Embattled Farmers

Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers
 from Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1775-1783


Journal Cover Page 

From: Journal of the Early Republic,
Volume 34, Number 3, Fall 2014,
pp. 484-486  |  10.1353/jer.2014.0053

Embattled Farmers: Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1775–1783, by Richard C. Wiggin  (review)

 Reviewed by Samuel A. Forman

             Richard Wiggin provides an exhaustive and frequently entertaining view of the men and boys of Lincoln, Massachusetts, who fought during the American Revolution. Wiggin is a local historian, historical re-enactor, and volunteer at Minute Man National Historic Park. What does such a person have to offer to scholars of the Revolutionary era and the early republic? Plenty, I contend. Embattled Farmers and similar recent works by local historians may constitute a trend worthy of note, and a common ground for bridging academic and popular approaches to history.       

            The book opens with a detailed exposition of the opening battle of the Revolution, which took place in the adjoining towns Lexington and Concord, and which traversed Lincoln’s precincts. The following chapters, dependent on secondary sources, trace all the major campaigns in which Lincoln soldiers participated. The accounts are peppered with tantalizing mentions of townsmen later sketched in detail. These are the people of the Massachusetts countryside who collectively took a path from provincial yeomen to armed resistance and ultimately citizens of a new republic.

            Chapter 10 at 275 pages contains the meat of the book and includes the lion’s share of its original work. Short biographies are served up in alphabetical order. Each one is extensively footnoted to its primary sources, spelling out controversies involving identity and alternative interpretations; they succinctly describe war service and, where known, facts concerning each individual’s subsequent life. Genealogists will find materials meeting the highest standards of precision and grounding in primary sources. Footnotes (rather than endnotes) enable the reader to more easily track between the main text and the detailed notes. Shorter chapters provide similarly detailed information about Loyalist combatants from Lincoln and those whose service has been trumpeted in local lore and by descendants, but whose service could not be verified within original documentation.

            I was struck by these biographies, both in the aggregate and the anecdote.  Black soldiers, both free and enslaved, garner particular attention.  Their stories, and the care with which they are identified, will enable current academic inquiries. If Wiggin is ‘‘guilty’’ of local pride and American triumphalism, one must admire his consistency on behalf of all residents of his locale, white and black. He sweats the details, for example, in tracing Continental soldier Peter Bowes from his slave name Peter Brooks through several name changes in manuscript sources. A helpful discussion ensues concerning the identities of slaves and freemen.

            Lest one dismiss Wiggin’s work as too focused on a narrow geography, he follows the Lincoln veterans’ stories wherever they led, be it wartime graves, subsequent migration, or across the seas as sailors and privateers. In the noteworthy case of Jonas Hartwell, that life arc ended on the fatal side of the Spanish Inquisition in Bilbao, Spain. You will want to read the book for no other reason than to learn about Hartwell’s saga and similar true-life scenarios.

            Nine appendices categorize and group the veterans into their military units, Revolutionary War campaigns, ranks, etc. Of particular interest to historians of the period will be the listing of Patriots of color, and those captured, wounded, deserted, or killed during their military service.

            Embattled Farmers can be thought of as part of an emerging trend of important contributions arising from local historians, formerly dismissed by some as derivative in content and purveyors of unsubstantiated legend. Wiggin’s work is probably the most exhaustive, precise, and comprehensive work on a pivotal locale’s male population taking up arms in the course of the American Revolution. Other works of this magnitude include blogger J. L. Bell’s documentation of the Siege of Boston and his comprehensive blog Boston1775, and George Quintal’s systematic identification and documentation of Massachusetts fighting Patriots of color.[1]

            Commonalities in Wiggin’s, Bell’s, and Quintal’s contributions include enthusiasm for their subjects bordering on obsession, total immersion in source documentation, the highest expectations for precision, peer review chiefly supplied by other antiquarians, and adaptation of methods, such as database management, from careers unrelated to history. The sense of fun they share in their works is manifest. The authors’ works were created outside of academia, and interactions with academia remain sparse. They are not well represented in peer-reviewed journals, nor are they available at the usual archives. Some researchers may be unaware of these energized antiquarians, though works not incorporating their findings risk commission of errors of omission and misinterpretation of primary sources.

            I believe that a better state of mutual recognition and synergy can be achievable between the new breed of antiquarians, like Wiggin, and the academy. There is much to be gained by getting beyond stereotypes and joining forces in conveying valid historical insights to the broadest possible audience.

[Samuel A. Forman is a physician and educator associated with the Harvard University School of Public Health. He is the author of Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty (Gretna, LA, 2012), and company surgeon of the Lexington Minute Men historical re-enactors.]

[1] J. L. Bell, General George Washington’s Headquarters and Home–Cambridge, Massachusetts, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2012; boston1775. blogspot.com. Bell describes his blog as ‘‘History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts’’; George Quintal, Jr., Patriots of Color, ‘‘A Peculiar Beauty and Merit’’: African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road & Bunker Hill (Boston, 2005).

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