The Riflemen Of The Revolution
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“Our poor Soldiers fared most wretchedly different. They were crowded into sugar houses and Jails without blankets or covering; had Very little given to them to eat, and that little of the Very worst quality. So that in two months and four days about 1900 of the Fort Washington troops had died.” – Major Bedinger
We will first endeavor to give the reader some idea of the men who were imprisoned in New York in the fall and winter of 1776, It was in the summer of that year that Congress ordered a regiment of riflemen to be raised in Maryland and Virginia. These, with the so-called “Flying Camp” of Pennsylvania, made the bulk of the soldiers taken prisoners at Fort Washington on the fatal 16th of November. Washington had already proved to his own satisfaction the value of such soldiers; not only by his experience with them in the French and Indian wars, but also during the siege of Boston in 1775-6.
These hardy young riflemen were at first called by the British “regulars,” “a rabble in calico petticoats,” as a term of contempt. Their uniform consisted of tow linen or homespun hunting shirts, buckskin breeches, leggings and moccasins. They wore round felt hats, looped on one side and ornamented with a buck tail. They carried long rifles, shot pouches, tomahawks, and scalping knives.
They soon proved themselves of great value for their superior marksmanship, and the British, who began by scoffing at them, ended by fearing and hating them as they feared and hated no other troops. The many accounts of the skill of these riflemen are interesting, and some of them shall be given here.
One of the first companies that marched to the aid of Washington when he was at Cambridge in 1775 was that of Captain Michael Cresap, which was raised partly in Maryland and partly in the western part of Virginia. This gallant young officer died in New York in the fall of 1775, a year before the surrender of Fort Washington, yet his company may be taken as a fair sample of what the riflemen of the frontiers of our country were, and of what they could do. We will therefore give the words of an eyewitness of their performances. This account is taken from the “Pennsylvania Journal” of August 23rd, 1775.
“On Friday evening last arrived at Lancaster, Pa., on their way to the American camp, Captain Cresap’s Company of Riflemen, consisting of one hundred and thirty active, brave young fellows, many of whom have been in the late expedition under Lord Dunmore against the Indians. They bear in their bodies visible marks of their prowess, and show scars and wounds which would do honour to Homer’s Iliad. They show you, to use the poet’s words:
“‘Where the gor’d battle bled at ev’ry vein!’
“One of these warriors in particular shows the cicatrices of four bullet holes through his body.
“These men have been bred in the woods to hardships and dangers since their infancy. They appear as if they were entirely unacquainted with, and had never felt the passion of fear. With their rifles in their hands, they assume a kind of omnipotence over their enemies. One cannot much wonder at this when we mention a fact which can be fully attested by several of the reputable persons who were eye-witnesses of it. Two brothers in the company took a piece of board five inches broad, and seven inches long, with a bit of white paper, the size of a dollar, nailed in the centre, and while one of them supported this board perpendicularly between his knees, the other at the distance of upwards of sixty yards, and without any kind of rest, shot eight bullets through it successively, and spared a brother’s thigh!
“Another of the company held a barrel stave perpendicularly in his hands, with one edge close to his side, while one of his comrades, at the same distance, and in the manner before mentioned, shot several bullets through it, without any apprehension of danger on either side.
“The spectators appearing to be amazed at these feats, were told that there were upwards of fifty persons in the same company who could do the same thing; that there was not one who could not ‘plug nineteen bullets out of twenty,’ as they termed it, within an inch of the head of a ten-penny nail.
“In short, to evince the confidence they possessed in these kind of arms, some of them proposed to stand with apples on their heads, while others at the same distance undertook to shoot them off, but the people who saw the other experiments declined to be witnesses of this.
“At night a great fire was kindled around a pole planted in the Court House Square, where the company with the Captain at their head, all naked to the waist and painted like savages (except the Captain, who was in an Indian shirt), indulged a vast concourse of people with a perfect exhibition of a war-dance and all the manoeuvres of Indians; holding council, going to war; circumventing their enemies by defiles; ambuscades; attacking; scalping, etc. It is said by those who are judges that no representation could possibly come nearer the original. The Captain’s expertness and agility, in particular, in these experiments, astonished every beholder. This morning they will set out on their march for Cambridge.”
From the “Virginia Gazette” of July 22nd, 1775, we make the following extract: “A correspondent informs us that one of the gentlemen appointed to command a company of riflemen to be raised in one of the frontier counties of Pennsylvania had so many applications from the people in his neighborhood, to be enrolled in the service, that a greater number presented themselves than his instructions permitted him to engage, and being unwilling to give offence to any he thought of the following expedient: He, with a piece of chalk, drew on a board the figure of a nose of the common size, which he placed at the distance of 150 yards, declaring that those who came nearest the mark should be enlisted. Sixty odd hit the object.–General Gage, take care of your nose!”
From the “Pennsylvania Journal”, July 25th, 1775: “Captain Dowdle with his company of riflemen from Yorktown, Pa., arrived at Cambridge about one o’clock today, and since has made proposals to General Washington to attack the transport stationed at Charles River. He will engage to take her with thirty men. The General thinks it best to decline at present, but at the same time commends the spirit of Captain Dowdle and his brave men, who, though they just came a very long march, offered to execute the plan immediately.”
In the third volume of American Archives, is an extract from a letter to a gentleman in Philadelphia, dated Frederick Town, Maryland, August 1st, 1775, which speaks of the same company of riflemen whose wonderful marksmanship we have already noted. The writer says:
“Notwithstanding the urgency of my business I have been detained here three days by a circumstance truly agreeable. I have had the happiness of seeing Captain Michael Cresap marching at the head of a formidable company of upwards of one hundred and thirty men from the mountains and backwoods; painted like Indians; armed with tomahawks and rifles; dressed in hunting shirts and moccasins; and, tho’ some of them had travelled hundreds of miles from the banks of the Ohio, they seemed to walk light and easy, and not with less spirit than at the first hour of their march.
“I was favored by being constantly in Captain Cresap’s company, and watched the behavior of his men and the manner in which he treated them, for is seems that all who go out to war under him do not only pay the most willing obedience to him as their commander, but in every instance of distress look up to him as their friend and father. A great part of his time was spent in listening to and relieving their wants, without any apparent sense of fatigue and trouble. When complaints were before him he determined with kindness and spirit, and on every occasion condescended to please without losing dignity.
“Yesterday, July 31st, the company were supplied with a small quantity of powder, from the magazine, which wanted airing, and was not in good order for rifles: in the evening, however, they were drawn out to show the gentlemen of the town their dexterity in shooting. A clap board with a mark the size of a dollar was put up; they began to fire offhand, and the bystanders were surprised. Few shots were made that were not close to, or into, the paper. When they had shot some time in this way, some lay on their backs, some on their breasts or sides, others ran twenty or thirty steps, and, firing as they ran, appeared to be equally certain of the mark. With this performance the company were more than satisfied, when a young man took up the board in his hand, and not by the end, but by the side, and, holding it up, his brother walked to the distance, and coolly shot into the white. Laying down his rifle he took the board, and holding it as it was held before, the second brother shot as the former had done.
“By this exhibition I was more astonished than pleased, but will you believe me when I tell you that one of the men took the board, and placing it between his legs, stood with his back to a tree, while another drove the centre?
“What would a regular army of considerable strength in the forests of America do with one thousand of these men, who want nothing to preserve their health but water from the spring; with a little parched corn (with what they can easily procure by hunting); and who, wrapped in their blankets in the dead of night, would choose the shade of a tree for their covering, and the earth for their bed?”
The descriptions we have quoted apply to the rifle companies of 1775, but they are a good general description of the abilities of the riflemen raised in the succeeding years of the war, many indeed being the same men who first volunteered in 1775. In the possession of one of his descendants is a letter from one of these men written many years after the Revolution to the son of an old comrade in arms, giving an account of that comrade’s experiences during a part of the war. The letter was written by Major Henry Bedinger of Berkeley County, Virginia, to a son of General Samuel Finley.
Henry Bedinger was descended from an old German family. His grandfather had emigrated to America from Alsace in 1737 to escape persecution for his religious beliefs. The highest rank that Bedinger attained in the War of the Revolution was that of captain. He was a Knight of the Order of the Cincinnati, and he was, after the war, a major of the militia of Berkeley County. The document in possession of one of his descendants is undated, and appears to have been a rough copy or draught of the original, which may now be in the keeping of some one of the descendants of General Finley. We will give it almost entire. Such family letters are, we need scarcely say, of great value to all who are interested in historical research, supplying, as they do, the necessary details which fill out and amplify the bare facts of history, giving us a living picture of the times and events that they describe.
PART OF A LETTER FROM MAJOR HENRY BEDINGER TO A SON OF GENERAL SAMUEL FINLEY
“Some time in 1774 the late Gen’l Sam’l Finley Came to Martinsburg, Berkeley County, Virginia, and engaged with the late Col’o John Morrow to assist his brother, Charles Morrow, in the business of a retail store.
“Mr. Finley continued in that employment until the spring of 1775, when Congress called on the State of Virginia for two Complete Independent Volunteer Companies of Riflemen of l00 Men each, to assist Gen’l Washington in the Siege of Boston & to serve one year. Captains Hugh Stephenson of Berkeley, & Daniel Morgan of Frederick were selected to raise and command those companies, they being the first Regular troops required to be raised in the State of Virginia for Continental service.
“Captain Hugh Stephenson’s rendezvous was Shepherd’s Town (not Martinsburg) and Captain Morgan’s was Winchester. Great exertions were made by each Captain to complete his company first, that merit might be claimed on that account. Volunteers presented themselves in every direction in the Vicinity of these Towns, none were received but young men of Character, and of sufficient property to Clothe themselves completely, find their own arms, and accoutrements, that is, an approved Rifle, handsome shot pouch, and powder horn, blanket, knapsack, with such decent clothing as should be prescribed, but which was at first ordered to be only a Hunting shirt and pantaloons, fringed on every edge and in Various ways.
“Our Company was raised in less than a week. Morgan had equal success.–It was never decided which Company was first filled–
“These Companies being thus unexpectedly called for it was a difficult task to obtain rifles of the quality required & we were detained at Shepherds Town nearly six weeks before we could obtain such. Your Father and some of his Bosom Companions were among the first enrolled. My Brother, G. M. B., and myself, with many of our Companions, soon joined to the amount of 100–no more could be received. The Committee of Safety had appointed Wm Henshaw as 1st Lieut., George Scott 2nd, and Thomas Hite as 3rd Lieut to this Company, this latter however, declined accepting, and Abraham Shepherd succeeded as 3d Lieut–all the rest Stood on an equal footing as “Volunteers”–We remained at Shepherds Town untill the 16th July before we could be Completely armed, notwithstanding the utmost exertions. In the mean time your Father obtained from the gunsmith a remarkable neat light rifle, the stock inlaid and ornamented with silver, which he held, untill Compelled, as were all of us–to ground our arms and surrender to the enemy on the evening of the 16th day of November 1776.
“In our Company were many young men of Considerable fortune, & who generally entered from patriotic motives … Our time of service being about to expire Captain Hugh Stephenson was commissioned a Colonel; Moses Rawlings a Lieutenant Colonel, and Otho Williams Major, to raise a Rifle Regiment for three years: four companies to be raised in Virginia and four in Maryland.
“Henshaw and Scott chose to return home. Abraham Shepherd was commissioned Captain, Sam’l Finley First Lieutenant, William Kelly Second Lieutenant, and myself 3rd Lieutenant. The Commissions of the Field Officers were dated the 8th July, 1776, & those of our Company the 9th of the same month. Shepherd, Finley and myself were dispatched to Berkeley to recruit and refill the old Company, which we performed in about five weeks. Col’o Stephenson also returned to Virginia to facilitate the raising the additional Companies. While actively employed in August, 1776, he was taken sick, and in four days died. The command of the Regiment devolved on Lieutenant Colonel Moses Rawlings, a Very worthy and brave officer.
“Our Company being filled we Marched early in September to our Rendezvous at Bergen. So soon as the Regiment was formed it was ordered up the North River to the English Neighborhood, & in a short time ordered to cross the River and assist in the defence of Fort Washington, where were about three thousand men under the command of Col’o Magaw, on New York Island. The enemy in the mean time possessed New York, and had followed General Washington to the White Plains, from whence, after several partial actions, he returned, and approached us by the way of King’s bridge, with a force of from 8 to 12000 Men. Several frigates ran up the Hudson from New York to cut off our intercourse with Fort Lee, a fort on the opposite bank of the North River: and by regular approaches invested us on all sides.
“On the 15th November, 1776, the British General Pattison appeared with a flag near our Guards, demanding a surrender of Fort Washington and the Garrison. Col’o Magaw replied he should defend it to the last extremity. Pattison declared all was ready to storm the lines and fort, we of course prepared for the Pending contest.
“At break of day the next morning, the enemy commenced a tremendous Cannonade on every side, while their troops advanced. Our Regt. tho weak, was most advantageously posted by Rawlings and Williams, on a Small Ridge, about half a mile above Fort Washington. The Ridge ran from the North River, in which lay three frigates, towards the East River. A deep Valley divided us from the enemy, their frigates enfiladed, & their Cannon on the heights behind the advancing troops played incessantly on our party (consisting of Rawling’s Regiment, say 250 men, and one other company from Maryland, and four companies of Pennsylvania Flying Camp, also for the present commanded by Rawlings and Williams).
“The Artillery were endeavoring to clear the hill while their troops crossing the Valley were ascending it, but without much effect. A few of our men were killed with Cannon and Grape Shott. Not a Shott was fired on our side untill the Enemy had nearly gained the Sumit. Though at least five times our numbers our rifles brought down so many that they gave way several times, but by their overwhelming numbers they at last succeeded in possessing the summit. Here, however, was great carnage, each making every effort to possess and hold so advantageous a position. This obstinacy continued for more than an hour, when the enemy brought up some field pieces, as well as reinforcements. Finding all resistance useless, our Regiment gradually gave way, tho’ not before Col’o Rawlings, Major Williams, Peter Hanson, Nin Tannehill, and myself were wounded. Lt. Harrison [Footnote: Lieutenant Battaille Harrison of Berkeley County, Va.] was the only officer of our Regiment Killed. Hanson and Tannehill were mortally wounded. The latter died the same night in the Fort, & Hanson died in New York a short time after. Capt. A. Shepherd, Lieut. Daniel Cresap and myself, with fifty men, were detailed the day before the action and placed in the van to receive the enemy as they came up the hill.
“The Regiment was paraded in line about fifty yards in our rear, ready to support us. Your Father of course on that day, and in the whole of the action commanded Shepherd’s Company, which performed its duty admirably. About two o’clock P. M. the Enemy obtained complete possession of the hill, and former battle-ground. Our troops retreated gradually from redoubt to redoubt, contesting every inch of ground, still making dreadful Havoc in the ranks of the enemy. We laboured too under disadvantages, the wind blew the smoke full in our faces. About two o’clock A. Shepherd, being the senior Captain, took command of the Regiment, [Footnote: After Rawlings and Williams were disabled.] and by the advice of Col’o Rawlings & Major Williams, gradually retreated from redoubt to redoubt, to & into the fort with the surviving part of the Regiment. Col’o Rawlings, Major Williams, and Lt Hanson and myself quitted the field together, and retreated to the fort. I was slightly wounded, tho my right hand was rendered entirely useless. Your Father continued with the regiment until all had arrived in the fort. It was admitted by all the surviving officers that he had conducted himself with great gallantry and the utmost propriety.
“While we were thus engaged the enemy succeeded much better in every other quarter, & with little comparative loss. All were driven into the fort and the enemy began by sundown to break ground within 100 yards of the fort.
“Finding our situation desperate Col’o Magaw dispatched a flag to Gen. Howe who Commanded in person, proposing to surrender on certain conditions, which not being agreed to, other terms were proposed and accepted. The garrison, consisting of 2673 privates, & 210 officers, marched out, grounded arms, and were guarded to the White House that same night, but instead of being treated as agreed on, and allowed to retain baggage, clothes, and Side Arms, every valuable article was torn away from both officers and soldiers: every sword, pistol, every good hat was seized, even in presence of Brittish officers, & the prisoners were considered and treated as “Rebels”, to the king and country. On the third day after our surrender we were guarded to New York, fourteen miles from Fort Washington, where in the evening we received some barrels of raw pork and musty spoiled biscuit, being the first Morsel of provision we had seen for more than three days. The officers were then separated from the soldiers, had articles of parole presented to us which we signed, placed into deserted houses without Clothing, provisions, or fire. No officer was permitted to have a servant, but we acted in rotation, carried our Cole and Provisions about half a mile on our backs, Cooked as well as we could, and tried to keep from Starving.
“Our poor Soldiers fared most wretchedly different. They were crowded into sugar houses and Jails without blankets or covering; had Very little given to them to eat, and that little of the Very worst quality. So that in two months and four days about 1900 of the Fort Washington troops had died. The survivors were sent out and receipted for by General Washington, and we the officers were sent to Long Island on parole, and billetted, two in a house, on the families residing in the little townships of Flatbush, New Utrecht, Newlots, and Gravesend, who were compelled to board and lodge us at the rate of two dollars per week, a small compensation indeed in the exhausted state of that section of country. The people were kind, being mostly conquered Whigs, but sometimes hard run to provide sustenance for their own families, with the addition, generally, of two men who must have a share of what could be obtained. These people could not have furnished us but for the advantage of the fisheries, and access at all times to the water. Fish, oysters, clams, Eels, and wild fowl could always be obtained in their season.
“We were thus fixed on the inhabitants, but without money, or clothing. Sometimes a companion would receive a few hard dollars from a friend through a flag of truce, which was often shared by others to purchase a pair of shoes or a shirt.
“While in New York Major Williams received from a friend about forty silver dollars. He was still down with his wound, but requested Captain Shepherd, your Father and myself to come to his room, and there lent each of us ten Dollars, which enabled each of us to purchase a pair shoes, a shirt, and some other small matters: this liberality however, gave some offence. Major Williams was a Marylander, and to assist a Virginian, in preference to a Marylander, was a Crime almost unpardonable. It however passed off, as it so happened there were some refugees in New York from Maryland who had generosity enough to relieve the pressing wants of a few of their former acquaintances.
“We thus lived in want and perfect idleness for years: tho sometimes if Books could be obtained we made out to read: if paper, pen, and ink could be had we wrote. Also to prevent becoming too feeble we exercised our bodies by playing fives, throwing long bullets, wrestling, running, jumping, and other athletick exercises, in all of which your Father fully participated. Being all nearly on the same footing as to Clothing and pocket money (that is we seldom had any of the latter) we lived on an equality.
“In the fall of 1777 the Brittish Commander was informed a plan was forming by a party of Americans to pass over to Long Island and sweep us off, release us from captivity. There were then on the Island about three hundred American officers prisoners. We were of course ordered off immediately, and placed on board of two large transports in the North River, as prison ships, where we remained but about 18 days, but it being Very Cold, and we Confined between decks, the Steam and breath of 150 men soon gave us Coughs, then fevers, and had we not been removed back to our billets I believe One half would have died in six weeks. This is all the imprisonment your—-”
The rest of this valuable letter has been, most unfortunately lost, or possibly it was never completed.
We have given a great deal of it because of its graphic description of the men who were captured at Fort Washington, and of the battle itself. Major Bedinger was a dignified, well-to-do, country gentleman; honored and respected by all who knew him, and of unimpeachable veracity.