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Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge
By Benjamin Tallmadge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Benjamin Tallmadge
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The subject of this memoir was born at Brookhaven, on Long Island, in Suffolk county, State of New York, on the 25th of February, 1754. His father, the Rev. Benjamin Tallmadge, was the settled minister of that place, having married Miss Susannah Smith, the daughter of the Rev. John Smith, of White Plains, Westchester county, and State of New York, on the 16th of May, 1750. I remember my grandparents very well, having visited them often when I was young. Of their pedigree I know but little, but have heard my grandfather Tallmadge say that his father, with a brother, left England together, and came to this country, one settling at East Hampton, on Long Island, and the other at Branford, in Connecticut. My father descended from the latter stock. My father was born at New Haven, in this State, January 1st, 1725, and graduated at Yale College, in the year 1747, and was ordained at Brookhaven, or Setauket, in the year 1753, where he remained during his life. He died at the same place on the 5th of February, 1786. My mother died April 21st, 1768, leaving the following children, viz.:
William Tallmadge, born October 17, 1752, died in the British prison, 1776.
Benjamin Tallmadge, born February 25, 1754, who writes this memoranda.
Samuel Tallmadge, born November 23, 1755, died April 1, 1825.
John Tallmadge, born September 19, 1757, died February 24, 1823.
Isaac Tallmadge, born February 25, 1762.
My honored father married, for his second wife, Miss Zipporah Strong, January 3rd, 1770, by whom he had no children.
Having, from childhood, exhibited an eager desire for learning, my father determined to give me the opportunity to obtain a liberal education, and as he was preparing a number of boys for college, he placed me as a student among them, and when I was twelve years old, I had acquired such a knowledge in classical learning, that President Dagget, on a visit to my father, examined and admitted me as qualified to enter college, when I was twelve or thirteen years old. My father deemed it improper for me to go to college so young, and, therefore, kept me at home until the autumn of 1769, when I became a member of Yale College.
Being so well versed in the Latin and Greek languages, I had not much occasion to study during the two first years of my collegiate life, which I have always thought had a tendency to make me idle, when, if I had rightly improved my time, it would have afforded me an opportunity for improvement in other sciences.
It, however, served to induce me to Dean's bounty, which I should have been a candidate for, had not the measles wholly prevented me from studying during a part of my junior and senior years.
At the commencement of 1773, I took my first degree, having had an honorable appointment by the President, the Rev. Dr. Dagget, to speak publicly on the occasion.
Having had an application to superintend the high school in Weathersfield, then about to become vacant by the retirement of David Humphreys, Esq., I accepted the same, and repaired to that place for the purpose. I was very much gratified and pleased, both with my employment and the people, and continued there until the commencement of the Revolutionary War. When first American blood was shed at Lexington by the British troops, and again, repeated much more copiously at Bunker's Hill, near Boston, the whole country seemed to be electrified. Among others, I caught the flame, which was thus spreading from breast to breast, and mounted my horse to go and see what was going on near Boston. I soon found my friend, Capt. Chester, of Weathersfield, who had been at Bunker's Hill, in the late conflict. He first intimated to me the idea of joining the army. Although I was sufficiently ardent to be pleased, and even elated with such a prospect, yet nothing was further from my intention at that time than to have entered upon a military life.
While I was at Cambridge with my military friends, I was continually importuned to think of the oppression which was so abundantly exhibited by the British government towards the Colonies, until I finally became entirely devoted to the cause in which my country was compelled to engage. I finally began to think seriously of putting on the uniform, and returned to Weathersfield full of zeal in the cause of my country. After my return to Connecticut, the prospect of peace and reconciliation appeared to be almost hopeless, and the country began to think seriously of raising an army to oppose the British troops wherever they should be located. Congress apportioned to the then Colonies their several quotas of troops, and the State of Connecticut, by their legislature, resolved to raise their proportion of men, in the year 1776, for the campaign of 1776.
Capt. Chester, before mentioned, was appointed a colonel, and he immediately offered me the commission of a lieutenant, with the appointment of adjutant to his regiment. My feelings had been so much excited that I was gratified by this offer from my friend, and decided at once to lay aside my books (having almost determined to study law), and take up the sword in defense of my country. My lieutenant's commission, signed by the venerable Gov. John Trumbull, was dated June 20th, 1776, and my warrant as adjutant bore the same date.
Having now commenced my new profession of arms, and believing myself influenced by the most patriotic principles, I waited the orders of my commander, ready to go wherever he should order. The British fleet, under the command of Admiral Shuldham, and the army commanded by General Howe, had left Boston, or gone to Halifax, and were at sea. General Washington expected the enemy would make their next appearance at New York, and had put the American army under march for that city. 1 obtained permission to visit my father at Brookhaven, on my way to New York, and I shall not soon forget his surprise at seeing me dressed in military uniform, with epaulets on my shoulders and a sword by my side. Although he was a firm and decided whig of the revolution, yet he seemed very reluctant to have me enter the army. However, the die was cast, and I soon left the paternal abode and entered the tented field.
While the British fleet and army were at sea, or at Halifax, my duties were almost constant and unceasing, in training and disciplining our newly raised regiment for the service of the field the ensuing campaign. My ambition was almost boundless, and my health and spirits being of the first order, I felt ready to do or undergo almost any service that might be assigned to me.
We arrived at the city of New York in the month of June 1776, and my place of regimental parade was assigned in Wall Street, where, every morning and evening, the regiment assembled for exercise. During the heat of the day, the men were excused from duty, the heat being too intense to be borne by them in the sun. The American army, composed principally of levies, or troops raised for short periods, and militia, had now assembled at New York, and in its vicinity, when it was announced that a large British fleet was discovered off the Hook, on the 29th of June. In a few days, the British fleet entered the Hook, and Sir William Howe, who commanded the army, landed on Staten Island, where, by the arrival of Lord Howe, he had a force about twenty-five thousand men. The newly famished troops, consisting of foreigners and native subjects, having now joined those who had recently left Boston, General Washington (having arrived also from Boston) began to introduce system and order into the heterogeneous mass of troops that had been brought into the field, and were placed under his command. The war now put on a very serious aspect, as independence had been declared, and it seemed no longer doubtful that the contest on which we had entered must be decided by the sword.
The British commissioners (of which Lord Howe was one), however, opened their commission by addressing a letter to General Washington in his private character, and forwarded the same to our Commander-in-Chief by Colonel Patterson. General Washington refused to receive these dispatches for the want of respectful address, and returned them to the commissioners, unopened, assigning the foregoing reasons for his refusal. The army was highly gratified by this conduct of General Washington, and Congress publicly approved of the same on the 17th of July, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence, which had been solemnly adopted by Congress on the Fourth of July, 1776, was announced to the army in general orders, and filled everyone with enthusiastic zeal, as the point was now forever settled, and there was no further hope of reconciliation and dependence on the mother country.
The movements of the enemy indicating an intention to approach New York by the way of Long Island, Gen. Washington ordered about 10,000 men to embark and cross the East River at Brooklyn. The regiment to which I belonged was among the first that crossed over, and, on the 27th of August, the whole British army, consisting of their own native troops, Hessians, Brunswickers, Waldeckers, etc., to the number of at least 25,000 men, with a most formidable train of field artillery, landed near Flatbush, under cover of their shipping, and moved towards Jamaica and Brooklyn. As our troops had advanced to meet the enemy, the action soon commenced, and was continued, at intervals, through most of the day. Before such an overwhelming force of disciplined troops, our small band could not maintain their ground, and the main body retired within their lines at Brooklyn, while a body of Long Island Militia, under Gen. Woodhull, took their stand at Jamaica. Here, Gen. Woodhull was taken prisoner and inhumanly killed. The main body of our army, under Major-Gen. Sullivan and Lord Stirling, fought in detached bodies, and on the retreat both of those officers were made prisoners. I also lost a brother the same day, who fell into their hands, and was afterwards literally starved to death in one of their prisons: nor would the enemy suffer relief from his friends to be afforded to him.
This was the first time in my life that I had witnessed the awful scene of a battle, when man was engaged to destroy his fellow man. I well remember my sensations on the occasion, for they were solemn beyond description, and very hardly could I bring my mind to be willing to attempt the life of a fellow creature. Our army having retired behind their intrenchment, which extended from Vanbrunt's Mills, on the West, to the East River, flanked occasionally by redoubts, the British army took their position, in full array, directly in front of our position. Our intrenchment was so weak, that it is most wonderful the British General did not attempt to storm it soon after the battle, in which his troops had been victorious. Gen. Washington was so fully aware of the perilous situation of this division of his army, that he immediately convened a council of war, at which the propriety of retiring to New York was decided on. After sustaining incessant fatigue and constant watchfulness for two days and nights, attended by heavy rain, exposed every moment to an attack from a vastly superior force in front, and to be cut off from the possibility of retreat to New York by the fleet, which might enter the East River, on the night of the 29th of August, Gen. Washington commenced recrossing his troops from Brooklyn to New York. To move so large a body of troops, with all their necessary appendages, across a river full a mile wide, with a rapid current, in face of a victorious, well disciplined army, nearly three times as numerous as his own, and a fleet capable of stopping the navigation, so that not one boat could have passed over, seemed to present most formidable obstacles. But, in face of these difficulties, the Commander-in-Chief so arranged his business, that on the evening of the 29th, by 10 o'clock, the troops began to retire from the lines in such a manner that no chasm was made in the lines, but as one regiment left their station on guard, the remaining troops moved to the right and left and filled up the vacancies, while Gen. Washington took his station at the ferry, and superintended the embarkation of the troops. It was one of the most anxious, busy nights that I ever recollect, and being the third in which hardly any of us had closed our eyes to sleep, we were all greatly fatigued. As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety, and when the dawn appeared there were several regiments still on duty. At this time a very dense fog began to rise, and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well; and so very dense was the atmosphere that 1 could scarcely discern a man at six yards' distance.
When the sun rose we had just received orders to leave the lines, but before we reached the ferry, the Commander-in-Chief sent one of his aids to order the regiment to repair again to their former station on the lines. Col. Chester immediately faced to the right about and returned, where we tarried until the sun had risen, but the fog remained as dense as ever. Finally, the second order arrived for the regiment to retire, and we very joyfully bid those trenches a long adieu. When we reached Brooklyn ferry, the boats had not returned from their last trip, but they very soon appeared and took the whole regiment over to New York; and I think I saw Gen. Washington on the ferry stairs when I stepped into one of the last boats that received the troops. I left my horse tied to a post at the ferry.
The troops having now all safely reached New York, and the fog continuing as thick as ever, I began to think of my favorite horse, and requested leave to return and bring him off. Having obtained permission, I called for a crew of volunteers to go with me, and guiding the boat myself, I obtained my horse and got off some distance into the river before the enemy appeared in Brooklyn.
As soon as they reached the ferry we were saluted merrily from their musketry, and finally by their field pieces; but we returned in safety. In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat. After all, the providential appearance of the fog saved a part of our army from being captured, and certainly myself, among others who formed the rear guard. Gen. Washington has never received the credit which was due to him for this wise and most fortunate measure.
When the enemy had taken possession of the heights opposite the city, they commenced firing from their artillery. And the fleet were in motion to take possession of those waters, which, had it been done a little earlier, this division of our army must inevitably have fallen into their hands.
In a day or two after, the British army began to move up the Island to Hurl Gate, when it became manifest that their object was to cut off the retreat of our troops from New York. My first station was at Turtle Bay, on York Island. A British frigate having taken her station in the East River, we began to fire upon her from a small battery of eighteen pounders, and did her some damage. As soon as she got springs on her cable, however, she began so heavy a fire upon our redoubt, that in less than thirty minutes she entirely dismounted our guns, and we were glad to leave so uncomfortable a place.
My next halt was at our battery at Hurl Gate, opposite to which, on Long Island, the enemy erected a battery of heavy cannon, from which they commenced a tremendous fire on our fort, and soon made a breach in it, and dismounted most of our guns. After this, they began to make preparations for crossing the East River. Gen. Washington immediately put his army in motion to leave the city, the stores, etc., having been previously removed. Both rivers, viz., the North and the East, were now filled with British shipping, and boats were seen passing from Long Island to New York, filled with soldiers, who formed and deployed immediately after landing. A considerable body of our troops had not yet retired from the city; but being hastened by this movement of the enemy, took the North River road, and thus escaped being entirely cut off. Some skirmishing ensued, which proved of little consequence. In the course of the day, a portion of our brigade, under Gen. Wadsworth, was engaged, and our Brigade-Major, Major Wyllis, was made a prisoner. I was immediately appointed to fill his station, and entered on my new duties.
Gen. Washington halted on the heights between Harlem and Kingsbridge, and the enemy appeared in full force on the South, or opposite side of Harlem. While in these situations, detachments from the two armies had frequent skirmishes, which produced no very important results.
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