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How One Boy Helped the British Troops Out of Boston in 1776

by Sarah J. Prichard

Tale of the American Revolution

It was Commander-in-chief Washington's birthday, and it was Jeremy Jagger's birthday.

General Washington was forty-four years old that birthday, a hundred years ago. Jeremy Jagger was fourteen, and early in the morning of the 22d of February, 1776, the General and the lad were looking upon the same bit of country, but from different positions. General George Washington was reviewing his precious little army for the thousandth time; the lad Jeremy was looking from a hill upon the camp at Cambridge, and from thence across the River Charles over into Boston, which city had, for many months, been held by the British soldiers.

At last Jeremy exclaimed: “I say, it's too chestnut-bur bad; it is.”

“Did you step on one?” questioned a tall, hard-handed, earnest-faced man, who at the instant had come up to the stone-wall on which Jeremy stood, surveying the camp and its surroundings.

“No, I didn't,” retorted the lad; “but I wish Boston was paved all over with chestnut-burs, and that every pesky British officer in it had to walk barefoot from end to end fourteen times a day, I do; and the fourteenth time I'd order two or three Colony generals to take a turn with 'em. General Gates for one.”

“Come along, Jeremy,” called his companion, who had strode across the wall and gone on, regardless of the boy's words.

When Jeremy had ended his expressed wishes, he gathered up his hatchet, dinner-basket, and coil of stout cord, and plunged through the snow after his leader.

When he had overtaken him, the impulsive lad's heart burst out at the lips with the words: “We could take Boston now, just as easy as anything—without wasting a jot of powder either. Skip across the ice, don't you see, and be right in there before daylight. A big army lying still for months and months, and just doing nothing but wait for folks in Boston to starve out! I say it's shameful; now, too, when the ice has come that General Washington has been waiting all winter for.”

“You won't help your country one bit by scolding about it, Jeremy. You'd better save your strength for cutting willow-rods to-day.”

“I'd cut like a hurricane if the rods were only going to whip the enemy with. But just for sixpence a day—pshaw! I say, it don't pay.”

“Look here, lad, can you keep a secret?”

“Trust me for that,” returned Jeremy. Turning suddenly upon his questioner, he faced him to listen to a supposed bit of information.

“Then why on earth are you talking to me in that manner, boy?” questioned the man.

“Why you know all about it, just as well as I do; and a fellow must speak out in the woods or somewhere. Why, I get so mad and hot sometimes that it seems as if every thought in me would burn right out on my face, when I think about my poor mother over there,” pointing backward to the three-hilled city.

The two were standing at the moment midway of a corn-field. The February wind was lifting and rustling and shaking rudely the withered corn-stalks, with their dried leaves. To the northward lay the Cambridge camp, across the Charles River. To the south and east, just over Muddy River and Stony Brook, lay the right wing of the American Army, with here a fort and there a redoubt stretching at intervals all the distance between the camp at Cambridge and Dorchester Neck, on the southeast side of Boston. Behind them, to the westward, lay Cedar Swamp, while not more than half a mile to the front there was a four-gun battery and Brookline Fort, on the Charles, near by.

While Jeremy Jagger was pouring forth his words with vociferous violence, the man by his side glanced eagerly about the wide field; but, satisfying himself that no one was within hearing, he said, resting his hatchet on the lad's shoulder while speaking: “See here, my boy. The brave man never boasts of his bravery nor the trustworthy man of his trustworthiness. How you learned what you know of the plans of General Washington I do not care to ask; but to-day and all days keep quiet and show yourself worthy of being trusted.”

“I'll try as hard as I can,” promised Jeremy.

“No one can have tried his best without accomplishing something that it was grand to do, though not always just what he was trying to do,” responded the man, glancing kindly down upon the fresh, eager lad, tramping through the snow, at his side. “Don't forget. 'Silence is golden,' in war always. Not a word, mind, when you get home, about the work of to-day.”

They were come now to a spot where the marsh seemed to be filled with sounds of wood-cutting. As they plunged into Cedar Swamp, the sounds grew nearer and multiplied. It was like the rapid firing of muskets.

Running through the swamp there was a trout-brook, that bore along its borders a dense growth of water-willows.

And now they advanced within sight of at least two hundred men and boys, every one of whom worked away as though his life depended on cutting a certain amount of willow-boughs in a given time.

“What does it all mean?” questioned Jeremy.

“It means,” replied his companion, “work for your country to-day with all your might and main.”

“But, pray tell me,” persisted Jeremy, “what under the sun the things are for, anyway. They're good for nothing for fire-wood, green.”

Mr. Wooster turned and looked at the lad and said: “A good soldier asks no questions and marches, without knowing whither. He also cuts, without knowing for what. Now, to work!” and, at the instant they mingled with the workmen.

In less than a minute Jeremy's dinner-basket was swinging on a willow-bough, his coat was hanging protectingly over it (you must remember that it contained Jeremy Jagger's birthday cake), and the lad's own arms were working away to the musical sounds of a hatchet beating on a vast amount of “whistle-stuff,” until mid-day and hunger arrived in company.

At the signal for noon Jeremy Jagger began his birthday feast. He perched himself on a stout willow-branch, hanging the basket on a conveniently growing peg at his right hand, and, by frequent examination of the store within, was able to solace two or three lads, less fortunate than himself, who were taking the mid-day rest, refreshed by plain bread and cheese, seated on a branch, lower down on the same tree.

“It isn't every day that a fellow eats his birthday dinner in the woods,” he exclaimed, by way of apology for the dainties he tossed down to them in the shape of sugar-cake and “spice pie.” “Aunt Hannah was pretty liberal with me this morning. I wonder if she knew anything, for she said: 'I'd find plenty of squirrels to help eat it.' Where do you live, anyway?” he questioned, after he had fed them.

“We live in Brookline,” answered the elder.

“Well, do you know what under the sun we are cutting such bundles of fagots for to-day?” he slyly questioned, being beyond the hearing of the ears of his friend, and so safe from censure.

“I asked father this morning,” spoke up the younger lad (of not more than nine years), “and he told me he guessed General Washington was going to take Boston on the ice, and every soldier was going to take a bundle of fagots along, so as to keep from sinking if the ice broke through.”

This bit of military news was received with shouts of laughter, that echoed from tree to tree along the brook, and then the noon-day rest was over. The wind began to blow in cooler and faster from the sea, and busy hands were obliged to work fast to keep from stiffening under the power of the growing frost.

When the new moon hung low in the west and the sun was gone, the brookside, the cart-path, even the swamp fell back into its accustomed silence, for the workers, in groups of eight or ten, had from minute to minute gone homeward, leaving huge piles of fagots near the log bridge.

Jeremy went early to bed that night. His right arm was weary and his left arm ached; nevertheless, he went straightway to dreaming that both arms were dragging his beloved mother forth from Boston.

At midnight his companion of the morning came and stood under his chamber window, and tapped lightly with a bean-pole against the glass to awaken him.

Jeremy heard the sound, but in his dream thought it was a gun fired from one of the ships in the harbor at his mother, and himself, and Boston.

“Jeremy, get up!” said somebody, touching his shoulder.

“Come, mother!” ejaculated Jeremy, clutching at the air and uttering the words under tremendous pressure.

“Come yourself, lad,” said somebody, shaking him a little roughly; whereupon Jeremy awoke. “Get up, Jeremy Jagger. Hitch the oxen to the cart. Put on the hay-rigging. Stay, I must help you to do that; but hurry.”

Jeremy rubbed his eyes, wondered what had become of his mother, and how Mr. Wooster found his way into the house in the night, and lastly, what was to be done. Furthermore, he dressed with speed, and awakened the oxen by vigorous touches and moving words.

“Get up! get up!” he importuned, “and work for your country, and may be you won't be killed and eaten for your country when you are old.” The large, patient eyes of the oxen slowly opened into the night, and after awhile the vigorous strokes and voiceful “get ups” of their master had due effect.

Mr. Wooster helped to adjust the hay-rigging, and then the large-wheeled cart rolled grindingly over the frozen ground of the highway, until it turned into the path leading into the swamp, over which the snow lay in unbroken surface. Jeremy Jagger's was but the pioneer cart that night. A half-dozen rolled and tumbled and reeled over the uneven surface behind him, to the log bridge. It was cold and still. As the topmost fagot was tossed on the pile in his cart he drew off a mitten, thrust his benumbed fingers between his parted lips, and when he removed them said: “I hope General Washington has had a better birthday than mine.”

“I know one thing, my lad.”

Jeremy turned quickly, for he did not recognize the voice. Even then he could not discern the face; but he knew instantly that it was no common person who had spoken. Nevertheless, with that sturdy, good-as-anybody air that made the men of April 19th and June 17th fight so gloriously, he demanded:

“What do you know?”

“That General Washington would gladly change places with you to-night, if you are the honest lad you seem to be.”

“Go and see him in his comfortable bed over there in Cambridge,” was Jeremy's response, uttered in the same breath with the word to his oxen to move on. They moved on. The fagots reeled and swayed, the cart rumbled over the logs of the bridge, and boy, oxen and cart were soon lost to sight and hearing in the cedar thickets of the swamp.

Through the next two hours they toiled on, Jeremy on foot, and often ready to lie down with the healthy sleep that would not leave its hold on his weary brain.

It was day-dawn when the fagots had been duly delivered at the appointed place and Jeremy reached home.

He had been cautiously bidden to see that the cart was not left outside with its tell-tale rigging. He obeyed the injunction, shut the oxen in, gave them double allowance of hay, and was startled by Aunt Hannah's cheery call of: “Jerry, my boy, come to breakfast.”

“Breakfast ready?” said Jeremy.

“Why, yes. I was up early this morning, and thought of you.” And that was the only allusion Aunt Hannah made to his night's work. He longed to tell her and chat about it all at the table; but, remembering his promise in the swamp, he said not a word.

Six nights out of seven Jeremy and his oxen worked all night and slept nearly all day.

The brook in Cedar Swamp was robbed of its willows, and many another bit of land and watercourse suffered in a like manner.

Then came the order to make the fagots into fascines. Two thousand soldiers were got to work to effect this. Jeremy Jagger began to understand what was going on behind the lines at Roxbury. He was the happiest lad in existence during the ensuing days. He forgot to eat, even, when the fascines were in making. Perceiving the manner in which they were formed he volunteered to help, and soon found he could drive the cross supports into the ground, lay the saplings upon them, and even aid in twisting the green withes about them, as well as any soldier of them all.

Bales of “screwed” hay began to appear in great numbers within the lines, and empty barrels by the hundreds sprang up from somewhere.

And all this time, guess as every man might and did—the coming event was known only to the commander-in-chief and to the six generals forming the council of war.

Monday night, before sundown, Jeremy Jagger received an order. It was:

  March 4th.


  With oxen and cart (hay-rigging on), be at the Roxbury lines by
  moon-rise to-night. Take a pocketful of gingerbread along.


With manly pride the boy set forth. He longed to put the note in his aunt's hand ere he went; but she (long ago it seemed, though only a few days had passed) seemed to take no note of his frequent absences. He had scarcely gone a rod ere the cannon-balls began their march into Boston from all the fortifications of the Americans; and in return from Boston, flying north and south and west, came shot and shells.

Undaunted and excited by the mere possibility of being hit, Jeremy went onward. When he arrived in Roxbury he found everybody and everything astir. His cart was seized, filled with bundles of “screwed” hay, and, ere he knew it, he was in line with two hundred and ninety-nine other carts, marching forward to fortify Dorchester Heights. Before him went twelve hundred troops, under the command of General Thomas; before the troops trundled an unknown number of carts, filled with intrenching tools; before the tools were eight hundred men. Not a word was spoken. In silence and with utmost care they trod the way. At eight of the clock the covering party of eight hundred reached the Height and divided—one-half going toward the point nearest Boston, the other to the point nearest Castle William, on Castle Island, held by the British.

Then the working party began their labor with enthusiasm unbounded, wondering what the British general would think when he should behold their work in the morning. They toiled in silence by the light of the moon and the home music of 144 shot and 13 shell going into Boston, and unnumbered shot and shell coming out of Boston. Gridley, whose quick night work at Breed's Hill on the sixteenth of June had startled the world, headed the intrenching party as engineer.

Poor Jeremy was not allowed to go farther than Dorchester Neck with his first load. The bundles of hay were tumbled out and laid in line, to protect the supplying party, in case the work going on on the hill beyond should be found out.

The next time, to his extreme delight, he found that fascines were to go in his cart. When he reached Dorchester Height quick work was made of unloading his freight, and, without a word spoken, he was ordered back with a move of the hand.

Four times the lad and the oxen went up Dorchester Hill that night. The fourth time, as no order was given to return, Jeremy thought he might as well stay and see the battle that would begin with the dawn.

He left the oxen behind an embankment with a big bundle of hay to the front of them; and after five minutes devoted to gingerbread he went to work. Morning would come long before they were ready to have it unveil the growing forts to the eyes of Admiral Shuldham, with his ships of war lying in the harbor; or to the sentinels at Castle William, on Castle Island, to the right of them; or to General Howe, with his vigilant thousands of Englishmen safe and snug in Boston, to the north of them.

Jeremy was rolling barrels to the brow of the hill they were fortifying, and tumbling into them with haste shovelful after shovelful of good solid earth, that they might hit hard when rolled down on the foe that should dare to mount the height, when a cautious voice at his side uttered the one word “Look!” accompanied with a motion of the hand toward Dorchester Neck.

In the moonlight, past the bales of hay, two thousand Americans were filing in silent haste to the relief of the men who had toiled all night to build forts they meant to defend on the morrow.

It was four o'clock in the morning when they came. Jeremy was tired and sleepy too. His eyelids would drop over his eyes, shutting out everything he so longed to keep in sight.

“You've worked like a hero,” said a kind voice to the lad. “It will be hot work here by sunrise—no place for boys, when the battle begins.”

“I can fight,” stoutly persisted Jeremy, nodding as he spoke; and, had anybody thought of the lad at all after that, he might have been found in the ox-cart, carelessly strewn over with hay, taking a nap.

Meanwhile on came the morning. A friendly fog hung lovingly around the new hills on the old hills, that the Yankees had built in a night.

Admiral Shuldham was called in haste from his bed by frightened men, who wondered what had happened on Dorchester Height. Castle William stood aghast with astonishment. Messengers went up the bay to tell the army the news.

General Howe marched out to take a look through the fog at the old familiar hills he had known so long, and didn't like the looks of the new hats they wore. He wondered how in the world the thing had been done without discovery; but there it was, larger a good deal than life, seen through the fog, and he knew also why it was that the cannon had been playing on Boston through the hours of three or four nights. He was angry, astonished, perplexed. He had a little talk with Admiral Shuldham; and they agreed to do something. Yes, they would walk up and demand back the hills looking over into Boston. Transports came hurrying to pier and wharf, and soldiers went bravely down and gave themselves to the work of a short sea voyage.

Meanwhile Jeremy Jagger's nap was broken by a number of trenching tools thrown carelessly over his back, as he lay asleep in his cart.

“Halloo there!” he shouted, striving to rise from the not very comfortable blanket that dropped in twain to the left and the right, as he shook off the tools and returned from the land of sleep to Dorchester Heights and the 5th of March. He was just in time to hear a voice like a clarion cry out: “Remember it is the 5th of March, and avenge the death of your brethren.”

It was the very voice that had said in the swamp in the night that “General Washington would gladly change places with Jeremy Jagger.” It was the voice of General Washington animating the troops for the coming battle.

Meanwhile a new and unexpected force arrived on the field of action. It came in from sea—a great and mighty wind, that tossed and tumbled the transports to and fro on the waves and would not let them land anywhere save at the place they came from. So they went peacefully back to Boston, and the Liberty Men over on the hills went on all day and all night, in the rain and the wind, building up, strengthening, fortifying, in fact getting ready, as Jeremy told his aunt, when he reached home on the morning of the sixth of March, “for a visit from King George and all his army.”

The next day General Howe doubted and did little. The next and the next went on and then on the morning of the 17th of March something new had happened. There was one little hill, so near to Boston that it was almost in it; and lo! in the night it had been visited by the Americans, and a Liberty Cap perched above its head.

General Howe said: “We must get away from here in haste.”

“Take us with you,” said a thousand Royalists of the town; and he took them, bag and baggage, to wander up and down the earth.

Over on Bunker Breed's Hill wooden sentinels did duty when the British soldiers left and for full two hours after; and then two brave Yankees guessed the men were wooden, and marched in to take possession just nine months from the day they bade it good-by, because they had no powder with which to “tune” their guns.

Over on Cambridge Common marched, impatient as ever, General Putnam, with his four thousand followers, ready to cross the River Charles and walk once more the city streets of the good old town. On all the hills were gathered men, women and children to see the British troops depart.

Jeremy Jagger was up before the dawn on that sweetest of Sunday mornings in March, and he reached the Roxbury lines just as General Ward was ready to put his arms about Boston's Neck. The lad took his place with the five hundred men and walked by Ensign Richards' side, as he proudly bore the standard up to the gates, which Ebenezer Learned “unbarred and opened.” Once within the lines, Jeremy, unmindful of the crow's feet strewn over the way, made haste through lane and street to his old home on Beacon Hill. “Could that be his mother looking out at him through the window-pane?” he thought, as he drew near.

She saw him. She knew him. But what could it mean that she did not open the door to let him in; that she waved him away? It could not be that she, his own mother, had turned Tory, that her face was grown so red and angry at the sight of her son.

Jeremy banged away at the door. There was no answer.

At last he heard the lifting of a sash, a head, muffled carefully, appeared from the highest window in the house, and a voice (the lad knew whose it was) said: “Go, Jeremy! Go away out of Boston as fast as you can. I'll come to you as soon as it is safe.”

“Why, mother, what's the matter?” cried the boy.

“Small pox! I've had it. Everybody has it. Go!”

“Good-by,” cried Jeremy, running out of Boston as fast as any British soldier of them all and a good deal more frightened. He burst into Aunt Hannah's house with the news that he had been to Boston, that the soldiers were all gone, that he had seen his mother, that she had the small-pox and sent him off in a hurry.

“Tut! tut!” she cried. “It's wicked to tell lies, Jeremy Jagger.”

“I'm not telling lies. Every word is true. Please give me something to eat.”

But Aunt Hannah did not wait to give the lad food, nor even to speak the prayer of thanksgiving that went like incense from her heart. She went into the barn-yard and threw corn on the barn-floor, to which the hens and turkeys made haste. Closing the door, she summoned Jeremy to kill the largest and best of them.

That Sunday afternoon the brick oven glowed with fervent heat, the white, fat offerings went in, and the golden-brown turkeys and chickens came out; and as each, in turn, was pronounced “done,” Aunt Hannah repeated the words: “Hungry! hungry! hungry! Hungry all winter!”

The big clothes-basket was full of lint for wounds that now never should be made. Gladly she tossed out the fluffy mass, and packed within it every dainty the house contained.

It was nearly sunset when Aunt Hannah and Jeremy started forth, with the basket between them, to Mr. Wooster's house, hoping that he would carry it in his wagon up to Boston. He was not at home.

“Get out the cart,” said Aunt Hannah to Jeremy, when they learned no help was to be obtained. She sat by the roadside watching the basket until the cart arrived.

“I'm going with you,” she said, after the basket was in; she climbed to the seat beside the lad, and off they started for Boston.

It was dark when they reached the lines, and no passes granted, the officers said, to go in that night.

“But I've food for the hungry,” said Aunt Hannah, in her sweetest voice, from the darkness of the cart, “and folks are hungry in the night as well as in the day.”

She deftly threw aside the cover from the basket and took out a chicken, which she held forth to the man, saying: “Take it. It's good.”

He hesitated a moment, then seized it eagerly.

“I know you,” spoke up Jeremy, at this juncture. “You went up the Neck with us this morning. I saw you.”

“Then you are the boy who got first into Boston this morning, are you, sir?”

“I believe I did, sir.”

“Go on.”

The oxen went on.

“Now, Jeremy, down with you and wait here for me. You haven't had small-pox,” said Aunt Hannah.

“But the oxen won't mind you,” said Jeremy.

Aunt Hannah was troubled. She never had driven oxen.

At the moment who should appear but Mr. Wooster. He gladly offered to take the basket and deliver it at Mrs. Jagger's door.

“Don't go in, mind! Mother's had small-pox,” called Jeremy, as he started.

“I'm tired,” gasped Aunt Hannah, who had done baking enough for a small army that day, as she sat down to rest on the broad seat of the cart, and the two started for home. The soldier at the gate scarcely heeded them as they went out, for roasted chicken “tasted so good.”

“I'm so glad the British are out of Boston,” said Aunt Hannah, as she touched home soil again and went wearily up the walk to the little dark house.

“And so am I,” said Jeremy to the oxen, as he turned them in for the night; “only if I'd had my way, they wouldn't have gone without one good fair fight. You've done your duty, anyhow,” he added, soothingly, with a parting stroke to the honest laborer who went in last, “and you deserve well of your country, too, for like Gen. Washington, you have served without hope of reward. The thing I like best about the man is that he don't work for money. I don't want my sixpence a day for cutting willows; and—I won't—take it.” And he didn't take it, consoling himself with the reflection “that he would be like Gen. Washington in one thing, anyhow.”