Nina Sankovitch
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Nina Sankovitch

Divided Loyalties: The American Revolution

Samuel Quincy, Solicitor General of Massachusetts in the years leading up to the American Revolution, was also a poet.

He wrote poems about his years at Harvard; poems of music, dancing, and enjoying life; and poems expressing love for his wife, Hannah Phillips Quincy. He also wrote commemorative poems in honor of the deaths of people he loved or admired. Although his poems remain largely lost to history, I discovered a number of them, penned in his own hand, among the papers of the Phillips family in the archives of the Cambridge Historical Society.

Sam Quincy wrote a poem honoring General Richard Montgomery following his death at the Battle of Quebec, one of the earliest battles of the Revolutionary War. The Battle was fought at the end of December 1775 and I believe, based on my research, that Quincy wrote the poem honoring the fallen hero sometime in the spring of 1776.

General Richard Montgomery led his men from Lake Champlain up to Montreal in the fall of 1775, laying siege to the British forces which controlled the town. In November, Montgomery’s men defeated the British and Montreal fell to the Americans. Montgomery then set his sights on Quebec. He and 300 men joined up with the forces led by General Benedict Arnold, who had come up through Maine, and began the march towards the fortressed city. Fearing that many of his soldiers would soon be leaving the army, with their enlistments coming to completion at the end of December, Montgomery was determined to lay siege to Quebec. The blizzard conditions enveloping the walled town only encouraged Montgomery; he hoped that the blinding snow would help him move his troops closer without being seen by the British forces.

In the end, however, the snow, freezing temperatures, and the firepower of the British lay waste to Montgomery’s ambitions. The Battle of Quebec, launched on December 31, 1775, turned into a bloody and horrifying rout of the American forces. Montgomery was mortally wounded by cannon shot, left to die on the Fields of Abraham outside the town, and Arnold was severely injured; and over five hundred American soldiers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner during the battle, while fewer than twenty British were killed. It was a stunning defeat for the newly-formed Continental Army and led many Americans to fear that any fight against the British would be a losing one.

Death of Montgomery

Quincy’s poem about the fall of Montgomery on the Fields of Abraham drew on Montgomery’s reputation for bravery, leadership, faith, and on his love for his adopted land (he was born in Ireland in 1738). The first lines penned by Quincy (pictured below), state “O Spirit of the truly brave/ From thy otherwise sequestered grave/ Montgomery, arise!”

What struck me when I read the poem was how Quincy, who would remain a loyalist to King and Parliament his entire life, espoused such fervent admiration for a hero of the American forces fighting against England. This poem in honor of Montgomery, along with many of Quincy’s letters also found in the Phillips family archive, demonstrate the tension Quincy and other loyalists felt in the years leading up to the Revolution.

Raised to be dutiful to the Crown, Samuel Quincy believed in both the constitutional protections afforded under English law and the honor of English institutions. He foresaw only chaos and anarchy if English law and institutions were thrown off and a new country — with new laws and new institutions — was attempted. Quincy also feared that any war with England would be both bloody and doomed to failure. And yet he admired the men who fought for the rights of colonists — his brother Josiah among them — and would attempt (unsuccessfully and on his own solitary mission to England) to mend the rift between England and her colonies in America.

Another discovery- never before written about — that I found in the archives was a letter written by a young John Trumbull to Sam Quincy in 1773. Trumbull sought Quincy’s counsel in how he might remain true to his loyalist beliefs despite the rebel leanings of both his friends and family. As he wrote to Quincy, “I am determined to be of no party but of truth.”

What advice Quincy supplied in response to Trumbull’s request remains a mystery. I was never able to find the letter he wrote back to the younger man. But whatever he did write must not have been very persuasive, because by the time independence was declared in July of 1776, John Trumbull had joined up with the Contintental Army. He would become its greatest painter, painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (which graces the cover of American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution), along with The Declaration of Independence which hangs in the United States Capitol. In another fascinating connection between Trumbull and Samuel Quincy, Trumbull also painted the piece below, titled The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec.

Like history? Check out my latest book, American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution.



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