Dearest Friends


By late summer, an inevitable dysentery epidemic swept the area. Abigail nursed her husband’s brother Elihu, who lay in racking agony until he died. Next, a serving man fell ill; then Abigail herself, lightly; then the youngest boy, Tommy; then two young serving girls, Susy and Patty. Almost hourly the coffins moved to the churchyard; some families lost three, four, or five children. Patty lay dying for five weeks, “the most shocking object my eyes ever beheld,” Abigail confessed. The little girl, who had been a member of the household for four years, literally wasted away and would let no one but Abigail near her. Simultaneously, Abigail had to nurse her mother. She buried them both within ten October days, sustained mainly by her faith and the survival of her children.

Abigail was living from letter to letter during those hard days. A lapse of some weeks after Washington’s visit brought an outburst: “I want some sentimental Effusions of the Heart”; then her aching heart was eased when five letters arrived all at once. “My best Friend,” John told her, “… all the Friendship I have for others is far unequal to that which warms my heart for you.” He only wished that he could write “more than once” every day, but he was still bound to secrecy and working eighteen hours a day.

John’s Christmas homecoming was muted this year. So many familiar faces were gone. His usually somber cast of mind was burdened with the sorrow of knowing that the break with Britain was nearing at last. In January Washington raised the flag of “the United Colonies” or “the Grand Union.” But the war itself went badly. The British fleet still prowled the coast. The Army camps were rife with disease. Grimly, John surveyed a potter’s field, a “Congregation of the dead.” The smallpox, he knew, took ten of Washington’s men for every one that perished by the sword.

In Braintree the night quiet of March 2, 1776, was mutilated with cannonading. Footsteps sounded; the men of Braintree were marching out. All night the firing continued, rocking the house. Two nights later, in a nocturnal maneuver that astonished the British, Washington moved 3,000 well-equipped men to the heights of Dorchester above Boston. Then came incredible news: the British were pulling out.

With peace restored to Boston, nine-year-old Johnny became a post rider between the city and Braintree; smiling slyly, he would hand his mother first one and then another and another of the hoped-for letters. Now she and the children were in more danger from the smallpox than from the British. “Will you come and have the small Pox here?” John wrote suddenly to Abigail. “Let me please myself with the Thought.” Abigail would not; she had made a drastic decision. Smallpox was still ravaging the army. Terrified men were having themselves secretly inoculated, then were passing the disease on in its hideous “natural” form through the exchange of paper currency, which eventually got back to the civilians. Abigail would take no further chances. On July 12 she and the children slipped secretly into Boston, taking with them a cow, a load of hay, some bedding, an old nurse, and a nursemaid who had had “the distempre.” Once arrived, they moved into a Beacon Hill mansion fronting a fruit orchard, lent to them by John Hancock. And there Abigail had herself and all the children inoculated.

John heard the news from others before her July 13 explanation arrived. “I suspect, that you intended to have run slyly, through the small Pox with the family, without letting me know it,” he protested, “and then have sent me an Account that you were all well. This might be a kind Intention, and if the design had succeeded, would have made me very joyous. But the secret is out, and I am left to conjecture.” He longed to be with his family. But he could not leave. After the heady achievement of the Declaration of Independence, Congress had bogged down in a significant discussion over the proposed Articles of Confederation: the question was whether each colony should vote as one, or in proportion to its numbers.

“I hang upon Tenterhooks,” John wrote on July 27. “Fifteen days since, you were all inocculated, and I have not yet learned how you have fared. But I will suppose you all better and out of Danger. Why should I torture myself when I cant relieve you?”

Abigail came through her own brief but severe siege only to find that her plan for an incarceration of only a month or so was a vain hope. For the children, all inoculated at the same time, were taking the disease successively or not at all, thus leaving the laggards open to infection “in the natural way.” Frenziedly, she had them inoculated again and again; the process was seemingly no longer the simple matter that it had been during John’s mild session twelve years before.

Wearily, she longed for the campaign to be over. By late August, Nabby was studded at last with “6 or 7 hundred boils,” each the size of a pea; she could not stand or sit. A few days later the doctor said that she was doing well, but “tis hard to make her think so.” Charles was inoculated three times, then sank into a stupor. He had taken smallpox “in the natural way.”

The children’s convalescence dragged on. August was all but over. Abigail found a quiet spot and sat down with her pen: Boston August 29 1776 Dearest Friend

I have spent the 3 days past almost intirely with you. The weather has been stormy, I have had little company, and I have amused my self in my closet reading over the Letters I have received from you since I have been here.