“Truth by consensus” is the idea that something is true because most people agree that it is. This is echoed in Napoleon’s alleged statement, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” I say “alleged” because we weren’t there to hear him; truth by consensus has most of us agreeing that he said it.
We tend to remember the big picture of a historical event, but the fine points are often lost as time erodes the story. It’s like that game where one person whispers a line into someone’s ear, and he whispers it to the next person, and so on until the final person reveals to the group a line that bears little resemblance to the original.
Recently, my sister purchased the historic Loud House in Orrington, which was built in 1790. This elegant Federal-style home features tin ceilings, hardwood floors and beautiful landscaping, and it came with the things you’d expect, such as major appliances. But it also included something unique: a cannonball, with an old, typewritten account of its significance.
“A twenty-two pound, solid cannon ball fired September 3, 1814 from a
ship’s cannon known as a ‘36’ on board the British sloop of war ‘Sylph,’” it reads. “It was aimed at a group of people gathered in a field near Orrington Corner, but, going too high, passed through the mansion usually known as the Loud House … coming out through the sill, near the front door, and killing Capt. William B. Reed of Bucksport who was reclining on the ground. The ball lodged in the stone wall across the road.”
My curiosity was immediately piqued, and already my sister said she’d heard that Reed had not, in fact, died immediately — that he lost a limb, but lived for several days before succumbing. That appears to be a rumor; I quickly discovered that his gravestone at Riverview Cemetery in Bucksport clearly indicates he died Sept. 3, 1814. If he didn’t die instantly, he certainly didn’t live out the day.
The hunt was on. I went first to one of our local-research standbys, the 1882 “History of Penobscot County,” which also recounted the event of the Sylph firing at the west side of the house.
“Mr. Reed and others were standing by the Loud house in Orrington, looking upon the British war vessels as they were coming up the river, and being seen were shot at from the vessels,” it said. “Reed directed all to lie down on the east side of the house, which they did, and he with them, but his shoulder was raised above the underpinning, when a 32-pound shot passed through the house on a level with the floor and took off the exposed shoulder, killing Reed instantly.”
So, as details change, the cannonball went from 22 pounds to 32 pounds in 58 years. But Reed went from a someone merely reclining on the lawn to a man who ushered everyone to lie low on that lawn. However, he was also demoted from a captain to a civilian. This required more digging.
The Orrington Historical Society’s website referred me to an article in the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 23, 1937, which related the tale. The piece was written by Henry Buxton, based on his interview with Brewer resident Harrison N. Brooks, then 69 years old, who described what he knew of the Reed story (and, incidentally, the BDN’s business manager in 1937 was Reed’s great-grandson, Walter B. Reed).
“In September 1814, the sloop Sylph, with Commodore Barrie in command, sailed up the Penobscot River, cannonading as she proceeded in order to terrify the people who lived on the river road,” Brooks told Buxton. “The Sylph finally anchored between Hampden and Orrington, about where the ferry crossed the river. The militia under Captain Reed traveled up the river road and halted by the so-called [Loud] house … On the river side, in the field between the house and the river, was a gathering of women and children, and the Britishers, in order to scare and disperse this group, shot a 36-cannon ball over their heads. This ball struck the Old [Loud] house, passing through it and taking along a piece of timber with it, hitting Captain Reed and tearing away his left arm, killing him instantly. The ball then crossed the street and lodged in a stone wall.”
Based on this, the Brits weren’t trying to kill anyone, just terrorizing them. Of course, Brooks was relating an oft told tale; the event happened about 54 years before he was born. So, once again, it’s difficult to separate the facts from the apocrypha. However, Brooks did relate another grisly bit of the tale, which he’d heard years before from David Crowell, who was a young boy who was there that day:
“He and another boy were so scared that they ran across the road and hid in the cellar of a house,” Brooks related. “They were peeping fearfully out of the cellar window when they saw something skimming over the road like a terrified hen. They thought it was a hen, too, but investigation later proved that it was Captain Reed’s arm.”
It may be hearsay, but the idea that there’s a nugget of truth in any story supports the “History of Penobscot County” idea that Reed’s arm was apparently ripped off at the shoulder. And, given that two accounts noted the ball crossing the road and lodging in a stone wall, it’s easy to envision that poor Reed’s limb would likely have skittered across the road right behind it.
In “History of Orrington, Maine,” author H. Russell Cox also weighed in on the event.
“Meanwhile, some British vessels, notably the Sloop-of-War HMS Sylph, sailed up the river firing at targets in Orrington,” wrote Cox. “They put a cannon ball through Captain William Loud’s house at Brown’s Corner. William B. Reed from Bucksport was killed at the corner by a cannon ball fired from the Sylph. One account states that he was leading a party of the Bucksport Militia. The British fired a ball through the Meeting House, breaking up the Methodists’ quarterly meeting.”
“Truth by consensus” definitely gets tougher as we get down to the fine details of anything, and especially so the older an event is. We can be sure of a few things from the varied accounts: that the HMS Sylph fired cannonballs at people on shore at Orrington Corner; that a cannonball went through the Loud House; that it killed a man named William B. Reed, who was likely a captain in the Bucksport Militia. If he was in command and ordered everyone to lie down on the other side of the house, then he might well have been a hero — one who, sadly, died that day from the very attack from which he was protecting others.
And just who was Reed? He seems like just another name in the history books — a faceless person with an interesting story. But he was more than that.
William Birch Reed was born Aug. 23, 1767. in Snowhill, Md. He married Elisabeth Eldridge of Truro, Mass. in Truro Aug. 24, 1788, and they had three children before moving to Maine after November 1794. A fourth child was born in 1795 in Bucksport.
William was 47 years old when he was killed. He left behind his 46-year-old wife; son William Jr., 25; son Littleton, 22; daughter Elizabeth, 19; and son John, 18. We may never know all the details of that fateful day, but it’s likely that they all did.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the characters in these historical stories were real people.
Editor’s note: The Weekly extends a special thanks to David Reed for his genealogical assistance in researching this article.