Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Alive, Alive, Oh No: Belcher and Matters of Precendence in the Factious 1st NJ

The Battle of Springfield New Jersey (June 23rd, 1780) was the last, large land engagement in the Middle States during the American Revolution.  A Crown force of more than 5,000 troops from the New York garrison under Hessian Lieut. General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, crossed from Staten Island on the night of June 6-7 and was held at Connecticut Farms by determined Jersymen in Maxwell's Brigade and local militia coordinated by Maxwell's A.D.C and former Brigade Major Aaron Ogden.  Pushing on toward Morristown, Knyphausen's columns were recalled when a staff officer arrived from Sir Henry Clinton, who was on his way northward from his successful operations in the South with a plan of his own that this unauthorized raid threatened to upset.  Leaving the village a smoking ruin (and the body of the parson's wife and distant Ogden relation Hannah Caldwell lying dead in the street), the invading troops withdrew the following evening to occupy Elizabethtown.  During the next weeks British reinforcements arrived by sea while Washington's army awaited developments from its refuge in the Watchung mountains, and the Jersey Brigade occupied forward positions below. 

Two roads led from Elizabethtown West toward Springfield and Hobart Gap, which was the key to reaching the Continental Army encampment at Morrisotwn. Knyphausen's force, now with Clinton's blessing, advanced along both of these during the Battle of Springfield in an attempt on Hobart Pass. Along the Galloping Hill Rd., Col. Israel Angell's 2nd Rhode Island Regiment defended the first bridge over the Rahway River, with Col. Israel Shreve's 2nd NJ in support along with Proctor's Artillery.  The bridge on the Vauxhall Rd. was defended by about 50 dragoons from the 2nd Partisan Corps under Major Henry "Lighthorse" Lee, supported by Col. Matthias Ogden's 1st NJ and some local militia. As it happened, the position was outflanked the day of the Battle by the Queen's Rangers and NJ Volunteers (loyalists), and Lee was compelled to execute a fighting retreat.


It is interesting to note that it was Major Lee, and not Col. Matthias Ogden, who had command of the Continental forces in this sector.  There is strong evidence, though, that Col. Ogden was indisposed and unable to take the field.  In closing a letter to their father dated June 15th, 1780 (published in Wheeler's Ogden Family genealogy) in which he describes the fight at Connecticut Farms, the Colonel's brother Maj. Aaron Ogden notes: "Colo. Ogden has been ill, but is now fast recovering."


The 1st NJ was also without another of its senior officers, Major Daniel Piatt, who had died of disease at Jockey Hollow in Morristown on April 16th, 1780 and had not yet been replaced.  Not only that, but its Lieutenant Colonel, David Brearley had retired the previous August and was now New Jersey's Chief Justice.  One of Ogden's former captains, Major John Conway, (having served in the meantime as Major in the 4th and then 3rd NJ), had been promoted on August 23rd, 1779 by Major General Sullivan during the campaign against the Iroquois to fill Brearley's vacancy as Lt. Colonel.   Lt. Col. Conway would have been senior to Major Lee, and by the rules of precedence should have been in command of the force at Vauxhall Rd.  Bridge if he were available to serve, but his appointment by Sullivan was not confirmed by the State of New Jersey until March 17th, 1780.  His ultimate status as Lt. Colonel was not clearly resolved until Washington himself included a report to that effect in a communication on July 4th, 1780 with General Greene: nearly two weeks after the Battle of Springfield.


Conway was no friend of Col. Ogden's, having given evidence at Court Martial against the Colonel in 1779, after having been brought up himself on court martial charges by the Colonel just three months before.  Perhaps he delayed what would not have been a pleasant reunion, or perhaps the uncertain status of his appointment kept him away from the army altogether until after Washington's letter to Greene.  He and Colonel Ogden managed not to serve together during the remainder of 1780, with Ogden on command with 4 light companies in Lafayette's Light Division in early August leaving rest of the regiment under Conway.


Until now the best that historians could do was to speculate as to the reason it was Lee and not Conway had command at Vauxhall Rd. Bridge.  A close reading of a recently deciphered fragment from the Belcher Journal, however, opens yet another possibility that would account both for Conway's absence and for Colonel Ogden's prolonged illness that kept him on the sidelines.  Once again, as an example of the "small man" theory of historical contingency, Constant Belcher plays a singular, if unwitting role the developments.



"June 3rd[1780] - Engagd To Day a-waiting table for Scotch Willie [Brig. Gen William Maxwell]'s Jazry Officrs / Col. Shreve [of the 2nd NJ] now near 23 stone & large as a Knox /   Maj. Roz [Brigade Major John Ross, of the 2nd NJ] & Majr. Ogden [Captain Aaron Ogden of the 1st NJ, Maxwell's A.D.C. and former Brigade-Major] ingrate agitation how to be sittin' sich Gent'lmen as have we by Senority. 

Colo. Ogden
[Matthias Ogden of the 1st NJ] cannot abide Colo.De Hart [Lt. Colonel William De Hart of the 2nd NJ, formerly of the 1st] nor Colo. Conway [Lt. Col. John Conway of the 1st NJ, formerly of the 1st, 4th and 3rd NJ] since ye courts martial / Colo. Dayton [Elias Dayton of the 3rd NJ) and Colo. Spencer [Oliver Spencer, of Spencer's Additional Continental Regiment] are Colo. Ogden's father-in-low & bother-in-lieu & of his faction / Col Barber [Lt. Colonel Francis Barber of the 3rd NJ, Assistant Inspector-General]wuz marid to por Cozin Mary [Ogden, sister of Matthias and Aaron], now diseasd / A fine Mess thay make of it Sartin ye Claret shall be aflowin' along wid ye port if thair wuz no Neutral Ground to be found at dinar. 

Colo. Shreve did present a bushel of Barnegat Arsters as a Peas Offalling, tho not in brine as any Bayman worth his salt would know but fresh
took of a Month with no Ar & unfit for humane consumshun.  Thair was no time to warn Colo. Ogden before he did set to, but saw no harm in letting Colo. Conway eat his fill before enforming Mag. Ogden of that West Jarzy natural [Shreve]'s foe pass as ye Froglanders say.  Both orificers did directly trot to ye sinks & so to bed agrownin'.  As we have no Majr fit for to Command ye Battal'n, Capt. Forman [John Forman, eldest Captain of the 1st NJ] may serve.  Prey our neighburs ye British be Snugg enuf in Niew Yorck town & Staaten Eland whilst our Colo. does remain dishabille.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Belcher and the Sarpent of Lake Champlain


Whether experimenting with demi-submersible warfare or joining a "Flash Mob"  on New York's Bowling Green, 
Constant Belcher's activities in 1776 for the most part appear to have been undertaken in a volunteer or civilian capacity.  The Belcher Journal records that our erstwhile diarist enlisted in his cousin Matthias Ogden's 1st New Jersey Regiment on January 1st, 1777, but until recently Larry and I were unsure whether he  had any formal military service prior to that date. 

Last week, however, we succeeded in deciphering a passage from the Belcher Journal that reveals that in the Autumn of 1776 he did, in fact, briefly join his fellow Jerseymen with the Northern Army,  but as regimental sutler rather than a private soldier.  Belcher's resourcefulness in keeping the supply lines open is matched only by an uncanny predilection for misadventure, but neither the successive loss of his various conveyances  nor an encounter with a beast of legend managed to stay this courier from the completion of his appointed rounds.


"Sept 23rd [1776] - Engagd To Day at New Ark by one Lieut. Costigen of the 1 st Batt'n Jarzy Line to go a-Sutling  &etc to Ticonderogay thair being grate wont of Provision in that Quarter / Receipt from Colo. Whines manifest details, viz: 320 Rigiment'l Coats; 310 Leather britches; 200 Hatts; 300 worst stockins; 250 waste coats or Jackets; 400 linen sharts; 500 pear shoes; 300 cartouch; 240 bayonets; 300 stave canteens; 3 barrels Apple Jack; 2 cases Madeira; 3 pipes Wine; 20 barrels salt beef; 4 wheels cheez; 1 razor; 1 cake soap / Wair to find such Luxarays on short Notice I know not.

Sept 26th - Have securd fine sailing Garvey from a disaffected Person in Bergen to transport up ye North River / Taken on a Scot, one De Lance, to hand reef n' stear / Thair bein' not all that could be wishd in ye Provision Line have acceptd substitutes, viz: 133 coats of indiff'rent make colors various; 56 fleece britches with ye wool side in; 103 stripd Trowzers; 203 checkd  ditto; 105 round felt Hatts; 136 leathern caps with horstail crests scribd  Nova Caesaria; 25 knit hats broiderdJarzy Divels; 144 Mariner Jackets with brass buttons; 3 linen shirts; 250 dancing pumps; 240 belts with 3 old pattern 9 hole ord'nance pouches for each ; assorted drinking gourds; 400 belt knives; 30 barrels Apple Jack; 40 cases Maderia; 10 pipes wine; 10 barrels salt herrin'; 20 barrels oysters; 4 wheels cheez; half cake soap.

Sept 28th - This Day before dawn set out from deHart's Landing toward Pauls Hoek.  Due to ye Ministerial shipping ran in clos to ye Jerzy shore / Ye tide did run to our favour / Receivd salut from our Forts Washington & Lee though came near to stove from roundshot landing close by / Had a running duello w/ HMS Rose on Tappan Sea, our swivel made but little impression an sufferd sum damage to the topside stores from her long nines, our fortune to have ye weather gauge & made Stoney Poent with out pursuit.

Sept 29th -  This day did spend a-patchin' wholes below water with fleece briches.

Sept 30th - This day reachd Kings Town / Had naught but oysters & Maderia for belly timber / de Lance provd a steady fellow even with a pipe of wine aboard.

Oct the 1st - To Day made Greenbush /Gen'l Schuyler did urge us make haste to Fort George as Ticonderogay expects Burgoyne to come a-visitin'..  

Oct 2nd - Disembarkd To day at Glens Foils ye head of navigation on this River.  Thair being scarce transport did hire 40 teams Oxen paid with a portion of ye Regimental Supplies that were less needful viz: shirts, coats, jackets.  Purchased also a fine amphibious Battoe fitted with axels, replacd ye Wheels with Cheezes as they fit naught on board.

Oct 4th - This day made Fort George hard by wair my Father fit with the Blues in the French War; found ye wheels of cheeze much reducd from ye bad road.

Oct 5th - de Lance made Grate slaughter of cattle now packd in barrels with ye herrin to make good our trifling losses.

Oct 6th - Set out on ye Lake to the North, making Sabati Poent by sunset wair ye bones of Jazrymen do lie thick below.  Father lost his hair here.

Oct. 8th - By sum misfortune made sail from Lake George to Champlain not bein' apprized of the Monstrous rapids at La Shoot / all wrack 'n ruin below an' half drownded, ye Batoo a total Loss. / 

Oct. 9th - much taken with selvage.  de Lance decamped.

Oct. 10th. - Have selvag d a part of ye supplies, all in barrels filled with I know not whot/ As the Jarzy redoubt is but a short distance beyond Fort Ticonderogay have contrivd a flotation of barrels, tyd end to end with hempen rope/ Happily ye wind bein' favourable have made a Grate Kite from stripd Trowsers to make sail / The wind being sharp did miss landfall and carried far down ye Lake toward the Ministerial Navey.

Oct 11  -  This day a sharp Cannonade heard from sum Island ahead, the wind slack an' kegs all strung out like to a coilin' Tale.

Oct 12th - This day thot to be rescud by Gen' Arnold coming fast up Lake with the Ministerial Navy at his heels but they scuttled too fast to hitch a ride.  Ye gunboats of our invinterate Enimy now came upon me, but just then ye Wind lifted my kite and ye barrels most agitated / Now between us, perhaps, rose some fearsome Sea Monster for they hove to a-cryin' "A Sarpent!" & did make my escape/ Did make sail forthwith back to Crown Point but loosing barrels on every quarter had but one left at landfall.

Oct 13th - Delivered this day 1 barrel oysters and half cake soap to the Jazry Troops / Finding them most distemperd a-feelin' ill used by the poor provision made for their Relief by our State incommoded by rumour of Sea Monsters ye heathen in these parts call Tatoskok an' most direfully like a grate Sarpant/ Ye Troops now electin' to March to home when contracts are up next Month.  Found pipe of wine floating below La Shoot, small compensation for ye hardships of this venture / Am resolv d to go no more into ye Grocers line this war while thair be Sarpents to contend with as well as Lobsters.. 

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.”