- Historic Sites
Last Survivors Of The Revolution
In the misty memories of six centenarians recorded in 1864, the great war lives again
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
In the summer of 1864, as the Civil War dragged on, the Reverend Elias Brewster Hillard, a Congregational clergyman from Connecticut, was asked by a Hartford publisher to visit the last surviving soldiers of the American Revolution in order to record their memories of that earlier war and to obtain their views on “the present rebellion” imperiling the Union they had helped bring to birth.
Of all the men who had marched with Washington and Arnold, with Gates and Greene and Mad Anthony Wayne, only seven were still alive. All were past 100; the eldest, Lemuel Cook, was 105. Four lived in New York State, one in Maine, and one in Ohio; the seventh, James Barham, lived somewhere in Missouri, but he did not reply to inquiries and Mr. Hillard was unable to find him. With the possible exception of the Reverend Daniel Waldo, who was related to the Adamses of Quincy and who had served as chaplain of the House of Representatives, none was famous. Once participants in great and stirring events, they were now forgotten old men living out their remaining years with sons or daughters. (Samuel Downing’s son was 73, but his father still called him “Bub.”)
The minister was preceded in his tour by a photographer-artist who took the veterans’ pictures and made sketches of their koines. Before Mr. Hilhird set out on his own journey one of his subjects, Adam Link, died, and Mr. Hillard arrived at the home of the Reverend Daniel Waldo to find him on his deathbed. But Mr. Hillard obtained their stories from the photographer or from relatives and included them with the others in a slender yet moving book published that same year. Excerpts from it, including a photograph of each veteran and a sketch of his house, appeal on these and the next four pages. The editors are indebted to Mr. Hillard’s grandson, the poet Archibald MacLeish, who first brought this old book to their attention some years ago.
Within a very short time all these men would be dead and the country’s last living link with its origins severed. But for a moment, in their own words and in Mr. Hillard’s unobtrusive but perceptive descriptions, the six centenarians, “comrades in the old common conflict, take each other by the hand, and look into each other’s faces, and tell to one another the story of their lives, before they say the last farewell.”
Samuel Downing lives in the town of Edinburgh, Saratoga County, New York. His age is one hundred and two years. … The house of Mr. Downing, built by himself, (was) the first framed house in the town of Edinburgh, seventy years ago. … Mr. Downing is altogether the most vigorous in body and mind of the survivors. Indeed, judging from his bearing and conversation, you would not take him to be over seventy years of age. His eye is indeed dim, but all his other faculties are unimpaired, and his natural force is not at all abated. Still he is strong, hearty, enthusiastic, cheery: the most sociable of men and the very best of company. Seated in the house, and my errand made known to him, he entered upon the story of his life, which I will give as nearly as possible in the old man’s own words.
“I was born,” said he, “in the town of Newburyport, Mass., on the 30th of November, 1761. … Well, the war broke out. They was enlisting three years men and for-the-war men. I heard say that Hopkinton was the enlisting place. I waited till dinner time, when I thought nobody would see me, and then I started. It was eighteen miles, and I went it pretty quick. The recruiting officer, when I told him what I’d come for, said I was too small. I told him just what I’d done. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘you stay here and I’ll give you a letter to Col. Fifield over in Charlestown and perhaps he’ll take you.’ So I staid with him; and when uncle and aunt came home that night they had no Sam. The next day I went and carried the letter to Col. Fifield, and he accepted me. But he wasn’t quite ready to go: he had his haying to do; so I staid with him and helped him through it, and then I started for the war.
“The first duty I ever did was to guard wagons from Exeter to Springfield. We played the British a trick; I can remember what I said as well as can be. We all started off on a run, and as I couldn’t see anything, I said, ‘I don’t see what the devil we’re running after or running away from; for I can’t see anything.’ One of the officers behind me said, ‘Run, you little dog, or I’ll spontoon you.’ ‘Well’, I answered, ‘I guess I can run as fast as you can and as far.’ Pretty soon I found they were going to surprise a British train. We captured it; and among the stores were some hogsheads of rum. So when we got back to camp that night the officers had a great time drinking and gambling: but none for the poor soldiers. Says one of the sergeants to me, ‘We’ll have some of that rum.’ It fell to my lot to be on sentry that night; so I couldn’t let ‘em in at the door. But they waited till the officers got boozy; then they went in at the windows and drew a pailful, and brought it out and we filled our canteens, and then they went in and drew another. So we had some of the rum; all we wanted was to live with the officers, not any better.