From Joseph Palmer
Cambridge, 19th June 1775
My dear Friend
I thank you for your Several favors, the last of which, the 10th Inst., I just now received.1 I have not had time to write, and thro’ abundant business my health has Sometimes been reduced; I now write in Committee of Safety, a few lines at a time as I can; all the business in this Committee has been done by only 6 or 7 Members, upon whom it has fallen very heavy, public business having pressed upon us very hard.
To see the distress occasioned by the late measures of Administration is enough to melt a heart of adamant;2 Carts are continually passing in every direction from the Sea-Coast, loaded with Beds, Chairs, Pots, Kettles, and a thousand &ca’s, with Women and Children in the midst. Great part of the Sea Coast is thin’d of Inhabitants, and most people have removed their most valuable effects. Mr. Cranch’es Family, and mine, are yet at Vertchild’s House; they visit Germantown now and then: I have been with my family only 2 Nights since the 20th March.
You received from Congress the particulars of the battle of Lexington; Since which the affair of Noddles Island3 (and several other smaller Skirmishes) has taken place; in all which, we had greatly the advantage; accounts of which you have doubtless received. But on Saturday last, the 17th, the Regulars attacked us upon one of the Charlestown Hills, where we had begun to entrench, and obliged us to retreat, by means of their Ships and Floating Batterys, we having no large Cannon to match theirs; the Cannon we cou’d have had, if we had had Gunpowder enough to Spare, but we had not more than sufficient for the Field Pieces and Musquetry; however, the Enemy have not much to boast; for tho’ they kept the Field, and took from us 4 or 5 pieces, 3 Pounders, yet they lost, by the best accounts we can yet obtain, about 500 kill’d and wounded, and among the former are, as we have reason to believe, several officers of distinction: our loss in numbers is not great, by the best accounts we yet have, about 60 or 70 kill’d and missing;4 but —— among these is —— what Shall I say! how Shall I write the name of our worthy Friend, the great and good Dr. W——. You will hear by others who will write tomorrow, such particulars as I am not possessed of: Soon after the Regulars landed, they Set Fire to the Town of Charlestown, and that day, yesterday and this Day they have consumed most of the Houses as far as Penny-Ferry;5 and they have possession of all that part of Charlestown, and are encamped upon Bunker’s Hill; and we are encamped upon Prospect Hill, Winters Hill, and at the Bridge leading to Inman’s, Phips’s &c. Yesterday and this day, they have Cannonnaded us, but to no purpose; and our people, by Small Parties have picked off some of their out Guards: We expect another action very soon. Do send us Powder, and then we Shall, by the blessing of Heaven, soon destroy this Hornets Nest. This put me in mind of Saltpetre: J Greenleaf Esqr, and Messrs. John Peck and Wm. Frobisher, are now, by encouragement from Congress, gone to Brookfield, upon Colo. Foster’s Estate, where is supposed to be a very large Bed of fine Earth, such as is described to be in the E. Indies, Strongly impregnated with Nitre: The like is discovered in Several other places. I must beg you to Send the best process of making it. Adieu my dear Friend, and assure Messrs. Hancock, Adams, Paine, &c, that I shou’d be glad to hear often, how, what, and all about the Political World in which I am deeply engaged; and that I remain Your and Their Sincere Friend and very humble Servt.
Earth dug up from under a Stable, put into a Tub, as ashes for Lye. Filled with Water. Stand 24 Hours. Then leaked off Slowly. Then boil’d for one Hour. Then run thro another Tub full of ashes. i.e. filtrated thro the ashes a Small Quantity, not to stand. Then put into a Kettle and boiled, untill it grows yellow. Then drop it on a cold stone or cold Iron, and it will christallise for a Proof. Then set it by in Trays in cool Places. Then it will christallise. And the Salt Petre is formed.7
RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “To John Adams Esqr. Philadelphia”; docketed, possibly by the Rev. William Gordon: “John Palmer X June 19. 1775.” The recipe for making saltpeter, written in JA’s hand, appears at the top of the third page.
1. Not found.
2. Probably a reference to Gen. Gage’s having yielded to pressure and modified the agreement he had reached with the Provincial Congress regarding those wishing to leave Boston. At first, those leaving were forbidden to take out any arms or ammunition; then provisions and merchandise were added to the list. Finally, arbitrary searches were made of all containers, and sometimes passports were so drawn as to separate families (Frothingham, Siege of Boston description begins Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, 6th edn., Boston, 1903. description ends , p. 96–97).
3. A skirmish that took place on 27 and 28 May, when Americans sought to remove livestock from Noddle’s and Hog islands in Boston Harbor. The British tried to prevent the removal, and in the fighting the British lost a schooner and had a sloop badly damaged. Reputedly, the British suffered far more casualties than the Americans. Israel Putnam conducted himself so well as commander that presumably the Continental Congress was the more ready to name him a general (same, p. 109–110).
5. The town was set afire by artillery rounds and by marines. The wooden houses and other buildings burned furiously, the flames driven by an east wind. The Penny Ferry, a link between the town and Boston, was at the site of the old Charles River Bridge. A full and meticulous account of the fire and the extent of its damage, including individual claims of losses, is reconstructed from contemporary sources in James F. Hunnewell, A Century of Town Life: A History of Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1775–1887, Boston, 1888, p. 2–15, 112–174.
6. Palmer’s letter and those of James Warren to JA and Elbridge Gerry to the Massachusetts delegates of 20 June (both below), and the Provincial Congress to the Continental Congress (Mass. Provincial Congress, Jours. description begins William Lincoln, ed., The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of Safety, Boston, 1838. description ends , p. 365–366), were sent to Philadelphia on 20 June. At New York, on 25 June, the express was intercepted by George Washington, who, after some hesitation, opened the packet and read at least the letter from the Provincial Congress to gain recent information about the situation in Boston, particularly about Bunker Hill, for which he had had only fragmentary accounts (Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick description begins The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, Washington, 1931–1944; 39 vols. description ends , 3:304; Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, New York, 1948–1952; 6 vols. Vol. 7, by John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ash-worth, New York, 1957. description ends , 3:464–465). The express arrived in Philadelphia on 26 June or early 27 June, the date on which the letters were read to the Continental Congress, giving that body the first official word on the battle (Jefferson, Papers description begins The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd and others, Princeton, 1950– . description ends , 1:174–175; JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 2:109; see also JA to James Warren, 27 June, below).
7. Neither the source of this recipe nor the date on which it was written is known. It may have been intended for Palmer, since he asked for such instructions, but it is not known whether it was ever sent to him. It may have been included in the enclosure (not found) sent to James Warren in JA’s letter of 27 June (below). On 10 June the Continental Congress had appointed a committee to “devise ways and means to introduce the manufacture of salt petre in these colonies” (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 2:86). A description of the process had been published in the Pennsylvania Gazette of 25 January.