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Book Review | Peter's War

Book Review | Peter’s War
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Peters War
Photo/Art by Heath Robbins
When historian and constitutional scholar Joyce Lee Malcolm first discovered a 1765 bill of sale for a 19-month-old slave boy, she put it aside. She was reconstructing the famous running battle between the Minutemen and the Redcoats that passed through Lincoln, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. The couple who bought Peter, Josiah and Elizabeth Nelson, lived on what’s since become known as the Battle Road.

But the bill of sale haunted her, and she eventually decided to find out what became of the “sartain neagro servant boy” who apparently witnessed the first battle of the American Revolution. “Apparently,” because not a word written by Peter in his lifetime has yet to be found. “In the end, I have discovered Peter’s footprints but not his voice,” Malcolm says in her account of his life, Peter’s War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution (Yale University Press; $28).

His footprints cover the infant nation. Peter marched, often cold and starving, from Bunker Hill to Saratoga to Yorktown, where George Washington’s army was finally victorious. Peter was a slave in an army whose leaders, including Washington, bitterly resisted arming slaves. Only when the British offered freedom to slaves who would fight for them did the colonists relent.

Peter eventually won his freedom and may have freed his mother and sister. We don’t know. All that we know, or can guess, is in this fascinating book. As Malcolm points out, in an age when records are silent on the lives of most ordinary citizens, let alone slaves, it’s amazing that we know so much.

Read more: Peter’s War excerpt

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Tim Clark


Tim Clark


Tim Clark has been writing for Yankee Magazine and The Old Farmer's Almanac since 1975. Subjects of his many Yankee profiles have included filmmaker Ken Burns, historian Barbara Tuchman, pediatrician and political activist Dr. Benjamin Spock, and World War II General James Gavin. Tim left his job as Managing Editor in 1999 to teach English at ConVal High School in Peterborough, N.H. for 13 years, but since retiring from that demanding and rewarding profession in 2012, he has continued to contribute articles and book reviews. Tim lives in Dublin, N.H., two miles from the offices of Yankee Publishing, and serves as Town Moderator, a post previously occupied by Rob Sagendorph, the founder of Yankee Magazine.
Updated Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

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