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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Monday, February 03, 2014

Samuel Ely and the “Plunder Master General”

It took several months for Samuel Ely to respond to the accusation that militia colonel William Williams lobbed down at him from Vermont after the Battle of Bennington. But when he did, Ely had some impressive allies on his side.

On 13 Nov 1778, the Connecticut Gazette of New London published two new messages from Vermont:
Benington, Sep. 5, 1778.

These Certify, that Mr. Samuel Ely, the Preacher, who [was] in the two bloody Battles at Benington, and behaved with the greatest Honor, Valiantry and Courage in both Actions, and all the other Accounts did, when desired, appear before the Court of Enquiry, and made a handsome Defence relative to the Plunder he had taken; as he said what he had taken was at the point of the Sword, as a Volunteer for his groaning, bleeding Country; and he further said, he supported himself and lived upon his own Money while in Camp, and was at no charge to his Country. And the Court being fully satisfied with what he said and what he did, they never ordered Mr. Ely to be advertised, nor stigmatized, to my certain Knowledge, as I was both a Member and Clerk of that Court, at the same Time. This I solemnly declare as real Fact, and accordingly I request this to be published both by my own and Mr. Ely’s desire.

SAM ROBISON; Captain, and Clerk of that Court of Enquiry.

Wilmington, Sept. 11, 1788.
To the PUBLIC.

We the Committee of Safety, are very sorry we are obliged to inform the World, that Williams, who advertised Mr. Ely in Hartford Papers, after Benington Battle, should act such a dirty, scurrilous Part as to advertise Mr. Ely in the Name of the Court of Enquiry, when we are absolutely certain the Court never had it in their Hearts to do it, as appears by the Records of the Clerk and other good Evidence we have obtained; and what adds to the Guilt of Williams in his cruel and abusive Conduct towards Mr. Ely is his boldly and openly denying that he ever ordered Mr. Ely to be advertised, but as he did prove a Coward in leaving the Field in Time of Action, so Mr. Ely taking his Place and Command, the World will at once judge why he wickedly advertised Mr. Ely; We therefore declare that Williams whom the Soldiers universally called Plunder Master General, has acted like himself, and abused Mr. Ely without the least Cause or Reason; And as to Mr. Ely, we all know that General [John] Stark said, if he had five Thousand such Men as Mr. Ely, he would drive Burgoyne and his Army to the D___. Besides, we are sorry that Mr. Ely should be so treated by Williams and some others, when no Man could exert himself more for his distressed Country then he has done in various Instances.

Signed by the Committee of Safety for Wilmington, in Vermont State.

N.B. This we request to be printed in any of the Printing-Offices in Connecticut.
So according to those four men (whose names I confirmed are in Vermont records), Williams had neither a valid reason nor the authority to call for Ely’s arrest. And according to three of them, Williams had shirked his own duty as a militia officer during the Bennington campaign even though that meant forgoing his habitual opportunities for plunder.

In fact, if those Vermonters were telling the truth, the list of things Williams had accused Ely of stealing the year before while leading the Wilmington militia might actually have been items he would have taken for himself. (So no wonder Williams was so upset.)

TOMORROW: How this dispute has been treated in the history books.

[The image above is a latter-day portrait of Gen. John Stark.]

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