- 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
Mary, at home, managing a large household, coping with a lack of cash (Silliman’s law business was often snapped up by other lawyers at home), bouts of dysentery and other epidemic diseases among the household, not to mention the care of the farm, heard reports of heavy firing on Long Island. “If so,” she wrote him, “there has been a dreadfull Battle … till I know what tidings God has in store for me; at least let me O Indulgent Heaven have the pleasure one evening more of thinking and hoping my best beloved still lives.” Mary was also disgusted to learn that some of her prudent townsfolk were wining and dining captured enemy officers then held there in detention. But Silliman wrote her that his brigade was the last out of New York, cut off from the rest of Washington’s army, “my way was hedged up, but the Lord opened it; I brought in all my Brigade except a few.” His wife saw a bright side: “I congratulate you and the Army that you are out of that dirty City; let the regulars take your leavings.”
In the long, hard years that followed, British Regulars came up Long Island Sound on many raids into Connecticut, to Danbury (where Silliman took part in the fighting), Green’s Farms, Norwalk, New Haven. These were the Psalmist’s arrows that flew by day, but his “terror by night” was Tory work. It came for the Sillimans at one o’clock in the morning of May 2, 1779, as they lay sleeping. There was heavy pounding on the door; then a sizable group of men burst in and seized the general. It was a kidnapping, he knew at once. Asking leave to dress, he was followed into the bedroom by his armed attackers, while Mary, pregnant with what would be her last child, cowered in bed. The kidnappers began busily stealing valuables and knocking out windowpanes with their gunstocks for the sheer joy of wanton destruction; they also took the eldest son, Billy, a militia major then in poor health. Before they rushed off, dragging the two Sillimans with them, Mary recognized among the raiders one Glover, who had built their cider mill, and a man named Bunnell, who had made their shoes. When they were gone, she rushed upstairs to find the servants hiding and sent one to arouse the other family houses while she took to the roof to see the raiders and their captives heading for a whaleboat on a nearby beach.
All this was part of the eighteenth-century game of prisoner exchange, swapping captives of equal rank, although militia officers traded at a slight discount. The Sillimans were rowed across the sound to Oyster Bay and, once in British hands, enjoyed better treatment. Mrs. Silliman heard nothing until three weeks later, when Billy appeared at home, having been released on parole because of illness; his captors did not wish to look after him, yet he would still serve them as counter in exchanges.
Silliman, now a brigadier general, could rouse out only 203 of a “brigade” of, supposedly, 2,000 men.
Mary at once wrote Governor Trumbull and anyone else she could think of to help arrange something, but Washington was giving up no British generals for militia officers, especially ones taken while not on active service. And so matters dragged on for almost a year, during which Silliman (unlike enlisted captives) lived well enough, if impatiently, while at home Mary went through an enemy raid, by Regulars and Hessians, on the town of Fairfield, which was almost entirely burned to the ground.
Although the Silliman compound was three miles from the center of town and actually escaped destruction, Mary took no chances and evacuated the whole family and its servants and hangers-on to a prudently prepared refuge inland. And there her last-born child, a son, was born. She was forty-four. Impatient at the interminably delayed exchange, she enlisted friends to help her and with the governor’s official approval, arranged a counterkidnapping of her own, her eye fixed on a noted Tory, the chief judge of the New York Superior Court, Thomas Jones, a wealthy aristocrat who was living in a somewhat isolated mansion on Long Island. Twenty-five men in a whaleboat, led by two captains, David Hawley of Stratford and Samuel Lockwood of Norwalk, rowed across the sound on a November evening and hid the boat in some woods. The men lay concealed all day and traveled by night to Jones’s house, arriving about nine in the evening. There was a dance in progress. Over the music no one noticed that Hawley and his crew had seized Jones, who was in a hallway when they broke in. They also took a young gentleman with him, as a counter in the game for Billy, traveled again by night, and rowed home safely. The sulky, outraged judge found himself ensconced at Holland Hill for breakfast and discussing with his kind hostess which one of them had been “plundered” most.