“Irregular warfare” is Richard Frothingham’s description of what took place during the Siege of Boston in the spring, autumn, and winter of 1775. Freeman and Isaac served in Colonel Theophilus Cotton’s regiment at Roxbury during this critical period. The goal was to keep the British troops contained in Boston. They had access to their ships on the harbor, but they were prevented from moving inland.
The most complete record of my ancestors’ military service is found in their applications for military pensions.
In February 1837, Sarah Bradford Ellis, widow of Freeman, as a resident of Carthage, Maine, applied for her husband’s pension. It was granted in March, just six months before her own death. It states:
The said Freeman Ellis served eight months as Orderly Sergeant in Capt. John Bradford’s Company in Col. Cotton’s Regiment at Roxbury in the year 1775.
Isaac Fuller also applied for a pension, appearing before Judge Albion Parris at Paris, Maine in June 1820. There he presented in writing:
…On the last of April A. D. 1775 I enlisted into the army of the United States of America on the continental establishments for the term of eight months as a sergeant in Capt. John Bridgham’s company and Theophilus Cotton’s regiment and Gen. John Thomas’ brigade, in the Massachusetts line…
This time line puts Freeman and Isaac at Roxbury from May to December of 1775. About 4,000 men were stationed at Roxbury. In June, the militia regiments became part of the Continental Army under General George Washington.
To understand the importance of the fortifications at Roxbury, it is necessary to understand the geography of Boston and its surroundings. Back when the Back Bay was a bay, Boston was almost an island, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus called Boston Neck. At its narrowest point, the neck was 120 feet wide at high tide. The road that ran between Boston and Roxbury was called Orange Street on a 1722 map. It would later be renamed Washington Street. It was the road taken by William Dawes to spread the alarm to the militia units of the south shore on the 18th of April, 1775.
The troops at Roxbury had the duty of preventing the British “Lobsters” from crossing Boston Neck. Their work consisted primarily of “fatigue” duty, which was the building of earthen fortifications; trenches and breastworks. During the summer, following the June 17th Battle of Bunker Hill, they were under occasional bombardment from Boston and from the “floating batteries” of the British.
Richard Frothingham reports:
An irregular warfare was kept up from the 17th of June until the 3rd of July, when Washington took the command. Shot and shells were at intervals discharged from Boston, and the American camp was several times alarmed with the report that the British were making a sally. …
The camp, on the 24th, was in alarm at the prospect of the regulars coming out. At noon the enemy commenced a heavy cannonade from Boston Neck, and threw shells into Roxbury. But through the4 alertness of the men, the town was saved, and no damage was done. “Such was the courage of our soldiers,” a letter states, “that they would go up [sic] a burning carcass or bomb, and take out the fuse.”
On the 2nd of July, (Sunday,) in the morning, the British commended a brisk cannonade from the lines on Boston Neck, and threw shells into Roxbury. A carcass set fire to the house of Mr. Williams, which was consumed. But the daring activity of the troops, working in the face of a constant and heavy fire from the enemy, prevented the flames from spreading.1
General Washington arrived in Cambridge on July 2nd, and visited the Roxbury encampment on July 13th. His report stated:
Upon Roxbury Neck, they are also deeply intrenched and strongly fortified.2
On August 15th Samuel Haws, a soldier from Wrentham, wrote in his journal:
Two Oclock this Afternoon when the Lobsters fired on our guards which was returned by our Roxbury fort[.] the fireing was continued for some time but how much to their Damag we don’t know[.] one of our men was slitely wounded[.] their fireing was from a floating Batery and it is thought would have killed one or too men if they had not have Lain down[.] for the Ball passed within about 4 foot of our Barack[.] the night passed without any alarm….3
A report given by an anonymous source in December stated:
About two months ago I viewed the camps at Cambridge and Roxbury. The lines of both are impregnable; with forts (many of which are bomb-proof) and redoubts, supposing them to be all in a direction, are about twenty miles; the breastworks of a proper height, and in many places seventeen feet in thickness; the trenches wide and deep in proportion, before which lay forked impediments; and many of the forts, in every respect, are perfectly ready for battle. The whole, in a word, the admiration of every spectator; for verily their fortifications appear to be the works of seven years, instead of about as many months. At these camps are about twenty thousand men. The generals and other officers, in all their military undertakings, solid, discreet, and courageous; the men daily raving for action, and seemingly void of fear.4
This, then, is what Freeman Ellis and Isaac Fuller did in the war. Freeman Ellis served for a month in 1777 under the command of Capt. James Harlow at Bristol, Rhode Island. Isaac Fuller enlisted for an additional year and served one year and six weeks in Capt. Samuel Bradford's Company of Col. John Bailey's Regiment under Gen. William Heath.5
The Siege of Boston would end on March 17, 1776 when the British evacuated Boston. The militia companies which answered the alarm after the Battle of Lexington and Concord were reinforced by Continental Army forces from as far south as Virginia, and General Knox arrived in early March with 60 tons of artillery brought from Fort Ticonderoga, New York.
The gravestone of Isaac Fuller at Livermore, Maine, states, “In memory of Mr. Isaac Fuller, a hero of the Revolution.” I have wondered what he did that was heroic. No doubt there are details of the story that I do not know. However, knowing what I have learned about the efforts of the Roxbury defenses during the Siege of Boston, I would not hesitate to call both Freeman Ellis and Isaac Fuller heroes of the Revolution.
1Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston and of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill (Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1873) p. 211-213.
2Frothingham, p. 216. The diary of Samuel Bixby, a soldier from Sutton, Massachusetts, states that Washington visited on July 25th.
3Excerpts from the journal of Samuel Haws, April 19, 1775–February 10, 1776, Roxbury During the Siege of Boston April 1775–March 1776, http://www.nps.gov/bost/forteachers/upload/roxbury.pdf
4Frothingham, p. 274.
5 Pension Applications, U. S. National Archives