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Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since/Chapter XIII

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[181]
CHAPTER XIII.

"The broken soldier, kindly bade to stay,
Sat by his fire, and talk'd the night away."
                                            Goldsmith.

Madam Lathrop felt a deep interest in those soldiers who had borne the burdens of our revolution. It was one of her favourite maxims, that their services would be better estimated when the blessings, won by their toil, were more widely diffused, and more fully realized. Could she have seen through the vista of future years, a band, small, feeble, and hoary, yet bending less beneath the burdens of age, than those of poverty, going forth like the widow of Zarepta[1], to gather sticks to dress a handful of meal, that they might eat it and die; she would scarcely have been convinced that these were the defenders of her country. Had she seen, in vision, a mother redeemed from servitude by the blood of her sons, yet withholding from their necessities a scanty pittance, till by far the greater number of them had sought refuge where wounds fester no more, she would not have acknowledged such an emblem of the land that gave her birth. She could not have been induced to believe, that her dear native country, like the officer of the Egyptian king, in his transition from a prison to a place near the throne, "remembered not Joseph, but forgat him."[2] [182]

The place of her residence had furnished many of those veterans who, during a war of eight years, had rarely tast ed the " charities of home, and sweet domestick life." Some had fallen while the fields were sown with blood, others had returned to share the blessings of their harvest, A few survived with broken frames, and debilitated con stitutions, living spectacles of woe to their disconsolate families. To these that charitable Lady extended her unwearied friendship. Medicine for their sicknesses, food for their tables, and condescending kindness to their sorrowful spirits, she distributed with that judgment which accompanies a discriminating mind.

One of these unfortunate beings, who frequently came to sit an hour with her when she was at leisure, used to style himself the Captain of her band of pensioners. He was a man of powerful frame, strong features, and ardent character. His good right hand which had so often toiled to procure bread for the lambs of his household, had been cleft from his body by a sabre, as he raised it to ask for quarter in an unsuccessful combat. A crutch, which his left hand had painfully wrought out, and inscribed with the date of his last battle, supplied the loss of a limb, which had been amputated in consequence of a neglect ed wound. Pain, sickness, and the untold miseries of a prison-ship, had destroyed the vigour of a muscular frame, and given the wrinkles of age to one who had not seen half a century. [183]

Madam L listened with interest to his narratives, and often wondered at the elasticity with which his spirit soared above the ruins of his frame. One morning as he was seated with her, his only hand resting upon the crutch that stood by his side, he said

" I should take more pleasure in coming to this house, Madam, if I could but forget that the traitor Arnold used to reside in it. I don t like to sit in seats, where he sat. *

" I am sorry, Anderson," replied the Lady, " that any such image should interfere with the comfort of your visits. I have no particular satisfaction in retracing the connection of Benedict with our family. He was received by my husband, more from the solicitations of a widowed mother, than from any prepossessing traits of character. He evinced, at the age of twelve, those qualities which distinguished his manhood. He possessed a courage, and contempt of hardship, which would have been interesting, had they not been associated with dispositions delighting to inflict pain. His intellect was rapid and powerful, but he was impatient of control, and devoid of integrity."

" I remember him," said the soldier, "in his boyish- days. He loved to cut young birds to pieces, and to laugh at the mourning of their parents, and to torture every thing that was weaker than himself. There is nothing that I check my boys sooner for than cruelty to animals. It will make you like Arnold, I say to them, and no traitor shall be son of mine. I once met him when a boy at the mill, where we both came with corn. He quarrelled with

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the miller for making him wait, and then amused himself by clinging to the wheel, and going with it fearlessly as it turned in the water. I wondered at his dangerous sport, and his bold words. I knew not then that I should live to see him strive to plunge his country into perdition."

The Lady, ever intent to find "some soul of goodness in things evil," replied,

"Arnold possessed courage, and presence of mind, in an eminent degree. At his unsuccessful attack on Canada, with the lamented Montgomery, he displayed superiour valour. You know also, that he sustained extreme hard ships, in his march through the wilderness from Kenne- beck. Beside the labour of travelling over pathless- mountains, and swamps, he and his men were reduced to the necessity of feeding on the vilest substances, even on the remnants of their own shoes. That he possessed active as well as enduring courage has been often proved. In his battle with Sir Guy Carleton on Lake Champlain, after signalizing his valour, he was so solicitous about a point of honour, as to prefer blowing up his own frigate to striking the American flag to the enemy. His radical faults were want of feeling, and of moral principle. His fondness for pomp, and splendid equipage led him to the meanest acts of fraud, when in command at Philadelphia, His vindictive spirit never forgave the reprimand which was there given him by Washington, in pursuance of the decree of the court, appointed to investigate his conduct From that period, revenge, and treason employed his

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meditations. He probably procured the command at West-Point, with the deliberate design of delivering to the foe that "rock of our military salvation."

Anderson who could scarcely endure to yield the traitor that measure of fame which he had earned, felt particularly uneasy to hear it from lips that he revered, and answered with warmth

" I have heard his courage doubted, Madam. At Saratoga, where he so madly defied danger, he was known to have been intoxicated. I recollect how angry he was. It the battle of Bemis-heights, because the command was not given to him instead of General Gates. He came upon the field in very ill-humour, and brandished his sword so carelessly, that he wounded in the head an officer who stood near. Then plunging foolishly into the most peril ous scenes of action, he had his leg fractured ; and I heard the surgeon of the hospital say, that he was so peevish, and furious at his confinement, and pain, that no one liked to be near him."

Madam L , perceiving that the object of honest Anderson's aversion bade fair to monopolize his whole visit, made an attempt to change the current of his thought-

" There is a story," she said, " which 1 always hear from you, with peculiar satisfaction. I refer to the battle ofl^unker-hiil, which you may perhaps recollect you have not described to me for a very long time."

The expression of the soldier's face suddenly changed,

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Debility and poverty vanished from his mind. His tall form was raised erectly, and his tone became more free and bold as he recited his first feat of arms. The "Last Minstrel" evinced not more of a warriour s pride, when he exclaimed

" For I have seen war s lightning flashing, Seen the claymore gainst bayonet clashing, Seen through red blood the war-horse dashing; And scorned amid that dreadful strife To yield a step for death, or life."

" You will remember, Madam," said the soldier, " that it was warm weather for the month of June, when the action, to which you allude, took place. It was on the evening of the 16th, that we were ordered to march to Bunker-hill. It had been rumoured that the British troops intended to take possession of it, and we were directed to prevent them. People say now that Prescott made a mistake, and fortified Breed s-hill, instead of Bunker s, But the name is of little consequence, as long as the victory remains. We marched in perfect silence, lest we should be discovered by some of Gage's centinels. But some of us could not refrain from cursing the vile wretch, who was cooping up the distressed Boston ians, like lambs in a quick-set hedge. We did not arrive on the ground till near midnight. Then we commenced our labour-, and it seemed as if the Almighty prospered us. Before day-light our fortifications were completed. At dawn, the British saw with great surprise, what had been done so near them, without their discovering it before. Perhaps

FORTY YEARS SINCE. 187

the evil-minded Saul was not more dismayed, when the stripling David displayed, from a neighbouring hill, the spear, and the cruse of water, which he had stolen from his head while he slept. They acknowledged that Yan kees could work well, and afterwards found that they were able to fight as well. Early the next spring, when we threw up fortifications with great despatch on Dor chester Heights, General Howe on discovering them the next morning through a thick fog, which, like a vessel looming at sea, made them appear larger than they really were, struck his forehead in great wrath, exclaiming, " what shall I do! These rebels do more in one night, rhan my army can accomplish in weeks."

" But I beg pardon, Madam, for wandering from my subject. As soon as our entrenchments struck the eye of the British, a terrible fire opened upon us from Copp s- hill, the war-ships, and floating batteries, so that we might pick up shot, and bombs, wherever we turned. We were much fatigued after the severe toil of a sleepless night, but none of us could think of taking rest ; and what was worse, we were poorly supplied with provisions. I can see at this moment General Putnam moving round among us, and animating every man who drooped, by his bold and cheerful voice. All night he was in the midst of our labours, directing and bearing a part. While the morn ing was yet gray, a detachment of somewhat more than

in hundred men was despatched, under Captain Knowl-

ton. to take post on the left hand of the breast-work. I

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knew not, as I hastened on with them, what a dangerous station it would prove. Yet if I had, I should not have drawn back, for my heart was high. When we reached the spot, we were employed in placing one rail-fence par allel with another, and filling the interval with the new- mown hay which strewed the field, that field where men were soon to lie thick as herbs beneath the sharp sithe. In the course of the forenoon, a few more soldiers arrived, increasing our numbers to about 1 500. We made but a scanty dinner, though those of us, who had watched all night, and got no breakfast, were rather sharp-set. Yet it seemed as if no man thought of food, or of rest, so full was his heart of those liberties, which he was about to de fend. At one o clock, a thick, dark smoke spread over the skirts of the hill. We had scarcely time to exclaim " See! Charlestown with its fair houses, and beautiful spire burning," ere we saw our foes marching towards us. Soon the smoke of the town, and that of the cannon mingled, rising in heavy volumes towards the sky. Pres- cott flourished his sword, till it cast a gleam like lightning among us ; and Putnam s voice thundered hoarsely, " Re- > member Lexington."

" Ah!" said the Lady, " it was at the report of the blood shed at Lexington that, like the Roman Cincinnatus. he cast the plough from his hand, and leaving his unfinish ed furrow, rode in one day nearly seventy miles to join the American camp. Washington repeatedly paid high tribute to his bravery, and his virtues."

FORTY YEARS SINCE. 189

Smiling at the praise of his favourite general, the veteran proceeded :

" Knowlton, also, the commander of our little band, was a lion-hearted man, and his lieutenants did their du ty bravely. Colonel Stark, with his New-Hampshire back-woedsmen, took deadly aim as if in their own forests. The British lines, partly wrapt in smoke, marched up with colours flying". At their head, came Generals Howe, and Pigot. with a contemptuous, yet noble demeanour.

Three thousand well-disciplined men followed them, sup

ported by field artillery. First marched the grenadiers, with their lofty caps, and glittering bayonets. We were commanded to reserve our fire, until they were within a tew yards of us. When they reached that spot, it was wonderful how many plumed heads fell. Dismayed at our furious, and fatal discharge, they at length fled precipi tately towards their boats.

t; Their officers pursued, menacing them with drawn swords. With difficulty they were forced to rally. A second time they came forward, fought with great valour, suffered terrible slaughter, and retreated. The officers, who forced them a third time to the charge, said to each other, with melancholy countenances

" It is butchery again to lead these brave fellows to that fatal spot."

" General Clinton stood with Burgoyne, upon Copp s- hill, gazing through his spy-glass to see the chastisement of the rebels. But, whence marked movements of dfs-

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tress in the British lines, he flew to join them, and was seen, hurrying with distracted steps to unite with Howe, and his council. Then they increased the fire from their ships of war, changed the position of their cannon so as to rake the inside of our breast- work, and advanced with fresh resolution, attacking our redoubt on three sides at ence. The carnage became dreadful. At this important crisis, our ammunition was exhausted, and that decided the fate of the day. Could we but have obtained the materi als of defence, the British would never have driven us from that hill. Perhaps they might have buried us in its bosom.

You know, Madam, our redoubt was lost. I never can bear to say that we retreated, or that the English took it ; but it was lost by the fortune of war.

" When it was found necessary for us to retire, the ene my attempted to force our little band from the rail-fence, in order to cut off the retreat of the main body. This they found no such easy matter. We fought till not a cartridge was left, and then gave them a parting salute with the but- end of our muskets, as they leaped into our entrench ments. Half our number lay lifeless, or wounded among us. Yet even the dying forbore to groan, listening for our cry of victory. Four comrades were shot beside me. Their warm blood poured over my feet. One of them was my brother, whom I loved as my own soul. Falling he said

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" Here are yet three cartridges. Take them, and God be with you."

"Strange as it may seem, I who could never, from my infancy, see him suffer pain without sharing in it, took the cartridges from his quivering hand, and paused not a mo ment to mourn. I cannot tell how many times I fired. with the same aim that I have taken at the fox in his speed, and the pigeon in the air, when they have fallen. My musket burst, and I snatched another from the dead hand of a comrade. The Almighty have mercy on the souls, who were sent by me to their last account. When we were compelled to retire, not having a round of powder left, and being unprovided with bayonets, our only path was over a neck of land, where we were exposed to a cross-fire from a man of war, and two floating batteries.

" Our loss, in that perilous combat, was less severe than could have been expected, and would almost have been forgotten, had not the brave Warren fallen. He was a godlike man, and the idol of the people. He had per formed prodigies of valour that day, seeking the front of danger. After the musket-shot struck him, an elegant man, in the uniform of a British officer, was seen to with draw his arm from that of General Howe, and run to wards the fallen, with great rapidity. Waving his sword to disperse the regulars who followed him, he bent over General Warren, and said in a tremulous tone

" My dear friend, I hope you are not much hurt."

The fallen hero lifted his glazed eye to him, and faint-

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]y smiling, expired. This officer was Colonel Sraali, who had been much in this country previously to the war, and had formed many friendships here. He was once so near our redoubt, during the battle, that a line of marks- men took aim at him, perceiving by his uniform that he held rank in the army. Putnam saw them, and striking up the muzzles of their pieces with his sword, exclaim ed

"For God s sake, spare that man. I love him as a brother."

" I think I can hear at this moment, the voice of my old general, so bold and loud. Notwithstanding his rough exteriour, he had a tender heart for the wounded and the prisoner."

" I knew him," said the Lady, " as a friend of my hus band, and occasionally our honoured guest. He had a kind and generous nature, scorning dissimulation in all its forms. Though he possessed valour, which even in the language of his foes made him " wiling to lead where any dared to follow," his energetic soul was gentle in its affections, and easily moved to pity. I find we are always! ready to recount the virtues of those who have aided in delivering our country ; yet we ought not to forget the merits of our enemies. Were any in the British lines pe culiarly conspicuous during this battle ?"

" Madam," answered the veteran, "had they shews less courage, we should have deserved less praise, Howe was in all places, and in the midst of every thing, always

FORTY YEARS SINCE. 193

animated, and collected. He was wounded in the foot, hut disregarded it till the action was over. Major Pit- cairn, who was so active at Lexington, distinguished him self here. At the taking of the redoubt, he was one of the first to spring upon our breast-work. " The day is ours, * he shouted with a clear, glad voice. He had scarcely closed his lips, ere ahall passed through his body. His son, Captain Pitcairn, a fine young man,

caught him in his arms 

as he fell, and bore him to the boat, where he soon died.

" The enemy complained of the great proportion of val uable officers, who were that day fatally singled out by our marksmen. Ninety were among the slain and wound ed ; some of them the flower of their army and nobility. General Gage himself confessed a total loss of nearly elev en hundred. Among us, those who died upon the field of battle or soon after, amounted to about one hundred and thirty. More than twice that number were wounded. The whole of these, including prisoners, fell short of five hun dred. We were defeated solely by the want of ammu nition, and when we retired were obliged to leave several pieces of artillery behind us. It was a stirring time, Mad am, and every thing was well enough, except our being obliged to retreat. I always wish to leave that out of the story."

" It was a retreat, my friend," she answered, " which produced the effect of a victory. This was a battle where the vanquished seemed to reap the harvest, and the vic tors to mourn. It might almost be styled the Thermopy- 17

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lae of our revolution. It raised the doubting spirit of our people, and taught them confidence in the resources of their own strength. Those, who retained possession of the field, were humbled at the gallant bearing of undisciplined troops, and depressed at the magnitude of their own loss It was the first time that they had seen military skill, and the terrour of a royal name bow before the rude enthusi asm of liberty. It was a difficult page in the lesson of hu miliation. For my own part, I have never since locked upon that green hill, or at the tomb of the warriours who sleep in its bosom, without numbering them among the silent but powerful agents who influenced our destinies a? a nation. *

  1. I Kings 17 recounts that there was a great famine and Elijah was sent to a widow who was to sustain him. When Elijah found the widow, she believed she was about to use the last of her food to feed herself and her son—and then she expected to die of starvation. Elijah asked her to feed him first and promised that she would have enough to sustain herself and her son until the famine ended. She did as Elijah asked and the promise was fulfilled. The widow is often used as an example of great faith. In the King James Version, Zarepta appears as Zarepath. John Newton wrote a hymn based on the story By the poor widow's oil and meal.
  2. Genesis 40:23. Joseph interpreted the chief butler's dream and assured him he would return from prison to his former high status beside the Pharaoh, but the butler then forgot Joseph until Pharaoh had a dream no one understood.