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History Matters: An April morning to remember

April’s here once more, bringing with it welcome relief from those dreary winter days. Springtime sees land and people awaken, but change is not always seamless.

Every year when this month rolls around, I can’t help but remember one particular April morning some 247 years ago, when our land faced life-threatening disruption and chilling revolutionary change.

“April Morning” was a 1988 film that I often showed to my American history classes. I thought it a great fit as it mirrored in many ways the lives of young students.

The story was based on a 1961 novel of the same name written by Howard Fast, and it centers on a young man struggling to grow up in a young country during a very difficult time. The boy and the land would survive that morning and the trying days to come, but it would take heroic efforts to make that possible.

A good friend and former co-editor of The Journal of the American Revolution, Hugh T. Harrington, rated that movie in the top 10 films on the Revolutionary War. He noted that it singled out the stirring action that took place on April 18 and 19 of 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts, from the afternoon before the Battle of Lexington through the evening of the day of the battle.

“The tension builds as the British army marches into view. The viewer sees a boy become a man as he takes his place among the men on Lexington Green and fights throughout that fateful day. The arguments between the men as to why they should, or should not, stand up to the British army explain well the conflict of principles being discussed in 1775. An excellent film,” Mr. Harrington reports.

Whenever I would show this movie, I always wondered (and I know students did as well) what would we do in this same situation? What would it actually feel like to stand on Lexington Green and face the best soldiers in the world armed with Brown Bess and gleaming bayonet? Those flintlock rifles we are holding in our hands have never been fired at a human being before, at least not until now. The world of armed conflict was foreign to most everyone standing on the green, but not to those professional soldiers in red marching into view. As their military drums beat louder and louder, would our hands start to sweat, our legs begin to tremble?

But the question remains ... will I personally stand my ground and fight, or will I turn and run for my life? At the end of the film the class would often discuss individual moments of truth we all must face during our lifetimes.

I always wished that I had a relative who had been there on that day or one that had soon responded to the “Lexington Alarm.” If not a relative, maybe someone from a family I knew or someone from our local area.

Eventually, I did find such an individual, but quite by accident. He had been resting in East Lyme’s Old Stone Cemetery all along, but I never knew exactly where to look.

It took a man from Feeding Hills, Mass. to introduce me to this local hero who fought during those early days of revolution. I found Rick Bellico to be a dedicated historian and accomplished antiques collector. He and his wife Ann had discovered an object in an antique shop in Granby that he thought someone from the Lyme area should know about. It was a powder horn from the Revolutionary War era, and it had a local soldier’s name inscribed on it.

Bellico’s good friends and neighbors up in Feeding Hills just happened to also have a summer place in Niantic. When Bellico showed the horn to Don and Judy Anderson, they suggested someone in East Lyme should be contacted. When Rick handed me the horn, I knew he and his wife had found something very special.

Powder horns are considered one of the true colonial art forms, often expressing the experiences of their owners. Utilizing a “cylindrical canvas,” the men who carved them sought to record what they prized most: places, events, perhaps emotions and loyalties, making the horn sort of a 18th century personalized Facebook account.

Engraved on this particular horn in capital letters were the words … “CAPT. JAMES HUNTLEY, HIS HORN MADE, LYME, CONN.”

In addition to that provenance, the horn supplied a map that began in Long Island Sound and extended all the way up to the Hudson River in New York. Many of the places engraved were forts or towns where Revolutionary War battles had taken place. It was quite an informative and impressive piece.

Mr. Bellico had already done considerable research on James Huntley. He learned he had been born in Lyme to Daniel and Hannah Brown Huntley in 1725. One of four children, he would grow up to marry Lucretia Smith in 1750, and the couple would have 12 children of their own. Huntley was appointed ensign of the 2nd Company of Lyme in 1770 and was elected captain of the 3rd Ct. Regiment in 1773. He was ready to answer the Lexington Alarm when it came in the spring of 1775.

The news of the “shot heard round the world” spread quickly. That April morning eight patriots had been left dead or dying on Lexington Common along with 10 others who had been wounded. Further fighting along the road to Concord later that same day recorded 300 British soldiers killed or injured along with another 100 local militia casualties. The War for American Independence had begun.

Furnished with fresh horses along the way, rider Israel Bessel of the Mass. Committee of Safety quickly spread the word of what had happened. By the next day, the news had reached most of Connecticut’s residents including those in New London County. In response, approximately 4,000 Connecticut men marched off to answer the call. One of them was James Huntley.

Huntley was an officer in the 93-man 3rd Ct. Regiment under Col. Experience Storrs of Mansfield. James would see action at Bunker Hill and in various northern campaigns in New York in 1775 and 1776. Huntley would later serve locally on committees to supply soldiers in the field and see that they received their pay.

With a magnifying glass, I began to examine those places Huntley had etched on his horn to get a better idea of his military experiences. In addition to that, I also had some primary documents Rick had placed in an envelope and given to me earlier. They told of Huntley’s early experiences in the war but were silent after mentioning him engaged in fighting around White Plains, New York in 1776.

An explanation surfaced when I ran across a barely legible copy of a letter sent to Captain Huntley by a superior officer, Lt. Col. Mansfield Parsons. The letter was dated Jan. 7, 1777, and in it Parsons regretfully accepted Huntley’s resignation from active military service.

He was replying to a letter Huntley had sent earlier which cited “his advanced age, infirmity of body and his inability to continue to sustain the fatigue of campaigning.”

I had never noticed before reading this note that Huntley was 50 years old when he enthusiastically volunteered his service on that fateful April day. He was no spring chicken to begin with and three years of fighting must have taken its toll.

One other revelation came to light while trying to match the information Bellico had uncovered about Huntley with the images found on the powder horn. There were a number of forts and battle sites depicted on it that did not see action until 1778 and 1779, which would have been after he had resigned from active duty.

Further research did reveal the 3rd Ct. Regiment visited those sites even though Capt. Huntley was no longer among them. I concluded that the horn was meant to be a memento, specifically designed to commemorate the feats of his regiment more than it was to promote his personal exploits.

To further that hypothesis, the horn showed no evidence of wear, which would certainly not have been the case if it had actually been worn in the field for any length of time. It also appeared to be carved with great care, most likely through the use of a tool called a burin. That tool was used by professional horn engravers and not generally owned or used by soldiers in the field. Huntley obviously took great pride in the role he played during those early years of revolution and wanted them remembered.

The horn suggests to me that he viewed those critical years in American history from a team perspective.

Rick Bellico hinted that he may donate Capt. James Huntley’s powder horn to the East Lyme Historical Society at some point in the future. What a wonderful addition that would be.

Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.

 

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