Timeline of the Formation and Service of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment
- Part 6 -
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Compiled by Robert A. Geake
Letter from Gen. George Washington to Col. Marinus Willett:
“…One hundred and fifty Blankets (all that are in the Clothiers Store at this place) and twenty five Axes are now packing to be sent to you; and the Qr Master Genl will endeavor, if possible, to have them at Albany on the 4th.; from whence you must take measures to get them to Fort Herkimer in time. If any of Olneys Men (on the Enterprise you are going) should be in greater need than yours, they must be supplied out of this parcel, that the whole may be as comfortable as it is in my power to make them.
I do not send Medicines, Bandages and Instruments because it would take some time to procure them, and not a moment is to be lost in dispatching the Sleighs with the Blankets, that they may arrive in time; and because (tho’ I wish you not to be unprovided) it is to be remembered, and I wish to impress it upon you, that, if you do not succeed by Surprise the attempt will be unwarrantable. The Wounds received in the former, more than probable, will be trifling.
Every plausible deception should be used to mask the object of your Expedition to the latest moment. Your movements afterwards should be quick, and pains must be taken to discover, by tracts or otherwise, whether intelligence has out gone you. If you should be fully convinced of this, the further prosecution of the Enterprise would not only be fruitless, but might prove injurious.
To an Officer of your care, attention and foresight, I shall not dwell upon circumspection and caution. The consequence of a Surprize (not only to the party you command, but to your own reputation) is too serious and self evident, to stand in need of illustration. A Vast deal depends upon having good Guides to Oswego; and every thing, in a manner, upon persons who can carry you without hesitation or difficulty, to the points of Attack when you arrive there. How far a few Indians would be useful to you for the first purpose; and how far they are to be confided in, you, from a better knowledge of them than I possess, must judge and act accordingly.
Guides who are pressed into the Service must be well secured, lest they desert from you in a critical moment.
From having recourse to the Almanack I am led to Wish that the Night for the Attack may not be delayed beyond the 12th Instt.; as I find that the sitting of the Moon (even at that time) approaches so near day light, that the intervening space is short; and consequently must be very critical; as accidents unforseen, beyond the hour designed, to the entire disappointment of the plan. Let me caution you therefore against being too exact in your allowance of time for your last Movement; reflect that you can always waste time, but never recover it. Halts, or slow Marching will accomplish the first, but nothing can effect the latter, consequently in such an Enterprise as yours want of time will be a certain defeat.
Let your disposition be such, that in any circumstances your retreat to your Sleigh, and afterwards with them, may be secure.
If success should crown your endeavors, let your first object be to secure your Prisoners, whom you will treat with lenity and kindness; suffering no Insult or abuse to be offered to them with impunity. Your next object must be to destroy the Works, Vessels (if any should be found there), and every thing else that cannot be brought away. Such Works as cannot be consumed by Fire, nor easily razed by the labor of the Soldiers, must be, if practicable, blown up. In a Word they are to be effectually demolished, if it is within the Compass of your power to do it.
Whatever is found in, or about the Works belonging to the Enemy, and is agreeable to the Rules and Customs of War, humanity and generosity; shall be given to the Party as the reward of their Gallantry and fatigue; to be distributed in proportion to their pay; the drivers of Sleighs, if Countrymen, should receive a part as an extra encouragement for their Services. Make me the earliest report (if successful from the Scene of Action, at any rate on your return) of your progress, and the Issue of the Expedition. The Inclosed Letter will shew you what I have done respecting Spirits and Subsistence for your Officers. Seal it before delivery, and make your own arrangements with the Contractor…”333
A Large detachment from the Rhode Island Regiment led by Captain John Holden was chosen to assist Colonel Willett and his Regiment of Continental Levies in the surprise attack. The Rhode Islanders marched from Saratoga to Fort Hermiker on the Mohawk River, arriving there during the first week of February. The integrated detachment held several members of the now disbanded Light Infantry brigade, as well as veterans of color from Captain Ebenezer Macomber’s Company and from Captain Benjamin Peckham’s company.
As an integrated Provisional Regiment, their appearance was remarked upon in several diaries and journals:
Private David Perry of Captain Jonathan Pierce’s Company in Willett’s Regiment recalled in his pension application that
“…between twenty and thirty teams…marched to Fort Hermiker and were there joined by a Rhode Island Regiment mostly formed of Blacks remained at Fort Hermiker two or three days…”334
Colonel Willett’s Provisional Regiment began the march to Fort Oswego. Perhaps the most riveting and searing account was recounted by Charlestown, Rhode Island native Sergeant Immanuel Drake:
“…there were five companies of Col. Willetts regiment that stated for Oswego, but cannot recall how many there were of the Rhode Island reinforcement. Declarent well recollects that this was in the dead of winter. There were Indian guides employed…They travelled several days through the snow, as they supposed toward Oswego. A great number…went ahead on snowshoes, That instead of leading the Army to Oswego,…led us into a swamp, about nine miles it was afterwards ascertained, from Osego.”335
The regiment hastily built fires to warm themselves and then began the trek back to Fort Hermiker. Many were already severely frostbitten, physically exhausted, and starving from lack of provisions.
Drake continued in his pension declaration
“…when we started our return…our provisions were nearly all exhausted & the last five days before we arrived at Fort Stanwix (a fort werst of Fort Hermiker) we had no provision, except dead horse flesh, or something of that kind…”336
The expedition would ultimately disable some veterans of the Regiment for life. The loss of extremities and punishment on the body would be well documented in the testimony of pension files in the months after Oswego, and again, decades later.337
From Washington’s General Orders:
“The Arrangement of the Lines of New-Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New Jersey is to take place on the 1st day of March, upon the principals pointed out in the resolutions of Congress of the 7th of August & 19th of Novr; and which have been made public in the orders of the 30th of October and 26th of November 1782…
The Regiment of Rhode Island to be reduced to one Battalion and to be composed of as many Companys as there are men sufficient to complete, with such Commissd and Noncommissioned staff as may be necessary; to be commanded by two field officers.”338
Colonel Marinus Willett submitted his “After-action report to General George Washington:
“It is no small mortification to me to have occasion to report to your Excellency that our expedition to Oswego has not been successful.”339
The Colonel then continued
“…The caution your excellency had given me respecting guides had made me doubly careful” he professed and weighed carefully in his choosing of “four persons who had deserted from Oswego and were otherwise Intelligent and smart.”340
Other problems had arisen as well,
“On my arrival at the west end of Oneida Lake I found the sleighs to be an Incumberance and that they increased the danger of my being discovered for this reason it was determined to leave them at that place and march the remainder of the way on foot through the woods….
I was considerably advanced in front following close after the guide on snow shoes when suspicions entered fully into my mind both from the Irregularity of his course as well as the length of time we had been marching without arriving at the Fort.”341
The greatest loss and suffering came from the effects of the march in severe weather:
“One of Colonel Olneys Black Soldiers & one of [our] State troops by leaving their ranks in the Night and Lying down in the Snow got frozed to Death.
The lamness of a number of the Soldiers made their work the heaviare, and it is much owing to the Violent Exertions of Major Van Benschaten who had charge of our State troops and Captain Holden who Commanded the Rhode Island Detachment that I was enabled in the first Instance to overcome the variety of difficulties that turned up on our march out as well as our return to the Sleighs with such a number of lame men.”
General Washington, as was his character, replied with empathy for Willett and his failed expedition.
Letter from George Washington to Marinus Willett:
“I have been favoured with your Letter of the 19th of Febry—announcing the failure of your Attempt against Oswego.
Unfortunate as the Circumstance is, I am happy in the persuasion that no Imputation or reflection can justly reach your Character; and that you are enabled to derive [much] Consolation from the animated Zeal, fortitude & Activity of the Officers & Soldiers who accompanied you—The failure, it seems, must be attributed to some of those unaccountable Events, which are not within the controul of human Means; and which, tho they often occur in military life, yet require, not only the fortitude of the Soldier, but the calm reflection of the Philosopher, to bear.
I cannot omit expressing to you the high Sense I entertain of your persevering Exertions & Zeal on this Expedition; and beg you to accept my warm Thanks on the Occasion—And that you will be pleased to communicate my Gratitude to the Officers & men who acted under your Command, for the Share they had in that Service.”342
A number of soldiers from the Rhode Island regiment would remain in hospital for weeks as they recovered. The remainder of the regiment continued at Saratoga, performing garrison duty. At this time the Regiment had become severely undermanned.
Letter to Gen. George Washington from Major Coggeshall Olney
“Inclosed I transmit to your Excelency the answers of Capt Macomber on oath, to the interogations of the Honbe Jonathan Arnold in his letter of the 11th inst.– The scattered situation of the Regiment and suffering of the frozen troops returned from the western expedition, has rendered it impracticable to forward the same at an earlier period—Having nearly forty men who must loose their limbs.
The orders for the reduction of the Regiment having come to hand, I take the liberty to inform your Excelency that the senior officers are at home on furlough with Colonel Olney, which will render the compleating of the arrangement impracticable for some time. I have wrote the Col: on the subject, and expect a speedy answer, with regard to the determination of the absent officers, and also whether the recruits reinlisted will be retained in service by the State.”343
Muster Rolls of the month show that the regiment, after losses at Oswego remained undermanned by about 140 rank and file. With news circulating of an impending peace treaty, The Rhode Island General Assembly refused to take any action for recruitment. Even as a number of the 1782 levie enlistees resigned for additional service, the state withdrew the promised $100 bounty and most of these who had enlisted were discharged the first of the month.344
From Gen. George Washington’s general orders:
“Altho the public dispatches from our Commissioners in Europe have not arrived, and the Commander in Chief has it not in his power to announce officially a general Peace to the Army, yet he cannot resist the pleasure of communicating the happiness he experiences from a certainty of that Event. and for the satisfaction of every brave officer and soldier under his command he orders the following Extract of a Letter from his Excellency the Minister of France to be made public….
Sir Philadelphia 24th March 1783
“It is with the most lively and sincere joy that I have the honor to inform your Excelly of the conclusion of a peace—It crowns in the most happy manner, your labours, and the efforts of the United States—you will sincerely participate the compleat satisfaction that this event gives me, and I take the greatest possible share in the pleasure it will afford you. I have not yet received this news officially, but it is not the less certain—and I pray you to permit me to offer the offices of your Army, and all the American troops my congratulations and the tribute of respect due to their virtue and Courage…
In this state of affairs the Commander in chief is pleased to direct that all military Arrangements shall continue the same as at present untill further Orders, that no relaxation in the Discipline or police of the Army shall be suffered, and that the greatest attention shall be paid to the good order & appearance of the troops.
For the greater convenience of the officers of this Army, the Packet boat for Westpoint will leave Newburgh at half after nine and proceed to New Windsor, which place she will leave at ten o’clock every day.”345
From General Washington’s general orders:
“The Commander in Chief orders the Cessation of Hostilities between the United States of America and the King of Great Britain to be publickly proclaimed tomorrow at 12 o’clock at the New building, and that the Proclamation which will be communicated herewith, be read tomorrow evening at the head of every regiment & corps of the army—After which the Chaplains with the several Brigades will render thanks to almighty God for all his mercies, particularly for his over ruling the wrath of man to his own glory, and causing the rage of war to cease amongst the nations…
The Commander in Chief far from endeavouring to stifle the feelings of Joy in his own bosom, offers his most cordial Congratulations on the occasion to all the Officers of every denomination, to all the Troops of the United States in General, and in particular to those gallant and persevering men who had resolved to defend the rights of their invaded country so long as the war should continue—For these are the men who ought to be considered as the pride and boast of the American Army; And, who crowned with well earned laurels, may soon withdraw from the field of Glory, to the more tranquil walks of civil life.
While the General recollects the almost infinite variety of Scenes thro which we have passed, with a mixture of pleasure, astonishment, and gratitude; while he contemplates the prospects before us with rapture; he can not help wishing that all the brave men (of whatever condition they may be) who have shared in the toils and dangers of effecting this glorious revolution, of rescuing Millions from the hand of oppression, and of laying the foundation of a great Empire, might be impressed with a proper idea of the dignifyed part they have been called to act (under the Smiles of providence) on the stage of human affairs: for, happy, thrice happy shall they be pronounced hereafter, who have contributed any thing, who have performed the meanest office in creating this steubendous fabrick of Freedom and Empire on the broad basis of Indipendency; who have assisted in protesting the rights of humane nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations of religions…”346
At noon this day, the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington in 1775, General Washington officially announces the Order of a cessation of hostilities before the Troops.
A celebration of the cessation of hostilities was held in Providence with a parade led by Colonel Daniel Tillinghast and the Providence Train of Artillery with the Governor, Deputy Governor, and members of the General Assembly marching from the Deputy Governor’s house to the First Baptist Church for an oration from Rev. Enos Hitchcock. At noon the procession reassembled and marched to the State House where General Washington’s orders were read to the public, followed by a thirteen cannon salute. An elaborate banquet was held for the dignitaries, and toasts offered to the officers. A large fireworks display was held that night before the State House.
Members of the Rhode Island Regiment continued in Saratoga. For the time being, the army was to remain on duty.
From General Washington’s orders:
“Resolved, That in the opinion of Congress, the time of the men engaged to serve during the war, does not expire until the ratification of the definitive treaty of peace.347
That such of the non-commissioned officers and privates soldiers of the above description, as continue in service to that period, shall be allowed their fire arms and accoutriments, as an extra reward for their long and faithful services.”348
From Washington’s general orders:
“The Honorable… Congress have been pleased to pass the following Resolve.
By the United States in Congress assembled On motion Resolved
That the Commander in Chief be instructed to grant Furloughs to the Noncommissioned officers and soldiers in the service of the United States enlisted to serve during the war, who shall be discharged as soon as the definitive Treaty of Peace is concluded—together with a proportionable number of Commissioned officers of the different Grades. And that the Secretary at War and Commander in Chief take the proper measures for conducting those Troops to their respective homes in such a manner as may be most convenient to themselves and to the States through which they may pass, and that the men thus furloughed be allowed to take their Arms with them.
In consequence of the preceding Resolution, Colonels & Commandants of regts and corps will immediately make Returns of the number of men who will be entitled to furloughs, to the Commanding officers of the several state Lines, who will make report at Head Quarters—at the same time returns are to be made of the Noncommisioned officers and privates who will not be indulged in the above discription—these Returns must be made to comport with the Muster Rolls, with which they will be compared at the Inspection office.
A sufficient number of officers of the several Grades to command the troops who will remain in the field must continue with them. They are requested to make this a matter of agreement among themselves, The Commmanding officers of Lines will superintend and endeavour to accomodate this business to the satisfaction of all concerned.”349
Letter from Gen. George Washington to Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney
“You will receive by this conveyance blanck Discharges for the Non Commissd Officers & Privates of the Rhode Island Regt enlisted for the War, which, under the Restriction of the Endorsment are only to be considered as furloughs until farther Orders—you will be pleased to have them filled up & the men permitted, under the direction of a proportionable number of Officers, to retire to the State immediately—Orders will soon be transmitted to the remainder of the Corps for the regulation of their conduct.
The furloughed Men of the Rhode Island Regt will draw Provisions at Litchfild, & Hartford in their way to the State The Genl Orders on this subject were sent by the Post.
Should there be more furloughs than you have occasion for, you will be cautious to have such care taken of the residue as will absolutely prevent their being made use of for improper purposes.”350
Adjutant Jeremiah Greenman issued his last orders for the regiment at Saratoga and signed the discharge certificates for release.
From the Orders of Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney:
“The Happy day having at length arrived when the officers and men ingaged for the war are to be disbanded., the liberties and Independence of America being (through their extraordinary sufferings and exertion in conjunction with the other troops in the field) fully established and acknowledged by our enemy, the Commandant though happy on the occasion, cannot dismiss those brave soldiers and men he has so long had the honor to command, without experiencing the keenest sencibility at a parting scene, and to acknowledge the very great share of merit they have acquired in faithfully persevering in the best of causes in every stage of service with unexampled fortitude and patience through all the dangers and toils of a long and severe war…”351
Per orders of Lt. Colonel Olney, The regiment removed from Saratoga in stages, beginning on the 13th with a. company departing under Captain Hughes. On successive days, Captains Holden and Humphries began the return march to Rhode Island.
From the Diary of Adjutant Jeremiah Greenman:
“…Capt. Dexter & Lt. Rogers marched off with the 4th and last Detachment leaving behind Capt. Allen & Capt Brow(n), with Lieut’s Wheaton, Shearburne, Pratt, and Ensign Kirby and myself to tarry with the three years men until further orders…”352
These soldiers arrived in Rhode Island by late June, as historian Popek would write:
“There were no parades or celebrations for these experienced troops…There was no notice of their arrival in the local newspapers…”353
So too were the remaining men of the regiment neglected. The General Assembly did not act to send any further clothing of provisions. The first fall of snow occurred in October, and within weeks the men who remained in Saratoga were in a desperate condition.
From the Diary of Adjutant Jeremiah Greenman:
“continuing in Garrison waiting anxiously for Order to leave this post, our men in a Miserable Condition / Some of them not a Shoe or a Stocking to their feet and the climate at this place much sevearer than in the Estern States…”354
The regiment received their orders to leave. The next two weeks were spent in preparing to leave the garrison, including the procurement of shoes for the men.355
The remaining men and Officers of the Rhode Island Regiment marched from Saratoga on Christmas Day. The return to Rhode Island was a severe march through difficult weather. The men first arrived near Providence after a march from Worcester, Massachusetts on January 3rd, but had to turn back because of high snow drifts on the Providence Road.
It rained the next few days and the troops slogged on, Greenman recording on the 6th that
“This morning it wrain’d and the roads excessive bad / …and in many places the water over the tops of my boots / came to Attlebourrough where breakfasted, from where came 18 miles to Providence.”356
Again, the Rhode Island Regiment returned without fanfare and little recognition. It would take years for many of those not severely wounded to receive pay and pensions. Despite these hardships each and every one of these men who applied for pensions reflect the pride taken in their service and the recognition by the public in later parades and ceremonies for these “soldiers of the Revolution.”
(333) Letter from George Washington to Marinus Willett, February 2, 1783 George Washington Papers, Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775-1785, Subseries 3B, Continental and State Military Personnel, 1775-1783, Letterbook 16: Dec. 1, 1782 – June 11, 1785
(334) Private David Perry Pension File W2643, NARA Microfilm M805 Selected Records from Revolutionary War Pension Files, Roll 261.
(335) Affidavit in Sergeant Immanuel Drake’s Pension File S16105, NARA Microfilm M805. Selected Records from Revolutionary War Pension Files, Roll 258. Popek also prints the affidavit nearly in its entirety, p. 600
(337) See Geake/Spears pp.
(338) “General Orders, 18 February 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10661.
(339) “To George Washington from Marinus Willett, 19 February 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10677
(342) “From George Washington to Marinus Willett, 5 March 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10781
(343) “To George Washington from Coggeshall Olney, 27 February 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10735.
(344) Popek, p. 604
(345) “General Orders, 28 March 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10943.
(346) “General Orders, 18 April 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11097
(347) Congress had passed the Resolution in its session of April 24th.
(348) General Orders, May 1, 1783 https://www.loc.gov/resource/mgw3g.007/?sp=146&st=text
(349) “General Orders, 2 June 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11357.
(350) “From George Washington to Jeremiah Olney, 4 June 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11372.
(351) Orders of Jeremiah Olney on Disbanding the Rhode Island Regiment, June 13, 1783, from Rider, Historical Tracts No. 10, pp.84-86
(352) Greenman, p. 266. The final discharges for Greenman and these men was not issued until December 25, 1783
(353) Popek, p. 606
(354) Ibd., p. 270
(355) Lt. Joseph Wheaton was dispatched to the American Army headquarters where he managed to procure enough shoes for one pair per each man. (Popek, p. 606)
- The Battle of Rhode Island: Skirmish Timelines and Map
- Skirmish at West Main Road and Union Street
- Skirmish at East Main Road and Union Street
- Turkey Hill
- Quaker Hill
- Lehigh Hill
- The Gaspee Affair: A Rhode Island Perspective on Its 250th Anniversary
- The Conspiracy to Destroy the Gaspee
- Patriot’s Retreat to Tiverton
- Significant People
- Eyewitness Accounts
- The Aftermath of the Battle