Excerpt from The Midwife's Revolt
June 17, 1775. A shimmer of dawn was just rising to the east, casting faint light across the village, when I found myself knocking at the shack door of Isaac Copeland, who lived behind the small barn on the Adams property. He seemed to have slept through everything. Only my frantic rapping woke him, and when I finally stated my business, the young, dirty lad rubbed the sleep from his eyes with black knuckles.
He moved out of the doorway, and I noticed other farm hands sleeping on straw pallets within. Those shadowy figures would soon rise up to muster on the training field, much to Abigail’s loss.
Isaac shook his head. “We have no lady’s saddle, ma’am. The Missus always rides in the chaise.”
“It is of little import to me, so long as you have a saddle of some kind, and a horse to go beneath it.”
He glanced at me briefly, then went to the barn, which had but three walls and a sorry thatched excuse for a roof, and brought out a sweet little mare to greet me. She came right up to me and pressed her forehead against my side. I took consolation in her warm breath and soft muzzle. Isaac offered his dirty hands to my grimy boot and up I went, sitting astraddle just like a man. Isaac then handed me a dirty-looking blanket, which I placed across my lap, tucking one end into my skirt. It was the first time I had ever sat in that fashion, but I was heedless of any discomfort. I would go to Jeb, I thought. I would go to him whether he was dead or alive.
The dawn grew brighter on my right flank as Isaac and I made our way up the coast road toward Boston. With the rising light, my strength rallied and my fear calmed.
Many were awake and running about Milton when we arrived in that town; it was Sabbath morning, but there would be no Sabbath that day. Not even the most fervent pastors could draw the people off their hills as the pummelling of Charlestown by British cannons continued, accompanied by a thunderous din and choking black smoke.
People stared rudely as I passed through the center of the town. A woman upon a man’s saddle had never been seen in those parts before. Despite the blanket, my legs were exposed from my knees to the tops of my boots. I hardly cared; it seemed a trifle given the burning of Charlestown.
The closer we came to Cambridge, my birthplace, the more fearful I grew. Isaac looked drawn and jittery, but said nothing. At Roxbury, we came across a camp of ragtag militia. A band of boys with bayonets, giving themselves the airs of soldiers, was stopping all those headed west toward Cambridge. Across the street stood a large and bustling tavern called the Greyhound. Isaac said he wished to water and rest Mr. Adams’s little mare, and I longed for a dish of tea and a biscuit. I reasoned that I would need my strength, though I had no great wish to tarry.
Isaac ducked inside the dark tavern, and I half expected not to see him again; but he soon emerged with a tankard of cider, finished it off, set it down, and went about his business with the horse.
I went in and had my refreshment in turn. When I exited the tavern, a young soldier approached and stood before me.
“They say the fighting intensifies at Charlestown.”
“My husband is there with Colonel Prescott,” I answered simply, and moved to cross the street, where Isaac and his charge waited.
The boy let me pass, but at the last moment called after me. “Colonel Prescott is already upon Breed’s Hill. You can’t reach him. It’s a foolish effort! Everyone seeks to leave Cambridge, not enter it!”
With Isaac’s silent help, I hopped upon the little mare and urged her west toward Cambridge and the Great Bridge. On the road through Brookline, we saw many fleeing in the other direction: families with all their worldly possessions heaped into carts, crying children, dogs darting wildly about, and young men on horseback with the guilty expressions of deserters. They stared at me as if I were a madwoman, but I pressed on.
At last, we arrived at the bridge. The late-morning air had grown hot and, in that moment, I was able to enjoy the grandeur of God’s earth. Here the Charles River was beautifully winding and tranquil, and the trees were all in bloom. Two months earlier, the planks upon which I stood had been removed to prevent the British from crossing over. The ruse had failed.
I glanced at Isaac. He looked as if he might actually faint. His mouth hung open, and his eyes had a wild and desperate look as he stared at the bridge as if it were the river Styx. Perhaps he sensed that, once in Cambridge, he would feel obliged to join the fray.
I took pity on him.
“Isaac, go no further. Please return to Mrs. Adams now. Tell her I am well and have reached Cambridge. Tell her I will take excellent care of John’s mare. I have a horse of my own and am not unfamiliar with their care. Now go. I’m certain she needs you.”
He tried to object but was not very convincing. I insisted and would not move forward until he had turned around and trotted off the way we had come.
Once Isaac had gone, I felt freer. The silence between us had been burdensome. At least that boy’s fate would not be upon my head. My flagging strength had rallied somewhat from the tea and biscuit. As I entered Cambridge, I could almost feel my Jeb’s presence. Prescott’s regiment would have spent the night on the Common, or perhaps upon Prospect Hill farther east. I would soon have news of them, if nothing else.
At the Cambridge Common, a strange scene awaited me. Across the yard lay scattered the vast detritus of a recently abandoned camp: heaps of ash and coal; iron cauldrons too heavy to carry; the stench of urine and feces and horse dung; the tents of men too ill to have moved east with the others. I heard groans and the cries of illness. I shrank before it all, everything made worse by the unnatural summer heat.
On the southernmost edge of the Common, Parson Boardman was in the midst of a sermon. Though his lecture was clearly meant for the soldiers, not half a dozen men of fighting age sat in the audience. Women and old men listened with half an ear. The parson was a large man in a thick wig; perspiration rained down upon his black habit on this hottest of days. He decried human frailty just as officers and servants scrambled to gather their tents and munitions and head east. I stopped one dirty boy as he raced off with an armful of muskets and inquired as to the whereabouts of Colonel Prescott’s regiment.
“There.” He nodded toward Charlestown. “They passed the night on Breed’s Hill. Some of us what’s bringing aid.”
Aid indeed. I studied the boy and his pile of bad muskets that I doubted could kill a crow at a rod’s distance.
“Well, God spare you,” I said.
It was, in all, a journey toward death. You must not suppose me fool enough to believe otherwise. And yet I hoped. In my mind I saw Jeb, dirty yet whole, running toward me. I saw him stumble toward his beloved Star and press his weary head upon the creature’s warm flank. Oh, I saw many a ghost of things that might have been in those hours before I saw what truly was.
I looked back to the parson and felt only a mounting anger. Of what earthly use were his words about human frailty? Let him take up a rotten musket like my Jeb and risk his own mortal skin upon Breed’s Hill!
By now the sun was quite high in the sky. The clock in Christ Church told the time: past one. To the east, I could hear cannon fire, which seemed to intensify. And still the parson droned on. Though hot and faint with exhaustion, I could not bear it on the Common a moment longer and made the decision to move down the road to Charlestown. Unlike Roxbury, this time no one stopped me. I met with no orderly rows of soldiers, no organization of any kind, only chaos. Frightened boys—some bloodied, others looking at me wildly—fled past me.
At the base of Prospect Hill, I found evidence of a recent encampment and a few horses. No sign of Star. I pressed on and within ten minutes came at last to our “army”—a bedlam of sick and dirty men and boys. There was blood and gore such as I dare not describe. I had arrived at the ninth circle of hell, but even the great Italian poet could not have imagined the scene. The clear, still air was pierced by unceasing and wild cries of the wounded and dying, to whom there were not women enough to tend. All around, the suffering of our boys was extreme—some were black with burns; others had multiple bayonet wounds and leaked like stuck sausages. A hasty surgery had been set up in one tent, and it was from this tent that the most terrible sounds arose. At one point, I had the misfortune not to have averted my eyes in time and saw an arm unceremoniously tossed into a pile of white and bloodless limbs at the back of the tent. Oh, Lord, what misery!
I tied the mare to a post where several other horses stood. Looking about me, I saw a boy with a bucket and stopped him, asking would he kindly water my horse. He nodded and went off, I hoped, to get water. I then approached a woman whom, though bent with fatigue, I recognized as a Cambridge lady. Though streaked with blood and dirt, her face was pale and fine. I asked if I could help her, and without a word she nodded to a boy lying on a pallet of straw some ten yards off. He was blue-white in color, and his lips were drawn back across his teeth in suffering. He could not have been more than sixteen.
“Hold his hand,” she replied. “It can’t be long.”
I went to his side and took his hand. “I’m here,” I said. “I won’t leave you.”
His eyes rolled to the side, catching me in their enlarged pupils. He grasped my hand, and when I looked down I saw that half his chest had been torn away.
“Marmy,” he said. “I would like my Marmy.” His eyes leaked tears; he knew his “Marmy” was very far away.
“I won’t leave you, brave soldier,” I murmured. Those two words seemed to give him some faint comfort, and he soon shut his eyes. His face relaxed. In a few minutes, he was gone.
Oh, the suffering of this world!
Around five in the afternoon, when for the better part of an hour we had ceased to hear any sounds of war, I saw a young man lying face down, beside another dead boy, upon a rustic cart. He wore a fine linen ribbon in his hair.
It was the ribbon I recognized first. I ran to him and turned him over. I may have cried out but was not sensible of doing so. I knew at once he was dead. And may the Lord forgive me if I say that this understanding was a great, selfish relief. Had there been time for a parting scene with him, I surely would have gone mad.
“This is my husband,” I told the gentlewoman I had been helping all that day. She looked at me with astonishment; my calm must have surprised her. “Would you like me to wash him?” she asked. “It is more than a wife should have to bear.”
“No, I want to. You are kind to offer.” I did not say that I wished to feel something; I had grown cold and numb.
I will leave my reader to imagine that final caress: the young, healthy man and his single, fatal wound, which I gently felt around. I marveled at how so small, so insignificant a thing as a bayonet tip could bring down my Jeb’s strong spirit. I gently untied the linen with which I had gathered his hair the morning he’d left and placed it around my neck.
After I had washed his body, I began to shake and sat myself upon the ground to keep from falling. The blanket I had brought from Isaac’s shack was upon the mare, but I had no energy to fetch it. I was in a quandary. I knew I could not make it back to Braintree. After a long and anxious wait, I finally saw the boy who had brought water to John’s mare. He was a welcome sight, and I called to him.
I had a message for the Boylstons, I told him. They would give him a shilling for the news that their son was dead and their daughter-in-law requested help. I could not bear for soldiers to bury Jeb on this filthy hill and would not leave him. The boy offered to take John’s mare, still tied forlornly to that post, but I said no. That far, I wouldn’t trust him. But the Boylston’s could search for Star among the officers’ horses at the Common. Jonathan Hastings’s house on the Common was now General Ward’s headquarters, and many of the men might have left their horses in his safekeeping. I made the boy repeat the message back to me, for his restless eyes did not inspire confidence.
It was night before I was delivered of my agony among those dead and dying. At first, I kept glancing at Jeb, fearful lest I fall asleep and he disappear. Or perhaps I sought a glimmer of movement. It never came. At some point I must have dozed, though, for the first thing I recall after being lifted from that field is the voice of someone saying,
“Gently, gently! Lift her gently!” I then recall being helped to my feet before the Boylston house on Brattle Street, and the air’s stultifying heat.
I could hear no horses’ hooves and asked, agitated, “Star, where is Star? Did you find him? And have you Mr. Adams’s little mare?”
“Bennett is with the mare,” assured one of the Boylston servants.
“But did you find Star? He is perhaps at Hastings’s place.”
“Yes, ma’am. He is in our stables, rest you easy.”
I was greatly relieved to know the animals were safe. I was led to bed upstairs. Someone came in to bathe and change me, for I was quite, quite filthy. Within the Boylston home, with its thick walls and dark, north-facing chambers, it was cool. A soft feather bolster caressed me. It was blissfully dark. A prayer escaped my lips for the Lord to take me as I slept.