- Historic Sites
The Home Front
It was bitter civil war, and a remarkable book offers us perhaps the most intimate picture we have of what it was like for the ordinary people who got caught in its terrible machinery
December 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 8
What was the American Revolution really like, for real homes and real families caught up in its hardships and dangers? It is over two centuries since that famous “hurry of hoofs in a village street … the voice in the darkness, the knock at the door” alarmed our now-distant ancestors, and the vast literature of that war tells us very little about how it was for plain people—matters rarely recorded in the days before there were news media, feature writers, television coverage, and a history industry. We have lost human contact.
There is, however, one splendid substitute, a book called The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (W. W. Norton, 1984). I have quite fallen under its spell, as have more and more historians of late, and it is going to be dramatized on public television—at least the part of it about the Revolution—under the title of “Mary Silliman’s War.” It has, among other virtues, that of being entirely true, based on the letters, journals, and other private and public records of one big extended family—a great feat of research and writing by the modern authors, the late Joy Day Buel and her husband, Richard Buel, Jr., a professor of history at Wesleyan University.
The central figure of the family, keeper of a lifelong diary, was born Mary Fish in 1736, daughter of the Puritan minister at North Stonington, Connecticut. He saw to it that she received an education that was rare for young women in her times. Her first marriage, to a young minister named John Noyes, a near-invalid who died in 1767, left her with three boys; she lost two daughters in early childhood. As a widow with a big house on Elm Street in New Haven near Yale College, she kept going by taking in college youths as boarders, not to mention the distinguished men of the Colony like Gov. Jonathan Trumbull and the lawyers who attended court for quarter sessions. She was a lively, cheerful, and attractive woman who steadily rejected suitors, among them a rather pompous widower, President Naphtali Daggett of Yale, who took it upon himself to ride all the way to Stonington- on horseback, remember, some fifty miles—to urge Mary’s astonished father to get her to change her mind and cease her “female play.” But all in vain.
Then, just about a month before Paul Revere’s ride, Mary wrote home again, as she put it, on “a delicate subject. … Know then, my dear Parents, that I have a proposal made me, by one whose person and address are exactly agreeable to my taste.” He was forty-three, a widower with one son, a busy attorney in Fairfield County, a justice of the peace, a colonel of the county’s militia. His name was Gold Sellek Silliman, and he became the great love of her life. They were married on May 24, 1775, and she moved her household, including servants and a cousin or two, to join his in the Silliman family compound (to use a modern phrase)—a farm and a group of family houses called Holland Hill outside the town of Fairfield, near Long Island Sound.
As 1776 wore on, and the British fleets and transports began gathering in New York Bay, Colonel Silliman was summoned with his militiamen to reinforce Washington’s little army in the city. What was it like to go off to war in that day? The Buels write: “On the morning of July 7, when the household gathered for family prayer, the master’s horse stood ready at the gate. The service concluded with a heartfelt reading of the Ninety-first Psalm:
And the colonel rode off to gather his men and march them to New York City. He was able to collect only 430 of them, out of the supposed full complement of 744, a perpetual problem in our Revolutionary army. Meanwhile, a stricken Mary wept as she wrote home about him to her parents: “As a husband how tender, as a Father how indulgent, as a Master how kind, as a child how dutifull. … O my dear Parents, how highly we are favored in this dear connection. … But God only knows what is before us.”
What lay before them in fact were most of the woes listed by the Psalmist and some that he had missed. The Revolution in Fairfield County (unlike the rest of Connecticut) was also a civil war, thanks to a large population of Tories and of neighbors and families divided in their loyalties or enthusiasm for the cause. Silliman and what men he could keep together fought in the string of battles as the American army was driven out of Long Island, New York City, Harlem Heights, and White Plains. As he wrote her in their frequent correspondence, “as well the Officers as the Men belonging to the Militia behaved extreamly ill, and Officers of all Ranks, & privates, kept deserting and running off, in a Most Shamefull Scandalous Manner.” What with short enlistments, nearly worthless pay, and the call of fields and workshops untended at home, Silliman, now a brigadier general, could rouse out only 203 of a “brigade” of, supposedly, 2,000 men.