Friday, June 21, 2013

Constant Belcher: Father of the Tie-Died (Hunting) Shirt

The adoption of the hunting shirt was one of the first efforts to achieve a level of uniformity in the Continental Army.  Caped hunting frocks and shirts made of fringed linen were worn by the frontier rifle companies that marched from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to the siege of Boston in the summer of 1775.  Congress soon determined to furnish each soldier in New Jersey's two battalions with a hunting shirt, and surviving records from this period indicate that patterns for these garments were actively sought by officers in both regiments to clothe their men.  Hunting shirts were probably the most common garment worn by long service members of the New Jersey Line during the Monmouth Campaign in 1778 and were frequently issued to other regiments.

   Although most commonly made from natural or white colored Onsaberg linen, there were hunting shirts in other shades during the Revolution, ranging from purple (issued early in the war to the 2nd Virginia regiment) to green for the 1st Continental regiment after their wool regimentals were lost among the supplies captured when Fort Lee was taken in November of 1776. 

   Nowhere else however, do we find evidence that Continental soldiers wore more flamboyantly patterned hunting shirts than those described in the following entry in the Belcher Journal: the earliest known examples of a fashion trend that would not become popular again in America until the 1960s.


"[Febr. 1st 1781] – This Day Colo. Barber did list ye Jersey detachments for to go
with him on Command to Virginna with Marquee Fayette / Capt. Ogden to be Senior Captain of the Jersey troops & wair he does go so also I must fallow / Ye men take it hard to be at such remove from our Support but have not ye stomach for hangingsThose most warm for Soljers Rights are to remain behind with ye Army in Jersey [a reference to the late January mutiny of the Jersey Line: Ed].

We are to be Lights oncet, but have not our old Finery save ye red & black Plumes brot over from Frogland & divers tails of Hors for our Capps /  Capt. Ogden's Coy. did draw hunting shirts of indifferent quality & so made shift to dye them uniform / Thair not being walnut husks nor larkspur nor yet the urine of cows to make enuf dye for ye Full detachment, each Mess did add one colour to its camp kettle & dye
d them all in turn /  Did find that knottin' ye shirts helped fill ye pots & sett ye Dye most curiously in rain-bow patterns / Ye men all good humourd in our coats of many cholers, tho' Colo. Barber lookd madder red to see 'em on parade.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Belcher the Hollow Jockey



In early Spring, 1779, Colonel Matthias Ogden of the 1st New Jersey regiment found himself in considerable hot water.  One of his officers, Captain Isaac Morrison, brought court martial charges against him, listed as follows in General Orders:
  • 1st. Neglect of duty in general. 
  • 2nd. Repeated frauds against the Public and also the officers and soldiers under his command.
  • 3rd. Cowardice.
  • 4th. Gaming.
Washington considered these accusations to be “of a very high nature”, and a number of other officers who had served under Ogden were called to give witness.  After several weeks deliberation, a verdict was returned that acquitted the Colonel of the first three charges (the third with honor) but found him guilty of the last.  This was a violation of Washington’s standing orders against gambling, which the Commander in chief considered “the most pernicious Vice that can obtain in an Army.” 

There was a thorough scolding in General Orders, after which the chastized Colonel was returned to his duty.  After all, he was something of a favorite of Washington’s, a valuable intelligence officer and brave commander whose services would soon be needed for the planned campaign that summer against the Iroquois. 

The same cannot be said for a number of those who gave testimony at Colonel Ogden’s court martial.  Several of these men transferred from the regiment or left the army, and one – Ensign Asher Levy, the only Jewish officer known to have served in the Jersey Line – was imprisoned under suspicion of being a Loyalist and later escaped to New York. 

There was one witness, however, who was in all likelihood not hostile to the Colonel (though his testimony may have been the most damning).  This was former militia Brigadier General Matthias Williamson, who like Ogden was from a respected Elizabethtown, NJ family and part of the same social set.  I have often wondered whether it was he, a gentleman not subject to military discipline, who may have admitted at trial to playing what he considered a harmless game of chance with the Colonel, but there is no transcript available of the court martial proceedings, aside from its outcome. 

One section of Belcher Journal, however, does provide tantalizing clues about the nature of the gambling debt that the Colonel incurred, and how he managed to settle them, as well as new insight into what got Captain Morrison's breeches all in a twist.  As usual, Belcher plays a prominent, though unwitting part in what transpires.
"[Febr. 13th 1779] – This Day Colo. Ogden dined with Gen’l Maxwell & Maj. [Aaron] Ogden at Williamson’s in Eliza. Town / did Serve at table whilst ye Gentle men convers’d on divers matters - all agree ye Prospect of our Neighbours the British at Stataan [Island] causing Mischief most likely.

Colo. Ogden spoke exceedin’ fond of his stallion -  Major Gen’l so called - 7/8 blooded sixteen hands high & as well made as any horse in this state / Gen’l Williams’n did propose a wager ‘gainst his own Irish Horse– Skewball by name – to run 3 two mile heats ye length of Broad street to Stone Bridge & back, ye stakes to be these same Beasts / Colo. Ogden did blinch at ye High nature of the Purs but agree’d as a man of honor / Maj. Ogden bid me ride Jockey for his brother, which I thot hard service as little Billy Shoemaker of Meeker’s Troop rides for Williamson.

[Febr. 14th 1779] Ye terms are set, each Hors to carry 9 stone, Shoemaker did way in at under Eight & I being sumwot over wait need be strip’t to small cloaths only & puk’d Till  a most Hollow Jockey / A number of persons with ye Army put up side wagers tho’ gaming ‘gainst regulation.

Maj. Gen’l had ye lead thru two courses but hard by ye Bridge at ye last turn came all a crupper over  Capt. Morrison having just posted guard to that Place / this Gentle man wuz compell’d by our passage to redeploy with sum haste into ye River to his grate discomfit & Mortification.   Did spur with zeal to overtake Williamson’s nag but all for naught as Skewball come aprancin’ & adancin’ across ye Line.

[Febr. 26th 1779] This day did hear Colo. Ogden to be charg’d at Court Martial for what I know not by sum sor-head Gentlemen of ye Battalion.

[Apr. 2nd 1779] Gen’l Washing’n did take ye Colonel to ye Woodshed in Gen’l orders this Day for gaming – certain ‘twill fair wors for those as made fals claim at Tryal.

[Apr. 17th 1779] To day ye papers do report Will Cover This Season at Eliza. Town ye noted hors MAJ. GEN’L Late ye property of Col. Matthias Ogden, at forty dollars ye season, or 20 the single leap, ye money to be paid at ye stable door, at the first covering of ye mare / Ye losin’ of his fine Stallion must grieve ye Colo. full Sore, but to know pimp Shomaker gets a dollar every toss, it grieves me ten times more."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Belchers Breeches



The Belcher Journal has truly revolutionized our understanding of the life of the common soldier in the Continental Army.  Thanks to Belcher, we now know that there were camp counselors at Valley Forge and that von Steuben’s “Model Company” was outfitted in wigs made from goatskin backpacks.  Those of us who glean through every scrap of available information about the material culture of the Jersey troops have been astonished to learn from Belcher that in 1777, one company of the 1st NJ was outfitted in reverse colored regimentals thanks to a miscommunication between him and the contract tailors. 

While it is well known that New Jersey provided large numbers of buckskin breeches to its soldiers in the first years of the war, only the Belcher Journal provides crucial information about the way that these were sized and fitted to the troops.

[Jun. 13th 1777] – To Day after the General ye men wair issued leathern breechers by Quartmastr Periam -  Ye officers sized thair Coys & Directd
 Them to be breechd  – ye men grately distemperd as  breeches are but large size only & much vexd as to how to fall out without thair fallin’ down – Colo. Ogden spoke warmly & orderd Battalion form colum – Did march at Quick Step into a brook wair ye ford was half fathom deep - Oncet on ye far side Colo. Ogden did order ye men groundd & stackd head to foot much as a snake rail fence to dry in the Sun – Lay to ‘til nooning when ourn leather breeches fit all alike as to a second skin.”

Monday, March 18, 2013

Belcher and Baseball



The origins of our national pastime are as shrouded in myth as the stories that are told about the founding of our nation.  Historians of the development of baseball have long acknowledged that the game did not emerge fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus in a Cooperstown meadow as the brainchild of Abner Doubleday. 

There are numerous references to games played with bats and balls in America going back to the 18th century.  A 1791 bylaw in Pittsfield Massachusetts, for example, reads as follows:

At a legal Meeting of the Inhabitants of the Town of Pittsfield qualified to vote in Town Meetings, holden on Monday the fifth day of Sept. 1791 Voted
The following ByeLaw, for the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House in said Town ______ viz,
Be it ordained by the said Inhabitants that no Person, an Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball[emphasis added], Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House __ and every such Person who shall play at any of the said Games or other Games with Balls within the Distance aforesaid, shall for any Instance thereof, forfeit the Sum of five schillings to be recovered by Action of Debt brought before any Justice of the Peace to the Use of the Person who shall sue and prosecute therefor _____
And be it further ordained that in every Instance where any Minor shall be guilty of a Breach of this Law, his Parent, Master, Mistress or Guardian shall forfeit the like Sum to be recovered in Manner and to the Use aforesaid ____”

These games of protoball were also known during the Revolution.  Members of the 3rd New Jersey played a ball game called Whirl while on garrison duty in the Mohawk Valley in 1776, involving some of the local Indians, certain officers and even the chaplain.  

It was with great pleasure, then, that I discovered the following passages in the Belcher Journal that also make reference to the antecedents of baseball in the Jersey Brigade, and even more significantly, provide the earliest known reference to one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time.

[May 3rd 1777] “To Day some Gentlemen of the 3rd battalion exercised among us with great familiarity with leathern ball and washing beetle.  
[May 6th 1777] A most diverting play at ball this day / saw ye Neue Yorckers  in striped ticken overhawls contest  a considerable time with sum Easterners in red hose. 
[May 8th 1777] Sum of ye men Playd again at base-ball / Am more a crank than ballist, for tho’ I did catch one foul tick at short scout still muff’d another daisy cutter & wair dead at Home point.
[May 10th 1777] After drill this Day made 2₤ 7s 10 a-sellin’ Cracker jack & water beer at ye ball game.”

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Belcher and Arnold's Treason

Benedict Arnold's betrayal of the cause of American liberty has made his name a byword for the blackest of traitors.  In late September, 1780, while in command of the important Hudson River fortification at West Point, Arnold arranged to hand over detailed plans and other information to Major John André, the British adjutant-general and spymaster, in exchange for General Rank in the British army and £20,000.  The plot was foiled when André was captured between enemy lines under an assumed name and subsequently hanged, while Arnold slipped away before he could be apprehended.  

Captain Aaron Ogden was at this time in command of a company of the 1st NJ serving as Light Infantry under Maj. General Lafayette in the Hudson Highlands.  In a posthumous personal memoir published by one of his descendants, Ogden recounted how he was engaged by General Washington to pass through the lines under a flag of truce and offer to exchange the unfortunate André for Arnold, only to be informed that "a deserter is never given up."  

Ogden makes no mention of his waiter Constant Belcher during this episode, but fortunately for posterity the Belcher Journal also covers this time period.  It sheds new light not only on his activities at the time of Arnold's treason but on a personal brush with history that might well have changed the course of the war, not to mention American literature, had not the hand of fate intervened.

21st  Sept. [1780]  To Day Cap. Ogden instrustd  me with Dispatches for Genl. Washington, off avisitin' ye Froglanders in Neuport / Accordingly did take Passage over ye water to  Continental Village where I oated my horse & did have a dram or 2 ye weather being Very Cold & Blustering & so missd  my Road & got most Confoundedly lost /  Towards night had no fire & hobbld my horse lest ye Cow Boys or Skinners Abscond with it, tho' did Fashion a Wigwam so as not to perish from Cold. 


22nd Sep. - This Day a hard Frost & Prodigious fog / Met on ye way a Dutchman one Brom Bones a hard looking rascal learnt I was far off course for Yankeedom & even now on Neutral Ground / Did tarry at Tarrytown at van Tassel's wair they had much merriment for a Harvest Home / Did find ye cyder much to my liking & also th' Psalmody of Crane ye Schoolmaster /  A curious tradition in these Parts is to fashion Lanthorns from ye flesh of ye Pompion /  Ye wind blew Very chilly & they had a Warm fire I sat down close to it / Did share a flask of Malmsey with a merchant of Nieu Yorck one James Anderson had a round hat & blue Cloak his features most delicate / Anderson claimed a fair hand at scribbling & offered to make for me my Portrait if he had but Paper & it seemd to me that I had Some & found a few Leaves in my Dispatch case that had writing on one side only & these I give to him at which he appeard most pleased / I know not whether or no he made of them a Good Likeness for at Last ye Heat of ye fire overcame me & I fell down like a Log & faintd away.

23rd Sept. - Awoke before ye cock's Crow to find my horse gone & Dispatches as well without even a Rude sketch in recompense / Apprehending my condition to be Most Perilous did find another Mount in ye great black horse of Menheer Bones & taking up a Grate Pompion for a glim went Hell for Leather after ye villain Anderson /  On passing a boneyard did see a figure that skulkd thair & taking Him for ye Thief let fly with the landhorn / He did fall like a Stone but unhappily proved to be Crane & thot it best not to Tarry more in Tarrytown but to cross the North River & so return to my Duty.

24th  Sept.  -  Nothing of importance this day /  No mention of Dispatches.

25th Sep. -  Genl Washington 'tis said to be most vexed with Genl Arnold./  Maj Tallmadge in conference with Capt. Ogden on matters of Base Treachery could make but little sense of thair Talk tho' appears to involve Vultures or Buzzards & Plans of ye Fort at the Point & other documents of a Sensitive nature found on a British Officer now a Prisoner.

26th Sept. - Genl Arnold proved a traitor & gone over to the British /  Prisoner one Maj. John Andray had on him such documents as to shew his Crime /  Cap. Ogden says this Andray was taken ye very Time I staid by Tarrytown by three roguish chaps who found him on ye Road without Uniform in disguise even as a Niew Yorck Merchant with Dispatches in his Stockings /  Am now most unwell.

27th  Sept.  - Still feeling poorly / Understand the Prisoner is a gentleman with no little talent for portrait-making / Had a puke & went early to bed.

29th Sep. - Maj Andray under Sentence of Death as a Spy.

30th Sept - Summonded to Head Quarters with Cap. Ogden expecting the Worst /  Grate Relief to learn we are to Pass through the Lines under a Flag & seek to Exchange Maj. Andray or Anderson for ye Traitor Arnold /  Accordingly went together with an Escort to the British post wair Cozen Aaron gave his message & ye officer sent down to Genl Clinton at thair Head Quarters for instruction / Took some refreshment & also some first quality Sausages for ye Journey back / After 2 houres came ye reply a Dessert is Never given up so left without prospect of anything Sweet after our meal.

October ye Second -  On this Day Maj. Anderson or Andray so called was hangd as a Spy / Many Officers much affectd to see a fellow Gentleman meet a low End on a halter, but for me it seemd Just Deserts /  In ye After noon Cap. Ogden did shew me some of the papers as were Found on the Spy, including Returns of ye Strength of diverse battalions & a fair rendition of one of our Light Infantry, perhaps says he even of our own good Jersey Regiment / Did venture in reply that this could not be, for ye fellow in that picture did Lie at ease in a most Unsoldierly fashion & appeard to have ye head of a Pompion / Beyond this saith not.