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[p. 93]

An old-time Muster.

The mystery of the cannon-balls, recently exhumed in Medford, was soon solved. While the Register (which had the story in advance of the daily papers) was being printed, Capt. Albert A. Samson, who, when a boy of nine years, resided near Salem street, told the story of the target practice of a Boston artillery company at present Cherry street.

His story has been printed in the Medford Mercury, as also the recollections of same event given by Elisha Curtis, who was also interested in the quest of facts. A week had not passed when another old Medford boy sent to the editor a letter relating thereto, telling practically the same story and differing but few years in time from their dates, and also adds a bit to our local history well worth reading.

This last is immaterial as it is highly probable that several similar events occurred in Medford.

Those were the ‘piping times of peace’ for even though the Mexican War took place it was unpopular in New England.

New Bedford, Mass., July 15, 1910.
Mr. Editor:—

my Dear Sir:—I have read with interest your article in the Medford Historical Register relating to ancient ammunition recently found in the easterly part of Medford. It recalls vividly events and scenes long vanished. Your query, ‘Who were the artillery men?’ needs an answer, if you can find anybody who has lived long enough. There was a battle there once.

In or near 1840 a wild excitement arose among the boys in Medford, especially at the old brick schoolhouse, which stood behind the Unitarian Meeting-house and next to the home of Miss Mary and Miss Lucy Osgood. News had reached us that there was to be a muster and an Indian sham fight on the great plain, between Medford and Malden. When the day arrived a lot of boys started for the battlefield. James Hervey and Warner Clisby went, and, though I am less sure about him, Gorham Train.

I was then ten years old, and I went with them. We went eastward on Salem street, passed the end of Fulton street, almost to the town frontier, and the whole warlike scene was before us. [p. 94]

It was a lonely region then, not populated. There was no Fellsway and no trolley line about. No shops, no post office, no school. Hardly a house was in sight. Indeed, I remember only one; it stood somewhat south of Salem street, and was inhabited by a family whose name was ‘Gale.’ It was said to be the last house in Medford. On the north side of the highway was a large plain, nearly level. At its north end rose a high craggy ridge bearing plenty of rocks, junipers, etc. Near Salem street stood the artillerists with several field pieces, all pointing north and in extremely active and reckless service. Next north of the cannon stood companies of infantry over whose heads the cannon were supposed to fire. Far away on the rough upland were countless ‘Indians’ in wonderful paint and feathers, flitting about among the rocks and bushes and wasting lots of powder. At length the cannonading ceased, the infantry charged and the Medford boy contingent went with them. Nobody hindered the boys, but as the charge ascended the rocky battlements of the ridge the noise of musketry was fearful and the warwhoops even more so. It seemed to us that the white men were gradually forcing the red ones back. In the real historic fights this was generally the case. In the sham fights it was always so. Still, we could not tell very well, as the confusion was awful, the smoke dense, and the thunder of the cannon and the shouting endless. Evening was approaching. We had eaten nothing since breakfast, and had no money to buy any of the gorgeous pies and cookies for sale at little tables along Salem street. So the Medford boys went home tired and happy to their mothers.

Unless a few ball cartridges were inadvertently used on that battle day I do not think the North Mountain was hurt much, or anything deposited in its chasms or scaurs to puzzle future historical societies. I say inadvertently, for no one who knew Miss Lucy Osgood as I did would ever venture to cannonade her wood lot, to say nothing of the poor Indians. But this is not the whole of my story.

A couple of years later I again visited this battle plain. As we approached it, walking as before on Salem street, we were struck with the different character of the noises. The furious gun-fire of 1840 was no longer in evidence. The cannon reports were of rather slow recurrence and seemingly at regular intervals. The field-pieces were in their former places. The artillerists were by them, but were deliberate and very careful. No infantry were on the field. No Indians were anywhere in sight. But there were targets, two or more, standing on the lower slope of the bluff and very near the level of the plain.

No blank cartridges were being used then. We could see the dust spouts as the shots struck the rugged slope. Evidently the [p. 95] merits of this locality as a safe place for artillery practice had been discovered.

I have a round shot which was fired from Lord Percy's sixpounder April 19, 1775. It was ploughed up on the Rufus Merriam farm in Lexington some forty or fifty years later. It weighs five and one-half pounds, a weight at which no spherical shot was ever cast. Possibly weighing the cannon-ball which Mr. Claud Allen has given to your Society may indicate something, but I cannot tell. I know nothing of the oxidizing rates of different soils.

Truly yours,

From conversation with the adjutant-general's assistant at the State House we learn that Massachusetts, in 1840, had twenty-six artillery companies and eighty-three of infantry, a much larger proportion of artillery than in later years. Each company had two six-pounders and one caisson, and houses were built or hired for the storage of their guns. Many of these were, according to report, in bad repair, unless, indeed, kept in order by the companies at their own expense.

The local trainings and parades were always sources of interest to the ‘Young America’ of those days.

The annual musters of the State militia were looked forward to with interest and attended by crowds. These latter were hardly deemed complete unless a sham fight was included, such as Mr. Stetson describes.

This and various other features hardly served to keep the military spirit alive in Medford (for in 1840 there was here no military company), though perhaps this ‘Cornwallis’ may have roused some, as the next year the Brooks Phalanx was organized.

The temperance reformation that was gaining ground was in no way friendly to the dissipation attendant on the old musters, and which were deprecated by many, because of their demoralizing tendencies.

Few people of today know what a ‘Cornwallis’ was, but that was the term usually applied to a mock battle and surrender.

Lowell, in ‘Biglow Papers,’ says:— [p. 96]

. . . . Ana a feller could cry quarter
Ef he fired away his ramrod arter tu much rum and water,
Recollect wut fun we hed, you'n I ana Ezry Hollis,
Up there to Waltham plain last fall, a-havina the Cornwallis?

His ‘Glossary’ styles this to be ‘a sort of muster in masquerade, supposed to have had its origin soon after the Revolution, and to commemorate the surrender of Lord Cornwallis. It took the place of the old Guy Fawkes procession.’ Doubtless the Cornwallis was as grotesque in its features as were those of Guy Fawkes Day. The irregularity, and often absence of uniform and equipment—some having a salt fish strapped on the back instead of blanket or knapsack—bordered somewhat on the ridiculous. All these developed in later time into the ‘Antique and Horrible’ parade of Fourth of July morning.

Mr. Stetson's use of the word ‘inadvertently’ brings to our notice an incident that occurred about the same time.

The Lexington Artillery was encamped near the home of its captain in Woburn. While the company were at dinner some reckless one fired a solid shot at ‘Rag Rock,’ a lofty ledge near by, but with such poor aim that the shot went over the hill and fell beyond it.

We have never heard of its being found. Should it ever be, let none (as some did in Medford) attribute it to the British attack on Bunker Hill, but to a dare-devil recklessness, induced by ‘tu much rum and water,’ presumably the former.

The allusion to the shot from the farm in Lexington has raised this query among military men: Is there any record of the firing of cannon there on that eventful day in 1775?

1 Son of Reverend Caleb Stetson, Pastor of First Parish.

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