Revolutionary War diary unearths different perspective, family ties

tgrubb@newsobserver.comMay 16, 2014 

  • What’s next?

    The Davie Poplar Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution will host New York University professor Rebecca Goetz at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Chapel Hill Country Club, 103 Lancaster Drive, Chapel Hill.

    Goetz will talk about her investigation of the diary and life of Revolutionary War Private William Dorr. The lecture is free, but lunch is $18, payable at the door.

— Jean Pons Lusted gets excited when she talks about her family’s role in the birth of the nation.

“I think about having an ancestor standing on the Lexington battlefield when the first shot was fired,” she said. “That is pretty incredible.”

On the night of April 18, 1775, Massachusetts tanner Ebenezer Dorr rode out from Roxbury to help Paul Revere’s riders spread the warning of a British advance. His youngest brother William, then 18, sped to Lexington, Mass., where he joined several dozen militiamen on the town green.

No one knows who fired the first shot, but the Lexington militiamen were outnumbered by the British. The Redcoats pushed through to Concord, where nearly 400 militiamen forced them to retreat under fire.

Whether for patriotism, fortune or a thirst for adventure, Private William Dorr enlisted and joined 1,100 men marching north with Col. Benedict Arnold to take the British-held city of Quebec. That’s where his diary – now dirty and tattered – picks up the story.

New York University professor Rebecca Goetz will talk about Dorr’s life Wednesday at the monthly meeting of the Davie Poplar Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The 10:30 a.m. meeting at the Chapel Hill Country Club is open to the public.

Lusted knew about her ancestor before learning about the diary and is a longtime DAR member. While further tracing her father’s family tree, she found out-of-state cousins who told her about Goetz’s research. Goetz said no one knew anything about the diary when she saw it in 1998 at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“I enjoy those things that are mysterious and not well documented,” Goetz said.

Arnold’s march killed more than half the men; others were demoralized by cold and hunger. The ill-fated attack on the heavily fortified city in late December 1775 left hundreds dead, wounded or captured. The diary’s pages from Dorr’s imprisonment are missing, but there’s a petition for freedom to British Gen. Guy Carleton:

“Haveing a Desire to Return to our farms & familyes (illegible) will Promese (promise) not to take up arms against his Majesty But to remain peacefull & return to our respective places & we further assure your Excellency that you may depend on our fidelity.”

No one knows how many kept the pledge, but they were freed in August, Goetz said.

The diary is important for its insight into how average men viewed the war, she said. It contains practical descriptions of the difficult terrain and carefully lists the names of soldiers captured, killed or wounded along the way. But no matter how bad it got, Dorr’s diary never questions his commanders – a reflection of the accepted hierarchy, she said.

After the war, Dorr and his growing family struggle through a national depression and turn to government and family help. Lusted said the story reminds her of the challenges Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are facing now.

“It shows how difficult it is for them to assimilate into society and make a living,” she said. “It really has a lot of relevance.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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