked those stories, I really enjoyed David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, but I figured there was little more of significance to discover or rediscover.

Then I saw a couple of sources talking about Patriots stealing cannon from armories in redcoat-occupied Boston and smuggling them out into the countryside. I put those together and realized I’d run across the trail of a story that was no longer part of the regional or national narrative, that never been told in full before.

I approach history primarily as a storyteller, with the hope that the storytelling will highlight important forces and illustrate interesting patterns. And this was a story I couldn’t resist telling.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Road to Concord?

JLB: We think of the British troops marching to Concord in April 1775, arousing sleepy Middlesex villages and farms, in order to destroy some minor and miscellaneous military supplies (and perhaps to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock). In fact, those Massachusetts farmers had spent months amassing a significant artillery force, finding particular cannon was at the top of the British commander’s wish list for the expedition, and both sides had reasons to keep those facts out of their official reports.

JF: Why do we need to read The Road to Concord?

JLB: The start of the Revolutionary War is, of course, a major part of the U.S. of A.’s origin story. The Road to Concord peels back a layer of that myth to expose new details. Those details undercut the traditional picture of New Englanders defending their homes only with muskets and fowlers, and of Gen. Thomas Gage trying to suppress general unrest. The book argues that the New England governments prepared for war more than they let on and that G en. Gage had a personal motive for ordering troops to Concord. It also suggests that the way those circumstances were suppressed, resurrected, and discarded in U.S. historiography illuminates how we’ve collectively remembered our Revolution.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JLB: I first started to research the American past with an eye toward writing historical fiction for kids. In 1998, around the time I was leaving a long-time job as a book editor, I stumbled over the story of Christopher Seider, a boy about eleven years old shot dead in a political riot shortly before the Boston Massacre. It’s rare to find an example of children as significant, decision-making actors in historical events—not just bystanders. So I began to research the Revolution in New England more deeply. That work led to a chapter in James Marten’s anthology Children in Colonial America (NYU Press) and other publications.

In that same shooting, another boy was wounded—a nineteen-year-old decorative painter named Samuel Gore. And he turned into quite the activist. After Gore died in 1831, he was one of the first Bostonians to be publicly identified as a participant in the Tea Party. And Gore had told this story about stealing cannon from an armory under redcoat guard…

As to why I find history so interesting, I can’t really say. I’ve always been drawn to stories from the past. But in college, my interest in writing and literature led me to a more general major. One of my greatest regrets now is having been at a university with a stellar American history faculty and not taking any classes in the subject. Not being so specialized turned out to be valuable for my work as an editor, but I had no idea what would happen past that first job.

JF: What is your next project?

JLB: Chronologically, my next history project to appear will be the second volume of Colonial Comics: New England (Fulcrum). Jason Rodriguez is the chief editor of that series, and A. Dave Lewis and I are assistant editors. We’re working with a terrific team of writers and artists interpreting episodes from the lives of a range of eighteenth-century Americans. I also wrote the scripts for a couple of comics in that book: one about printers fighting for freedom of the press, drawn by the Eisner Award–winner Braden Lamb, and one about the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, brought to life by Jesse Lonergan.

JF: Thanks, J.L.  Great stuff!

The First Published Map of the American Revolution

This is very cool.  Historian Allison Lange discusses the first published map of the American Revolution.  It is housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA.  

Here is a taste of her post at the AAS blog, “Past is Present”:

A Plan of the Town and Harbour of Boston was published in London on July 29, 1775, three months after the battles. Little is known about the mapmaker. He may have witnessed the skirmishes and sent his manuscript across the Atlantic to London engraver C. Hall. Or, De Costa could have drawn the original map in London using information from the battle and an existing survey of the area. He dedicated his plan to Richard Whitworth, a Member of Parliament from 1768 to 1780, who was likely his patron.

Unlike most of the era’s battle maps, De Costa’s is a pictorial map. He illustrated the progression of troops using human figures rather than rectilinear blocks. Small groups of soldiers represent the British troops’ march to Concord and back. They fire at their opponents, and the wounded figures fall to the ground. De Costa represented encampments with tents and cannons and showed specific British ships, labeled in his key, in the Boston harbor.


King Hancock

John Hancock

J.L. Bell has served up another fascinating post at Boston 1775.  This one is about “King Hancock,” the nickname that Massachusetts farmers used to describe John Hancock in the wake of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.  Here is a taste:

Giving John Hancock the nickname “King” could have been an allusion to his wealth. Likewise, colonial Americans referred to Robert “King” Carter of Virginia (1663-1732), and Robert “King” Hooper (1709-1790) of Danvers. Men in Lexington might have had a particular fondness for Hancock because his paternal grandfather had been the minister of their town for a long time…
…With Hancock just concluding a stint as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, royal officials might have suspected he wanted to set himself up as monarch of Massachusetts.

Hancock and other leading American politicians of April 1775 would have hotly denied such an ambition. At the time they were still professing their loyalty to George III and the British constitution. The source of all the troubles, they complained, was the corrupt ministry in London, not the king. So I doubt those men would have been pleased to hear the provincial soldiers shout “King Hancock forever!”

In fact, in nearly all the uses of the term that have come down to us, “King Hancock” was a pejorative thrown out by supporters of the royal government trying to discredit or ridicule Hancock and the Patriot cause.

Did the British Plan to Burn Harvard in 1775?

J.L. Bell has a great post at Boston 1775 on a 1775 Thanksgiving sermon accusing the British of plotting to burn Harvard College.  The sermon was preached by Rev. Isaac Mansfield Jr., a Continental Army chaplain.  When it was published in 1776, it contained a footnote that described a plan that would have had British soldiers destroying Harvard in April 1775 on their return from Concord.

Bell is not buying Mansfield’s story.  He writes:

Mansfield thus accused the British commanders of planning to capture the Massachusetts legislators, destroy Harvard College, and fortify Cambridge common. He refused to identify his source for that inside information about enemy plans. And of course he was speaking in the midst of a war, when rumors and accusations fly at their fastest.
In fact, Mansfield’s claims don’t make sense. Gen. Thomas Gage did issue a call in September 1774 for the Massachusetts General Court to convene, but they were to gather in Salem, not Boston, and he quickly canceled that summons after the “Powder Alarm.” (The politicians gathered in Salem anyway, out of his reach, and formed a Provincial Congress instead.) There was no call for a legislature in April.

There was also nothing in Gen. Gage’s orders about Harvard. Indeed, the college was so little on Col. Percy’s mind on 19 April that he had to ask tutor Isaac Smith, Jr., which road led from there toward Concord. Percy didn’t have entrenching tools, and Cambridge was a poor place to stop and defend. So when Percy brought the column back through Cambridge, they didn’t pause at the college or the common, nor tried to recross the bridge over the Charles River, but pushed straight on to Charlestown, which was closer to the troops in Boston and more easily defended. 

Read the entire post here.