- Historic Sites
Three Forgotten Heroes
Who today remembers John Paulding, Isaac Van Wert, or David Williams? Yet for a century they were renowned as the rustic militiamen who captured Major John André
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
André’s captors lived on quietly in New York for more than a generation after the Revolution. All three continued to farm, and each held a commission in the militia for a number of years. In 1818 Paulding became the first to die. It is possible that his death inspired the Ohio legislature to immortalize him and Williams and Van Wert by giving their names to three new counties created in the northwestern part of the state in 1820. What is more likely is that the legislature chose the names because of patriotism engendered by the War of 1812, the second war with England.
Clearly that war stimulated new interest in the story of the three militiamen. For example, in 1803 William Dunlap, sometimes called “the father of American drama,” wrote a play entitled The Glory of Columbia: Her Yeomanry! in which André’s capture by the three honest yeomen was a basic part of the dramatic action. The Glory of Columbia opened at the Park Theatre in New York on July 4, 1803, playing to an enthusiastic first-night audience, and continued for a few weeks as a modest success. After that it was occasionally resurrected for presentation on patriotic holidays. In July, 1812, however, it got a new subtitle—“What We Have Done, We Can Do”—and enjoyed a second successful run before audiences that cheered loudly at the end of the second act’s first scene—the one in which Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert confound André.
The scene opens with André appearing disguised as a countryman. Then the American militiamen enter and order him to halt. André mistakes them for British scouts, and this dialogue takes place:
PAULDING : You mistake, sir, we are … freemen; independent farmers; armed to defend the property and the rights we have inherited from our fathers.
VAN WERT : You are our prisoner!
ANDRÉ : Ha! confusion? betrayed? —lost!—lost!
VAN WERT : You seem confused. Don’t be down hearted, man—tho’ you are a prisoner, Americans know what is due to humanity.
The three spurn André’s offer of his purse and gold watch. André changes his story and produces the pass signed by Arnold. The three remain doubtful, so André resumes his attempts at bribery.
ANDRÉé : … I have the power, once within the British lines, to gratify the utmost wish you ever formed for riches. … Why are you silent? Come with me to New York, giving me by your company liberty and safety, and your desires shall not suggest a sum … too great for your reward.
VAN WERT : We are soldiers, but not mercenaries.
PAULDING : We have firesides to defend.
WILLIAMS : We be but poorish lads … but we have such things among us as fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and sweethearts, and wives and children, and friends, and our good names; now tho’ all these things mayhap be only trifles, yet—what sum do you think a man ought to sell UM for?
In an aside André says, “Curse on the clowns! Their honesty o’erwhelms me!” He faces the three men once more and promises further rewards if they will escort him to the British lines or turn him loose. But now his captors are determined to take him to their superiors at the American outpost.
PAULDING : It is useless to waste time or multiply words. We mean no offence, sir, but we will do our duty. You must go with us.
ANDRÉ : Tis well. You have taught me to reverence an American farmer. You have given me a convincing proof, that it is not high attainments, or distinguished rank, which ensure virtue, but rather early habits, and moderate desires. You have not only captured—you have conquered me.
WILLIAMS : Though we wouldn’t take your coin, we’ll take your compliments, sir, and thank you heartily.
ANDRÉ : Whatever may be my fate, you have forced from me my esteem. Lead on … I am your prisoner. While I live I shall always pronounce the names of Williams, Paulding and Van Wert, with that tribute of praise which virtue forces from every heart that cherishes her image. ( Exeunt .)
By 1830 David Williams was the sole surviving captor of Major André. When he visited New York City toward the end of that year, The Glory of Columbia was performed at the Park Theatre on December 3 and the Bowery Theatre on December 4, with Williams as an honored guest in the audience.