Who doesn’t appreciate a good mystery – especially one that dates all the way back to the beginning of the American Revolution! On the evening of April 18, 1775, “a friend” of Paul Revere held two lanterns in the northwest window of Christ Church (Old North Church) steeple to signal patriots in Charlestown that the British troops were leaving Boston by water on their secret expedition to Lexington and Concord. One hundred years later, on April 18, 1875, Samuel Haskell Newman spoke before a large crowd at Old North Church giving his family’s account of that historic night and identifying his father, church sexton Robert Newman, as the man who displayed the lanterns. After that speech, Samuel Haskell Newman climbed 14 stories into the steeple and held two lanterns aloft just as he believed his father did a century earlier. One year later on July 20, 1876, a letter by Reverend John Lee Watson of Orange, New Jersey, appeared in a newspaper called the Boston Daily Advertiser. In the letter, which he entitled, Paul Revere’s Signal: The True Story of the Signal Lanterns in Christ Church, Boston, Watson argued that his relative Captain John Pulling, a member of the church vestry, had actually held the lanterns in the steeple window and not Robert Newman.
These competing tales were addressed in an excellent lecture I attended this fall at Old South Meeting House given by Old North Foundation historian and Education Director Bob Damon. At the beginning of his talk, which was part of the Paul Revere Memorial Association Lecture Series One Hundred and Fifty Years of “Paul Revere’s Ride”: Facts, Fables and Fiction, Bob shared a unique image. It was a picture from 1875 showing a close up of Old North Church all decorated for the first lantern ceremony – the one that Samuel Haskell Newman spoke at. Later, I spotted a stereograph of that image in this post from John Bell’s great blog Boston 1775. I became motivated to see if I might track down an original copy of the picture for my own collection. As luck would have it, I was able to find not only that photograph, in stereographic form, but also a second showing the entire church as well as an 1875 illustration from a newspaper called Gleason’s Pictorial that features people in period attire admiring the decorated building. (All three of these items have since been donated to the Old North Church.) In each image, on the front of the church, we see a beautiful rendering of a lone patriot displaying two lanterns. The question posed to the audience at the beginning of the lecture was, “Who is this man?”
All wondered – what evidence did Samuel Haskell Newman and John Lee Watson have to support their claims that the man holding those lanterns was either Robert Newman or Captain John Pulling? Bob Damon presented their cases. Both men had strongly held beliefs, much of it based on family tradition. Newman’s took the form of the remembrances of family members, among them Mrs. Sally Chittenden the granddaughter of John Newman, brother of Robert. She recalled hearing how her relative Robert Newman displayed the signal lanterns on that fateful night. Newman was jailed for a time by the British for his suspected involvement and his relations were well aware of that fact. Watson’s family story came down from his mother, aunt, and Miss Mary Orne Jenks, the granddaughter of Captain John Pulling. Miss Jenks stated, “The story of the lanterns I heard from my earliest childhood from my mother and from my step-grandmother, and I never supposed there could be a doubt of its truth. I know he (Captain John Pulling) held the lanterns on that night, but how can I prove it after all these years?” Additional information would come to light and be published after Samuel Haskell Newman’s speech at Old North on April 18, 1875 and John Lee Watson’s letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser on July 20, 1876 to support both their positions.
On November 9, 1876, during a monthly meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Recording Secretary Charles Deane passed on correspondence from John Lee Watson that further backed the case for Captain John Pulling and offered evidence that Christ Church was the location from which the lanterns were displayed (not the Old North Meeting House as some believed). In 1878, a book authored by William W. Wheildon entitled History of Paul Revere’s Signal Lanterns, April 18, 1775, in the Steeple of the North Church contained multiple testimonials supporting Newman’s side of the argument and also made an effort to discount Watson’s claims regarding Captain John Pulling. Two of the testimonials were the words of Mary B. Swift, granddaughter of Colonel Conant, and Maria Green, granddaughter of Thomas Barnard. Below are more complete quotes from these individuals or their relations as they appear in another pertinent book on this topic Robert Newman, His Life and Letters 1752-1804 by Robert Newman Sheets.
“My mother, 84 years of age, now living at 7 Bowdoin Square, is the granddaughter of Col. Conant with who Paul Revere consulted on the Sunday prior to the lantern signaling from the spire of Christ Church. She resided at the north end in her youth, and informs me that the hanging out of the lanterns was then a common subject of remark, that it was always spoken of as the act of the sexton of Christ Church, and that not till Mr. J L Watson’s statement in the Boston Advertiser of the 20th inst, did she ever hear of the act being attributed to any other person than that Sexton.”
Wm C Swift
“I hereby certify that I am the daughter of William Green who lived in Boston at the North End near Christ Church which I have always heard called the North Church. My grandparents also resided there. I was born in the year 1793. I have heard many times from my mother the account of the signal lights displayed from the steeple of Christ Church on the night of the 18th April 1775 and I distinctly remember that she said her father Capt Thomas Barnard was engaged on that night watching the movements of the British in order to obtain for Robert Newman the necessary information concerning their departure. Our family were familiar with the story of the hanging out of the lanterns owing to the connection of Capt Thomas Barnard with it, and we never heard the act ascribed to any other person than Robert Newman, or to any other place than Christ Church.”
Lincoln, April 7, 1877
In 1880, a book entitled “Paul Revere’s Signal: The True Story of the Signal Lanterns in Christ Church, Boston by John Lee Watson was published. Retaining the same name as Mr. Watson’s original letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser, it made an effort to refute the evidence supporting Robert Newman in Mr. Wheildon’s book, and again made the case for Captain John Pulling. The book includes a letter from the Reverend Henry F. Lane, the great grandson of Captain Pulling, written to the editors of a Boston newspaper on July 22, 1876. A portion of that letter appears below:
“Who Signalled Paul Revere.”
Malone, July 22, 1876.
To the Editors of the Boston Journal:–
“Under this caption in your evening edition of Friday I learn that a correspondent of the advertiser from Orange, N.J., answers the question by giving the name of John Pulling.
John Pulling was the grandfather of my mother, the late Mrs. Charles Lane, jr. of Boston. The wife of John Pulling, my mother’s grandmother, died in Abington, Mass., about thirty years ago, in her 99th year.
When I was a lad, I remember distinctly hearing from her that her husband hung the lights from the steeple of the Old North Church, to give the alarm to the country people. His residence at the time was on the corner of what was then called Ann and Cross streets. The British, at the time, made diligent search for him, and I have heard my great-grandmother give a very vivid description of their searching the house to find him, and how he avoided capture by her concealing him under an empty wine-but in the cellar. He escaped with her from Boston in a small skiff, while the British had possession, by disguising himself as a fisherman…”
Henry F. Lane,
Pastor First Baptist Church, Malone, N.Y.
As the final evidence for each side was presented, and the lecture drew to a close, the audience was again posed the question, “Who is this man?” We were left to ponder – was it church sexton Robert Newman who displayed the lanterns, Captain John Pulling, or perhaps both men working together? That determination would come for each of us after our own careful review of the evidence. For me, it is mysteries like this that make history so intriguing. We may never locate one definitive document that points to Newman, Pulling or both, but what we do have is two men, two patriots forever linked in the annals of American history whose stories present today’s educators with a unique opportunity. Old North Church offers an outstanding school program that addresses this captivating event. It is called, “Who Hung the Lanterns in the Old North Steeple? A History Mystery.” Students use clues to formulate their own vision of what took place at Old North over 235 years ago. For teachers looking for ways to integrate technology into their social studies curriculum, this educator-led field trip is the ideal subject for a digital storytelling project! More details below:
Program length: 1.5 hours
Cost: $5 per student
Group size: From 25 students (or 1 class) to entire middle school grades!
Program offered: September – Mid June
This exciting program is an educator-led field trip where students use historical documents, grave markers in nearby Copp’s Hill cemetery, and clues on the Old North Church campus to investigate the unsolved mystery of who hung the lanterns in the Old North steeple on the night of April 18, 1775. They gain an understanding of the historical research process and the importance of “sourcing” historical documents to assess their accuracy.
To learn more or to book this field trip:
Finally, I’d like to wrap up this post with a word of thanks to my friends at Old North Church. Over the past ten years, on a variety of different projects, I’ve had the opportunity to access parts of this historic site not open to the general public. This includes not one but three chances to climb to the top of the steeple for which I am very grateful. This was especially meaningful for me back in 2000 while working on my children’s book One April in Boston in which my ancestor Ben Edwards makes that same climb in this chapter with the guidance of Captain John Pulling. In that tale, I have Robert Newman displaying the lanterns on April 18, 1775 but after attending Bob Damon’s lecture, I feel it’s quite likely that Captain John Pulling provided Robert Newman with some degree of assistance inside the church tower.
A climb to the top of the steeple – in the footsteps of sexton Robert Newman, Captain John Pulling or both!
Oldest known photograph of Christ Church (Old North) circa 1860.
Shortcut to this post: OldNorthMystery.com
Promoting this post: Teach History presents
No trip to Boston’s Freedom Trail is complete without a visit to the Charlestown Navy Yard to tour USS Constitution – one of the first vessels in the United States Navy and the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world. Built at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston and launched in the fall of 1797, the USS Constitution is two hundred four feet in length, has fifty-five guns, and carried a crew of 450 men. Her 24” thick hull was built of live oak sandwiched between two layers of white oak. Live oak, a rare wood, is five times stronger than white oak and made the hull of the ship incredibly strong. She first saw action in the Quasi War with France, and then fought against the Barbary Corsairs – pirates from North Africa who attacked American merchant ships in the Mediterranean Sea. During the War of 1812, Constitution was commanded by Captain Isaac Hull. One of her most famous battles, against the British frigate HMS Guerriere, occurred during this time off the coast of Nova Scotia. At the bottom of this post, is a great primary source – Captain Hull’s official account of that battle as it appeared in a newspaper called the Connecticut Mirror on September 21, 1812.
On the afternoon of August 19, 1812, the crew aboard the Constitution spotted a sail in the distance and started to give chase in an effort to determine the ship’s identity. They soon realized it was the HMS Guerriere – a 38-gun British frigate then armed with 49 guns. Captain James Dacres, commander of the Guerriere, raised three British ensigns to signal he was ready for a fight and Captain Isaac Hull aboard USS Constitution responded by raising four American ensigns to accept the challenge. Both warships began to maneuver for position with the Guerriere firing a number of broadsides from long distance that fell harmlessly into the sea. As the ships drew closer, the gun crews aboard Constitution stood ready, anxiously awaiting orders from Captain Isaac Hull. The Guerriere continued to fire on USS Constitution and this time her guns were well within range. At that moment, some of her 18-pound cannonballs bounced off the hull of the Constitution – thanks to its live oak construction. Seeing this, a seaman aboard USS Constitution cried out “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” When the Constitution drew within less than a pistol shot, Captain Hull gave the order to fire a broadside and in only 35 minutes the Guerriere was completely dismasted and had surrendered. After the battle, crewmen aboard the Constitution began calling her “Old Ironsides” and the nickname stuck.
The USS Constitution was undefeated in 33 engagements. Because she was made of wood, the Constitution eventually began to deteriorate, and by 1830 she had become unseaworthy. Rumors spread that she would be scrapped, but a poem “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes rallied public support and soon Congress appropriated funds to restore her. During the mid 1800s the Constitution, now obsolete in warfare, played a symbolic role for the nation. She sailed around the world in 1844-46. By 1905, the ship was in need of serious repair once again. Congress passed a bill to refurbish the vessel but provided no funds. In 1925, public fundraising efforts began and school children from across the United States donated $148,000 in pennies to save the ship. Congress finally provided additional funds to complete the restoration of “Old Ironsides.”
After her restoration, USS Constitution was towed to many U.S. ports in the Pacific during the years 1931-34. After the journey, she returned to her home port of Boston where she would remain. The ship received a complete overhaul from 1992-97, just in time for her 200th birthday. On July 21, 1997, USS Constitution celebrated that birthday by setting sail for the first time in 116 years! On that historic day, the seamen aboard her hoisted a partial set of six sails on her masts, and the citizens of Boston cheered as their beloved ship sailed once again off the coast of Massachusetts. Today, a three-year $6 million restoration of the Constitution that began in the fall of 2007 is nearing completion. The spar deck has been replaced and the pitch adjusted so water will run off properly. The latest work brings the ship very close to the way it looked during the War of 1812 – and well in time for that War’s 200th anniversary.
Wonderful tours of USS Constitution are given by active duty members of the US Navy and include visits to the spar, gun and berth decks. Hours of operation can be found on the USS Constitution website. During these tours you’ll learn how sailors lived aboard ship, hear tales of her battles and discover fascinating facts about the vessel. Two of the facts I found most interesting related to the mainmast and long guns. The ship’s mainmast is 210 feet high – that’s a mere 13 feet shorter than the Bunker Hill Monument! Her long guns weighed 6,000 pounds each, could fire a 24-pound shot 1,200 yards, and the gun crews consisted of a minimum of 7 men.
While you’re at the Charlestown Navy Yard, be sure to check out the excellent USS Constitution Museum. The Museum offers exhibits, programs and lectures about USS Constitution and America’s proud naval heritage.
Captain Isaac Hull’s Official Account of USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere
The Connecticut Mirror – September 21, 1812
Compare the above newspaper transcript to Captain Isaac Hull’s original letter in the National Archives. Transcript here. What did the Connecticut Mirror account leave out or have incorrect and what can this teach us?
When I was 2 ½ years old, I traveled to Boston with my family and walked along the Freedom Trail for the very first time. During that trip, we visited Copp’s Hill Burying Ground and one incident that occurred there is forever etched in my memory. I recall all the fuss that was made over getting one photo in particular and remember being a bit confused as I was positioned next to a strange rock while my father held my hand and the sun glared in my face. The image captured that day is shown at left. We were standing by the marker of Captain Benjamin Edwards who I later learned was a sea captain and my sixth great grandfather. I had no way of knowing it then, but this simple photo would have a major impact on my life. It helped instill in me a lifelong interest in both family history and American history. As the years passed, I would come to discover much more about my early Boston ancestors and the family tomb.
Edwards Tomb #5 is in the first row of tombs constructed at Copp’s Hill in 1717. Five generations of my family are here, including my 7th great grandmother Sarah Edwards and 6th, 5th, 4th and likely 3rd great grandparents. Their names are listed at the end of this post. It is also the final resting place of Paul Revere – not the famous midnight rider, who died in 1818 and lies in Granary Burying Ground, but his firstborn son Paul Revere Jr. (1760-1813). Paul Jr. was 15 years old on April 18, 1775 when his father made the Midnight Ride and he later stayed behind to guard the family property during the siege of Boston. Paul Jr. was apprenticed to his father as a gold and silversmith; handled the day-to-day operations of the Revere silversmith shop in the 1780s; and after the war made church bells with his father and brother Joseph Warren Revere. So why would Paul Revere Jr. be buried in the Edwards family tomb and what evidence is there to support it?
Paul Revere Jr. married Sally Edwards (1761-1808) on July 25, 1782. Sally was the older sister of my fourth great grandfather Benjamin Edwards (1765-1808). Paul Jr. and Sally had 12 children between 1783 and 1803 and five of them died young. Paul never remarried after Sally died on August 23, 1808. It is believed that Sally was buried in the Edwards tomb where she joined her five young children, her parents, grandparents and her brother Benjamin who had died just a few months prior on June 9, 1808. Oral family tradition says that members of the Revere family rest here but there was no written record of any sort to support that claim until late 1999. At that time the Paul Revere House received some interesting correspondence from a genealogist doing research for someone with the surname Edwards in their family tree. The family held in their possession a letter from an older female relative dated Gordonsville, VA October 3, 1969. That letter contained the following line: “I did visit Boston when I was about twelve years old and Aunt Sue took me around, such as to the old family tomb where great, great ???? grandmother Elliot is resting (?) with Paul Revere’s casket on top of hers…” Paul Revere House staff contacted me to see if I might help them make some sense of this clue. From the moment I read that line, I knew what it meant. The answer to the mystery was hidden in the pages of a treasured book my family owned.
I had grown up with an Edwards family Bible from 1812, passed down through five generations. Ever since I was 10, the handwritten family records it contained had captured my imagination. Those records included the death of my fourth great grandfather Benjamin Edwards (1765-1808) and the births of his five children in Boston between 1793 and 1803. Directly beneath the birth records was an entry that had never made sense to me. It was for a Helan (Helen) Mariah Elliot born on April 8, 1811. I would come to learn that after my fourth great grandfather Benjamin Edwards died his wife Polly (Mary) Bangs Edwards remarried to Samuel Elliot in 1810. Helen Mariah Elliot would have been their daughter and I believe Polly (Mary) Bangs Edwards Elliot, my fourth great grandmother, would have been the “great, great ??? grandmother Elliot” in the letter mentioned above. I have not been able to locate a death record for Polly, but if she died between 1811 and 1813 then Paul Revere’s casket certainly could have “rested on top of hers” in the family tomb (as the letter states) because Paul Revere Jr. died on January 16, 1813.
There are no paintings I am aware of that show what Sally Edwards or Paul Revere Jr. looked like but there is a painting of their son Paul Revere who was born on February 2, 1789. I obtained this image from a family who is a direct descendant of the midnight rider Paul Revere through his grandson George Revere – one of Paul Revere Jr. and Sally Edwards 12 children. When I first saw it I was struck by how much this Paul Revere’s nose resembled that of his great grandfather Captain Benjamin Edwards. Here’s a side by side comparison.
By the 1980s, the Edwards marker was in a serious state of disrepair. In 1989, only two pieces of it remained and neither contained any words. After obtaining the proper permission, my family had the marker replaced in 1998. The new marker was hand carved by Nicholas Benson of the John Stevens Shop of Newport, Rhode Island, founded in 1705. Two years later, in 2000, I wrote a children’s book One April in Boston that pays tribute to my early Boston ancestors. This photo, taken by the family marker in the summer of 2010, celebrated the book’s 10th anniversary.
Here is a list of my direct ancestors believed to be in the Edwards Tomb.
Sixth Great Grandparents
- Captain Benjamin Edwards (1685-1751), sea captain and merchant, his mother Sarah, his first wife Hannah Harrod, and second wife Bathsheba Evans Edwards (1701-1738).
Fifth Great Grandparents
- Dolling Edwards (1737-1773), mastmaker, and his wife Rebecca Christie Edwards (1739-1771).
Fourth Great Grandparents
- Benjamin Edwards (1765-1808), cooper, and his wife Polly Bangs Edwards (Elliot).
Third Great Grandparents
- Joseph B. Edwards (1799-1852), paver, and possibly his wife Sarah Mace Edwards (1806-1872).
Here is a list of other ancestors believed to be in the Edwards Tomb.
- Alexander Edwards (1733-1798), patriot, cabinetmaker and member of the Sons of Liberty.
- Sally Edwards Revere (1761-1808), wife of silversmith Paul Revere Jr. and mother of their 12 children.
- Paul Revere Jr. (1760-1813), silversmith, bell founder and firstborn son of patriot Paul Revere.
- Jedediah Lincoln (1760-1820), Revolutionary War soldier and ancestor of Abraham Lincoln; his wife, Elizabeth (Betsey) Edwards Lincoln (1765-1796), and their son Alexander Edwards Lincoln.
- Robert Edwards (1732-1770), tailor, and his wife Mary (White) Clark Edwards (?-1774).
On October 15, 1789 President George Washington left New York for a tour of the eastern states. During this trip he visited a number of towns in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire including: New Haven, Hartford, Worcester, Boston, Salem, Newburyport and Portsmouth. President Washington’s visit to Boston began on Saturday, October 24, 1789. On that unusually cold, raw and windy day, at 10 o’clock in the morning, the inhabitants of the town assembled and formed a Procession in the Mall (near Boston Common). The artisans, tradesmen, and manufacturers were alphabetically arranged. Each group stood behind white silk flags of a yard square that flew from handsomely painted seven-foot long staffs. Each flag contained a device noting the group’s trade. My ancestor, 55-year-old cabinetmaker Alexander Edwards, likely marched behind the flag of the Cabinet and Chair-Makers while my fourth great grandfather, 24-year-old Benjamin Edwards, either marched with the coopers or was among the spectators that day. The procession made its way to the entrance of the town where the entire group halted and opened ranks. Facing inwards, they formed an avenue reaching from the neck to the State House for the President to pass through. At one o’clock, the President’s approach was announced by discharges of artillery from Roxbury, Dorchester Heights, and Castle William; a salute from the ships, and by the ringing of all the bells. President Washington was dressed for the occasion in his Continental uniform and mounted on an elegant white horse. He was attended by Major Jackson, and Mr. Lear, his Secretaries. Vice President John Adams followed on horseback. Governor John Hancock did not greet the President as he entered Boston, feeling that Washington should call on him first as Head of the Commonwealth. The Governor eventually saw the error of his ways and made an effort to smooth things over – more on that below. The Selectmen, and the Lieutenant Governor Samuel Adams, did welcome the President and he was escorted into town followed by the Procession.
The streets were crowded with finely dressed ladies and gentlemen and many of the townspeople peered out doors, through casement windows, and from the tops of buildings along the parade route to catch a glimpse of the legendary General Washington. The nation’s first president rode along Orange, Newbury, Marlborough, and Cornhill streets (all later named Washington Street in honor of his visit). On this path, President Washington went by the Old South Meeting House – a spot he had visited in 1776 to see the destruction done to the building by the British troops when they occupied Boston. Reaching the State House (today’s Old State House), the President passed through a richly decorated Triumphal Arch, designed by architect Charles Bulfinch, which spanned from the west end of the building to the stores on the opposite side of the street. This arch had a canopy above it over 20 feet high with an eagle perched on top. The President then entered the State House, went upstairs, strode through the Representatives’ Chamber, walked out the center window and took four steps down to the gallery of the Colonnade – a colonial reviewing stand of sorts erected for the occasion at the west end of the State House. This reviewing stand stood atop six large columns, fifteen feet high, and the floor of its gallery was furnished with armed chairs and spread with rich carpets. When President Washington entered the Colonnade, he was saluted by three huzzas from the citizens, and an Ode was sung. The Procession passed him, proceeded into Court Street and was dismissed. Military companies then escorted the President to his residence in Court Street, Ingersoll’s Inn, where he would stay during his five day visit. That evening, fireworks were exhibited in several parts of the town – in State Street, the Bunch of Grapes Tavern, Eastern Coffee House, the Castle and from the French Ships, which were beautifully illuminated.
On Sunday the 25th, the President attended services in the morning at Trinity Church and in the afternoon at Brattle Street Church. In between, he was called on at his residence by Governor Hancock. The Governor, who overnight had come to realize the incorrectness of his views and that it was in fact his responsibility to call on the President first, arrived by coach and was carried in by his coachmen and footman apologizing that gout had prevented him from seeing the President any earlier. Washington seemed to accept the excuse and apology in stride and the two had a cordial meeting. Monday the 26th was rainy and stormy and the President, who had begun to show signs of a cold, (no doubt the effect of being out in the frigid temperatures and wind the day he entered the town) cancelled a planned trip to Lexington. In fact, a large number of the inhabitants of Boston had also taken ill with what everyone would come to call the Washington Influenza. Washington received many visitors this day and in the evening called on the Governor and had tea with him and Mrs. Hancock. On Tuesday the 27th he went to an Oratorio at the Stone Chapel (King’s Chapel) and attended a large and elegant dinner in his honor that afternoon at Faneuil Hall. On Wednesday the 28th President Washington visited a Duck (sailcloth) Manufactory where he saw 28 looms at work with 14 girls spinning. He also toured a Card Manufactory. He visited ships in Boston Harbor and attended a grand ball in the evening at Concert Hall. The President departed the town the next morning, Thursday October 29th at 8 o’clock.
Any stories about President Washington’s visit to Boston that may have been passed down by my ancestors did not survive. In an effort to better appreciate what they might have experienced, I decided to seek out eyewitness accounts of this historic event. One of the best accounts I was able to find is that of William H. Sumner (1780-1861) the son of Increase Sumner, fifth governor of Massachusetts. William H.Sumner, who served as a General in the Massachusetts Militia, was nearly 80 when his childhood recollections appeared in the April 1860 issue of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. This is a publication of Boston’s New England Historic Genealogical Society – a wonderful resource I used to research my own family history and can highly recommend to others. In the article, William H. Sumner notes that he is one of the very few now living who can say, “I have seen the great Washington.” Sumner was a boy between the ages of 9 and 10 years old, and a student at Master Lane’s West Boston Writing School when President Washington entered Boston on Saturday, October 24, 1789. Recalling that day, Sumner writes:
The children of the schools were all paraded in the main street, and stood in the gutters in front of the long rows of men whose strength was required and exerted to protect them from the crowd on the sidewalks as the procession passed along the street. The General rode on a noble white charger with characteristic erectness and dignity. Colonel Lear and Major Jackson accompanied him as his aids. Washington was in uniform, and as he rode, his head uncovered, he inclined his body first on one side and then on the other, without distinctly bowing, but so as to observe the multitude in the streets, and the ladies in the windows and on the tops of houses, who saluted him as he passed.
Master Lane’s boys were placed in front of Mr. Jonathan Mason’s hardware store, near the bend in Washington Street (then Cornhill) opposite Williams Court. I will remember the laugh which our salute created, when, as the General passed us, we rolled in our hands our quills with the longest feathers we could get. Mr. N.R. Sturgis, who was at school with me at that time, remembers this circumstance. From our position at the angle of the street, we had a fair view of the procession as it approached and after it passed us. A select choir of singers, led by Rhea, the chorister of Brattle Street Church, was placed on the triumphal arch under which the procession was to pass, and which extended from the Old State House to the stores of Joseph Pierce and others on the opposite side of Cornhill. The arch was decorated with flags, flowers and evergreen, so that the musicians were not seen until they rose up and sang the loud paean, commencing as Washington first came in sight at the angle where we stood, swelling in heavy chorus until he passed from our sight under the triumphal arch and took his station upon it. Here the Selectmen of Boston gave him a formal reception.
William H. Sumner also mentioned something else that moved him during the President’s visit. He recalled how his mother was dressed to attend the Washington Ball at Concert Hall on the evening of Wednesday, October 28, 1789. He remembers her wearing a black velvet belt with the large gold letters “G. W.” on it. There were over 100 ladies at this event all dressed very fashionably. The November 11, 1789 issue of The Pennsylvania Journal mentions another item that the women of Boston wore during Washington’s visit. “The ladies, in honor of the President, have agreed to wear the following device is a sash: A broad white ribbon with G.W. in gold letters (or spangles) encircled with a laurel wreath in front; on one end of the sash to be painted and American eagle, and the other a fleur-de-lis.” These painted sashes also appeared for sale in an advertisement placed in The Massachusetts Centinel on the day of the Washington Ball.
Another eyewitness account of Washington’s visit by a schoolboy appears in the book John Tileston’s School by D.C. Colesworthy. The author’s father Daniel P. Colesworthy was a pupil of the legendary Boston schoolmaster John Tileston and he recalls how Master Tileston instructed the boys to come to school that day with clean faces and dressed in their best clothes. He also remembers rolling his quill pen in an effort to get General Washington’s attention. I continue to search for more eyewitness accounts, especially those by children/schoolboys, and will add them to this post if and when they are located.
Original Press Coverage of President Washington’s Visit to Boston
The Massachusetts Centinel – October 28, 1789
Great for classroom use:
Complete Transcript of Press Coverage from The Massachusetts Centinel – October 28, 1789.
Historic Items from the Procession
Broadsides – Collection of The Massachusetts Historical Society
Banners – Collection of The Bostonian Society
The letter was written by an unnamed Boston merchant and Loyalist and addressed to a friend in Scotland. On June 24, 1775 the merchant wrote a detailed account of the engagements at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill that also included news of how the citizens of Boston reacted.
For teachers, a convenient transcript of this letter (ideal for classroom use) is provided at the bottom of the post, as well as links to sources offering the Patriot perspective of the same events so your students can compare. Images of the original newspaper article also appear below. The letter reads as follows:
Boston, June 24.
I Received yours, by Capt. Porterfield, and I am exceeding (sp) glad to hear of your welfare. The last time I wrote, I gave you some account of the deplorable state of this province: no doubt you will expect that I should give you a very particular state of matters here since that time.
To paint the scenes of distraction, violence, mobs, riots, and insurrections that have taken place throughout this country for the last twelve months is altogether beyond my ability; how much less then shall I be able to describe the horrors of war, that have reigned here since the 19th of April. The people have been arming themselves, learning the military exercise, and forming magazines for war during the course of last year, and have always been publishing to the world, that they would fight and die for their liberties (as they express themselves): but few people believed they would fight, notwithstanding of their declarations, and I believe the General himself never thought they would carry it so far.
But on the 18th of April, the General having previous information that they had formed their grand magazine at a place called Concord, about twenty miles from Boston, dispatched 500 troops with the greatest secrecy, at ten o’clock at night, to go and destroy that magazine.
The troops no sooner got over the ferry, which was about one mile over, than alarms were spread throughout the country, by firing of cannon, ringing of bells, and post riders; all this was planned before that time. – The troops proceeded on their march, and when daylight appeared, they saw numbers of armed men traveling towards them from all quarters. In a short time after this, they found about 100 of them on a green by the wayside: the commanding officer ordered them to dismiss; they accordingly began to retire; and after going to a small distance in a straggling manner, and getting behind some fences, some of them turned about and fired, which wounded several men, upon which the troops fired on the others as they ran, and killed eight, and proceeded on their march, which was four miles further. After arriving, they sent three companies two miles beyond the place, to defend a bridge, that the rebels might not come upon them from that quarter, while they were executing their orders at this place, a large body came upon the three companies, and obliged them to return to the main body, with some loss of men. By this time the magazine was destroyed, which proved to be very inconsiderable.
They instantly proceeded on their march for Boston, but as soon as they got out of town, they received a heavy fire from all quarters, but never could see above six people together at a time, for they hid themselves behind rocks, trees, fences, bushes, and in every house, barn, stable, &c.
An Aid de Camp arrived in town from the commander of the party, to let the General know that an alarm was spread through the country: on receiving this advice, four regiments and two field pieces, were immediately ordered to march under the command of Lord Percy, to reinforce the other troops. They accordingly marched at nine o’clock, and arrived at the place of battle at two, which was 16 miles from Boston, and found the others in a most miserable situation, hemmed in on all sides, and their ammunition almost spent, with numbers killed and wounded. This party then refreshed themselves, while the fresh troops began upon them with cannon and small arms. In a short time they began their march home, and fought their way through innumerable multitudes, hid in the manner before said, during the course of 16 miles. When the troops arrived, their ammunition was all gone, and all the men in the most fatigued condition imaginable, having received no kind of sustenance during the day. Two carts with provisions were sent off some time after the reinforcement, guarded by 24 men, some of whom were killed, and the rest taken prisoners, and never got up to the troops.
A list of the killed and wounded has never been published here, but by the best account, about 70 were killed, and about 200 wounded, and 30 missing. How many of the rebels were killed and wounded is impossible to say: they published a list, but this and all other publications respecting their cause, are the most gross falsehoods; their leaders always take care to suppress the truth.
But, dear brother, it is impossible to describe the surprise, amazement, and consternation that prevailed in town that day, word was brought every half hour that the troops would be all cut off; and almost every inhabitant was wishing and praying that it might be so; and it was expected that the whole country would rise and make an attempt to enter the town, which was not very strongly fortified at that time, and but few troops to defend it; and it was likewise supposed the inhabitants within, who all had arms in their possession, would rise and attempt to kill the soldiers and the few friends to good government that were in it.
However, the night passed away, and no attempt was made from without, nor insurrection within. This place is surrounded with water all but one neck of land: the passage this way was stopped next day, and all boats forbid to go; so that no person was suffered to go out, and fortifications were begun and carried on with the greatest expedition day and night till they were made, and now are exceeding (sp) strong for defence (sp). The rebels to the amount of 20,000 assembled in a few days, and stopped all the passages and communications from the country to Boston, by this intending to starve us.
The inhabitants in general became very uneasy for fear of the famine, and applied to the General to permit them to go out with all their effects: the answer was, if they would deliver up all the arms and ammunition that were in their possession, they might go with their furniture, but no merchandize (sp) nor provisions would be suffered to go. To this they agreed, and I suppose there is not one in 15 but what is now gone. Notwithstanding we have no supplies from the country, we are far from being in a state of famine; we live all on salt meat, except a few fish that comes in the harbour now and then, and the prices are not so much raised as might be expected. The army have some hay, cattle, and other articles from Quebec and Nova Scotia, which are the only governments that are not joined in the rebellion.
From the 19th of April to the 17th of June, nothing very material has happened. On the 12th of June, the General issued a proclamation, offering his Majesty’s most gracious pardon to all who would lay down arms and return to their duty, except two of the ring-leaders; and likewise establishing the martial law in this province while this unnatural rebellion subsists; but no regard was paid to this.
On the 17th instant at daylight, it was observed by some of the ships of war, that the rebels had thrown up an entrenchment on a hill on the other side of the river, about one mile from this town: the alarm about this new movement of theirs was general; for from this, if they were suffered to go on, they could beat down or burn the town. At nine o’clock, a battery on an eminence in this town directly opposite to their works, began to play upon them, but found they could not dislodge them.
The rebels fired a few shot into this town, and then desisted, for their shot did no execution: 1800 of the rest of the troops were immediately ordered to embark on board of boats, and go and engage them, under the command of General Howe. About 3 o’clock they landed on the other side about half a mile from the rebels, under cover of 5 or 6 ships of war, who kept a continual fire on the ground betwixt the place of landing and the enemy, who chose to lie close in their breast works all this time. As soon as the troops had got themselves in order, they began to advance, canonading (sp) all the way till they came within gun-shot. Charles Town on the foot of the hill, consisting of about 200 houses, was set on fire by the fort on this side at the instant the engagement began, whose flames raged in the most rapid manner, being chiefly of wood: sure I am, nothing ever has or can be more dreadfully terrible, than what was to be seen and heard at this time! The most incessant discharge of guns that ever was heard with mortal ears, continued for three quarters of an hour, and then the troops forced their trenches, and the rebels fled.
The place where the battle was fought, is a peninsula of a mile long and a half broad, and the troops drove them over the Neck and kept the island. All this was seen from this town.
A very small part of the enemies entrenchments was seen on this side, it being only thought to be the work of a night, but their chief breast works were on the other side of the hill; it was found to be the strongest post that was ever occupied by any set of men, and the prisoners that were taken say they were 9000 strong, and had a good artillery; five cannons were taken. The spirit and bravery that the British troops exhibited on this occasion, I suppose is not to be surpassed in any history. But oh! The melancholy sight of killed and wounded that was seen on that day! In four hours after their landing not less than 500 wounded were relanded here, and 140 were left dead on the field, amongst which was a large proportion of brave officers, viz. 36 killed, and 44 wounded; 300 of the rebels were killed, and 36 wounded left on the field, but they carried off great numbers of their wounded in their retreat. To the great satisfaction of all good men, Dr. Warren was slain, who was one of their first and greatest leaders.
Early next morning I went over and saw the field of battle, before any of the dead were buried, which was the first thing of the sort that ever I saw, and I pray God I may never have the opportunity of seeing the like again. The rebels are employed since that day, fortifying all the hills and passes within four miles, to prevent the troops from advancing into the country. We hourly expect the troops to make a movement against them, but they are too few number, not less than 20,000 being equal to the task. I cannot help mentioning one thing, which serves to shew (sp) the hellish disposition of the accursed rebels, by parcels of ammunition that were left on the field; their balls were all found to be poisoned.
Thus, brother, I have endeavoured (sp) to give you a short account of the desperate state of matters here since my last, and shall sum up the whole with one single observation, viz. the delusion that reigns here is as universal and as deeply rooted as ever was found among the race of mankind, and of all other rebellions that ever subsisted in the world, it is the most unprovoked. I am, &c.
Original Newspaper Images of the Boston Loyalist’s Letter
1) Have your students compare the Loyalist view of the death of Doctor Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill, contained in the above letter, to the Patriot view detailed here.
2) Have your students compare the Loyalist view of the Battle of Lexington outlined in the above letter
to the Patriot view detailed here.