History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883
Volume I, Page 577
Events in the Life of a Soldier :I have in detail. the experience of several soldIers serving in the war; which, as they reflect much of camp life, I copy for the reader's benefit. Items make up the sum total of history, as they do the merchant's store of goods; and each seems necessary in its place to complete the variety, whether of narrative or merchandise.
James Williamson, with whom the writer had several interviews late in his life, and of whom several anecdotes will be elsewhere published, was born at Southold, I.ong Island, June 12, 1759. In April, 1776, being then nearly 17, he enlisted into the American army under Capt. Daniel Roe, for a term of nine months, and at the expiration of that time he re-enlisted to serve during the war. Subsequent to the first enlistment, he served under Captains Pell, Sacket, Gray and Fowler. In the autumn of 1777, after witnessing the surrender of Burgoyne, the regiment of Col. Henry B. Livingston, to which he belonged, joined the army of the Commander-in-chief in Pennsylvania.
Much of the month of November and early part of December were spent by Generals Washington and Ho we, in fruitless attempts to gain some advantage over each other. At this time Livingston commanded a picket guard of 80 men, and was sent forward in the hope of bringing Howe to an engagement; the result of which was, a severe skirmish with the enemy at White Marsh. Livingston was met by a superior force and retreated, but could not draw the wary foe after him. In the collision between the pickets, Williamson had several bullets through his coat, but escaped without a scratch.
Soon after the skirmish mentioned, Williamson obtained permission for himself and two others to reconnoiter between the armies, to pick up stragglers. While thus engaged, his attention was drawn to a small house at some distance, by seeing a horse tied at the gate, and thither he went. As he neared the dwelling, he heard a female voice calling for help. He rail there followed by his companions, and at the door he observed two soldiers, a Hessian and an Englishman, in the wanton act of destroying furniture. The woman of the house would seize first on the property and then on the persons of her intruders to prevent their violent conduct; begging, crying and shouting murder and help at the top of her voice. Williamson stepped in at the door unobserved, and in a stern manner demanded: What are you 'bout here? Had the ghost of Saul risen before them, these vagabond soldiers would not have been taken more aback. The property they had just grasped to destroy fell from their hands, while the woman, regarding her last visitant as a friend indeed, looked a welcome through her tears. Surrender yourselves my prisoners! exclaimed the sergeant in a voice of thunder, presenting his musket. At this moment his companions entered the door, and seeing themselves outnumbered-and they at the moment unarmed-these hirelings of Britain yielded sulkily to American authority.
Compelling both prisoners to mount the horse they had tied at the gate, with the Hessian in front, one of his friends took the bridle-reins, while Williamson and the other with the guns of their captors brought up the rear; and thus they marched to the quarters of Col. Livingston, to the merriment of his command. The Hessian could speak but little English, and the Colonel interrogated young John Bull-who feigned it, or was really very drunk-as to the object of their diabolical deeds when taken: but, to all his questions, the culprit simply replied in a squealing voice: Hang me! hang me! " You dirty son of a b----,", said the Colonel, "you are not worth hanging!" and out of all patience with the knave he ordered the prisoners to the guard-house.
In the summer of 1778, Williamson was an actor in the battle of Monmouth, at which time a bullet passed through his hat, just shaving the hair from the top of his head. He supposed, at the moment, some one had struck him, and was not undeceived until the action was over. In the latter part of the season he was on duty in Rhode Island, at which time Col. Livingston's regiment was broken up. Capt. Pell's company, of which Williamson was a sergeant, then became incorporated in Co1. Cortlandt's regiment, and soon after went into winter quarters at Johnstown, N. Y.
There are some seasons in the lives of all men, no matter what their occupation, that afford a relaxation from the mind engrossing topic, and allow them to recruit. Indeed, it it were not so, one-half the world would die of ennui. The sailor,
Whose home is on the rolling wave,
when his barque, after long buffeting with storms, is again safely moored, spends a little time and much money in seeking enjoyment. Men of all occupations find seasons of rest, and with them the soldier; and although he may not part with his earnings as freely as the tar, yet he meets with new scenes, which, in reality-turning over a new leaf in the ledger of his existence-serve to keep his mind properly balanced, and make his life agreeable.
Soon after our hero went to Johnstown, be found a new foe grasping at his heart-strings; and becoming careless of its keys-although he bad escaped the bullets of the British-he soon found himself a prisoner to Cupid, imploring the smiles of a blushing and beautiful maid, who seemed to hold over him the bag-I-knit. To make a long story short-for it is one of many winter evenings' length, ere the spring buds of 1779 began to swell or the soldier enter a new campaign (I must say it for Jimmy, for he can't say it for himself)-he had vowed to love and promised to marry, at the earliest practicable moment, Miss Eleanor Beadle.
In the spring of 1779, the company to which Williamson belonged joined Gen. James Clinton's division of the army at Canajoharie, which was destined, under Gen. Sullivan, to desolate the Indian settlements in the Genesee country in retaliation of their depredations the preceding two years. It seems a melancholy fact. that necessity should require thousands of fruit trees-the growth of many years, and in full bearing-to be destroyed. Large apple-trees with fruit just ripening, thrifty peach-trees loaded with blushing rareripes, and extensive fields of corn with ears a foot and a half long, were all cut down, and the latter, when practicable, if not used for forage, cast into a river or lake. Beans, potatoes, squashes, etc., were collected with corn, when not otherwise disposed of, piled in heaps with dry wood and other combustibles and burned.
In this expedition Williamson belonged to the Second New York Regiment, then commanded by Col. Rigne, a well-made, jovial French officer of merit. Having a blanket assigned him while Clinton's army was at the foot of Otsego lake-now Cooperstown-which was rather small, the sergeant thought to get a larger one from the public chest. He put on his, and turning in the edges so as to make it appear small, he proceeded to the tent of his good-natured Colonel. He told a pitiful story about the blanket-which grew very small as he advanced -with as good grace as he could command, and closed by saying: "See, it will not reach to my feet nights." The good humored Frenchman, who had readily penetrated the trick, left his seat, and, seizing a corner of the covering, he said: "Let me see him," and he drew its concealed edges out and increased its dimensions, notwithstanding the sergeant's attempt to prevent it. The officer, who was much amused at the device, broke forth in the following strain: "Ha, you pe van tam nice leetle Yankee! Your planket pees no big enough, eh ? ha, ha, ha. You pees von nice, leetle, long, short mon, be gar!" he added, raising the blanket above his head at the word long, and restoring it to his shoulders with the close of the sentence. Williamson had made himself tall in his anxiety to get a more desirable blanket; but he was, in truth, a short and stout built man. Foiled, but greatly amused at the playful manner in which his Colonel had received his request; the sergeant gathered up his blanket and returned to his tent.
In the fall of 1780, Williamson was on duty in the valley of the Hudson, and witnessed the execution of the unfortunate Andre, on which occasion he said there was scarcely an eye present that was not moistened by pity's sympathetic tear. Shortly after this event his company went into winter quarter's at Fort Stanwix, under Col. Cortlandt. During his stay at this fort, he was the sergeant who bore the monthly returns from Col. C. to the commandant at Albany. He usually went alone, armed only with a broad-sword: and leaving the fort just at night, he would arrive as near as possible to Fort Herkimer by daylight, a distance of about 30 miles. Much of the way between those posts was then a primitive forest, and his path beset by Indians and wild beasts. To avoid a surprise of the enemy he traveled in the night. While on this journey late in the fall, wolves were howling upon his track for miles; and, as they neared him, he would flourish his sword at them, and unaccustomed to fencing they would fall back, to renew their pursuit and terrific baying as he moved on again. After daylight they left him to pursue the remainder of his journey unmolested.
When carrying one of those monthly dispatches late in the winter, three others of the garrison made it convenient to accompany him-Capt. Moody, of the artillery, going on duty to the forts below; Lieut. Fralick going to see his lady-love, and Seth Howell, who had a furlough, to visit distant friends. The weather was extremely cold, and the snow deep; and before reaching Thompson's creek - since called Steele's creek-at Ilion, Howell had frosted his feet. They found the stream open and swollen, and, not able to cross it dry-shod, they forded it, soon after which Howell gave out. An enemy might be about on snow-shoes-but Howell would perish without it and soon a good fire was made for him, and his comrades journeyed on. By great exertion to keep awake the three kept moving, and, when nearly exhausted, just at daylight-and still a mile or two above Fort Herkimer-they approached and entered a dwelling, probably that of Rudolph Shoemaker. On entering the house, sleep soon overcame Williamson; but his friends, revived by warmth and nourishment, proceeded on to the fort. When the sleeper awoke he was helpless; but the family treated him kindly, bathing his limbs in spirits: he recovered his strength and gained the fort, where, to his great surprise, he found Howell in good condition. Impressing a sleigh-as he had authority from Col. Cortlandt to do-the messenger took in his companions, who were glad fortune had given them a ride. Parting company with them and the sleigh at Fort Plain, the express proceeded to Albany.
Returning to Fort Herkimer on this errand, Williamson learned that two boys living near the fort, who had gone back of an orchard that day to drive home cows, had been captured by a party of seven Indians and two tories. The commanding officer of the fort advised the sergeant to delay his return to Fort Stanwix for a day or two; but duty, he said, must prevail, and he set forward that evening. Proceeding several miles, he came to a deserted log-house, and, seeing a light, he thought it in possession of an enemy; but by a nearer approach he discovered that he had been alarmed by the glimmer of a bright star, which peered through the crannies of the building. Soon after daylight he reached the bridge over the Oriskany creek, on which he halted to rest. Just at this moment he heard the report of a rifle, fired but a few rods distant. Looking in the direction whence the sound came, he saw a column of smoke, and believing the gun had been discharged at him, he ran two miles to the Oriskany battle-ground, where, greatly wearied, he sat down to rest upon the skull of a victim of that contest. After another run of about four miles he struck the river bank, and two miles more brought him to the fort in safety. He learned subsequently that the party which had captured the Fort Herkimer boys had that morning halted near the Oriskany, and, while there, one of their number had shot a duck. But for the discharge of that gun, he would probably have lost his life or his liberty. They soon after struck his track in the snow near the bridge, and knowing, by their wonderful discrimination, that it had been made within the hour, they followed it for some distance; but encumbered with prisoners and his speed increased-they did not overtake him.
While bearing another month's dispatches to Albany, Williamson's duty required him to go via Fort Paris and Johnstown. Between the posts mentioned, there yet remained quite a body of snow; and having plowed his weary way through it for miles, he arrived at a bare spot upon a knoll. where he stopped to rest. He was very sleepy and essayed several times to proceed; hut the repose was so agreeable that he was losing the fear of freezing when the nearest to it. Suddenly he was startled by the howl of a wolf, and looking back he saw a large one upon his track scarcely two rods distant. Springing to his feet he drew his old sword, well sharpened for an emergency, and brandishing it with fearful gyrations, accompanied by a yell that told favorably for his lungs, his four-footed foe took the back track. Completely aroused from his drowsiness, he started on and arrived safely at the Johnstown fort. The circumstance of this wolf's striking his path, possibly saved his life: certainly it was the means of hastening an interview with his beloved Eleanor. *
March 2, 1781, Sergeant Williamson with half a dozen soldiers and as many wood-choppers, went a mile from Fort Stanwix; he to measure a pile of wood, and superintend the cutting of more. 'They had been engaged in the woods but a short time, when Brant sprang from a covert near by, at the head of a strong force of Indians and tories, and made the whole party prisoners, except William Moffatt-a soldier who was left mortally wounded-and our hero, who escaped by flight amidst a shower of bullets to the fort. The captives were hurried off to Canada, and experienced their full share of suffering from cold, hunger and gantlet running. +
Some time in the summer of 1781, Williamson visited Johnstown on a furlough, when the knot which unites two willing hearts joined him and Miss Beadle in wedlock. After too brief a honeymoon to determine whether or not he could bless the inventor of matrimony, he was called away to join the troops destined to capture Cornwallis and his army.
During the siege of Yorktown, and believed on the night before Co1. Scammel was killed, Sergeant Williamson was ordered to take a few volunteers and reconnoitre the enemy's picket. When the soldiers enquired the nature of the duty, he replied: To capture Cornwallis! and so eager were the men to join him, that the scout contemplated was nearly doubled. They approached a fire between the posts of the enemy, and he was watching an opportunity to capture a British soldier; when his proximity became known to a sentinel, who fired his gun and retreated. In a short time a large party of the enemy
* For those hazardous journeys Williamson made between Fort Stanwlx and Albany, he was to have $25 each. For his pay for four or five of them he gave Michael Connelly an order, who reported no money in the treasury; soon after which he went to Europe, and died on his passage home. The records at Albany were afterwards searched, and it was found the agent had drawn the money and used it. This money -a hundred dollars or more - was too dearly earned by this faithful soldier to be pilfered by a dishonest agent.
+Seth Howell and Ephraim White, two very large men from Rhode Island, who were usually called by their fellow soldiers Babes in the Woods, on account of their size, were with the escort and taken to Canada-said Samuel Pettit, a soldier In the fort at the time.
had nearly surrounded the daring provincials with whom they had exchanged shots, when the sergeant resorted to a successful ruse, that would have done credit to a veteran officer. Turning round be called aloud the names of several American Generals, ordering them to advance and display column. Darkness favored the project, the foes of liberty fell back panic stricken; and improving his opportunity, Williamson drew all, his men off safely-except that he received a bullet wound in one leg. He would probably have been captured by the enemy, had not Nicholas Stoner, one of his volunteers, heard him call on a black volunteer for assistance. The call was disregarded by the soldier addressed, but Stoner-as he assured the writer--lent him a helping hand, and both regained their own camp. The sergeant was at first quite angry toward the negro for running by and leaving him in the moment of peril.*
The following singular incident, said Williamson, took place at this memorable siege. When one of the American batteries was nearly completed, a party of British troops attempted one night to capture it. In the battery was a soldier named Lowder, who was there on sentinel duty; but whose somnific tendency got the mastery of him. The angel of LIBERTY did not slumber, however, and as danger threatened, whispered in the ear of the drowsy sentinel a note of alarm. At the top of his voice he shouted: "Parade! parade! my lads, the enemy is upon us !" The men did parade and drove back with some loss the presumptuous foemen, who were just ready as they believed to enter the little fortress in triumph. Lower, whose voice sounded the alarm which had saved the battery, not being observed among his companions, was at first supposed to have been slain; but his prostrate body only needed a good shaking to bring it again to life. He declared on being fully aroused that he had not the least knowledge of what had transpired;
* The black soldiers of the Revolution were generally as brave and faithful as were the whites; going to prove which is an incident told the author by Capt. Eben Williams. One night while the siege of Yorktown was in progress, and the British artillery was serenading the allied army; two black sentinels were posted together. A cannon shot killed one outright and wounded the other in a leg; awhile after which the officer of patrol came to relieve them. Arriving at the wounded hero, he enquired where his comrade was, thinking he had deserted his post. "I don't know where he is," was the reply, " But I guess him dead, for he no 'poke for sometime." And sure enough, on examination, his body was still at the post of honor, but his spirit had winged its flight.
and said that if he had thus called the men to arms, it had been prompted by a dream. This novel narrative was corroborated by Maj. Nicholas Stoner.
Some of Mr. Williamson's services will necessarily appear elsewhere, and especially his honorable designation to receive half the British standards. at the surrender of Cornwallis. He performed the duty of orderly sergeant for several years under different Captains, and no doubt merited a commission. Influential friends procured promotion for many less deserving in that war-indeed, it is thus in all wars, preferment not always following true merit. After the war he became a resident of Johnstown, where for years he taught school and did public writing for a living-later in life he lived upon a pension from the government. In 1834 he became a widower, and in 1840, he married a Mrs. Shear, a widow. He died in Fultonville, April 19, 1842. His funeral took place at the court house in Fonda, April 22, when Rev. David Dyer gave an interesting discourse from Ecc. 8: 8. He was burried with military honors, Gen. P. H. Fonda directing; and was interred in Veeder's ground, a mile to the westward of the village.