American Prisoners of The Revolution
BY DANSKE DANDRIDGE
A BOY IN PRISON
In the winter of 1761 a boy was born in a German settlement near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the third son of Henry Bedinger and his wife, whose maiden name was Magdalene von Schlegel. These Germans, whom we have already mentioned, moved, in 1762, to the neighborhood of the little hamlet, then called Mecklenburg, Berkeley County, Virginia. Afterwards the name of the town was changed to Shepherdstown, in honor of its chief proprietor, Thomas Shepherd.
Daniel was a boy of fourteen when the first company of riflemen was raised at Shepherdstown by the gallant young officer, Captain Hugh Stephenson, in 1775.
The rendezvous of this company was the spring on his mother's farm, then called Bedinger's Spring, where the clear water gushes out of a great rock at the foot of an ancient oak. The son of Daniel Bedinger, Hon. Henry Bedinger, Minister to the Court of Denmark in 1853, left a short account of his father's early history, which we will quote in this place. He says: "When the war of the Revolution commenced my father's eldest brother Henry was about twenty-two years of age. His next brother, Michael, about nineteen, and he himself only in his fifteenth year. Upon the first news of hostilities his two brothers joined a volunteer company under the command of Captain Hugh Stephenson, and set off immediately to join the army at Cambridge.
"My father himself was extremely anxious to accompany them, but they and his mother, who was a widow, forbade his doing so, telling him he was entirely too young, and that he must stay at home and take care of his younger brothers and sisters. And he was thus very reluctantly compelled to remain at home. At the expiration of about twelve months his brothers returned home, and when the time for their second departure had arrived, the wonderful tales they had narrated of their life in camp had wrought so upon my father's youthful and ardent imagination that he besought them and his mother with tears in his eyes, to suffer him to accompany them. But they, regarding his youth, would not give their consent, but took their departure without him.
"However, the second night after their arrival in camp (which was at Bergen, New Jersey), they were astonished by the arrival of my father, he having run off from home and followed them all the way on foot, and now appeared before them, haggard and weary and half starved by the lengths of his march. * * * My father was taken prisoner at the battle of Fort Washington, and the privations and cruel treatment which he then underwent gave a blow to his constitution from which he never recovered. After the close of the Revolution he returned home with a constitution much shattered. * * *
" Many years after the Revolution Dr. Draper, who died in Madison, Wisconsin, and left his valuable manuscripts to the Historical Society of that State, interviewed an old veteran of the war, in Kentucky. This venerable relic of the Revolution was Major George Michael Bedinger, a brother of Daniel. Dr. Draper took down from his lips a short account of the battle of Fort Washington, where his two brothers were captured. Major G. M. Bedinger was not in service at that time, but must have received the account from one or both of his brothers. Dr. Draper says: "In the action of Fort Washington Henry Bedinger heard a Hessian captain, having been repulsed, speak to his riflemen in his own language, telling them to follow his example and reserve their fire until they were close. Bedinger, recognizing his mother tongue, watched the approach of the Hessian officer, and each levelled his unerring rifle at the other. Both fired, Bedinger was wounded in the finger: the ball passing, cut off a lock of his hair. The Hessian was shot through the head, and instantly expired. Captain Bedinger's young brother Daniel, in his company, then but a little past fifteen, shot twenty-seven rounds, and was often heard to say, after discharging his piece, 'There! take that, you ----!'
"His youthful intrepidity, and gallant conduct, so particularly attracted the attention of the officers, that, though taken prisoner, he was promoted to an ensigncy, his commission dating back six months that he might take precedence of the other ensigns of his company.
"These two brothers remained prisoners, the youngest but a few months, and the elder nearly four years, both on prison ships, with the most cruel treatment, in filthy holds, impure atmosphere, and stinted allowance of food. With such treatment it was no wonder that but eight hundred out of the 2800 prisoners taken at Fort Washington survived.
"During the captivity of his brother Henry, Major Bedinger would by labor, loans at different times, and the property sold which he inherited from his father, procure money to convey to the British Commissary of Prisoners to pay his brother Henry's board. Then he was released from the filthy prison ship, limited on his parole of honor to certain limits at Flatbush, and decently provisioned and better treated, and it is pleasant to add that the British officers having charge of these matters were faithful in the proper application of funds thus placed in their hands. Major Bedinger made many trips on this labor of fraternal affection. This, with his attention to his mother and family, kept him from regularly serving in the army. But he, never the less, would make short tours of service."
So far we have quoted Dr. Draper's recollections of an interview with George Michael Bedinger in his extreme old age. We have already given Henry Bedinger's own acount of his captivity. What we know of Daniel's far severer treatment we will give in our own words.
It was four days before the privates taken at Fort Washington had one morsel to eat. They were then given a little mouldy biscuit and raw pork. They were marched to New York, and Daniel was lodged with many others, perhaps with the whole company, in the Old Sugar House on Liberty Street. Here he very nearly died of exposure and starvation. There was no glass in the windows and scarce one of the prisoners was properly clothed. When it snowed they were drifted over as they slept.
One day Daniel discovered in some vats a deposit of sugar which he was glad to scrape to sustain life. A gentleman, confined with him in the Old Sugar House, used to tell his descendants that the most terrible fight he ever engaged in was a struggle with a comrade in prison for the carcass of a decayed rat.
It is possible that Henry Bedinger, an officer on parole in New York, may have found some means of communicating with his young brother, and even of supplying him, sometimes, with food. Daniel, however, was soon put on board a prison ship, probably the Whitby, in New York harbor.
Before the first exchange was effected the poor boy had yielded to despair, and had turned his face to the wall, to die. How bitterly he must have regretted the home he had been so ready to leave a few months before! And now the iron had eaten into his soul, and he longed for death, as the only means of release from his terrible sufferings.
Daniel's father was born in Alsace, and he himself had been brought up in a family where German was the familiar language of the household. It seems that, in some way, probably by using his mother tongue, he had touched the heart of one of the Hessian guards. When the officers in charge went among the prisoners, selecting those who were to be exchanged, they twice passed the poor boy as too far gone to be moved. But he, with a sudden revival of hope and the desire to live, begged and entreated the Hessian so pitifully not to leave him behind, that that young man, who is said to have been an officer, declared that he would be responsible for him, had him lifted and laid down in the bottom of a boat, as he was too feeble to sit or stand. In this condition he accompanied the other prisoners to a church in New York where the exchange was effected. One or more of the American surgeons accompanied the prisoners. In some way Daniel was conveyed to Philadelphia, where he completely collapsed, and was taken to one of the military hospitals.
Here, about the first of January, 1777, his devoted brother, George Michael Bedinger, found him. Major Bedinger's son, Dr. B. F. Bedinger, wrote an account of the meeting of these two brothers for Mrs. H. B. Lee, one of Daniel's daughters, which tells the rest of the story. He said:
"My father went to the hospital in search of his brother, but did not recognize him. On inquiry if there were any (that had been) prisoners there a feeble voice responded, from a little pile of straw and rags in a corner, 'Yes, Michael, there is one.'
"Overcome by his feelings my father knelt by the side of the poor emaciated boy, and took him in his arms. He then bore him to a house where he could procure some comforts in the way of food and clothing. After this he got an armchair, two pillows, and some leather straps.
"He placed his suffering and beloved charge in the chair, supported him by the pillows, swung him by the leather straps to his back, and carried him some miles into the country, where he found a friendly asylum for him in the house of some good Quakers. There he nursed him, and by the aid of the kind owners, who were farmers, gave him nourishing food, until he partially recovered strength.
"But your father was very impatient to get home, and wished to proceed before he was well able to walk, and did so leave, while my father walked by his side, with his arm around him to support him. Thus they travelled from the neighborhood of Philadelphia, to Shepherdstown (Virginia) of course by short stages, when my father restored him safe to his mother and family.
"Your father related some of the incidents of that trip to me when I last saw him at Bedford (his home) in the spring of 1817, not more than one year before his death. Our uncle, Henry Bedinger, was also a prisoner for a long time, and although he suffered greatly his suffering was not to be compared to your father's.
"After your father recovered his health he again entered the service and continued in it to the end of the war. He was made Lieutenant, and I have heard my father speak of many battles he was in, but I have forgotten the names and places." [Footnote: Letter of Dr B. F. Bedinger to Mrs H. B. Lee, written in 1871.]
After Daniel Bedinger returned home he had a relapse, and lay, for a long time, at the point of death. He, however, recovered, and re-entered the service, where the first duty assigned him was that of acting as one of the guards over the prisoners near Winchester. He afterwards fought with Morgan in the southern campaigns, was in the battle of the Cowpens, and several other engagements, serving until the army was disbanded. He was a Knight of the Order of the Cincinnati. His grandson, the Rev. Henry Bedinger, has the original parchment signed by General Washington, in his possession. This grandson is now the chaplain of the Virginia branch of the Society.
In 1791 Daniel Bedinger married Miss Sarah Rutherford, a daughter of Hon. Robert Rutherford, of Flowing Springs, in what is now Jefferson County, West Virginia, but was then part of Berkeley County, Virginia.
Lieutenant Bedinger lived in Norfolk for many years. He
was first engaged in the Custom House in that city. In 1802 he accepted the
position of navy agent of the Gosport Navy Yard. He died in 1818 at his home
near Shepherdstown, of a malady which troubled him ever after his confinement
as a prisoner in New York. He hated the British with a bitter hatred, which
is not to be wondered at. He was an ardent supporter of Thomas Jefferson,
and wrote much for the periodicals of the time. Withal he was a scholarly
gentleman, and a warm and generous friend. He built a beautiful residence
on the site of his mother's old home near Sheperdstown; where, when he died
in 1818, he left a large family of children, and a wide circle of friends