- Historic Sites
THE MAN WHOSE PRAISE WE SING
To become a successful local hero, get a good biographer and outlive your detractors
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
Nick Stoner was born in Maryland, about 1762. His family moved while he was still a boy to what was then the frontier at Fonda’s Bush, now part of Broadalbin, New York, about ten miles from Johnstown. In 1777, though merely in his middle teens, he enlisted in the Continental Army as a fifer and served to the end of the war as a fifer-soldier. His father and younger brother also enlisted, and for the first part of the war all three were in the same regiment.
Nick saw action with General Benedict Arnold at the relief of Fort Stanwix in August, 1777, and at the battles of Saratoga a few weeks later. In the Bemis Heights section of the latter, Nick was a member of the small band of Americans whom Arnold led into the Hessian camp. It was there that Arnold received the leg wound that left him with a limp and Nick Stoner was severely wounded in the head. The hearing in his right ear was permanently impaired, and he was invalided home to Johnstown for the winter.
The next summer found him serving in Rhode Island. One night when his company was on a patrol they were surprised by a larger British force and, after a skirmish, captured. They were held captive several months, but were finally exchanged. As the war drew to a close, Nick was present at the siege of Yorktown and witnessed the surrender. After that he was in Colonel Marinas Willett’s regiment as it marched into New York City after the British evacuation. And he was a member of the band that played Washington off on his barge when he left the Army at New York. By this time Nick was playing the clarinet instead of the fife.
Nick also played on a grimmer occasion. He was a fifer of the guard that conducted the spy Major John André to the gallows, which may or may not have eased that unhappy gentleman’s departure from this world. The grisliness of the occasion does not seem to have dampened Nick’s appetite, for he tells of buying a pic from a lady who was selling them nearby, paying for it one hundred dollars—Continental money, of course.
Military life was not without its lighter side. Simms wishes us to know that Nick was a waggish lad, always ready for a romp. But the samples he gives us of Nick’s humor make one wonder just how recent an invention the “sick” joke is. Example: It seems that at one point there was a one-eyed boy who used to hang around the camp. Nick got hold of an eye from a slaughtered beef and roguishly offered it to the boy. When the boy’s mother complained to the captain about Nick’s impertinence, Nick was sentenced to a whipping. Outraged, not at the captain but at the boy’s mother, Nick filled a hollow beef bone with gunpowder and set it off as close as he could to the offending lady. The explosion tore her dress and injured her arm. Result: Another whipping for Nick. Simms concedes that Nick deserved to be punished, but he just can’t bring himself to get angry with Nick because he was so comical.
Other people’s troubles were a steady source of merriment to many of Nick’s contemporaries. For example, there was a Negro soldier in his camp who had lost several toes through frostbite while doing winter duty with the Army. The injury gave him, as Simms says, “such difficulty in walking that few could observe his peculiar gait, without having their risible faculties get the mastery.” But it remained for Nick to josh the unfortunate fellow and call him a “stool pigeon.” This almost earned Nick another whipping, but his colonel was so amused by the affair that he let him off with a reprimand. There was no meanness about Nick, you understand—he was just a fun-loving lad bubbling over with mischief.
Nick served in the Army until the end of the war and then returned home. But let Simms tell it: “When the war of the Revolution dosed and the dove took the place of the eagle—when the prattling infant could nestle in its mother’s bosom secure from midnight assassins—when the warrior once more laid aside his sword and musket to grasp the hoe and spade of thrift—when commerce again spread her white wings without fear of the foeman’s fire—when art and science smiled o’er hill and dale, enriched by the blood of freemen slain—when LIBERTY, with a home of her own, invited the oppressed of the earth to her embrace, extending to the penury-stricken the horn which needed only his industry to become one of plenty—then and not until then did our hero, grown to man’s estate, return again to reside in the vicinity of Johnstown.”
Nick had another brief period of military life during the War of 1812. Though he was then past fifty, he enlisted again as a fifer. He was promoted to fife major, whence came the title of “Major” which he bore the rest of his life. He took part in the fighting around Plattsburg when the British invasion was repulsed there, but aside from that interlude, he spent his post-Revolutionary life in the Johnstown area.