J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Why I’m Dubious about the “letter from an officer in Charles-Town”

Yesterday I quoted a letter published in the Pennsylvania Packet in December 1781, reportedly written by a British army officer to a friend back home in May of that year.

Some American newspapers reprinted the letter, stating it had appeared in the London press. If indeed a London newspaper first published the letter, that suggests it’s authentic. But I haven’t seen any citation pointing that way. All the paths lead back to Philadelphia.

The content of the letter makes me suspect it wasn’t written by British army officer at all, but rather by an American propagandist. Here’s why:
  • There isn’t a single personal remark, either about writer or recipient. Granted, such comments might have been edited out before publication.
  • The writer explains a classical allusion: “like Antæus, of whom it was fabled, that being the son of the goddess Tellus, or the earth, every fall which he received from Hercules gave him more strength, so that the hero was forced to strangle him in his arms at last.” The whole point of a gentleman referring to a classical myth that he wouldn’t have to explain it—other gentlemen shared the same knowledge. Indeed, implying that one’s genteel correspondent wouldn’t recognize a story of Hercules’s labors would be insulting. If, on the other hand, someone is writing for the American public, then it would be important to ensure the allusion is clear.
  • The writer complains about all the genteel men and women inside Charleston supporting the American cause, to the point of the women wearing “in their breast knots, and even on their shoes, something that resembles their flag of thirteen stripes.” The British military took Charleston in early 1780 and held it until the end of the war. It became a haven for southern Loyalists; thousands were evacuated after the peace treaty. But this letter describes the entire city in May 1781 as hostile to the British officers, to the point of exhibiting the enemy’s emblem.
  • The phrase “retrograde progress” in the opening line feels like an allusion to a widely published report from Lafayette earlier in 1781, describing the British army with that term.
All in all, the letter seems composed to assure American readers that everything they might hear about the British hold on Charleston is a lie: the press there is publishing fake news, the locals toast the king only under duress, the women are defiant and committed to the American cause, the British officers are grumpy and undersexed and eager to go home.

I see this letter cited as evidence for American women’s dedication to the new nation, and particularly in how they showed that feeling in their clothing. But unless someone turns up an earlier publication in the London press, I don’t think it’s real, and thus I don’t think anything it describes actually happened.

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