J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Washington “holding aloft a large stone”?

On the night of 29-30 Aug 1776, the Continental Army evacuated almost all of its troops from Long Island to Manhattan Island as the bigger and stronger British military closed in.

Some authors continue to treat the success of this evacuation as a sign of Providence looking out for the American cause. Of course, Providence hadn’t seen fit to give the Continentals a victory in the preceding Battle of Brooklyn, and wouldn’t offer many more victories for quite a while. In 1776 the evacuation was seen mostly as a desperate and ignominious retreat.

Among the anecdotes of the evacuation is this about Gen. George Washington, from Henry Stiles’s History of the City of Brooklyn, published in 1867:
It is related, on the authority of Col. Fish, one of Washington’s aids, Judge Daggett of New Haven, and others, that the crowd and confusion among the troops who were, at this juncture, huddled on the beach, was extreme, and bordered on a panic; and that Washington, annoyed and alarmed at its probable consequences, sprang to the side of a boat into which the men were crowding, and, holding aloft a large stone with both hands, ordered them, with an impassioned oath, to leave the boat instanter, or he would “sink it to hell.” It is needless to say that the towering figure and wrathful eye of their revered general restored the scared troops to their senses, and the embarkation proceeded with more order than before.
That dramatic story shows up in many subsequent histories of the event, including recent ones. But is it reliable? Would Gen. Washington have risked either a precious boat or his even more precious credibility in case his threat didn’t succeed? Was he so upset as to lose his temper in front of his men?

As his first authority, Stiles cited “Col. Fish, one of Washington’s aids.” The commander didn’t have any aides de camp named Fish, but Nicholas Fish (1758-1833, shown above, courtesy of the New York Society Library) was part of the Continental Army administration later in the war.

However, when Fish died, the Knickerbocker, or New York Magazine, stated:
Colonel Fish was Aid-de-Camp to Brig. Gen. John Morin Scott, and he and his corps went into service, “as six months’ men,” on the 21st Nov. 1776…
Thus, according to his obituary Fish wasn’t in the American army until almost three months after the evacuation from Brooklyn.

Stiles’s second authority is “Judge Daggett of New Haven.” I think that’s David Daggett (1764-1851), a Connecticut jurist and Congressman. Daggett was only eleven years old during the Battle of Brooklyn. He was growing up in Attleboro, and never served in the Continental Army.

Stiles said Fish, Daggett, and “others” told the same story, so the anecdote was evidently widespread. However, none of the many men who were supposedly present at the moment appears to have left a firsthand account.

4 comments:

Mount Independence Coalition said...

One "victory" of sorts occured just two months later. Sir Guy Carleton turned his 6000-plus force around and headed back to Canada when faced with the 10,000-man army at Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga at the end of October. Not a battle, just a show of force and a strong position on Mount Independence.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Eneas Munson of New Haven served under a Capt. Henry Daggett of New Haven when Washington sent a detachment to "scour out Morrisiania," according to Munson's son, Charles Monson (he changed the spelling of the family's name). I wonder if this is the Daggett referred to. -- Joe Bauman

J. L. Bell said...

There were other Daggetts in New Haven, to be sure, but for people in the mid-1800s I think the phrase "Judge Daggett of New Haven" would have meant David Daggett first and foremost.

Chaucerian said...

This anecdote about Washington, which is not consistent with the controlled personality we see from contemporary sources, appeared at a time when the country was preoccupied by questions of what behavior demonstrated manliness and honor. In particular, as the country tried to make sense of the Civil War, picturesque manly behaviors were appealing -- such as that described here.