Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Letter Back Home after the Battle of Fort Washington #revolutionarywar #genealogy #virginiapioneersnet

1776. The Battle of Fort Washington: A Letter from Major Henry Bedinger to a Son of General Samuel Finley of Virginia

Fort Washington"Some time in 1774 the late General Samuel Finley Came to Martinsburg, Virginia, and engaged with the late Colonel 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 General Washington in the Siege of Boston and to serve one year. Captains Hugh Stephenson of Berkeley, and 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 and 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, and 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, Samuel Finley First Lieutenant, William Kelly Second Lieutenant, and myself 3rd Lieutenant. The Commissions of the Field Officers were dated the 8th July, 1776, and 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, and 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 Colonel 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 Kings bridge, with a force of from 8 to 12,000 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. Colonel 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, although weak, was most dvantageously 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, and 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, although not before Colonel Rawlings, Major Williams, Peter Hanson, Nin Tannehill, and myself were wounded. Lt. Harrison [Footnote: Lieutenant Battaille Harrison of Berkeley County, Virginia] was the only officer of our Regiment Killed. Hanson and Tannehill were mortally wounded. The latter died the same night in the Fort, and 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 and Major Williams, gradually retreated from redoubt to redoubt, to and into the fort with the surviving part of the Regiment. Colonel 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, and 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 Colonel 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, and 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, and 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."

Note: The rest of this valuable letter has been, most unfortunately lost, or possibly it was never completed. A graphic description of the men who were captured at Fort Washington and the battle. Major Bedinger was a dignified, well-to-do, country gentleman; honored and respected by all who knew him, and of unimpeachable veracity. Berkeley County is in West Virginia. Source: American Prisoners by Danske Dandridge.


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