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The Good Soldier White

May 2024
15min read

Modern G. I.’s will recognize a fellow spirit in the sergeant who wrote this account of life in General Washington’s army

I enlisted in the regiment of artillery commanded by Col. Richard Gridley, the beginning of May 1775, for 8 months, as a bombardier, in Capt. Samuel Gridley’s company; but had not been very long in that capacity, before the Adjutant came to me and said, I understand that you are a good speller, I told him I could spell most any word. Why cannot you come and be my Assistant said he. … He said he paid five shillings per week, besides his rations, and mine would be the same, which he would pay. …

I consented and bought a uniform coat, of an officer, he had when he belonged to capt. Paddock’s company of artillery in Boston, but not the uniform of our regiment; the button holes and hat were trimmed with gold lace.

On the evening of the 16th of June 1775, our whole army were drawn up in a circle, to attend prayers. After which, they marched off towards Bunker Hill. I had a lame hand, and they would not let me go.

I then commenced acting the adjutant. I now sat off to take general orders, to the deputy adjutant general, which I followed every morning at 10 o’clock, with all the adjutants of the army. This deputy adjutant general was a sour, crabbed old fellow; he says to me, what do you want? I told him I wanted the general orders.—What are you? said he, I am an assistant adjutant of the regiment of artillery. An assistant adjutant, said he, I never heard of such an officer. Well, set down and take them. …

One day the Col. sent for the adjutant, or assistant, I went to him, he told me to go to Gen. Washington’s quarters, and tell him what I want; you must see him yourself. After a great deal of ceremony, I was admitted into the house. One of his aid-de-camps stood at the bottom of the stairs, (the Gen. being up chamber) he said tell me, and I will go up and tell him. I told him my orders was to see him myself. The Gen. hearing that, came to the head of the stairs, and said, “tell the young man to walk up.” I did, and told my business. “Pray sir, what officer are you”? I said I was Assistant Adjutant of the regiment of artillery. “Indeed, said he, you are very young to do that duty.” I told him I was young, but was growing older every day.—He turned his face to his wife, and both smiled. He gave me my orders, and I retired.

About the middle of summer, Henry Knox, Esq. took command of the regiment, and Col. Gridley retired. I did that duty until the last of December; the time I enlisted for expired. I was a feather bed soldier all this time, and slept with the Commissary-General of military stores.

I then went to Capt. Perkins, and with him I engaged to do the duty of an orderly sergeant, for the year 1776.

In March the enemy left Boston, and we were ordered to New-York. We marched to Providence, then to New-London, and there embarked for New-York.

About the middle of June, the British arrived, with about twenty thousand troops, and landed on Staten-Island, but a few miles distant. Soon afterwards, there was a conspiracy against Gen. Washington, to take his life. Many were implicated in it, but three condemned, and but one hung—one of his own guard, his name was Thomas Hickey, an Irishman…

The English landed on Long-Island and defeated our troops, and kept possession of it. then Gen. Washington made all haste, to evacuate New York. I was just recovering from a dangerous sickness, went on board a row galley ** and sailed up the north river, 20 miles. Sailing up, I saw heaps of peaches, of the best kind, lying under the trees; I got the capt. to send a boat ashore and get some, which he did; I eat so many, was bad as ever, and went into a barn for the hospital. The owner of which was a quaker; after some time, went into his house to buy some milk. The quaker said, we can’t sell thee any. Then I told them I would milk the cows; the woman consented to let me have a pint every morning, by paying her three coppers. My health gained fast.

One morning I sat off for camp, but was so weak, had to set down every few rods, and by sunset reached Fort Washington, after travaling about 10 miles.

I now got to my old company, capt. Perkins told me, that I looked so weak, was not able to fight; that they expected to be attacked every moment. I had better go to Fort Lee, to capt. Allen, so I went.

We encamped at Fort Lee a long time, and saw Fort Washington taken. The General seemed in an agony when he saw the fort surrended.

One night about 12 o’clock, I heard some body inquiring after me, I lay still, in hopes they would not find me, thinking some of the guard had deserted, that I had to go and get a new countersign. It poved to be Richard Frothingham, Esq. waggon-master of the army, Gen. Knox’s right hand man. He called once or twice, I answered him: Come turn out, here is an appointment for you, said he. You are appointed commissary of military stores, of General Wayne’s brigade. Here are the orders and 8 waggons load of ammunition. The orders were, that I must not deliver a single cartridge without Gen. Wayne signs the return—that I might mess with any of the officers, or by my self, and have a waiter—to draw two rations.

About a day or two after a lieutenant came for a number of cartridges, I told him he must go to Gen. Wayne, and get him to sign the return, he disputed a long time. I told him that I could not, nor would not, let him have any, unless he did. Off he sat, & not long after, the Col. came, what is the reason you did not let my lieut. have some cartridges? I told him that I could not let him, nor any body else have any, without having it signed by Gen. Wayne. I had so much trouble for two or three weeks, I resigned it.

About two or three weeks after, early one morning an express arrived, screaming “turn out! turn out! we are all surrounded, leave every thing but your blankets —you must fight your way through, or be prisoners.” We were on the march in about 10 minutes, they let us march by them, leaving all the camp equipage.

As soon as we marched by them they followed us through the Jersey, to the river Delaware; here we crossed—after 2 or 3 weeks march.—The privations and sufferings we endured, is beyond description—no tent to cover us at night—exposed to cold and rains day and night—no food of any kind but a little raw flour.

After crossing the river, we were put into the back part of a tavern; the tavern-keeper refused to take rebel money, as he called it. I went to Gen. Putnam and told him that he had every thing we wanted, but he will not take paper money, he calls it rebel money. You go and tell him, from me, that if he refuses to take our money, take what you want, without any pay—I went and told the man what the General said. Your yankee Gen. dare not give such orders, said he. I placed two men at the cellar door, as centries; let nobody whatever go down, I said. I called for a light, and two men to go down cellar with me.—We found it full of good things, a large pile of cheeses, hams of bacon, a large tub of honey, barrels of cider, and 1 do. marked cider-royal, which was very strong; also, all kinds of spirit. The owner went to the Gen. to complain. The sergeant told me, said the Gen. that you refused to take paper money. So I did, said he, I do not like your rebel money. The Gen. flew round like a top, he called for a file of men; a corporal and four men came—take this tory rascal to the main guard house.

I sent a ham of bacon, one large cheese, and a bucket full of cider-royal, to general Putnam. He asked who sent them, he told him the sergeant that he gave leave to take them. Tell him I thank him, said he.

On the afternoon of the 25th of December 1776, our whole army after marching several miles up the river Delaware, in a violent snow storm, crossed it, in order to attack a body of Hessians, posted at Trenton, under the command of Col. Rhol, who was killed in the battle. At day light, their out guard, posted about three or four miles off from their main body, turned out and gave us a fire. Our advanced guard opened from right to left, we gave them four or five cannisters of shot, following them to their main body, and displayed our columns.

The 3d shot we fired broke the axle-tree of the piece,—we stood there some time idle, they firing upon us. Col. Knox rode up and said, My brave lads, go up and take those two held pieces sword in hand.—There is a party going, you must go & join them. Capt. A. said Sergeant W. you heard what the Col. said,—you must take the whole of those that belonged to that piece, and join them. This party was commanded by Capt. Washington and Lieut. Munroe, our late President of the U. States, both of which were wounded. The party inclined to the right. I hallowed as loud as I could scream, to the men to run for their lives right up to the pieces. I was the first that reach them. They had all left it, except one man tending vent—run you dog, cried I, holding my sword over his head, he looked up and saw it, then run. We put in a cannister of shot, (they had put in the cartridge before they left it,) and fired. The battle ceased.

I took a walk over the field of battle, and my blood chill’d to see such horror and distress, blood mingling together—the dying groans, and “garments rolled in blood.” The sight was too much to bear; I left it soon, and in returning I saw a field officer laying dead on the ground and his sword by him, I took it up and pulling the sheathe out of the belt, I carried it of. It was an elegant sword, and I wore it all the time I staid in the army, and part of the way home. At Hartford I met with a young officer, I sold to him for 8 dollars

Col. Knox told us to leave that piece with the broken axle-tree. This field piece was called the best in the regiment. I was determined to get it off. I hired 4 of our men and one of them had been a mate of a vessel; he contrived it and off we moved. The rear guard came on with a whole regiment. The Col. came to me and said, you had better leave that cannon, I will not take charge of it, said he. I told him I rather ran the resque of being taken, than to leave now, we had got so far. They marched on and left us. We kept marching on; here comes the enemy’s light horse, said they. I looked told them they were nothing but a party of old quakers; they had handkerchiefs tyed over their hats, for there had been a snow storm all the day.

Col. Knox rode up to me, and said, Sergeant what piece is that? I told him the piece that he ordered to be left, I wanted the victory complete. You are a good fellew, said he, I will remember you, and they happened to be all the Generals, and they rode on.

After getting back to the place where we crossed, I being weary, laid down upon the snow and took a knap; the heat of my body melted the snow, and I sunk down to the ground. …

This victory [at Trenton] raised the drooping spirits of the American army, and string anew every nerve for our Liberty and Independence.

After staying in Pennsylvania from 26th of December 1776, to January 2d, 1777, our whole army crossed over to Trenton again, with about one half the number less than we had when we retreated over the river Delaware…

The night before, a large body of malitia joined our army, and they were sent out to meet the enemy, and fight upon their retreat. As soon as they had got over the bridge, we had all our cannon placed before it, consisting of 18 or 19 pieces. The enemy came on in solid columns; we let them come on some ways, then by a signal given, we all fired together. The enemy retreated off the bridge and formed again, and we were ready for them. Our whole artillery was again discharged at them.—They retreated again and formed; they came on the third time. We loaded with cannister shot, and let them come nearer. We fired altogether again, and such destruction it made, you cannot conceive.—The bridge looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded, and their red coats. The enemy beat a retreat, and it began to grow dark.

We were dismissed for an hour or two, to pull down all the fences we could find, to build fires with them—and get some refreshment. The fires were made to deceive the enemy; to make them suppose that we were there encamped.

About 9 or 10 o’clock, orders came by whispering, (not a loud word must be spoken), to form the line and march. We took such a circuitous rout, we were all night marching from Trenton to Princeton.

Capt, Benjamin Frothingham, came to me and said, you and I must march together; we marched some ways, I being exceeding sleepy, I pitched forward several times, and recovered myself. Said he, you are the first person I ever see, sleep while marching. Do you know that you are to command that left piece tomorrow morning? I expect we shall have some hard fighting; we are going to attack Princeton, the enemy’s head-quarters. I told him I could not;—I want to know where all the commissioned officers were? Whose orders is it? It is Col. Knox’s, said he. I do not think that I am capable—the responsibility is too great for me;—I cannot think why he should pitch upon me; why, he remembers what you did at Trenton, said he. I began to feel my pride arising, and I said no more.

A little before we got in sight of the enemy, our whole army halted.

The captain sent me a sergeant with a bucket full of powder and rum, every man must drink a half gill. He came to me to know if I had drank any, I told him no; drink some, said he, I have, so I took a little.

We marched on a short distance, we see them all formed in a line, and ready to receive us.

We marched forward so did they. I ordered the limbers off, and to man the drag ropes—They were to the north of us, the sun shone upon them, and their arms glistened very bright, it seemed to strike an awe upon us.

The Capt: said to me, are we not nigh enough to give them a shot? I replied yes, I think so. You fire, and I will follow suit, I told the sergeant to get a strong man to take the spung. I took aim and said fire! then he did the same. Then the enemy began;—both armies advancing towards each other, firing as fast as possible,—We then loaded with cannister shot, they made a terrible squeaking noise. Both armies kept on marching towards one another, until the infantry come to use the bayonets. Our company being on the extreme left, had to face the enemy’s right; consising of granadiers, highlanders, &c. their best troops.

Our left line gave way—but before I moved, saw the second come up, and Gen. Merser, who was killed, leading them. I never saw men looked so furious as they did, when running by us with their bayonets charged. The British lines were broken, and our troops followed them so close, that they could not form again. A party of them ran into the colleges, which is built of stone. After firing some cannon, they surrendered.

After the battle was over, I went into a room in the college, and locked myself in; I saw a plate of toat, a tea pot, and every thing handy for breakfast. I sat down and helped myself well.—I was very hungry, marching all night, and fighting in the morning, I felt highly refreshed; after I was done, I looked round the room, and saw an officer’s coat—I went to it, and found it a new one; the paper never taken off the buttons, was plated or solid silver, I could not determine which, lined with white satin; there was a silk skirt, an elegeant one. and a pair of silk shoes, and small a gilt bible; all of which, I took.

Orders came for all the men to throw away their dirty old blankets, and take new ones.—The barrels of flour were great indeed, after filling all the waggons, they knocked the heads out of the remainder and strewed it about the ground. The women came and looked at it, but seemed afraid to meddle with it. I being nigh, told them to scoupe it up by aprons full, before the enemy come.

I had rolled a barrel to the ammunition waggon, and told the captain that I was only going to that house, pointing to it, should be back in a few minutes. I engaged a woman to bake me some cakes.

I asked the woman if she had any daughters? what do you want to know that for? said she. I told her that I was steady as a pious old deacon. How many have you? she replied two. I have got presents for both, said I, when I come again, will bring them.

I went to see how the cakes come on, and carried my presents, here mother, said I, are the presents, call your daughters. She went to the stairs and called Sally, come down, but she come part way and stopt; I went to the bottom of the stairs and said, Sally come down, here is a present for you. She came, here try this peticoat on, and if it fits you keep it. Tell your sister to come, I have got something for her. She came, I told her to take the shoes and try them on, if they fitted her, to keep them.

I went to the company and stayed some time, orders came to get ready to form the line and march in half an hour. I ran to see if the caks were done. The woman said the oven was heating, I could have some in an hours time.

The coat I sold to an officer of an rifle regiment. (The uniform answered to his all but the buttons. It belonged to the 40th regiment faced with white,) for 18$. That regiment all the commissioned officers wore red coats, faced with white.—

An express arrived and informed us, that the enemy were marching quich time after us. They supposed we were incamped up to Trenton bridge, where they saw our fires the night before; but hearing our cannon in their rear, it supprized them.—They thought it very strange that we could get by them unperceived.

They did not come to Princeton, but turned off to the right, and went to Elizabethtown, opposite their shipping.

We concluded that they got frightened, and their main body embarked and went over to Staten Island. A little while after, we received orders to march down to Elizabethtown. They had a party stationed there; as we entered one part of the town, they left the other. The Jersey was entirely free from any public enemy; but only privates ones. We had too many of them in every state. We left this town in about ten days. The British took possession of it, with a large body of troops. We left it, our main body went to a place called Bon Brook, and were stationed there all winter. Our company was stationed at a place called Chatham, four miles nearer the enemy, to watch their motions.

We had a bad time of it, for they tried to surround us every little while; if their body were large, we fired three cannon for an alarm to the main army. Some times we would be alarmed two or three times in a night. I got entirely wore out—I wanted to know of the captain, why we were not relieved. I told him I was willing to do my share of the duty, but not all. I suppose they think us the best fellows, said he.

The term of my enlistment being out, General Knox addressed the artillery in a pathetic manner to stay two months longer. Most of our regiment did.—The Capt. said to me, do perswade the men to stay two months, until the new recruits learn how to handle the cannon. Have you put down your name? said he. I said I had not made up my mind. However, I put my name down to stay until the first of March, 1777. If I had left it when my time was out, I should have escaped many dangers and sufferings I experinced that winter.

When we were at Chatham, was put into a small school house for barracks, as many as forty men; not room enough for all to lay down. I told the captain that place would not do for us. He said that we were going further back; we did about a mile. We had room plenty, being the back part of an large house. Here I staid the rest of my time.

My time I engaged for had expired, I told the captain the last day of February, that I should set out for home the next morning. I wanted him to give me a discharge, and a month’s pay. Step here, said he, and take your pay. You are crazy to leave us now. Col. Knox is made Brigadier Gen. and two regiments more are to be raised, and every sergeant will have a commission. Your name is the third on the list for one. You will be at least, a captain lieutenant, and I think, a full captain, said he. I told him that I should go home; did not care about a commission.

All our officers met that evening, and gave me very flattering discharge.

I left the army and in about two weeks time marched home safe and sound.

The above was written merely to keep in memory, the great Struggle we had with Great Britain, in obtaining our Independence and Liberty!—May the Almighty continue them to us, “Till the sun grows dim with age, and nature sink in years.”

Charlestown, October, 1833.

A Postscript

With his departure in 1777, Sergeant White disappears from history’s sight until 1818. Then, only two weeks after President Monroe signed a pension act for Revolutionary veterans, White materializes in the pension records. On March 31, he appeared before a Massachusetts judge to file a declaration of eligibility. By May of the following year (then as now, government did not move at reckless speed), he had been certified a legitimate veteran. And he had established, as the act required, that he was in sufficiently “reduced circumstances” to deserve the $8 per month enlisted man’s pension. (Officers got $20.)

The schedule he submitted of his personal property, excluding only his clothes and necessaries, is a picture of indigence. There was an old printing press, worth $20; type worth another $10; and a cutting press valued at $1—the tools of the trade at which, apparently, he was a failure. “Books and ballads” came to $5; “toys,, &c.” to $3; four spoons to $2. The whole pathetic total is $61.55. He was owed $18, but his debts were $11.50. The judge who forwarded this document to the War Department added his comment that “A decrepit soldier 63 years old can not do much at any labor.” White got the pension.

∗∗ There was an old sea captain, whose name was Cook, enlisted in our company to do duty as a private; I told our captain, that I did not like to see such an old man stand sentry; I intend to get the men to do his duty, and they consented. I told him of it, and he was thankful. He happened to command the very galley that I went on board of, He treated me well.

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