The Home Front


After five months of complex negotiations, the exchange was arranged and Mary again hired a vessel, to take Judge Jones back and to collect Silliman, thinking it would require two or three days. She asked the crew to fly two flags at the masthead if they indeed had her beloved husband aboard. But only about five hours later the ship was sighted, returning. As Mary wrote later in her reminiscences, “To our surprise we saw two flags: this we could not understand as we knew that [she] had not had time to go to New York. … The fact was that, the same day we were sending the judge off, they at New York were sending off [Mr. Silliman]. Their flag of truce hailed ours and asked if they had Judge Jones on board—Yes! Well, we have General Silliman too, was their answer, and they soon boarded each other; and as I had sent a fine fat turkey for [Mr. Silliman’s] comfort on the voyage home, they hasted to dress it, that the judge might dine with him before he went on, which he did. And after taking leave each vessel went on its way …”

It was a small country in those days. The judge and the general had been students in New Haven together, and this must have been one of the oddest and briefest reunions ever staged between Yale alumni. Meanwhile, at Fairfield the sight of two flags brought a crowd of Silliman’s admirers and all the household, including Silliman’s two sons by Mary, the baby, Benjamin, and four-year-old Sellek, for whom the general had brought a little hat. “He was mightily pleased,” wrote Silliman, “and walked off to one of the Family to show it, and was askt who gave it to him:—he turned and pointed to me, & said that Man gave it to me.”

Then the happy general took up in his arms the baby born in his absence, little Benjamin. All unknowing, he held the future in his arms, for Benjamin Silliman would become the foremost scientist of the coming age, the first professor of chemistry at Yale, a geologist, and a founder, as was his scientist son, also Benjamin, of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1863. Their name is perpetuated on one of the residential colleges at Yale, alma mater of Mary Silliman’s sons and husbands.

As he grew to manhood, Benjamin became the solid supporter of the mother he deeply respected, who had taught him his letters and his Bible, and she came to lean on his help in times of trouble. Troubles came again to Mary as her husband, broken physically and financially by the war and the ingratitude of the state, died in 1790. Somehow she kept Holland Hill going for years, always cheerfully “traveling up instead of down the hill of life” (in Benjamin’s words). She continued to visit and help all her children and grandchildren as best she could and—a Puritan to the end—worked ceaselessly on the welfare of their souls. In 1804 she married, happily once again, an elderly, prosperous doctor of Middletown, John Dickinson. He was also a judge, and she often traveled with him around Connecticut. She outlived him and the War of 1812 (which she and all Connecticut despised) and expired gently at last in 1818.

History’s debt to Benjamin is great, for he assiduously collected and put together all her letters, journals, reminiscences, and meditations, adding comments of his own. As he said in a note appended to the journal, “… this book is her living record; she walked with God and was not, for God took her.”