“The wretch came near enough to elbow us, and, half unsheathing his sword, with a countenance that bespoke a most vehement desire to use it against us, he grunted out in broken English, ‘Eh! you rebel! you damn rebel!’” – Alecander Graydon
One of the most interesting and best memoirs of revolutionary times is that written by Alexander Graydon, and as he was taken prisoner at Fort Washington, and closely connected with the events in New York during the winter of 1776-7, we will quote here his account of his captivity.
He describes the building of Fort Washington in July of 1776 by the men of Magaw’s and Hand’s regiments. General Putnam was the engineer. It was poorly built for defence, and not adapted for a siege.
Graydon was a captain in Colonel Shee’s Regiment, but, for some reason or other, Shee went home just before the battle was fought, and his troops were commanded by Cadwallader in his stead. Graydon puts the number of privates taken prisoner at 2706 and the officers at about 210. Bedinger, as we have already seen, states that there were 2673 privates and 210 officers. He was a man of painstaking accuracy, and it is quite probable that his account is the most trustworthy. As one of the privates was Bedinger’s own young brother, a boy of fifteen, whom he undoubtedly visited as often as possible, while Graydon only went once to the prisons, perhaps Bedinger had the best opportunities for computing the number of captives.
Graydon says that Colonel Rawlings was, some time late in the morning of the 16th of November, attacked by the Hessians, when he fought with great gallantry and effect as they were climbing the heights, until the arms of the riflemen became useless from the foulness they contracted from the frequent repetition of their fire.
Graydon, himself, becoming separated from his own men, mistook a party of Highlanders for them, and was obliged to surrender to them. He was put under charge of a Scotch sergeant, who said to him and his companion, Forrest: “Young men, ye should never fight against your King!”
Just then a British officer rode up at full gallop exclaiming, “What! taking prisoners! Kill them, Kill every man of them!”
“My back was towards him when he spoke,” says Graydon, “and although by this time there was none of that appearance of ferocity in the guard which would induce much fear that they would execute his command, I yet thought it well enough to parry it, and turning to him, I took off my hat, saying, ‘Sir, I put myself under your protection!’
“No man was ever more effectually rebuked. His manner was instantly softened; he met my salutation with an inclination of his body, and after a civil question or two, as if to make amends for his sanguinary mandate, rode off towards the fort, to which he had enquired the way.
“Though I had delivered up my arms I had not adverted to a cartouche box which I wore about my waist, and which, having once belonged to his British Majesty, presented in front the gilded letters, G. R. Exasperated at this trophy on the body of a rebel, one of the soldiers seized the belt with great violence, and in the act to unbuckle it, had nearly jerked me off my legs. To appease the offended loyalty of the honest Scot I submissively took it off and handed it to him, being conscious that I had no longer any right to it. At this moment a Hessian came up. He was not a private, neither did he look like a regular officer. He was some retainer, however, to the German troops, and as much of a brute as any one I have ever seen in human form. The wretch came near enough to elbow us, and, half unsheathing his sword, with a countenance that bespoke a most vehement desire to use it against us, he grunted out in broken English, ‘Eh! you rebel! you damn rebel!’
“I had by this time entire confidence in our Scotchmen, and therefore regarded the caitiff with the same indifference that I should have viewed a caged wild beast, though with much greater abhorrence. * * *
“We were marched to an old stable, where we found about forty or fifty prisoners already collected, principally officers, of whom I only particularly recollect Lieutenant Brodhead of our battalion. We remained on the outside of the building; and, for nearly an hour, sustained a series of the most intolerable abuse. This was chiefly from the officers of the light infantry, for the most part young and insolent puppies, whose worthlessness was apparently their recommendation to a service, which placed them in the post of danger, and in the way of becoming food for powder, their most appropriate destination next to that of the gallows. The term ‘rebel,’ with the epithet ‘damned’ before it, was the mildest we received. We were twenty times told, sometimes with a taunting affectation of concern, that we should every man of us be hanged. * * * The indignity of being ordered about by such contemptible whipsters, for a moment unmanned me, and I was obliged to apply my handkerchief to my eyes. This was the first time in my life that I had been the victim of brutal, cowardly oppression, and I was unequal to the shock; but my elasticity of mind was soon restored, and I viewed it with the indignant contempt it deserved.
“For the greater convenience of guarding us we were now removed to the barn of Colonel Morris’s house, which had been the head-quarters of our army. * * * It was a good, new building. * * * There were from a hundred and fifty to two hundred, comprising a motley group, to be sure. Men and officers of all descriptions, regulars and militia, troops continental and state, and some in hunting shirts, the mortal aversion of a red coat. Some of the officers had been plundered of their hats, and some of their coats, and upon the new society into which we were introduced, with whom a showy exterior was all in all, we were certainly not calculated to make a very favorable impression. I found Captain Tudor here, of our regiment, who, if I mistake not, had lost his hat. * * * It was announced, by an huzza, that the fort had surrendered.
“The officer who commanded the guard in whose custody we now were, was an ill-looking, low-bred fellow of this dashing corps of light infantry. * * * As I stood as near as possible to the door for the sake of air, the enclosure in which we were being extremely crowded and unpleasant, I was particularly exposed to his brutality; and repelling with some severity one of his attacks, for I was becoming desperate and careless of safety, the ruffian exclaimed, ‘Not a word, sir, or damme, I’ll give you my butt!’ at the same time clubbing his fusee, and drawing it back as if to give the blow, I fully expected it, but he contented himself with the threat. I observed to him that I was in his power, and disposed to submit to it, though not proof against every provocation. * * * There were several British officers present, when a Serjeant-Major came to take an account of us, and particularly a list of such of us as were officers. This Serjeant, though not uncivil, had all that animated, degagè impudence of air, which belongs to a self complacent, non-commissioned officer of the most arrogant army in the world; and with his pen in his hand and his paper on his knee applied to each of us in his turn for his rank. * * * The sentinels were withdrawn to the distance of about ten or twelve feet, and we were told that such of us as were officers might walk before the door. This was a great relief to us.”
The officers were lodged in the barn loft quite comfortably. A young Lieutenant Beckwith had them in charge, and was a humane gentleman. In the evening he told them he would send them, if possible, a bottle of wine, but at any rate, a bottle of spirits. He kept his word as to the spirits, which was all the supper the party in the loft had. “In the morning a soldier brought me Mr. B.’s compliments, and an invitation to come down and breakfast with him. * * * I thankfully accepted his invitation, and took with me Forrest and Tudor. * * * He gave us a dish of excellent coffee, with plenty of very good toast, which was the only morsel we had eaten for the last twenty-four hours. * * * Our fellow sufferers got nothing until next morning. * * *
“All the glory that was going (in the battle of Fort Washington) had, in my idea of what had passed, been engrossed by the regiment of Rawlings, which had been actively engaged, killed a number of the enemy, and lost many themselves.
“About two o’clock Mr. B. sent me a plate amply supplied with corned beef, cabbage, and the leg and wing of a turkey, with bread in proportion.”
Though Mr. Graydon calls this gentleman Mr. Becket, it seems that there was no young officer of that name at the battle of Fort Washington. Becket appears to be a mistake for Lieutenant Onslow Beckwith. The prisoners were now marched within six miles of New York and Graydon’s party of officers were well quartered in a house. “Here,” he continues, “for the first time we drew provisions for the famished soldiers. * * * Previously to entering the city we were drawn up for about an hour on the high ground near the East River. Here, the officers being separated from the men, we were conducted into a church, where we signed a parole.”
At this place a non-commissioned British officer, who had seen him at the ordinary kept by his widowed mother in Philadelphia, when he was a boy, insisted on giving him a dollar.
“Quarters were assigned for us in the upper part of the town, in what was called ‘The holy ground.’ * * * I ventured to take board at four dollars per week with a Mrs. Carroll. * * * Colonel Magaw, Major West, and others, boarded with me.”
He was fortunate in obtaining his trunk and mattress. Speaking of the prisons in which the privates were confined he says: “I once and once only ventured to penetrate into these abodes of human misery and despair. But to what purpose repeat my visit, when I had neither relief to administer nor comfort to bestow? * * * I endeavoured to comfort them with the hope of exchange, but humanity forbade me to counsel them to rush on sure destruction. * * * Our own condition was a paradise to theirs. * * * Thousands of my unhappy countrymen were consigned to slow, consuming tortures, equally fatal and potent to destruction.”
The American officers on parole in New York prepared a memorial to Sir William Howe on the condition of these wretched sufferers, and it was signed by Colonels Magaw, Miles, and Atlee. This is, no doubt, the paper of which Colonel Ethan Allen writes. Captain Graydon was commissioned to deliver this document to Sir William Howe. He says: “The representation which had been submitted to General Howe in behalf of the suffering prisoners was more successful than had been expected. * * * The propositions had been considered by Sir William Howe, and he was disposed to accede to them. These were that the men should be sent within our lines, where they should be receipted for, and an equal number of the prisoners in our hands returned in exchange. * * * Our men, no longer soldiers (their terms for which they had enlisted having expired) and too debilitated for service, gave a claim to sound men, immediately fit to take the field, and there was moreover great danger that if they remained in New York the disease with which they were infected might be spread throughout the city. At any rate hope was admitted into the mansions of despair, the prison doors were thrown open, and the soldiers who were yet alive and capable of being moved were conveyed to our nearest posts, under the care of our regimental surgeons, to them a fortunate circumstance, since it enabled them to exchange the land of bondage for that of liberty. * * * Immediately after the release of our men a new location was assigned to us. On the 22nd of January, 1777, we were removed to Long Island.”