Captain Boardman’s Bass Drum

dragoons 8-18-08 AmMer

There was a time when Hartford residents tolerated if not welcomed recruiting parties, judging from this advertisement in the August 18, 1808 issue of the American Mercury.

To some, the Captain Boardman affair seemed innocent enough — he had violated a lawfully enacted noise ordinance. To others, it was a political firestorm, one of many that were fanned into flames by federalist hatred of the War of 1812. In any event, what the Captain Boardman affair did was test the law making it a crime to play fifes and drums in the city of Hartford, a curious law indeed since Connecticut, birthplace of the Ancients, preserves so much of the music familiar to Captain Boardman. It also marked the beginning of the end for Connecticut’s Federalist party.

Elijah Boardman was born in December 1787. His father, also Elijah, was a Revolutionary patriot who, according to his obituary, was permanently injured by the “barbarity of his treatment” aboard the infamous prison-ship Jersey, “from which time he never [again] saw a well day.” After the war, Boardman was hired as keeper of the Hartford jail where, perhaps as a result of his wartime experiences, he “uniformly treated the prisoners committed to his charge with all the tenderness humanity could dictate.” He died, much lamented, in September 1808.

Not so 5 years later, as the hated Second War with Britain began.  American Mercury, March 10, 1813

Not so 5 years later, as the hated Second War with Britain began.  Note the wear that has occurred on the wood block.  American Mercury, March 10, 1813

Just weeks before his death, Boardman’s 21-year-old namesake had been appointed cornet of the 1st U.S. Regiment of Light Dragoons. As such, he assisted his superior officers in the recruiting service; in 1810 he was promoted to first lieutenant and became its commander. He was eventually awarded two more promotions, first as captain and then brevet major. Hartford’s federalist newspapers took no notice of Captain Boardman’s military achievements, but the anti-federalist American Mercury did, complimenting the fine appearance of his recruits as they prepared to leave Hartford for Vermont on October 23, 1814:

Seldom do we recollect to have seen a finer body of men. They have been recruited in this vicinity within the last few months, and are all stout, able bodied, healthy young fellows. The indefatigable exertions bestowed upon them, in their discipline and drill, is highly honorable to the officers assigned to their command, and is abundantly repaid by the rapid proficiency made by the men.

Captain Boardman’s efforts, however, were not well-received by the city’s federalists. They petitioned the legislature then in session, complaining of the disorder occasioned by Captain Boardman’s preparations for the Vermont expedition, especially by “exercising the recruits & marching them daily with martial music through the principal streets” of the city. “The citizens, they claimed, “are not only annoyed, but their property has been pillaged and destroyed, and the most violent outrages have been committed. . .” The legislature responded with an act permitting Hartford (and other cities) to regulate the use of “public squares, streets, and highways” and also to “designat[e] the place or places for military parades and rendezvous” [recruiting], upon which Hartford gratefully and promptly passed an ordinance criminalizing the location of recruiting offices and/or the playing of drums, fifes, or “any martial instrument” anywhere except in the most desolate parts of the city. Meanwhile, Captain Boardman was arrested and jailed for his musical crimes. His outraged “brother officers” complained in a letter to the editors of the city newspapers, but to no avail. They were ignored by all but the Mercury.

Bass drum made by Eli Brown, no. 1553 [n.d., prob. 1823], ex-Tommy Riemer, currently Moodus Drum and Fife Corps.

Bass drum made by Eli Brown, no. 1553 [n.d., prob. 1823], ex-Tommy Riemer, currently Moodus Drum and Fife Corps.

Perhaps in deference to his military commitments, Captain Boardman’s trial did not occur until December 1816. Now that the war was over and tempers had cooled, he was no longer accused of the criminal use of fifes and drums; instead, the court considered whether he had illegally “exceeded the limits of his duty:

It was not questioned, on the side of the prosecution, but that he had a right to carry on the recruiting, and for this purpose to make use of martial music in a proper manner; but it was claimed that this power had its reasonable limits, and that Capt. Boardman had exceeded these limits to the great annoyance of the public.

And the public had indeed been greatly annoyed — maybe not the entire public but certainly those of the federalist persuasion. In addition to “parading the streets, with [common] drums and fifes, on an average, as much as three or four hours in a day” the defendant had employed the use of not only “one bass drum” but “sometimes two”! This had so discomfited federalist ears that their owners easily convinced the court that such noise was also “distressing to the sick, interrupting business, frightening horses, and overturning and breaking carriages.” The federalist Connecticut Courant, whose report was reprinted by newspapers within and beyond Connecticut, claimed that Captain Boardman was found guilty by an “impartial court and jury” and was thereby ordered to pay a $50 fine plus $67.10 in costs. The anti-federalist Mercury, whose reports were similarly circulated, claimed that the only laws violated were Connecticut’s notorious “blue laws” and protested the “nearly three hundred dollars” that Capt. Boardman was obliged to pay in consequence of his faithful attention to his military duties.

After the trial, recruiting was once again carried on without incident.  American Mercury, July 6, 1818.

After the trial, recruiting was once again carried on without incident. American Mercury, July 6, 1818.

Things had worsened for Connecticut’s Federalists even before the trial. The Hartford Convention had failed when the war ended in 1815, before it could produce its list of demands to the U.S. government. The demise of the Federalist party soon followed. Meanwhile, Elijah Boardman had returned to his business of annoying the federalists, something he had been doing annually since 1810 by running for public office, first as a democrat and now as a member of the Toleration Party. While he consistently lost each election, he came close twice, forcing a gubernatorial rematch in 1814 and again in 1815.

The Toleration Party, founded in 1816, won its first victory the following year with the election of Oliver Wolcott, Jr. as governor of the state.  American Mercury.

The Toleration Party, founded in 1816, won its first victory the following year with the election of Oliver Wolcott, Jr. as governor of the state. American Mercury.

After the trial he continued his military career in Hartford but only for a little while. It is not known precisely when he left Connecticut, but by 1825 Boardman was in Youngstown, New York, serving as commander of Fort Niagara and as keeper of its lighthouse. He left Niagara in 1827, heading for Wisconsin and the Winnebago War. In the summer of 1828, while stationed at Fort Howard, Boardman was again the center of controversy when he was court-martialed for censuring a superior officer. In a trial that must have revived memories of Hartford, he was found guilty, but this time the verdict was overturned — by none other than President John Quincy Adams, who found cause for Boardman’s conduct (the intoxicated officer in question had stolen a keg of pickled oysters). Thus the last of New England’s Federalists restored to one of its enemies both his good name and his military career.

Shortly thereafter Elijah Boardman returned to New York, presumably at or near Fort Niagara, where he died at the age of 44 on March 22, 1832 following an eight-day illness. He is buried in a nearby Fort Niagara cemetery.

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Copyright History of the Ancients Dot Com, all rights reserved.  May 2015.

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