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The Home Front

June 2024
8min read

It was bitter civil war, and a remarkable book offers us perhaps the most intimate picture we have of what it was like for the ordinary people who got caught in its terrible machinery

What was the American Revolution really like, for real homes and real families caught up in its hardships and dangers? It is over two centuries since that famous “hurry of hoofs in a village street … the voice in the darkness, the knock at the door” alarmed our now-distant ancestors, and the vast literature of that war tells us very little about how it was for plain people—matters rarely recorded in the days before there were news media, feature writers, television coverage, and a history industry. We have lost human contact.

There is, however, one splendid substitute, a book called The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (W. W. Norton, 1984). I have quite fallen under its spell, as have more and more historians of late, and it is going to be dramatized on public television—at least the part of it about the Revolution—under the title of “Mary Silliman’s War.” It has, among other virtues, that of being entirely true, based on the letters, journals, and other private and public records of one big extended family—a great feat of research and writing by the modern authors, the late Joy Day Buel and her husband, Richard Buel, Jr., a professor of history at Wesleyan University.

The central figure of the family, keeper of a lifelong diary, was born Mary Fish in 1736, daughter of the Puritan minister at North Stonington, Connecticut. He saw to it that she received an education that was rare for young women in her times. Her first marriage, to a young minister named John Noyes, a near-invalid who died in 1767, left her with three boys; she lost two daughters in early childhood. As a widow with a big house on Elm Street in New Haven near Yale College, she kept going by taking in college youths as boarders, not to mention the distinguished men of the Colony like Gov. Jonathan Trumbull and the lawyers who attended court for quarter sessions. She was a lively, cheerful, and attractive woman who steadily rejected suitors, among them a rather pompous widower, President Naphtali Daggett of Yale, who took it upon himself to ride all the way to Stonington- on horseback, remember, some fifty miles—to urge Mary’s astonished father to get her to change her mind and cease her “female play.” But all in vain.

Then, just about a month before Paul Revere’s ride, Mary wrote home again, as she put it, on “a delicate subject. … Know then, my dear Parents, that I have a proposal made me, by one whose person and address are exactly agreeable to my taste.” He was forty-three, a widower with one son, a busy attorney in Fairfield County, a justice of the peace, a colonel of the county’s militia. His name was Gold Sellek Silliman, and he became the great love of her life. They were married on May 24, 1775, and she moved her household, including servants and a cousin or two, to join his in the Silliman family compound (to use a modern phrase)—a farm and a group of family houses called Holland Hill outside the town of Fairfield, near Long Island Sound.

As 1776 wore on, and the British fleets and transports began gathering in New York Bay, Colonel Silliman was summoned with his militiamen to reinforce Washington’s little army in the city. What was it like to go off to war in that day? The Buels write: “On the morning of July 7, when the household gathered for family prayer, the master’s horse stood ready at the gate. The service concluded with a heartfelt reading of the Ninety-first Psalm:

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. …: There shall no evil befall thee; neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.”

And the colonel rode off to gather his men and march them to New York City. He was able to collect only 430 of them, out of the supposed full complement of 744, a perpetual problem in our Revolutionary army. Meanwhile, a stricken Mary wept as she wrote home about him to her parents: “As a husband how tender, as a Father how indulgent, as a Master how kind, as a child how dutifull. … O my dear Parents, how highly we are favored in this dear connection. … But God only knows what is before us.”

What lay before them in fact were most of the woes listed by the Psalmist and some that he had missed. The Revolution in Fairfield County (unlike the rest of Connecticut) was also a civil war, thanks to a large population of Tories and of neighbors and families divided in their loyalties or enthusiasm for the cause. Silliman and what men he could keep together fought in the string of battles as the American army was driven out of Long Island, New York City, Harlem Heights, and White Plains. As he wrote her in their frequent correspondence, “as well the Officers as the Men belonging to the Militia behaved extreamly ill, and Officers of all Ranks, & privates, kept deserting and running off, in a Most Shamefull Scandalous Manner.” What with short enlistments, nearly worthless pay, and the call of fields and workshops untended at home, Silliman, now a brigadier general, could rouse out only 203 of a “brigade” of, supposedly, 2,000 men.

Mary, at home, managing a large household, coping with a lack of cash (Silliman’s law business was often snapped up by other lawyers at home), bouts of dysentery and other epidemic diseases among the household, not to mention the care of the farm, heard reports of heavy firing on Long Island. “If so,” she wrote him, “there has been a dreadfull Battle … till I know what tidings God has in store for me; at least let me O Indulgent Heaven have the pleasure one evening more of thinking and hoping my best beloved still lives.” Mary was also disgusted to learn that some of her prudent townsfolk were wining and dining captured enemy officers then held there in detention. But Silliman wrote her that his brigade was the last out of New York, cut off from the rest of Washington’s army, “my way was hedged up, but the Lord opened it; I brought in all my Brigade except a few.” His wife saw a bright side: “I congratulate you and the Army that you are out of that dirty City; let the regulars take your leavings.”

In the long, hard years that followed, British Regulars came up Long Island Sound on many raids into Connecticut, to Danbury (where Silliman took part in the fighting), Green’s Farms, Norwalk, New Haven. These were the Psalmist’s arrows that flew by day, but his “terror by night” was Tory work. It came for the Sillimans at one o’clock in the morning of May 2, 1779, as they lay sleeping. There was heavy pounding on the door; then a sizable group of men burst in and seized the general. It was a kidnapping, he knew at once. Asking leave to dress, he was followed into the bedroom by his armed attackers, while Mary, pregnant with what would be her last child, cowered in bed. The kidnappers began busily stealing valuables and knocking out windowpanes with their gunstocks for the sheer joy of wanton destruction; they also took the eldest son, Billy, a militia major then in poor health. Before they rushed off, dragging the two Sillimans with them, Mary recognized among the raiders one Glover, who had built their cider mill, and a man named Bunnell, who had made their shoes. When they were gone, she rushed upstairs to find the servants hiding and sent one to arouse the other family houses while she took to the roof to see the raiders and their captives heading for a whaleboat on a nearby beach.

All this was part of the eighteenth-century game of prisoner exchange, swapping captives of equal rank, although militia officers traded at a slight discount. The Sillimans were rowed across the sound to Oyster Bay and, once in British hands, enjoyed better treatment. Mrs. Silliman heard nothing until three weeks later, when Billy appeared at home, having been released on parole because of illness; his captors did not wish to look after him, yet he would still serve them as counter in exchanges.

Silliman, now a brigadier general, could rouse out only 203 of a “brigade” of, supposedly, 2,000 men.

Mary at once wrote Governor Trumbull and anyone else she could think of to help arrange something, but Washington was giving up no British generals for militia officers, especially ones taken while not on active service. And so matters dragged on for almost a year, during which Silliman (unlike enlisted captives) lived well enough, if impatiently, while at home Mary went through an enemy raid, by Regulars and Hessians, on the town of Fairfield, which was almost entirely burned to the ground.

Although the Silliman compound was three miles from the center of town and actually escaped destruction, Mary took no chances and evacuated the whole family and its servants and hangers-on to a prudently prepared refuge inland. And there her last-born child, a son, was born. She was forty-four. Impatient at the interminably delayed exchange, she enlisted friends to help her and with the governor’s official approval, arranged a counterkidnapping of her own, her eye fixed on a noted Tory, the chief judge of the New York Superior Court, Thomas Jones, a wealthy aristocrat who was living in a somewhat isolated mansion on Long Island. Twenty-five men in a whaleboat, led by two captains, David Hawley of Stratford and Samuel Lockwood of Norwalk, rowed across the sound on a November evening and hid the boat in some woods. The men lay concealed all day and traveled by night to Jones’s house, arriving about nine in the evening. There was a dance in progress. Over the music no one noticed that Hawley and his crew had seized Jones, who was in a hallway when they broke in. They also took a young gentleman with him, as a counter in the game for Billy, traveled again by night, and rowed home safely. The sulky, outraged judge found himself ensconced at Holland Hill for breakfast and discussing with his kind hostess which one of them had been “plundered” most.

After five months of complex negotiations, the exchange was arranged and Mary again hired a vessel, to take Judge Jones back and to collect Silliman, thinking it would require two or three days. She asked the crew to fly two flags at the masthead if they indeed had her beloved husband aboard. But only about five hours later the ship was sighted, returning. As Mary wrote later in her reminiscences, “To our surprise we saw two flags: this we could not understand as we knew that [she] had not had time to go to New York. … The fact was that, the same day we were sending the judge off, they at New York were sending off [Mr. Silliman]. Their flag of truce hailed ours and asked if they had Judge Jones on board—Yes! Well, we have General Silliman too, was their answer, and they soon boarded each other; and as I had sent a fine fat turkey for [Mr. Silliman’s] comfort on the voyage home, they hasted to dress it, that the judge might dine with him before he went on, which he did. And after taking leave each vessel went on its way …”

It was a small country in those days. The judge and the general had been students in New Haven together, and this must have been one of the oddest and briefest reunions ever staged between Yale alumni. Meanwhile, at Fairfield the sight of two flags brought a crowd of Silliman’s admirers and all the household, including Silliman’s two sons by Mary, the baby, Benjamin, and four-year-old Sellek, for whom the general had brought a little hat. “He was mightily pleased,” wrote Silliman, “and walked off to one of the Family to show it, and was askt who gave it to him:—he turned and pointed to me, & said that Man gave it to me.”

Then the happy general took up in his arms the baby born in his absence, little Benjamin. All unknowing, he held the future in his arms, for Benjamin Silliman would become the foremost scientist of the coming age, the first professor of chemistry at Yale, a geologist, and a founder, as was his scientist son, also Benjamin, of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1863. Their name is perpetuated on one of the residential colleges at Yale, alma mater of Mary Silliman’s sons and husbands.

As he grew to manhood, Benjamin became the solid supporter of the mother he deeply respected, who had taught him his letters and his Bible, and she came to lean on his help in times of trouble. Troubles came again to Mary as her husband, broken physically and financially by the war and the ingratitude of the state, died in 1790. Somehow she kept Holland Hill going for years, always cheerfully “traveling up instead of down the hill of life” (in Benjamin’s words). She continued to visit and help all her children and grandchildren as best she could and—a Puritan to the end—worked ceaselessly on the welfare of their souls. In 1804 she married, happily once again, an elderly, prosperous doctor of Middletown, John Dickinson. He was also a judge, and she often traveled with him around Connecticut. She outlived him and the War of 1812 (which she and all Connecticut despised) and expired gently at last in 1818.

History’s debt to Benjamin is great, for he assiduously collected and put together all her letters, journals, reminiscences, and meditations, adding comments of his own. As he said in a note appended to the journal, “… this book is her living record; she walked with God and was not, for God took her.”

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