Skip to main content
Go to accessibility notice


    American Revolution: The Extraordinary Manuscript Diary of Massachusetts Soldier David How (1758-1842), kept in the field, which chronicles his one eventful year of service with the Continental Army during the campaign of 1776. Manuscript diary, 54 leaves, 5.25" x 6.25" [various places], December 27, 1775 to April 7, 1777, string-bound bearing leather wraps removed from another book. Titled by How on front page "Camp @ Cambridge December the 27 AD 1775 David How His Book Bought Decm. the 27 AD 1775."

    The seventeen-year-old How was present at the British evacuation of Boston, White Plains, Washington's crossing of the Delaware and the critical victory at Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776. Interspersed one finds news of other events nearby including the naval and land skirmishes that raged around Boston in the spring of 1776, the Battles of Long Island and Harlem Heights, the Fall of Forth Washington and the capture of General Charles Lee by the British in New Jersey. How also records the daily rigors of military life: long marches, severe punishments for infractions great and minor, the deaths of comrades, and the subjects of Sunday sermons.

    Meticulously transcribed in 1865 by Henry B. Dawson of Morrisania, New York, this rich diary has been cited by numerous historians ranging from George Otto Trevelyan to David Hackett Fischer. Dawson's published work provides valuable background and has allowed scholars to use this work as primary source material. Of the hundreds of extant and/or published diaries, journals, memoirs and autobiographies from the American Revolution, contemporary diaries maintained by enlisted men in the Continental Army are the most rare and desirable. Of the near 538 soldier's and sailors indexed by J. Todd White and Charles H. Lesser, less than 50 were contemporary diaries maintained by enlisted men in the Continental Line. Almost all the known surviving manuscripts are part of institutional collections, save for this diary and one other. (See J. Todd White & Charles H. Lesser, eds., Fighters for Independence: A Guide to Sources of Biographical Information on Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution. 1977, pp. 64-109.)

    According to an introduction in the published edition by Hingham, Massachusetts historian, George Wingate Chase, How was a currier by trade -- one of ten children born to Deacon James and Jemima How of Methuen, Massachusetts. At age 16, he answered the Lexington Alarm, marching with the Minutemen from Andover. According to Chase, How was also present at Bunker Hill and would often regale his family and friends with stories form the fabled battle.

    How's 1832 pension application indicates he first marched with Capt. Poor's company to Lexington, then to Cambridge on April 19 1775, and serving until May. He then enlisted in Col. James Frye's Regiment and served at Bunker Hill. After the disbandment of Frye's, he joined Col. Paul Dudley Sargent's regiment as a private and was promoted to corporal some time in the spring of 1776. (Pension Application of David How, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Rolls, Series M805, Roll 445, Images 446-449).

    How's diary opens quite simply noting his enlistment in the Continental Army on Dec. 27 1775: "This Day I [in] Listed With Sergt Barnker for one year". As was common of soldier life, boredom was the rule of the day. Camp life was rife with drinking, carousing and other typical activities that tempt bored soldiers. On February 7 How recorded: "This Day two Men In Cambridge got a bantering [about] Who wodd [sic]Drink the most and they Drink'd so much That one of them Died In About one houre [sic]or two after." Prostitution was also an issue in camp. On February 10, "There was two women Drum[me]d out of Camp This fore noon..." Two days later "There was a man found Dead in a room with A woman; this morning. It is not known what killed him." He does not note if the woman was drummed out of camp or not. How, like many soldiers of the period, engaged in side businesses: On January 30 he reported that "We have sold Nuts and Cyder Every Day This weak [sic]."

    Besides recording the diversions of camp life, How was always sure to report on major actions around the lines. The day following his enlistment, he reported "There want a bought 12 Hundred men Down to Cobble Hill In the Night In order To go over to Bunker hill but The Ice wa[s]nt Strong a nuf [sic]" The next week , on Jan. 8 1776: "...this Night our soldiers wint [sic]over into Charlestown and Burnt up Eleven houses took Six prisoners Non[e] Killed." The British staged occasional raids of their own. On February 14 How noted, "This morning Bout 4 Clock the Troops at Boston Landed At Dorchester hill and Burnt 4 or 5 Houses & Took one old man that Be Long in them. Our people ware [sic]soon A Larm'd & went Down and Drove them Back as fast again as they came." He also writes of the continuing American efforts to tighten the noose around the British trapped in Boston. Feb. 25 "...Our men have carried Four pieces of Cannon To Litchmores [sic]point this Night" On March 3: "Last Niht [sic]there was Fireing [sic]Amost [sic]all Night on both Sides Six[?] of our morters [sic]Splet [sic]in pieces at Litchmorspont; there was a shell sent from Boston to prospeckhill [sic]This morning and fell on a platform in the Fort...Our people are carrying Cannon to Rosckbury [sic]& to Litchmore point" The next evening as well, "there was A fireing [sic]all Night with Cannon, and morters [sic]on both Sides; our people Splet [sic]The Congress the third Time that they fired it. Three Reg[i]ments went From Cambridge to Roxbuary [sic]& carried some Field Pieces with them. The Militia from Several towns are called In to Stay 3 Days." These were the cannon dragged across Massachusetts from Fort Ticonderoga and on March 5 "Our people went to Dodgster [sic, Dorchester] hill Last Night And built a fort there. There was a fireing of Bums [read Bombs] all Night and they killed one man at Litchmeres point with a Bum They have been fireing at Dogester a[l]most all Day". Again on March 10: "Last night our people Went to Dogester [sic]neck And there was a hot fire From Boston which killed 4 men with one ball. We kept up the fire all Night from Cobble hill and Roxbury."

    With artillery now on Dorchester Heights threatening to play on British Ships in the harbor, the British command at Boston chose to evacuate the city. On March 17, How recorded, that at "Nine a clock there was A Larlm [sic] and our people Hear [sic] went into the boats For to got to Boston...With a party of men Went to Bunker hill & Took possession of it & This afternoon I went Down to Charlestown neck..." The next day he "...went to Bunker hill & Charles town Fort to see the Ruins of the Town. This Day four Regiments Went From hear [sic] to go To New York". On March 22 "Our Reg[i]ment went through Roxbury & came to Boston And we Staid [sic] hear at Night in the Barracks." Most of the British ships had departed by March 24 "...most all the Kings Ships Lays off in Sight..." The resultant celebration of victory did result in a breakdown of what was already, very shaky discipline: [Mar. 27]: "There was four Capt Wiley men Whept [sic]ty 1rst fifteen stripes for dening [sic]his Duty the 2nd 39 Stripes for Stealing & Deserting 3rd for 10 lashes for getting Drunk & Dening Duty 4d 20 Lashes Dening his duty & get[t]ing Drunk." Much of April and May was spent making cartridges and working at the fort at Bunker Hill as well as constructing fortifications in Boston harbor: "...went to for teag this forenoon This after noon I washed my shirt and stockings There went about 200 men from Boston to Nattels Island for to Build a fort there."

    How also reports on the numbers naval engagements in and around Boston harbor as New England privateers raided British shipping in the spring of 1776. On May 12 "There was one or two of the Kings Ships came in Sight & was 24 guns fired from the ships." On May 17 "...This morning Capt Muckford of Marblehead In a privite tear [privateer]. Took Large Ship from Corke [sic] Bound to Boston - and brought It in hear [sic] She had on board 1500 Barrels of Powder 1000 Carbines with a Cuterments [sic] all fixed..." On May 19: "about 2 of the clock 14 or 15 Boats come from the enimys [sic] ships up To pudden[?] pont in order To take Capt muggfords priviteteur [sic] the private Tear fired upon them & Sank 2 or 3 Boats and Its thought killed and Drowned a grate many of them. They Killed Capt Mugford only and were obliged to go off A Shamed." On June 14, "This morning they Fixed the cannon to Play upon the [British] Ships at Long Island -- and kept up a brisk fireing [sic] Up on them so that They were glad to cut there [sic]cables and Leave the harbour Immediately And at Night our people Came back & at there [sic]Return there were 5 of the Two and forty p[ounder]s fired Besides a grate [sic]many small arms."

    How would occasionally take leave and go to Boston, even returning to his home to visit family and take care of personal business. On June 11, "This Day I came to Andover & went to Mr. Peters Poors and he Paid me 8 Shilling For coming Down att [sic]Concord fight." On May 4, while in Boston procuring provisions for the fatigue party in Boston harbor, "I Bought Cyperhing Book at Boston price 2/" His penmanship took some time to improve. It was not until August that he had some time to practice. On August 8, 1776, his penmanship improved dramatically, but began to decline once again in the autumn.

    In mid-summer, with British forces beginning to mass on Staten Island in New York harbor, Washington began calling for reinforcements to defend the city. On July 18, How wrote, "Our Regmt. Marchd of this Day for New york" How remained behind for smallpox inoculation, the previous day he recorded "I went to the Small Pox hospetal [sic]Suals Point [Sewell's Point, a fort in Brookline that commanded the entrance to the Charles River]." During his stay, he reports on several comrades who died from smallpox. How survived the ordeal and was discharged on July 28. He first returned home, attending a "publick Fast" that was observed "through out the Province I went to Me[e]ting @ methuen."

    On August 6, he left Meuthen and returned to Brookline. On the 11th he was marching overland to Norwich, Connecticut, then sailing down to New London, and from there "Beeting a gainst the wind" down the Long Island Sound to Horn's Hook, in present-day Yorkville on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There he rejoined his regiment that had arrived at the post on July 29. Arriving on August 27, he arrived just in time to learn the news of the Battle of Long Island "Our army on long Island Have be[e]n Engaged in battle with the Enimy and Killd And taken a good many on Both sides." The next day, How was ordered to New York City, six miles south carrying "let[t]ers to Mr. Dudley Bailey" where he reported "There has be[e]n a very hot fire Kept up with Cannon and Small arms all Day with the Scouting parties on long Island" On the 29th Washington evacuated Long Island: "This night our army on long Island All left it & Brought all there [sic]Bag[g]age to N. York" His regiment participated in the evacuation by going "over to long Island to get off Cattle and Horses" and losing 3 men as prisoners in the process. On September 1st, his regiment was involved in gathering every available boat on the river, in an effort to prevent their use by the British: "We have down the River After all the Boats we Could find & Brought them here this Night."

    As the British consolidated their position on Long Island, his regiment "be gun a fort hear [sic]" on September 2. The same day they received a visit by the commander in chief: "Gnral Washington has Be[e]n here at the fort This Day." On the 4th of September, his battery "fireed several Shot From the fort at the Enimy on long Island." On the 6th there was another visit from the commanding general: "Gnl. Washington Has be[e]n Here at the fort At Horns Hook." The fort prompted a competing work opposite the East River from Horn's Hook, and on the morning of the 8th "there be gan A very hot fire from a Battery Erected Right Oppiset To our fort -- and they Killed Corp Hadua of Cpt Perry's Compa. The fire Was kept up on both Sides very Brisk all Day."

    The action continued through September 14 with several casualties including Isaac Fowls who "had His head Shot off with a Cannon Ball this morning" The morning of the 15th, "the Enimy on Long Island -- Crossed [to] Turcle [Turtle] Bay and Landed on York Island." In order not to be cut off in the city "Our people thought it best to Leave the lower part of the Town so that the Shipping Might no play on us. Our army all march[e]d to the upper part of the Town this after Noon." The following day, he reports on the Battle of Harlem Heights: "Some of our Army Had a Smart fight with The Enimy in Harlem Woods -- Our Army Drove them And Killed a Grate many on Both Sides."

    On October 9 "this Morning Three Ships Saild Up the North River Our people Kept A hot fire at them..." On the 12th, "This morning the Enimy Landed at Frogg's point [Throg's Neck] We ware all a larmed and March[e]d Down Almost there And Staid all Day the Enimy Did not offer to March any Distance from there [sic]Ships." On the 18th, near present-day Pelham, "The Regulars Landed above Frogg's point on the main Land. Our people fought Them Killed a great many Both sides we have not The Particulars as yet..." On October 25 "This Evening We all march[e]d To East Chester In order to At[t]ack the Enimy there But the Gnrl Thought Best Not to a tack them there And we Return[e]d to Camp In the Morning..." On the 28th the British advanced to White Plains "Within 1 Mile of our Camps...Army Engaged them on their March Killed a good many on both Sides..."

    Retreating further on November 1: "This morning we Set fire to all the Barns on the Plains. And [sic] Left The Line by the Light of them..." The British quit the area several days later. On November 17th he reports the news of the tragic fall of Fort Washington, the last rebel holdout on the island of Manhattan the previous day.

    How's regiment, under the overall command of General Charles Lee, remained on the east side of the Hudson river until December 2, after weeks of cajoling by Washington, who had crossed to New Jersey in early November. Washington had now retreated to New Brunswick and How recounts the leisurely journey taken by Lee on his march to rendezvous with Washington. They did not reach Morristown until December 10 and staid there for two days. On the 12th they took the High Road south to Bernards Township where, General Lee, unaware of the danger to his person chose to stay, unguarded, in a local tavern. The next day How recorded: "This morning the Light Horse Took Genl Lee as He was 3 miles form our Army And we went with aparty [sic]to Persue [sic]them and went 8 miles But ware tow [sic]late..."

    Without the arrogant Lee to impede progress, How moved much faster, reaching the Delaware River only two days. Moving southward toward Trenton over the next week, he records preparations for the climatic battle at Trenton. On the 20th "We have be[e]n Drawing Stockings And Shoes of the Colon[el] this Day." On the 22 they drew a rum ration, and on Christmas Eve, they were "Drawing Cateridges [sic]and provisions in order for a Scout" The next day "at 12, aClock we March[e]d Down the River about 12 miles. in the Night we Crossed the River Dullerway [sic]With a large Body of men And Field Pieces." The next morning, Boxing Day, "at 4 aClock We set off with our Field pieces March[e]d 8 miles to Trenton Whare we ware At[t]acked by a Number of Hushing [sic, Hessians] & we Toock [sic]1000 of them besides killed Some Then we march[e]d back And got to the River at Night And got over all the Hushing."

    The surprise victory at Trenton was one of the most important ones of the Revolutionary War. Washington took the bold step for a number of reasons, but primary in his mind was holding together his disintegrating army. With a large portion of enlistments due to expire on January 1, 1777, (including How's) Washington needed a decisive victory to improve morale and Trenton accomplished this all-important goal. In Trenton on December 31, 1776, How wrote, "The Gnrl ordered all to parade And see How many wood [sic] Stay 6 Weaks [sic] Longer and a Grate [sic] Part of the Army Stays for that time."

    For unexplained reasons, How was one of those who chose to go home. On January 1, he drew his wages "& Sase money [an allowance for vegetables, or 'sauce'] This after Noon we set out For New England..." In two weeks, he had taken the northern route, across the Hudson via Peeksill, to Metheun on January 15. How's decision to return home despite Washington's entreaties to remain underscores the complexities of what motivated men to join the Continental Army. Washington had asked his army to do a great deal for very little in return, and for some men, the sacrifice was too much to bear. According to How's pension application, he did serve again, with the militia in September 1777 as a sergeant in Colonel Wade's Regiment to reinforce the army facing Burgoyne at Saratoga arriving just in time to see Burgyone surrender at Stillwater and "marched as a guard to the British prisoners to Winter hill Charlestown." (Pension Application of David How, June 7, 1832, Image 448).

    While on the surface many of How's diary entries appear superficial and merely informational, they actually speak volumes about the real-life experiences of the average soldier in the American Revolution and allow us to better understand the conflict as it appeared to them. These were not the decision makers, the generals and officers who possessed an overall understanding of grand strategy and tactical maneuver. Thus his entry for the disastrous Battle of Long Island, of which he only heard second hand news, he being stationed in northern Manhattan at the time: "[August] 27, [1776]...Our army on long Island Have be[e]n Engaged in battle With the Enimy [sic]and Kill[e]d And taken a good many on Both sides."

    One must remember too, that diaries like this were never meant for public consumption. In his eloquent introduction to the published edition, Henry Dawson noted "Among the 'materials for history,'... there is little which possess more real value, notwithstanding the uncouth form in which they often appear, than Diaries which were written only for the private use of their authors, and at the time to which they refer. There is less Art in all such productions, and more Nature; there is more outspoken honesty, even in their misstatements, and erroneous conclusions, than in the writings which were originally intended for the pubic eye; or expected to fall into other hands than those of the writers; and for this reason, in the hands of an historical student, they possess great value." (Henry B. Dawson, ed., Diary of David How, A Private in Colonel Paul Dudley Sargent's Regiment of the Massachusetts Line... 1865, vii.).

    Pages overall clean with some light toning, usual rubbing to leather wraps, else very good condition.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    October, 2008
    17th-18th Friday-Saturday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 0
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 1,843

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    19.5% of the successful bid (minimum $9) per lot.

    Sold on Oct 17, 2008 for: Sign-in or Join (free & quick)
    Track Item

    Heritage membership

    Join Now - It's Free

    1. Past Auction Values (prices, photos, full descriptions, etc.)
    2. Bid online
    3. Free Collector newsletter
    4. Want List with instant e-mail notifications
    5. Reduced auction commissions when you resell your
    Consign now
    • Cash Advances
    • More Bidders
    • Trusted Experts
    • Over 200,000 Satisfied Consignors Since 1976
    Consign to the 2021 November 7 Guitars and Musical Instruments Signature Auction.

    Learn about consigning with us

    We had a wonderful time in New York during the October 2013 Historical Manuscripts auction that featured my mother’s papers collected during her tenure as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s secretary. In fact, the entire experience from beginning to end has been a pleasure.
    Howard Ballou,
    Brandon, MS
    View More Testimonials receives more traffic than any other auction house website. (Source:

    Video tutorial

    Getting the most out of search