Newly Discovered Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence
Shortly before the fighting began in 1775 a British officer based in Boston watched the local militia stumble through its paces and wrote home about it. “It is a Masquerade Scene,” he said, “to see grave sober Citizens, Barbers and Tailors, who never looked fierce before in their Lives, but at their Wives, Children or Apprentices, strutting about in their Sunday wigs in stiff Buckles with their Muskets on their Shoulders, struggling to put on a Martial Countenance. If ever you saw a Goose assume an Air of Consequence, you may catch some idea of the foolish, awkward, puffed-up stare of our Tradesmen.”
His scorn was understandable, for in his time the profession of soldiering called for training every bit as refined and rigorous as that given, say, a watchmaker. The idea of a citizen army was entirely new and more than a little ludicrous.
Yet just such an army would win the war that was to come, and no documents demonstrate the qualities of its amateur soldiers more vividly than the extraordinary, never-before-published reminiscences on the following pages.
In 1832, Congress passed the first comprehensive Pension Act for veterans of the Revolution. It offered a yearly stipend to any man (or his widow) who could prove service of more than six months in the struggle for independence. Most of the thousands of elderly veterans who applied could offer little documentary evidence of having fought: discharge papers had been lost (or never issued); pay certificates had been sold or thrown away; comrades-in-arms who would have remembered them were long since dead. Their only recourse was to submit what the enabling legislation called “a very full account” of their service and have it sworn to in a court of law.
Accordingly, the old men made their way to the local courthouse and told their stories to a clerk or court reporter. Pension agents sought out others, recorded their memories, and filled out applications for a fee. The narratives thus collected—the results of one of the first and largest oral-history projects ever undertaken anywhere—are recorded on 898 reels of microfilm at the National Archives in Washington. Most have never before been published. Now, Professor John C. Dann of the University of Michigan has performed the mind-numbing task of deciphering them all, and has chosen seventy-nine to include in his book, The Revolution Remembered , to be published soon by the University of Chicago Press. We, in turn, have selected portions of sixteen narratives to present here.
These are the voices of ordinary men and women—farmers, mainly, but servants, too, and a slave and a shoemaker and a laundress—and their stories are told, for the most part, in the plainest possible language. Some veterans were terse, others garrulous, and here and there a date is muddled or a detail embroidered; it had, after all, been just under half a century since the shooting stopped. But almost all of them retained a fierce—and justifiable—pride in what they had done.
Sylvanus Wood, a shoemaker of Wobum, Massachusetts, was a minuteman when the war came.
I was then established at my trade two miles east of Lexington meetinghouse, on west border of Woburn, and on the nineteenth morn of April, 1775, Robert Douglass and myself heard Lexington bell about one hour before day. We concluded that trouble was near.
We waited for no man but hastened and joined Captain Barker’s company at the breaking of the day. Douglass and myself stood together in the center of said company when the enemy first fired. The English soon were on their march for Concord. I helped carry six dead into the meetinghouse and then set out after the enemy and had not an armed man to go with me, but before I arrived at Concord, I see one of the grenadiers standing sentinel. I cocked my piece and run up to him, seized his gun with my left hand. He surrendered his armor, one gun and bayonet, a large cutlass and brass fender, one box over the shoulder with twenty-two rounds, one box round the waist with eighteen rounds. This was the first prisoner that was known to be taken that day.
Ten-year-old Israel Trask of Essex County, Massachusetts, was a regimental cook and messenger in 1776 when he first saw General Washington in the rebel encampment at Cambridge.
A day or two preceding the incident I am about to relate, a rifle corps had come into camp from Virginia, made up of recruits from the backwoods and mountains of that state, in a uniform dress totally different from that of the regiments raised on the seaboard and interior of New England. Their white linen frocks, ruffled and fringed, excited the curiosity of the whole army, particularly … the Marblehead regiment, who were always full of fun and mischief. [They] looked with scorn on such an rustic uniform when compared to their own round jackets and fishers’ trousers, [and they] directly confronted from fifty to an hundred of the riflemen who were viewing the college buildings. Their first manifestations were ridicule and derision, which the riflemen bore with more patience than their wont, but resort being made to snow, which then covered the ground, these soft missives were interchanged but a few minutes before both parties closed, and a fierce struggle commenced with biting and gouging on the one part, and knockdown on the other part with as much apparent fury as the most deadly enmity could create. Reinforced by their friends, in less than five minutes, more than a thousand combatants were on the field, struggling for the mastery.
At this juncture, General Washington made his appearance, whether by accident or design I never knew. I only saw him and his colored servant, both mounted. With the spring of a deer, he leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm’s length, alternately shaking and talking to them. In this position, the eye of the belligerents caught sight of the general. Its effect on them was instantaneous flight at the top of their speed in all directions from the scene of the conflict. Less than fifteen minutes time had elapsed from the commencement of the row before the general and his two criminals were the only occupants of the field of action. Here bloodshed, imprisonment, trials by court-martial were happily prevented, and hostile feelings between the different corps of the army extinguished by the physical and mental energies timely exerted by one individual.
James Hawkins of New York met Washington a little later in camp near Kingsbridge, during the bitter winter of 1776–77.
During a part of this time, General Washington … was in command, and he [James Hawkins] well recollects a personal interview with him under the following circumstances. He, the said James, and a soldier by the name of Elijah Morehouse, a tent mate of his, being barefooted and having made fruitless applications to their under officers for a furlough to enable them to procure shoes, applied to the commander-in-chief at his quarters. Having been conducted into his presence by a file of soldiers, they found the general surrounded by officers, who rose, and, pointing them to seats, he himself took a chair, and with the utmost condescension and kindness of manners listened to the story of their sufferings. The good general, after a pause of a few moments, replied, “My brave fellows, you see the condition in which I am placed. Yonder upon the East River is the enemy. Should they advance, and we expect them every moment, I shall need every man of you. My soldiers are my life. Should they retire, call again, and you shall have your furlough.”
Jacob Francis, a New Jersey freedman, was helping to build fortifications during the siege of Boston when he encountered General Israel Putnam.
I recollect General Putnam … from a circumstance that occurred when the troops were engaged in throwing up a breastwork at Lechmere Point across the river, opposite Boston, between that and Cambridge. The men were at work digging, about five hundred men on the fatigue at once. I was at work among them. They were divided into small squads of eight or ten together and a noncommissioned officer to oversee them. General Putnam came riding along in uniform as an officer to look at the work. They had dug up a pretty large stone, which lay on the side of the ditch. The general spoke to the corporal who was standing looking at the men at work and said to him, “My lad, throw that stone up on the middle of the breastwork.”
The corporal, touching his hat with his hand, said to the general, “Sir, I am a corporal.”
“Oh,” said the general, “I ask your pardon, sir,” and immediately got off his horse and took up the stone and threw it up on the breastwork himself and then mounted his horse and rode on, giving directions, et cetera. It was in the winter season, and the ground was froze.
Samuel Deforest of Connecticut witnessed the Battle of Long Island as a frightened eighteen-year-old.
On the twenty-eighth day of August … we could see boats passing and repassing from Staten to Long Island loaded with men. After sunrise we returned to our quarters, and after breakfast Colonel Lewis, with some of his officers, among the rest Lieutenant Curtis (being his waiter, I was permitted to follow the company), [climbed] up several flights of stairs, till we reached the top of the roof, from which we [could see] the British soldiers were landing at the foot of a road perhaps three-quarters of a mile south of Brooklyn Ferry. Leading an eastern direction, the road appeared about four rods wide, and the road was constantly filled with men. The road ascended gradually about forty rods and then lay on a level. The motion of the men’s bodies while under march, which of course would give motion to the burnished arms which came in contact with the rays of a brilliant morning sun … to the eye gleamed like sheets of fire. This road was filled with reinforcements from Staten Island for about six hours, and this time and much longer the battle was fighting.
About eleven o’clock, Colonel Lewis had orders to march his regiment along the dock opposite Brooklyn Ferry, and when there was an officer on horseback, we concluded he was one of the general’s aides. He informed us that he was calling for volunteers to turn out and man every watercraf t which lay along the dock. “All must know there was dreadful fighting, and if our men were driven to retreat, we wish to be able to bring them over this side.”
One Wells Judson and myself turned out. A periauger was committed to our charge, and we landed at Brooklyn Ferry about one o’clock. The thunder of the British artillery, the roaring of the small arms of both armies, was tremendous.
Judson and I walked up the ferry road and lay down under a shade, for it was very warm, and drank some cold water. While we lay under the board fence perhaps an hour, ruminating on the terrors of that day, we heard the tramping of men just over the knoll, but we [had] hardly time to think before they hove in sight, and the road was filled with redcoat regulars, and again we had hardly time for surprise before we saw they were prisoners, and they were hurried over the ferry and through the city and over the Hudson into Jerseys. We concluded there was between two or three hundred of them. The firing ceased a little before sundown, and a number of us got into a small boat and went back to our regiment. We learned soon that the flower of the army was killed and taken prisoners; that General Lord Stirling and General Sullivan and several brigadier generals and between nine and ten thousand soldiers were taken prisoners. The remaining of our army on Long Island retreated and pitched on the best and highest ground just back of Brooklyn and entrenched themselves as suddenly as well as they could. The British army left Fiatbush, where the late and dreadful ill-fated battle had been lately fought, and were planting themselves alongside our troops in order soon to give the finishing stroke to Washington’s army.
But shortly after, I do not remember how many days, a most wonderful thunderstorm took place. It commenced about one o’clock in the day. The thunder and the lightning was dreadful. The clouds run so low, that they seemed to break over the houses, and the water run in rivers. The darkness was so great that the two armies could not see each other, although within one hundred rods of each other. Through the whole of that stormy afternoon they were crossing as fast as possible, but they themselves did [not] know that they were retreating. They came over to get a little rest, and we [were] to go over and take their places. The sergeant major told us that Colonel Lewis told him we must be prepared to go over the next morning. In one hour after, the sergeant major come to Captain Tomlinson’s quarters and warned us all forth to march up to the grand parade in order to pass a review and take further orders. The storm began at one, and it was now five o’clock. It now rained but not so hard. The company would not turn out.
A Mr. Othniel French, a nice and good man, a friend and neighbor to my father, he says to me, “The men will not turn out, Samuel. You are a minuteman. Will you turn out with me and go up to the grand parade and see what is going to be done?”
I says, “Yes, Mr. French, I will go with you.”
There was a few in other companies belonging to Colonel Lewis’s regiment fell in, and we marched up to the grand parade, and we found three or four hundred men.
There was an officer there, who says to us, “Come, my brave boys, I am glad you are not afraid of a few drops of water.” By this time, the rain had subsided. It appeared to be turned into mist and fog. “A picket guard is to be set tonight a little this side [of] Bunker Hill on the Bowery.”
Mr. French says to me again, “Samuel, keep close to me.”
“I will, sir,” and we marched on, and we come to the house where the picket was to be kept, and the sergeants began to distribute the sentinels.
Mr. French says to the sergeant, “I wish you would be so good as to let this young lad stand next to me, for there is none that either of us are acquainted with,” and the sergeant placed me close to the guardhouse and Mr. French next. I found out the whole of three or four hundred men who marched with us was to form a line of sentries from the North River to the East River, once in forty feet.
As soon as the sentries were set, an officer on horseback, he rid close to me and says to me, “Let no man pass you this night. Take no countersign nor watchword. If any man come to you, see that he is put under guard. You must keep your station here till morning.” There was no more through the night. The fog thickened and all was silent as death. At about twelve o’clock … the dogs began to bark, the cattle to low, the Indians to howl and yell. All these noises was from Long Island, by reason of the thick and heavy fog, and all the other dense qualities which conspired to tune the air like an organ. We supposed that the barking of the dogs and the lowing of the cattle and the howling of the Indians was two miles from us. It was said afterwards that perhaps there was three or four hundred Indians attached to our army on Long Island. They made as much noise as the yelling of a thousand under other circumstances. It was said that the Indians was set to yelling that night by the counsel of General Putnam.
About day, the noise was all still, and about sun an hour high, the fog began to go off. At this instant, a man in the appearance of an officer came up to the guardhouse. One of the officers asked him where he was from. He replied, “From Long Island, sir.”
“What’s the word from there?”
“Our army has all came off the night past.”
The officer says, “Gentleman, this man ought to be put under guard.”
The gentleman who had just came up said, “You can put me under guard if you please, sir, but I presume that in less than forty minutes, you will find what I tell you is true.”
The officer of the guard now says, “Gentleman, if this is true, we shall be all sacrificed. What can hinder the whole British army now on Long Island? Flushed with conquest, thirty or forty thousand can march their army up the island till they get opposite to Kingsbridge in four hours, and their fleet can send them the boats which we see them cross their army from Staten Island to Long Island in as short a time.”
By this time, Mr. French and I began to think about hunting up our courageous comrades and to learn whether they had kept themselves dry through the storm. I have but a confused recollection of what passed after this scene—all bustle and preparation to retreat out of the city as soon as possible. Mr. French and I, after the fatigue of the stormy day and standing sentry all night in our wet clothes, was quite sick, and preparations was to leave the city next morning, and he saw a man with a wagon that night from New Rochelle, and he hired him to carry us both to his house. We got our pass and went on, and stopped and recruited, and went as I could. I reached home about the last of September and soon listed under Lieutenant Isaac Burr of old Fairfield into the Black Rock battery service, according to best my memory, for one year.
Black Rock rock or battery lay on the top of a rock alongside of a narrow and crooked channel environed on every side with rocks, which made it dangerous for vessels unacquainted with the channel to enter. I cannot remember how many cannon was placed on the platform. I think six or eight. It belonged to the town of Fairfield and lay about half a mile east of the courthouse and jail. I believe the fortification was kept up till peace. I have forgotten how many men was supported for its defense, whether thirty or forty, I cannot [remember]. There was no particular occurrence took place of notice until about the close of the year 1776.
Near the last of December, Colonel Abel, a patriot and prominent character in the town and county, early in the morning he sent his waiter, a colored man by the name of Bill Molat, with a message to Lieutenant Burr. When Molat had reached within perhaps fifteen rods of the barracks, he began to shout and holler, “ Huzza, huzza, huzza .” He jumped up, knocked his heels together, and shouted, “Colonel Abel has news from Washington, and he has taken the whole Hessian army.” Lieutenant Burr halloed for Molat to come to the barracks, and when he came, he presented a short, brief statement in print stating that Washington, agreeable to a preconcerted plan, commenced his march at dark through rain, hail, and sleet on Christmas Day evening. He arrived at Trenton the next morning before daylight, and as they had been holding Christmas frolic, drove them out of their bunks and took them all prisoners. Thus the setting sun of the dreadful summer of ’76 sheds some rays of light on her horizon and was presageful of better days, and in fact this event was the dayspring to those better days, and the news flew swift through the land.
Abel Potter was one of thirty-six militiamen who slipped onto British-held Rhode Island in 1777, hoping to seize Major General Richard Prescott, the enemy commander. Later in the war, Potter returned to the island and was himself captured.
He was one of the … volunteers who took General Prescott from his lodgings in the nighttime from the island of Rhode Island. Colonel [William] Barton commanded at this adventure. His brother James Potter was second in command and he (this applicant) the third in command.… His brother James, after the expedition had landed on the island, took the two first sentinels that they passed, and this claimant took the third and last one who stood at the door of General Prescott’s quarters.…
They went into the house and the Widow Oberin, who kept the house, cried, “Captain Potter, what’s the matter?”
His brother James had been a sea captain … and was acquainted with the widow. He said, “You need not be scared, Mrs. Oberin. We are not agoing to hurt you. Where is the general?”
She said he was upstairs.
He and his brother and Colonel Barton went up into the general’s lodging room. He had raised up in his bed. He (General Prescott) spoke immediately and said, “Gentlemen, your business requires haste, but do for God’s sake let me get my clothes.”
Says Colonel Barton, “By God, it is no time for clothes.”
They started him immediately and bare-legged through a field of barley, which pricked him some. They went quick to their boat, where a part of their party had remained, and with them went back to their camp. The enemy fired at them as they were crossing back. They saw the shot strike the water around them. None was hurt.
The three sentinels they took with them under guard. … The mode in which he took the guard standing at the door was as follows. He answered as a “friend” and then stepped up to him to whisper the countersign in his ear and stooped forward to him, and as the sentinel inclined toward him, he seized the sentinel’s piece with his left hand and told him not to speak or he should die, the only words which this claimant spoke while on the island.
The sentinel answered, “I won’t,” tremblingly. This same sentinel afterward taught school in Pownal, Vermont, and claimant sent a member of his family to school to him. Leaving the island, claimant was the last of the party to get into the boat. They were in a great haste, and he waded to his breast after the boat as it started.…
In the fall of ’78, he with two others went on to the island of Rhode Island to get apples. The island was in the possession of the British. They were overtaken suddenly by a scout and taken to the British camp. A lieutenant’s commission was offered him (the claimant) by the British officers, which he spurned to accept. He told them he had a commission which suited him and which he intended to use again in a few days against them, as he expected to be exchanged. He, however, made his escape by getting his guard drunk and pretending to drink himself. He got outdoors to attend the call of nature, knocked down his guard, and made his escape fifty or sixty rods to floodwood on the shore, where he secreted himself till the first bustle was over (it was in the night) and then got onto a slab and swam across the channel toward his own camp. He almost perished with being chilled.
He was cordially received when he reached his quarters and called on General Cornell and told him he was at his mercy as he had crossed after apples against orders. General Cornell told him to go to his quarters, he should not break him, but should, if he went again, and added, “I knew you would be back again soon. I told ’em, they might as well undertake to keep the devil as to keep Potter.”
Jehu Grant of Rhode Island was one of several dozen blacks who applied for pensions—and one of thousands who served in the American army. He had run away from his Tory master to join the wagon service, but when he asked for his pension in 1832, the pension office replied that he had been a fugitive slave at the time and was therefore ineligible. His reply is given here in its entirety; despite its bitter eloquence, he never got his money.
That he was a slave to Elihu Champlen who resided at Narragansett, Rhode Island. At the time he left him his said master was called a Tory, and in a secret manner furnished the enemy, when shipping lay nearby, with sheep, cattle, cheese, et cetera, and received goods from them. And this applicant being afraid his said master would send him to the British ships, ran away sometime in August, 1777, as near as he can recollect, being the same summer that Danbury was burnt. That he went right to Danbury after he left his said master and enlisted to Captain Giles Galer for eighteen months. That, according to the best of his memory, General Huntington and General Meigs’ brigades, or a part of them, were at that place. That he, this applicant, was put to teaming with a team of horses and wagon, drawing provisions and various other loading for the army for three or four months until winter set in, then was taken as a servant to John Skidmore, wagonmaster general (as he was called), and served with him as his waiter until spring, when the said troops went to the Highlands or near that place on the Hudson River, a little above the British lines. That this applicant had charge of the team as wagoner and carried the said General Skidmore’s baggage and continued with him and the said troops as his wagoner near the said lines until sometime in June, when his said master either sent or came, and this applicant was given up to his master again, and he returned, after having served nine or ten months.
Corroborating Letter of 1836
Honorable J. L. Edwards, Commissioner of Pensions: Your servant begs leave to state that he forwarded to the War Department a declaration founded on the Pension Act of June, 1832, praying to be allowed a pension (if his memory serves him) for ten months’ service in the American army of the Revolutionary War. That he enlisted as a soldier but was put to the service of a teamster in the summer and a waiter in the winter. In April, 1834, I received a writing from Your Honor, informing me that my “services while a fugitive from my master’s service was not embraced in said Act,” and that my “papers were placed on file.” In my said declaration, I just mentioned the cause of leaving my master, as may be seen by a reference thereunto, and I now pray that I may be permitted to express my feelings more fully on that part of my said declaration.
I was then grown to manhood, in the full vigor and strength of life, and heard much about the cruel and arbitrary things done by the British. Their ships lay within a few miles of my master’s house, which stood near the shore, and I was confident that my master traded with them, and I suffered much from fear that I should be sent aboard a ship of war. This I disliked. But when I saw liberty poles and the people all engaged for the support of freedom, I could not but like and be pleased with such thing (God forgive me if I sinned in so feeling). And living on the borders of Rhode Island, where whole companies of colored people enlisted, it added to my fears and dread of being sold to the British. These considerations induced me to enlist into the American army, where I served faithful about ten months, when my master found and took me home. Had I been taught to read or understand the precepts of the Gospel, “Servants obey your masters,” I might have done otherwise, notwithstanding the songs of liberty that saluted my ear, thrilled through my heart. But feeling conscious that I have since compensated my master for the injury he sustained by my enlisting, and that God has forgiven me for so doing, and that I served my country faithfully, and that they having enjoyed the benefits of my service to an equal degree for the length [of] time I served with those generally who are receiving the liberalities of the government, I cannot but feel it becoming me to pray Your Honor to review my declaration on file and the papers herewith amended.
A few years after the war, Joshua Swan, Esq., of Stonington purchased me of my master and agreed that after I had served him a length of time named faithfully, I should be free. I served to his satisfaction and so obtained my freedom. He moved into the town of Milton, where I now reside, about forty-eight years ago. After my time expired with Esq. Swan, I married a wife. We have raised six children. Five are still living. I must be upward of eighty years of age and have been blind for many years, and notwithstanding the aid I received from the honest industry of my children, we are still very needy and in part are supported from the benevolence of our friends. With these statements and the testimony of my character herewith presented, I humbly set my claim upon the well-known liberality of government.
Most respectfully your humble servant
In September of 1777, Richard Wallace, a farmer of Thetford, Vermont, marched with Connecticut troops against Fort Ticonderoga—and found himself swimming for his life.
General [Horatio] Gates contrived to cut off the British watercraft on Lake George, and for that purpose sent two detachments of five hundred men each, one on the west side of the lake to the south side of the mountains that lie south of Ticonderoga, where our troops were ordered to halt. I belonged to this detachment.
Directly after halting, Colonel Brown came to me and inquired if I could swim. I told him I was not a great swimmer. He said he wanted me to swim a little way but did not then tell me where or for what purpose. After excusing myself a little, I agreed to swim, [as] he was exceedingly earnest to have me engage. He then said he wanted a man to go with me and inquired who would volunteer in the service. A man by the name of Samuel Webster offered himself and said he was a great swimmer. Colonel Brown engaged him to go with me. This done, Colonel Brown called several officers and some soldiers, and we all set off together and traveled up the mountain a few miles until we came in full view of the British encampment, and after reconnoitering the mountain east and west for about three miles and taking observations, the officers arranged all things for an attack at break of day the next morning. Colonel Brown then called Webster and myself and told us of “the little way” he wished us to swim, which was nothing less than across Lake Champlain, then in view about five miles distant. He accordingly gave us our instructions, both verbal and written, and we made our [way] over rocky mountains and through hurricanes of fallen trees to the lake, where we arrived a little before sunset, so near the enemy’s ships that we could see them walk on their decks and hear them talk, and had they seen us they might have reached us with their grapeshot.
With deep anxiety for the event, we undressed, bound our clothes upon our backs, drank a little ginger and water, and entered the cold waters of the lake, here about a mile in width. Webster went forward, and I followed. After proceeding a few rods, I was on the point of turning about. The water was so chilling I thought I could never reach the opposite shore, but when I reflected that the lives of many of my countrymen might depend upon the success of my effort, I resolved at every hazard to go forward, and if I perished, I should die in the best of causes. When we had got into the middle of the lake, the wind blew and dashed the water onto our bundles of clothes and wet them and made them very heavy. And the garter with which I bound on my bundle swelled and got across my throat and choked me and exceedingly embarrassed me. When we had swam about two-thirds across, I found myself almost exhausted and thought I could not proceed further. But at the instant I was about giving up, the Lord seemed to give me new courage and strength, and shifting my manner of swimming a little, I went forward and soon discovered a tree directly before, about twenty rods from the shore. This tree I reached with a struggle and thought I could not have obtained the shore if it had been to gain the world. The tree was large, and I made out to get onto it and adjust my bundle.
At this instant, Webster, who was about twelve rods north of me, cried out, “For God’s sake Wallace, help me, for I am a drowning!” The cry of my companion in distress gave me a fresh impulse. I swam to the shore, ran opposite to him, and directly found there poles, which had been washed upon the beach, about twelve or fifteen feet long. I flung one toward him, but it did not reach him. I flung the second without success. The third, I pushed toward him until the further end reached him; he seized it and sunk to the bottom. I then exerted myself with all my might and drew him out, I hardly know how. As soon as he came to a little and could speak, he cried out, “O Lord God, Wallace, if it had not been for you, I should have been in the eternal world. ” I told him not to make any noise, as the enemy might be watching us in ambush.
I then wrung his clothes and dressed him and put on my own, and we set out to find the American encampment. But it soon became so dark that we lost our way, and in a short time we found ourselves in an open field near the enemy’s guard. We then returned into the woods and remained in a secure place until the moon rose, which appeared to rise directly in the west. I, however, told Webster the moon must be right, and we traveled on until we came to the road that led north and south, just as the enemy fired their nine o’clock gun. But we did not know whether to go north or south. Our object was to find General Warner’s encampment and deliver our express to him. But we were not certain whether he was north or south of us, and we might fall into the enemy’s hands, let us go which way we would, and the whole plan of our officers fail of success. In this trying dilemma, we agreed that one should go north, followed by the other at few rods distant, and risk his life to the best advantage, and if taken by the enemy, the hind one should go south and deliver the express. It fell to my lot to go forward, and, after I had traveled about an hour, I came to a sentry who hailed me and said, “Who comes there?”
I answered, “A friend.”
He asked, “A friend to whom?”
I asked him whose friend he was.
He then said, “Advance and give the countersign.”
This I could not do, as I did not know the countersign of this detachment. I knew the sentry was an American from his voice, yet he might be a Tory in the British service. I then asked him in a pleasant voice if there was another sentry near and if he would call him. He did so, and to my great joy, I knew the man and informed them at once that I was a friend to America and had brought an express to their commander and requested to be conducted to him immediately, and calling Webster, who was a few rods behind, we were conducted by an officer and file of men to General Warner’s quarters and delivered our message, both written and verbal. I also informed General Warner that the British were much nearer than he imagined, and that unless everything was kept still in the camp, the plan would yet fail. He then ordered all lights to be extinguished and no noise to be made. We then retired a little into the woods and lay down cold and wet in blankets furnished us by the commissary, and when we awoke in the morning, all our troops destined to this service on both sides of the lake were in motion. The Indian spies took possession of all the watercraft belonging to the British on Lake George, and about five hundred prisoners were taken.
John Ingersoll of Tuckahoe joined the New Jersey sea service about 1778 in order to avoid being drafted for the militia (he had already served nine months). He might better have stayed on shore.
The seashore was at that time much infested by refugees, who collected in bodies and plundered and annoyed the inhabitants whenever they could. They frequently burned the private dwellings, deprived the families of their stock of provisions, drove off large stocks of cattle from the beaches; in fact, ruin and desolation marked their footsteps wherever they went. It was to protect the coast from their depredations that these lookout boats were fitted out. There were two of said boats started out together. One was commanded by Captain McGee, with a crew of sixteen men. The other was commanded by Captain Willets of Cape May with an equal number of men. To the latter boat I belonged.
We followed along the coast until we came to Barnegat Inlet. We there ran in and landed on Cranberry Beach. We there fell in with a larger body of refugees. They were far superior in number to us, and they succeeded in taking us prisoners. They handcuffed us and conveyed us onto the prison ship then laying in the North River opposite the city of New York, whose name was the Scorpion . I remained on board the Scorpion about three weeks. It being then in the month of July, I was taken sick with a camp fever, when I was removed out of the Scorpion and put on board the Huntress , also a prison ship but then converted into an hospital. I was on board the Huntress but a short time, when I was attacked with dysentery. Here I thought would be an end to my sufferings, but although death relieved some of my messmates from the horrors of that prison (Captain Willets was among the number who fell a victim to the disease), I was one among those who recovered. The water was bad and the provisions worse. Our allowance was a half pound of mutton per day, but to our surprise, when the mutton came on board, it was only the heads of sheep with the horns and wool thereon. Our bread was oatmeal, neither sifted nor bolted. Our manner of preparing it was as follows: pound up a sheep’s head until the bones were all broken, then sink the oatmeal in a bowl of water and float out the hulls; with this we would thicken the broth and thus we kept soul and body together.
I had been on board about two months, sometimes almost famished for the want of provisions, when the officers of the hospital ship made a proposal to me. In case I would keep the cabin clean, boil their tea kettle, black their boots, et cetera, I should have a hammock to sleep in, should be better fed, and should be exchanged when the rest of my company was. I accordingly accepted of the offer. The hospital ship was anchored in what is called Buttermilk Channel with their cables and anchors. The center one was a tremendous chain cable. There were but one gun kept on board said ship, and that was an English musket which the officers kept in the cabin. There were about two hundred prisoners on board said ship, with seven officers and one physician.
I had been doing my duty in the cabin about two weeks, when we laid a plan for our escape. It was as follows. One day while the officers were absent on Long Island, I took down the said musket, poured out the priming, poured water into the barrel of the gun until the load became thoroughly wet. I then wiped the pan thoroughly dry, reprimed her, and put her back in her place. One or two days had elapsed, but we could get no boat wherein to make our escape, for they universally at night chained and locked her fast.
An opportunity at length presented itself, to wit., the officers had a mind to go on shore, and it being tremendous stormy weather, they unlocked their boat from the chain, brought her up alongside, and ordered a boy to get in the boat and bail the water out of her. I had communicated the secret of the gun being out of order to some of my fellow prisoners, and there being at [the] time a heavy storm, with the wind blowing directly upon the Jersey shore together with a thick, dense fog in the air, we considered this a favorable time to make our escape. We accordingly embraced the opportunity which then offered.
Seven prisoners (beside the boy which was in the boat) sprang into the boat. We shoved off, but before we had fairly cut the boat loose, one of the officers came on deck and discovered us. He screamed out for the gun, which he readily obtained, took aim at us, but as he pulled trigger, she only flashed. He reprimed her, but as oft as he pulled trigger, she would only flash. They then abandoned their musket, all ran upon the quarterdeck, hallooed as loud as they could to give the alarm to the fleet then laying at anchor around us, but the wind was blowing so heavy, it was impossible for them to be heard at even so short a distance. They then hoisted a flag on the flagstaff on the stern of the ship as a signal of distress, but the fog being so dense, none of the fleet discovered it. By this time we were pretty nearly over to the Jersey shore, which we reached at length.
We landed on an island in the meadow called Communipaw, between Staten Island and Paulus Hook, but here we were in great danger of being taken up as runaways, for the enemy had possession of the whole country through which we had to travel for some miles at least. We were emaciated with hunger and sickness, and vermin covered our bodies. We were, however, fortunate enough to reach the camp of General Lafayette in safety, who received us joyfully and sent a sergeant of his guard to pilot us on to General Washington’s army. We stayed with General Lafayette’s army about one day, when we left it and reached General Washington’s camp, which was about two miles distant. General Washington’s army was then under arms and about to remove from that place of encampment. We marched with his army about two miles further, when he again encamped and furnished us with passes to return to our homes, which I reached in safety. My pass which I received from General Washington at that time I kept for many years, and I was under strong impressions that I had it to this day, but I have had my papers searched, and it cannot be found. What has become [of it], it is impossible for me to say.
John McCasland of Pennsylvania recalk a foray from Valley Forge in the spring of 1779.
[On] one occasion, sixteen of us were ranging about hunting Hessians, and we suspected Hessians to be at a large and handsome mansion house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, about sixteen miles from Philadelphia. We approached near the house and discovered a large Hessian standing in the yard with his gun, as a sentinel we supposed, and by a unanimous vote of the company present it was agreed on that Major McCorman or myself, who were good marksmen, should shoot him (McCorman was then a private). We cast lots, and it fell to my lot to shoot the Hessian. I did not like to shoot a man down in cold blood. The company present knew I was a good marksman, and I concluded to break his thigh. I shot with a rifle and aimed at his hip. He had a large iron tobacco box in his breeches pocket, and I hit the box, the ball glanced, and it entered his thigh and scaled the bone of the thigh on the outside. He fell and then rose. We scaled the yard fence and surrounded the house. They saw their situation and were evidently disposed to surrender. They could not speak English, and we could not understand their language. At length one of the Hessians came out of the cellar with a large bottle of rum and advanced with it at arm’s length as a flag of truce. The family had abandoned the house, and the Hessians had possession. They were twelve in number. We took them prisoners and carried them to Valley Forge and delivered them up to General Washington.
Garret Watts of Caroline County, Virginia, confesses his own terror, fifty-four years after the battle of Camden.
The two armies came near each other at Sutton’s about twelve or one o’clock in the night.… The pickets fired several rounds before day. I well remember everything that occurred the next morning: I remember that I was among the nearest to the enemy; that a man named John Summers was my file leader; that we had orders to wait for the word to commence firing; that the militia were in front and in a feeble condition at that time. They were fatigued. The weather was warm excessively. They had been fed a short time previously on molasses entirely. I can state on oath that I believe my gun was the first gun fired, notwithstanding the orders, for we were close to the enemy, who appeared to maneuver in contempt of us, and I fired without thinking except that I might prevent the man opposite from killing me. The discharge and loud roar soon became general from one end of the lines to the other. Amongst other things, I confess I was amongst the first that fled. The cause of that I cannot tell, except that everyone I saw was about to do the same. It was instantaneous. There was no effort to rally, no encouragement to fight. Officers and men joined in the flight. I threw away my gun, and reflecting I might be punished for being found without arms, I picked up a drum, which gave forth such sounds when touched by the twigs, I cast it away.
John Cock of Bedford County, Virginia, survived this random encounter with hostile Indians on the Clinch River to live a long life.
Here he remained for several months, during which time, in the month of December, John English, who lived in the neighborhood and had come to the station for protection, wished to go to his plantation a mile off and got permission of applicant’s captain to go with him, as well as one Oxshir [Oxter?] and English’s wife. Applicant accordingly went to English’s house with him and stayed all night. Their guns were laid away. In the morning, about sunup, the dogs barked exceedingly fierce. Applicant stepped out into the yard to see what they were baying, and got some distance from the door and discovered four Cherokee fellows, all armed. He ran to the door, but the inmates of the house had by this time discovered the Indians and closed it. They were afraid to open the door to let him in for fear the Indians would also enter. Being thus situated and without his gun, applicant had no hope of safety but by flight. He accordingly ran through a field, the only way he could go, the outlet toward the woods being the direction at which the Indians had gone and where they then were. After he had gone some distance, perhaps two hundred yards, he, as he run, turned his head to see if he was pursued, when to his misfortune he beheld two Indians close to him, each running with their guns presented at him. An effort to escape being hopeless, applicant stopped and signed to them that he would surrender.
Each of the merciless savages instantly drew from their belts their tomahawks and stepped up to him. One of them immediately struck him upon his bare head, for he had left his hat in the house, with the point of his tomahawk and sunk it in applicant’s skull and gave him a second lick with the edge of the ax which sunk into his head and touched the brain. Applicant fell lifeless, and the Indians no doubt believed him to be so. They immediately scalped him and pulled his hunting shirt off of him and cut one-half of his waistcoat off and took these with them. In a short time, applicant came to his senses. His neck was entirely limber. He had no use of his left arm or shoulder nor has he ever regained the use of his shoulder or arm. The arm has wasted away. The places where the tomahawk entered his head healed up, but the holes never filled up. They remain yet, and one of them is perhaps two inches long and one wide and about one deep.
North Carolinian Moses Hall recalls the special viciousness of war between rebels and marauding Tories in this account of the Battle of Haw River, February 23,1781, and its bloody aftermath.
Our troops and this body of Tories and Colonel [Banastre] Tarleton all being in the same neighborhood, our troops on the march met said body of Tories at a place called the Race Paths, and mistaking our troops for Tarleton’s, Colonel Lee and officers kept up the deception, and Colonel Lee and his light horse marching in one column or line, and Major or Colonel Dixon’s command in another, some interval apart, the Tories passed into this interval between our lines. Or, perhaps which is the fact, the Tories having halted, our lines passed one on each side of them whilst marching along to cover them so as to place them between our said lines. They frequently uttered salutations of a friendly kind, believing us to be British. Colonel Lee knew what he was about and so did Major Dixon. But I recollect that my Captain Hall, perceiving they were Tories and thinking that Colonel Lee did not know it and was imposed upon by their cries of friendship and misunderstood them to be our friends instead of the British, he called to Colonel Lee across the Tories’ line and told him, “Colonel Lee, they are every blood of them Tories!” Colonel Lee gave him a sign to proceed on with the execution of the command, which was to march on until a different command was given. In a few minutes or less time, and at the instant they, the Tories, were completely covered by our lines upon both flanks, or front and rear as the case may have been, the bugle sounded to attack, and the slaughter began, the Tories crying out, “Your own men, your own men, as good subjects of his Majesty as in America.” It was said that upwards of two hundred of these Tories were slain on the ground. …
The evening after our battle with the Tories, we having a considerable number of prisoners, I recollect a scene which made a lasting impression upon my mind. I was invited by some of my comrades to go and see some of the prisoners. We went to where six were standing together. Some discussion taking place, I heard some of our men cry out, “Remember Buford,” and the prisoners were immediately hewed to pieces with broadswords. At first I bore the scene without any emotion, but upon a moment’s reflection, I felt such horror as I never did before nor have since, and returning to my quarters and throwing myself upon my blanket, I contemplated the cruelties of war until overcome and unmanned by a distressing gloom from which I was not relieved until commencing our march next morning before day by moonlight. I came to Tarleton’s camp, which he had just abandoned leaving lively rail fires. Being on the left of the road as we marched along, I discovered lying upon the ground something with [the] appearance of a man. Upon approaching him, he proved to be a youth about sixteen, who, having come out to view the British through curiosity, for fear he might give information to our troops, they had run him through with a bayonet and left him for dead. Though able to speak, he was . mortally wounded. The sight of this unoffending boy, butchered rather than be encumbered in the [illegible] on the march I assume, relieved me of my distressful feelings for the slaughter of the Tories, and I desired nothing so much as the opportunity of participating in their destruction.
Benjamin Jones was serving with the Connecticut Line in Westchester County, New York, in the summer of 1781 when his unit learned that British cavalry was near.
He was a scout… and went to New Rochelle and came out onto the main road from New York to Boston about eight o’clock, A.M. , thinks in the month of July. His officer made a halt. They had been out all night, and while halting, a gentleman rode up and asked where the commander of the scout or party was.
Ensign Smith, who had the command, said, “I am here.”
He said, “You have got sixty [British] light horse in a quarter of a mile of you.”
Smith said, “I care not for that.”
The man rode away. Smith ordered the men to ready, and you saw the light horse coming in sight on full speed. The scouting party struck across the fields, and the light followed, and they formed into a hollow square. They formed around his party, there being only twenty-seven of his party. The commanding officer of the horse told Smith if he would resign himself up he should be used like a prisoner or he would parole him and his men. Smith told him he should not do it.
The officer of the horse said, “If we have to fight and take you, we shall cut you into inch pieces.”
Smith said, “You must take us first.”
The officer said he would give five minutes to surrender.
Smith said, “Charge and be damned.”
Every man was ordered on his right knee and the britch of his gun on the ground, and Smith stood in the center and told his men the first that gave back he would cut his head off with his sword. Then one-quarter of the horse charged on them, and their horses were pricked, and one of the horses was thrown, and the rider fell over into the hollow square. And Smith put his foot onto the horseman’s sword and said, “I have got one. I want some more. Charge again.”
The horse made another charge and were repulsed. And the third charge was made and repulsed again, and our party took a prisoner and killed a horse, and one of his own men’s arm was broken and bayonet was broken. And the horse rode off and formed, and our men all raised on their feet and rested, and the prisoners sat in the center.
Smith then ordered one of the soldiers to take the commander off of the horse as he was parading his men. The soldier drew up and shot him, and he, the officer, fell dead. Then another officer took the command, and he was ordered to be shot, which was done. And the third took command and rode out from the horse and said to Smith, “If you will give up, it shall be well. If not, we will send for one hundred more horse, and have you, we will.”
Smith told him to “send and be damned. I want to manure the ground with the Tories, so that it should bear something after the war.”
Two of the horse were dispatched immediately. Smith ordered his men into rank and file at two paces distance in front, and rear opposite to the spaces so as to fire through them. Smith ordered the front rank to begin a scattering fire on the right and to fire to the left and then the rear to do the same from the left to right, and every man to take good aim, which was done, which drove the horse off. There were but twenty-four left [on] the field beside the two that had been sent away. The rest were taken or killed or wounded, and their scout went home to their own party.
William Burnett, a fifteen-year-old runaway servant, was a Virginia wagoner to whom the war seems mostly to have been bewildering.
Recollects passing by with the wagon a mountain called Kings Mountain, as they told him. Thinks it was after the battle had been fought there. Also recollects of seeing General Washington twice on the road with his life guard with him and will never forget while he retains his memory the polite bow that the general made to the poor wagoners as he passed them. Also recollects having, at one time when he came to camps with a load of provision, heard of a circumstance that shocked him mightily. That was, as they informed him, his old captain, which was Walker, and several other officers was walking together down the ditch that surrounded their encampment, and Captain Walker happened to raise his head above the ditch, and the Tories fired on him and killed him.
And remembers that one day while resting, he heard a noise like the clashing of arms in an old field, and he left his wagon and run to see, and saw the British and Americans fight. They were all horsemen, and that he was so scared, that he caught hold of a pine and trembled so that he shook the bush mightily. He instantly remembered his wagon and the wagon master and run to the wagon, for fear the wagon master would come and whip him. And that one night he went to steal some sweet potatoes, and while engaged in graveling them, he latched on the fence and saw three men with a piece of white paper on their hats in front. He instantly knew them to be Tories and run and dropped his potatoes at the fence, that he might be able to go the faster. The Tories followed him and run him into the American lines, and they were taken prisoners by the Americans and the next day was hung for being traitors to the American cause.
He cannot recollect the names of many of the places that he was at during his term of service, as he was kept very close to his team and knew but little else, only what related to them. He hardly ever knew when he started where he was going till he arrived at the place of loading, and when he received his loading, he knew not where he had to take it, as the wagon master did not allow the wagoners to question him, and it seldom happened that the wagon guards knew more than the wagoners.
If he started before the twenty-fourth of July into the service, he was not quite fifteen years old, as that is his birthday, and when he found the service of the United States not to be going to be a frolic, he often wished his term of service out and took but little notice of anything else but the time, as it seemed slowly to pass. And, when his term of time was nearly out, he and some other wagoners were ordered back to Prince Edward Courthouse and was there discharged after remaining in the service eighteen months. He was no scholar and had a bad chance to know much about places even through which he traveled.
After he arrived at home and had stayed there, he thinks three or four days, there was a call for men to guard some prisoners. He again volunteered under James Arnold, captain, other officers not recollected, and went into the neighborhood of Prince Edward Courthouse, and while guarding the prisoners, an officer rode up on a panting horse with a cocked hat on and ordered the guards to form a square with the prisoners in the inside, and then the news of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis was read, and remembers that the officer threw his cocked hat up in the air, and almost every American present done the same, and the words “America is ours” seemed to almost rend the air, such was the joy at that time.
Sarah Osborn was married to a sergeant in the 3rd New York Regiment and served at his side throughout the war as a cook and washerwoman. Hers is the only known autobiographical account of a woman traveling with the Continental Army. In the summer of 1781 her husband’s regiment reached the American encampment near Yorktown, Virginia.
Deponent’s attention was arrested by the appearance of a large plain between them and Yorktown and an entrenchment thrown up. She also saw a number of dead Negroes lying round their encampment, whom she understood the British had driven out of the town and left to starve, or were first starved and then thrown out. Deponent took her stand just back of the American tents, say about a mile from the town, and busied herself washing, mending, and cooking for the soldiers, in which she was assisted by the other females; some men washed their own clothing. She heard the roar of the artillery for a number of days, and the last night the Americans threw up entrenchments, it was a misty, foggy night, rather wet but not rainy. Every soldier threw up for himself, as she understood, and she afterward saw and went into the entrenchments. Deponent’s said husband was there throwing up entrenchments, and deponent cooked and carried in beef, and bread, and coffee (in a gallon pot) to the soldiers in the entrenchment.
On one occasion when deponent was thus employed carrying in provisions, she met General Washington, who asked her if she was “not afraid of the cannonballs.”
She replied, “No, the bullets would not cheat the gallows,” that “it would not do for the men to fight and starve too.”
They dug entrenchments nearer and nearer to Yorktown every night or two till the last. While digging that, the enemy fired very heavy till about nine o’clock next morning, then stopped, and the drums from the enemy beat excessively. Deponent was a little way off in Colonel Van Schaick’s or the officers’ marquee, and a number of officers were present, among whom was Captain Gregg, who, on account of infirmities, did not go out much to do duty.
The drums continued beating, and all at once the officers hurrah’d and swung their hats, and deponent asked them, “What is the matter now?”
One of them replied, “Are not you soldier enough to know what it means?”
Deponent replied, “No.”
They then replied, “The British have surrendered.”
Deponent, having provisions ready, carried the same down to the entrenchments that morning, and four of the soldiers whom she was in the habit of cooking for ate their breakfasts.
Deponent stood on one side of the road and the American officers upon the other side when the British officers came out of the town and rode up to the American officers and delivered up [their swords, which the deponent] thinks were returned again, and the British officers rode right on before the army, who marched out beating and playing a melancholy tune, their drums covered with black handkerchiefs and their fifes with black ribands tied around them, into an old field and there grounded their arms and then returned into town again to await their destiny. Deponent recollects seeing a great many American officers, some on horseback and some on foot, but cannot call them all by name. Washington, Lafayette, and Clinton were among the number. The British general at the head of the army was a large, portly man, full face, and the tears rolled down his cheeks as he passed along. She does not recollect his name [O’Hara], but it was not Cornwallis. She saw the latter afterwards and noticed his being a man of diminutive appearance and having cross-eyes.
On going into town, she noticed two dead Negroes lying by the market house. She had the curiosity to go into a large building that stood nearby, and there she noticed the cupboards smashed to pieces and china dishes and other ware strewed around upon the floor, and among the rest a pewter cover to a hot basin that had a handle on it. She picked it up, supposing it to belong to the British, but the governor came in and claimed it as his, but said he would have the name of giving it away as it was the last one out of twelve that he could see, and accordingly presented it to deponent, and she afterward brought it home with her to Orange County and sold it for old pewter, which she has a hundred times regretted.