Saturday, June 28, 2008

Old Burial Ground, Arlington, Mass.

Old Burial Ground
Pleasant St.
Arlington, Mass.
Just behind the Unitarian church, on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Pleasant St. in Arlington, lies the old Menotomy burial ground. Established in 1732, headstones for many members of Menotomy's most prominent families, as well as a number of Revolutionary War veterans, can be found here. (As of today's date these latter graves are marked with American flags).

Jason Russell was buried here in a mass grave along with eleven members of the colonial militia killed in the fighting on April 19, 1775. Russell was killed on the grounds of his family home, which is not far from here. The site of some the most brutal fighting of that day, ten members of the militia, including seven men from the town of Danvers, died at the Russell homestead. Two British soldiers were also killed at that site. (The men from Danvers were buried back in their home town).

In 1842 an 19-foot white marble obelisk, surrounded by a short metal fence, was erected in the cemetery. The remains of Jason Russell and the others were removed from the original grave and reinterred here under the obelisk. The original inscription reads:

"Erected by the Inhabitants of West Cambridge, A.D. 1848, over the common grave of Jason Russell, Jason Winship, Jabez Wyman and nine others, who were slain in this town by the British Troops on their retreat from the Battles of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775. Being among the first to lay down their lives in the struggle for American Independence."

Just behind the obelisk can be found the original headstone that marks Jason Russell's final resting spot. The faded inscription on the slate headstone is as follows: "Mr. Jason Russell was barbarously murdered in his own house by Gage's bloody troops, on the 19th of April, 1775, aetatis 59. His body is quietly resting in this grave with Eleven of our friends, who in like manner, with many others, were cruelly slain, on that fatal day. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." Right beside Jason's headstone is his wife's, Elizabeth Russell. She died in 1786 at the age of 65.

Next to a stone wall that borders the cemetery there is a solitary British flag. This marks the presumed burial spot of British soldiers killed in the fighting of April 19. The soldiers were placed in unmarked graves in an area reserved for the burial of slaves. It is entirely possible that the two British soldiers killed at the Jason Russell house are also buried at this location - just a stones toss from the men they died fighting.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The King's Own, British 4th Regiment

British 4th Regiment
"The King's Own"

Starting with the first organization of the Army in the mid-17th century and continuing to this day, the British Army is built upon its regimental system. The British soldier takes great pride in the traditions and the history of his regiment. Being one of the senior regiments makes the King's Own regimental history read like the history of Great Britain itself.

After threats were made against its possession of Tangier's it was decided in England more troops were needed to protect the port. Companies were raised in London and Plymouth, England and what was to become known as the Fourth Regiment or the King's Own was born on the 13 of July 1680. Once training was complete the companies were merged and sent to North Africa. This was just the first of what was to be many deployments overseas for the King's Own.

With the decline of the Spanish Empire and Britain's eclipse of the Dutch trading empire, England found itself in a world wide contest with France. A New France was created in Canada and British colonies were established in North America. Trading partnerships and posts were started in India. Colonization of the spice and sugar islands of the Caribbean was begun.

Beginning in the 18th and continuing into the early 19th century, several major wars were fought with France. This was also the time period when the first British Empire reached its height. The job of policing and maintaining that empire fell to Britain's Navy and its comparatively small, but professional Army. Serving under many Kings and Queens and many more leaders of Parliament, the King's Own carried its banner and the Kings colors all over the globe. A partial list of the battles fought by the 4th Regiment and the battle honors won, include: Gibraltar, Culloden, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Havana, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Brooklyn, Brandywine, St. Lucia, Corunna, Badajoz, Salamanca, San Sebastian, Washington, New Orleans and Waterloo.

The King's Own continued its illustrious history with fighting in South Africa against both the Zulus and the Boers. During the two World Wars the King's Own was much expanded and its battalions were involved in every theatre of battle.

During the 1950s the British Army went through yet another of its many reorganizations. A decision was reached to shrink the number of existing Regiments. In 1959 the King's Own lost its own identity and was merged with another regiment to become the King's Own Royal Border Regiment.

The King's Own was in existence for some 279 years and had in fact outlasted the Empire for which it fought so hard to create. There is an old song, dating back to the First World War, that is titled, "There will always be an England". Although not the oldest or the most well known of British Regiments, for as long as England maintains its own identity, the sacrifices made and the honors won by the King's Own will be a part of that heritage.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On this day in History...

Battle of Bunker Hill
June 17, 1775
Charlestown, Mass.

On the evening of June 16, 1775 colonial militia under Col. William Prescott left their camps surrounding Boston and marched out onto the peninsula of Charlestown. Boston was under siege and each side was looking for an advantage. The American plan was to take the high ground by fortifying Bunker Hill. As it turned out, a redoubt was built on Breeds Hill and that was where the majority of the fighting would take place.

In the early morning of the 17th sharp eyes on board the HMS Lively spotted the new earthworks overlooking Boston harbor. The British command staff had been making their own plans to occupy Charlestown and knew the precarious situation they were in if the fortified position was allowed to remain. Major General Howe began to plan his attack and the necessary forces, to include Marines and artillery, were ordered to begin their preparations.

Calling out, organizing and then ferrying them across the harbor all took time. Unfortunately for the British soldiers who had this bit of work ahead of them, the elapsed time had given the colonial forces more time to prepare. New Hampshire militia, under the command of John Stark, along with other reinforcements, had taken up fixed positions and had extended the lines of defense. It would no longer be easy to bypass or flank the American forces.

In fact it would turn out to be a very bloody business for everyone concerned. The small town of Charlestown was burned to the ground. British infantry were mowed down in rows as the advanced up the sloping hill. First one and then another assault were repulsed with heavy casualties. With the arrival of fresh soldiers under the command of General Clinton a third and final attack was launched. By this time the militia was running out of powder and ball and their redoubt was overrun. It was while covering the the retreat that Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, was killed. The death of Dr. Warren was a great loss to Massachusetts and to the rebellion.

General Howe had accomplished what he had set out to do, but only at great cost. British casualties approached 50% with over 1100 men killed or wounded. The officer corp was especially hard hit. American casualties were in the range of 450, to include those who were captured. Although the British won the battle of Bunker Hill, it was an especially costly victory.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Wayside Inn

The Wayside Inn
72 Wayside Road
Sudbury, Mass.

Located on the Old Boston Post Road "Howes Tavern" was well situated to receive drovers and other travelers on the road between Worcester and Boston. Established by David Howe in 1716, the tavern and inn remained open and in the family until 1861. David's son, Ezekiel, a Lt. Colonel in the Sudbury militia, first inherited the inn and increased its prosperity. It was Ezekiel Howe who led the men of Sudbury on their march to the North bridge in Concord on April 19, 1775.

In 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his famous poem "Tales of the Wayside Inn". Longfellow used the setting of the inn for his poem and its fictitious characters. The Inn was renamed in honor of the poem. Henry Ford later acquired the property and its surrounding grounds in the 1920's. It is thought that Ford originally planned on creating an historical village - he went so far as to build a chapel, a granary mill and move an old school house on to the property - but that did not come to fruition. He did establish the non-profit organization that owns and operates the Wayside Inn today.

The Wayside Inn continues to offer its guests fine New England style dining, overnight accommodations, a gift shop and a small museum. Function rooms for weddings and parties are also available. As an added bonus, it is quite common to see living historians, in period dress, roaming about the Inn and its grounds. During the winter the 4th King's Own conducts its drills every other Sunday on the grounds of the Wayside Inn. Feel free to ask a member of the 4th for a musket demonstration or just say hello, as they relax in the tavern after their exertions in the cold.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Let me tell you a story...

The old cliche is that everyone has a story to tell. Not only is that true, but what is also true is that everything that surrounds us and makes up our lives is part of a story. This applies not just to the world of entertainment - virtually everything we perceive and can imagine is part of a story.

Beginning with our earliest creation myths, our earliest tales of the gods, warfare, nature and politics, mankind has told stories to pass on information, attempt to explain what is difficult to understand and yes, to simply entertain. Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey were originally memorized by traveling bards and told in the halls of Kings and around the fires of common folk before being written down in ancient Greek. These two tales are among the great literature of the western world and archaeologists have even found some basis in fact in much of Homer's work.

Reading popular/non-scholarly history books can be just as entertaining as reading great literature. The difference is that what you are reading is fact and not mostly fiction like the fantastic tales of Homer and others. Or is it? Writing history (for the most part) is simply telling a story. It is an historical narrative, filled with the names of famous people, important dates, great battles, wars and empires that changed the course of human events. It is a narrative that is part of a collective memory and heritage of a particular nation at a particular point in time. And over time this narrative can change, just as times change. Added to this is the fact that different nations, for varying reasons, will put their own interpretation on events to fit their own narrative.

This is just one aspect to be kept in mind when reading and studying history. You also have to include the personal prejudices of the writer(s), the time at which the work was written, is this taken from a first-hand account (a diary, letter or autobiography) or something second or third hand? Finally flat-out mistakes find their way into print all of the time, either through laziness, faulty memory or through relying on the wrong source. (The Internet universe, unfortunately, is full of such misinformation).

I find myself constantly fact checking simple information for my own studies and for this blog. I try to be as accurate as possible in my writing by checking and re-checking my facts, but I still catch myself making mistakes. As for my own prejudices in writing - just like every other writer who has ever lived - I am a product of the times I live in.

So, let me tell you a story...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Captain John Parker statue

Statue of Capt. Parker
Lexington Center
Lexington, Mass.

This statue of Captain John Parker (more popularly referred to as the Lexington Minuteman) posed defiantly with his musket at the entrance to Lexington Green, presents an ideal image of those American colonials who first received fire and then returned it full measure against British Regulars in April of 1775. Considered the opening shots of America's War for Independence the events at Lexington and Concord were not the beginning of armed rebellion in the Massachusetts colony. They were just the start of a shooting war.

At the end of the Seven Year's War (known locally as the French and Indian War) Britain was left with a huge war debt. Beginning with the passage of the Stamp Act efforts were made to collect taxes from the thirteen colonies (and Canada) to help pay off the debt. Unfortunately, this had never really been tried before and the Colonials who up until this time had been living relatively unmolested by government fiat did not take kindly to the new taxes.

Further attempts by the King's government ministers and Parliament to rein in the freedom of the colonies met with with even more resistance. Events escalated after the "Boston Massacre" of 1770 and with the "Boston Tea Party", which led to the closing of Boston Harbor. Additional Regiments of British Regulars were sent from Ireland and England to attempt to restore order, which only made matters worse.

By the summer of 1774 the colony of Massachusetts was openly up in arms. The town militias had been reconstituted to create "Minute Man" companies that would be ready at a moments notice to respond to any perceived threat from the Regulars. (The town of Lexington never did create a separate Minute Company, instead keeping to the old ways with its Training Band).
Arms and munitions were being collected and regular drills were being conducted on town commons.

Both the Powder House Alarm of September 1774 and the proposed seating of appointed judges in Worcester were events that could have precipitated armed conflict, but didn't. It was only when the fighting at Lexington and Concord took place on April 19, 1775, that a irresistible force was created that dragged the reluctant citizens of the other colonies into the American Rebellion.