Friday, November 11, 2011

The Journal of C Belcher [Sept 1780] The Death of Genl Poor

The cause of death of General Enoch Poor has almost from the start been the subject of rumor and speculation. Most contemporary sources and academic scholars support the official version that he took sick in late August, 1780 and died of typhus or putrid fever.  The alternative hypothesis claims there was a massive cover up and the general was actually mortally wounded in an illegal duel with either a French officer or one of his subordinates.  

Constant Belcher's regiment had recently been assigned to a new Brigade of Light Infantry under General Poor in the Marquis de Lafayette's division, so it is with great interest that Larry and I examined his journal entries for this period. We were as astonished to find that Belcher has his own version of events that not only turns all prior theories on their heads, but also makes tantalizing reference to the complicity of a "Sgt.of the Sappers & Miners" who it is tempting to speculate may have been Private Yankee Doodle himself, Joseph Plumb Martin,  the most famous enlisted man diarist of the Revolution.  Of course, there is no definitive proof it was he, as there were other Sergeants in this small unit present with Washington's Army at this time.  His own Journal is silent on the matter of the death of General Poor. 

Also of interest, though of a much less scandalous nature, Belcher makes reference in these excerpts to what he calls variously "heathens", "Heath Cocks" and "Cedar Patridges" : all names for the now extinct Heath Hen.  His complaints about the lack of meat rations are supported almost word for word by the letters of George Washington during this same period.  One wonders if Belcher in his capacity as waiter to Jersey Brigade Major Aaron Ogden might have had access to any of  Washington's correspondence.

Sept 3rd  [1780]  To day clowdy & warm / Had only fire-cake an water / Yesterday was last of ye salt beef & Still feeling its effects.

Sept 4th                 Cool with fog patches / Receivd Flower ration only / The whole Army will be again this day without Meat.

Sept 5th                 Very hot / For Sev’ral days now on Short allowance / Genl orders against plundering inhabitants of Bergen tho for ye most part inveterate Tories & unfriendly to Congress / Our situation most DEPLORABLE in respect to meat / Did hear Sgt. of sappers & Miners saw Cedar patridges or Heathens whilst a-cutting fascines in ye sprout land beyond Camp /   Resolvd to go a-fowlin’.    

Sept 6th                 This morning before day Brake & in Grate want of belly timber did take up my firelock loadd with small shot only & left Camp to seek ye Heathcock / As our rigiment now Traind  as Lt. infantry, advanced  smartly into thicket in open order / Fancied I herd ye fowl a-drummin ahead & saw its plumage behind a low bush /  By some mischance there being a prodigious myst my firelock fail’d to spark but much surprised when Some body from another quarter made his full discharge / Saw that same Sgt. of Sappers & miners also after fowls/  Thot he Lookd most smugg at stealin a march on me but he did return directly with doleful count’nance / Had in hand not a bird for ye Pot but an officer’s Cap with red & black plume of ye Marquee’s Corpes of Light Inf.  / Did drop cap when saw me & showed his heels/ Made a reconnaissance / Discoverd not a patridge of ye Heath but a Genl officer on his face having stept into ye bushes as I suppose to ease himself /  Disinclind to make further acquaintance so cannot say if he yet lived or no /  Thought best not to be discoverd in vicinity & took Roundabout way back to Camp / Rest of this day trying not to be Seen / 

Sept 7th                 This day Gen’l Poor of our Brigade said by some to be sick abed in his Marquis.   Sgts. of Sappers & Miners scarce as hens in our Camp.   For all ‘tis sport to have ye Engineer Hoist with his own partrig, yet Felt most unwell under some misprision of Treason. 

Sept 8th                 This night had word that Gen’l Poor is dead from the putrid feavor.  Rumor in camp Gen’l receivd mortal hurt in secret duel with French officer but cannot speak to ye Truth of it.  

Sept 9th                 To Day warm & fine / Et fire-fire cake and glad to have it / Resolvd to go no more a-fowlin with sappers & Miners.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Journal of Constant Belcher [April, 1777]: Regimental Coats

There is very limited documentation for the uniform of the 1st NJ Regiment (2nd Establishment) of the Continental Line in 1777.  Historian John Rees has done more research on this topic than anyone else, and according to him; "There is no information available for the 1st...Jersey Regiment...concerning the colors of any regimental coats worn by the soldiers during 1777. No deserter descriptions survive for the 1st New Jersey for 1777".  Rees deduces based on returns of clothing issued by the Clothier General that the 1st Regiment received 408 uniform coats issued "probably in June" [1777], but whether these were blue faced with red as with the 3rd Regiment or in other cuts and colors has not up to now been established in the surviving historical record.

The Belcher Journal, however, indicates that at least one company received uniform coats of blue and red cloth through the efforts of Paymaster Lieutenant Aaron Ogden and his dogsbody, Constant Belcher, although with unintended consequences.

Apr 1st [1777]                       This morning sent on Command by ordr Lt. Ogden / Set out for Elizath to procure enuf brodcloath to make coats for Col’s compny of our rigiment /  Much teaged from goin afoot by Gallopen Hill road /  Stayed this night at the Farms at Wade’s - excelent pidgin pie.

Apr. 2nd                                  This day came to Eliza. Town, wair instructd taylors to make of Cozen Matthias brodclothe  8& thirty red faced blue regimentals/ Told to return a fortnight Hence.

Apr. 3rd                                  This day went a-visitin to hear the news /   Brothers of Maj. Hetfield notorious Tories with the Greens on Staatan Isl. / The Maj. himself, tho a Hero at  Montreser’s in the last Campain, now in the Common Gaol at New Ark for passin false bills.

Apr. 4th                                  Went to horses an took £3 & 6 on bobtailed nag, with Bay to show.

Apr. 5th                                  Went to meeting /  Had a fine sermon by Rev. Caldwell on the Wages of Sin / Parson C. keeps a brace of pistoles near to Hand if our disloyal Neighbors across the water come lookin for Salvation.

Apr. 6th                                  This Day herd the militia had a sharp fight at Quibbletown and drove the enimy with Small loss.

Apr. 7th                                  To Day had a diff’rence of Opinion over pair half boots with one of Meeker’s Horse /  Gave better than receivd  but lost the Argument – a pity as were a Good fit for me.  

Apr. 8th-13th                        In Guard House.

Apr. 14th                               Sentenced to Ride a rail 15 min. an returnd to my duty.

Apr. 15th                              This day give tailors Colo. Ogden’s letter of Credit /  Acceptd  barrel of  Coats for Colo.’s  Co. / Contrived Wheel barrow to Convey back to rigiment.  

Apr. 16th                                Made but 4 miles this day, stay’d this night at the Farms with Wades /  Et baked cheese and cider.

Apr. 17th                                Traitered wheel Barrow for Goat Cart and boer Goat /  Drove beast & burden back to Camp arrived after Dark /  Reported Lt. Ogden most agitated for news of my errand.

Apr. 18th                                This Morning at first light Broached barrel / Dismayd at finding Lt. Ogden’s order intended blue coats faced red an these the reverse like that of the Enimy.

Apr. 19th                                In Guard House.

Apr. 20th                               This Day received 12 lashes on my bare back & returnd to my duty /  Colo. Ogden most annoyed with Lt. Ogden over his waisted Cloathe /  At night I Reminded Cozen Aaron that musicians wear reverse colours also.

April. 21st                              This day on the road back to Elizath to procure 17 drums and 21 fifes for the Colo.’s Co. of this rigiment.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Constant Belcher and Sally Wister [May 1778]

The Diary of Sally Wister, a delightful 18-year-old Quaker girl who wrote with endearing charm and excitement about the comings and goings of gentlemen in uniform during the period that the Continental Army was at Valley Forge, is well known to scholars of the period.  Less well known is that Constant Belcher was among the callers noted in her diary on May 11th, 1778, in which she described Maj Aaron Ogden as genteel, with an Aquiline nose, but positively gushed over the Virginian Captain Cadwallader Jones.  Belcher's version contains elements of the visit that it seems Miss Wister out of delicacy declined to record.

May 10th 1778       Maj. Ogden come a crupper over the Wister girl /  Camp gospel discovers the Quaker lass a notorious flirt but Cozen Aaron will hear none of it / Grater than he have overcast on that shore without prospect of filling her oyster basket / Brigade now on the March to Germain Town wair Miss Wister abides and the Maj. of much a mind to go a-sparking.

May 11th                Mount’d To day a sory creatur fit only for Cozen Matthias’  tanyard back in Eliza. Town / Came ahead in van with Genl Maxwell, Maj. Ogden, Col. Brodhead just back from the Ohio Country, & Capt. C[adwallader] Jones, a southern Macaroni /  Stopt by Germain Town to dine with Wister & his brood /  Found thair also at table a Dr Moar /  Maj Ogden much incommoded by Capt. Jones attending the Mistress Wister / Seems much aswoon with him /  I deem her a flighty bird not easily caught in hand /  The prime piece is their girl Nelly, a likely battle hammed lass.  Took our dinner of journey cake and gammon in the Kitchen - put her through her paces between courses.   By some accident a gallipot of blackroot from the Doct’s bag fell into the Captain’s portion in consequence had copious puking at table /  Capt. J. much mortified and discomfit’d /  Had bottle of port that night from Maj. Ogden.”

The Belcher Journal [1776]: The Blue Mountain Valley Whaleboat Raid

One of the earliest exploits in revolutionary Elizabethtown, NJ was the waterborne expedition by townsmen in various private and militia capacities under Col. Dayton, along with 40 soldiers in the 1st NJ (1st Establishment) under Col. Alexander ("Lord Stirling") to capture a British supply ship 40 miles off Sandy Hook.  The Blue Mountain Valley Whaleboat Raid involved many community notables, including those mentioned in the Belcher Journal, for it seems that our diarist was also involved, albeit unwittingly, in this local initiative that received the thanks of Congress.  Belcher also reveals the fate of at least one of the Committee of Safety muskets, passed out to eager raiders, that failed to return to the community arsenal.

Jany 22nd [1776]     wether fair & cald / tried for winter flounder by snood an hook off dHart’s Pointe in O. Spenser’s whaleboat. /had indiff’rnt sucss an return’d shore / Happen’d upon rum swiggler in whaleboat took comfort therein.

Jany 23rd                awoke as I thot afflicted with Bedspins but found to my distress was still benighted & at sea/  Fear’d taken by Tory raiders but reveal’d to be Cozen Aaron & others known to me from Eliza. Town / Saw Spenser at the helm with Col. Dayton an schoolmaster Barber all fit to frighten the French.  Ask’d what was afoot & Cozen Aaron said there would soon be good sport/ At first light far out in Bay saw the Pretend Lord Starling with 40 odd of the 1st regt. of this Province in anuther vessl & each now commenc’d a-pulling to outpace th’ other/   Board’d an English ship on heels of Cozen Aaron who seem’d this Day more than half a Pyrate.  Capt. J. Dumpster struck his Colours to us/ much hussas and firing of Committee of Safety firelocks in celebration/ Prize is supply ship Blue Mountain Valley & stinks of swine, but has Hogsheads aplenty of good Porter praise be to God.

Jany 25th -              Made port at Eliza against contrary winds/ Vessel most unseaworthy/ Heard was 3 wks on the Coast without speaking any King’s ship an suffer’d grately from want of water/  8 hogs only remain out of 80 on manifest/  Told to expect share of plunder once vetted at Auction/  Took home Committee of Safety musket lest some Tory villain abscond with it.

Excerpts from the Journal of C[onstant] Belcher [1776-1777]

Larry Schmidt writes: "It appears that Belcher, like many others, had fled Elizabethtown with the fall of New York to the British Crown forces in the autumn of 1776. It is not clear where he wrote his journal entries but he probably relocated somewhere in Morris County as he mentions traveling to Morristown and references several other Ogden relatives. Below are entries that cover a period from late December 1776 and early January 1777 that make note of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton."

December 21st [1776]   A few days since some of our Soljers arrivd from ye northward / a sorrier lot could not have bin thot / the poor wretches but in rags still they seem happy to be agin in Jersey an by their hearths / much activity about Morristown with many from our Army / heard news that one of our Genls taken whilst laying abed with some woman near Baskin ridg / if true it does him no repute an serves him but rite

Decr 22d                  Sabbath  Cold did not go to meeting

Decr 23d                  Great talk at tavern that Genl Washinton and Army much beleegourd an in disarray in Pennsa opposite Huntn coy / some say that unless he should retain an army for spring Campain that fight for independence over / heard said that daily many who disposd to liberty now take oath of loyalty to King G accordin to Howes proclamation / devilish times / Hendk Johnson made stir for nockin a hat of an Officer an damning him for a Rebel Traitor / a scufel followed and he was arrested an much abusd for the Tory he is

Decr 24                    arose and soon after dawn set off for Morristown with intent to find Dr C{illegible - Camfiel?] that he mite lance a boil upon my back that has grown large as an Apple an is painful puttin me in bad humor / after 2 Miles my Leg hurt but struggld on til a Wagon of the army came upon me, the Waggoner takin pity upon me for a pour Soul let me ride with him / my boil lanced and great deel of pus purged from the cut / reternd to my lodgings after pint of grog

Decr 25                    slept in as did not feel well

Decr 26                    did nothing / back still soore from ye lancing

Dec 27                      Glorious news that Washinton has taken near thousand Hissians prisoner at Trentown

Decr 28                    Saw Wm Dehart who is commissd an Officer in first Regiment of this state under command of cozen Matt. Ogden / now recruiting soljers to inlist /

Decr 29                    Sabbath  went to meeting wear herd an excellent sirmon preachd

Decr 30                    rain and snow  played at wist

Decr 31st                   Went to market to sell a cow that fetched a dolar it being old

Jany 1st 1777           New Year upon us / marked by firing of Guns /dischargd my Gun in a comly Maid Servant to cozen Uriah / a delightful romp in Venus’s garden that kept us both warm on a cold Night / tho no great beauty as the Eliza. or N:Brunswick girls remarkable for her Breasts that appeard as large as muskmelons but the Sound of her Voice, which she constantly ingagd, being from the depths of Hell it so scratched the Ears

Jany 2d                    attended horses recd 3/

Jany 3d                    lay abed ill dreadfull burning fever an painful to piss / believe the Irish doxie gave me the French pox

Jany 4th                    set out for Docter / let some blod & purged me applied a poltice to my Bishp an gave me bolus

Jany 5                      felt better / venturd to tavern for some flip / all talk of the defeat of regulars at Prince Town by our Army / said that many kilt or wounded / Genl Mercer wounded by bayonets / redcoats played game of poke-a-pig / Hessians and regulars retreated to Brunswick / have determined to inlist in Cozen Matts rigement

Constant Belcher's Narrative [1777]: The Battle of Staten Island

Because of my scholarly interest in Sullivan's Staten Island Raid, I was thrilled to discover related entries in the Belcher Journal. They add detail to the only other firsthand accounts that have survived from Col. Ogden's sector during Sullivan's Staten Island Raid.  Maj. Joseph Bloomfield of the 3rd NJ mentions in his own Journal that his horse was wounded during the attack on the New Jersey Volunteers, though Belcher reveals that it may in fact have been incommoded by a surfeit of green apples.  Bloomfield estimates the plunder to be worth at least £10,000, but Belcher is the only account to provide an itemized list of a private's share. Ensign George Ewing, also of the 3rd NJ, further states that the plunder was sold at public venue upon the return to Elizabethtown:

Aug 21Ì  [1777] -      We marcht to Blazing Star this day wair Colo. Ogden told us to leaf our Knapsacks - those that had them - taking only our musquets, cartouch pouches, Bayonets and market wallets to carry our lawful plunder / He must have meant us to wear our Small cloathes as well but made no Mention of them, an Some in Capt. Conway’s and Capt. McMyer’s Cos. were reprimanded for appearing in ranks in naught but the clothes of Adamites /     Maj. Bloomfield bid me make a place for his horse in the boat for crossing to Cuckoldstown /  Gave it green pippins from his haversack So that it might ease our passage with a copious wind/

Augt. 22nd                    Colo. Ogden took command of our force, which was Some militia & our Regt an the 3rd rigiment, as Col. Dayton thought it best not to be associated with any Scheme of General Sullivan’s who is an addle pated Hector and like to get poor Soljers kilt /  Thair was but 3 boats betwixt 500 men and were near enough awash as we were a-going into Fresh Kills on the Flood tide /  Lost my Shoes in the marsh but got another pair from the Greens after we took their camp /  My Share of the plunder come to 6 pair trousers, three regimentals of the 1st NJV, 8 cocked hats with white tape, a powder horn Scrimshandered with Some English Doxie in a shift with a helmet with a pair of lions, three Silver Pocket watches, Some ladies Stays in a Most pleasing Scarlet colour, Some first quality Sausages, and a Pickering’s Musquet tool.  

Colo. Ogden Said we must take one of the Schooners that fell into our Hands and return to Elizabethtown with our prisoners an Plunder &  I went aboard since it was Clear as day that we had not enuf boats for our own return if we had to be Hasty about it / Heard them firing up Island and was Snugg back in Eliza. Town  when Genl. Sullivan brought back his division except his rear Guard whot got left behind as I knew they would /  Found my powdr horn filled with Spirits & got drunk as a wheel barrow.”

An Amazing Discovery!

I was deep in research with my friend and fellow reenactor, Larry Schmidt,  trying to document the original color of the field of a regimental flag – he favors a minty green (which he claims is "refreshing"), while I am holding out for Jersey drab – when we made an extraordinary discovery.  

We were visiting the Spanktown Society of Friends in Carteret, New Jersey.  We were ushered into a disused storeroom at the back of the building, the oldest part of this structure that Larry is convinced is all that remains of the historic Blazing Star Tavern from which you may recall Col. Ogden launched his raid against the loyalists on Staten Island in 1777.  

We had come to view what we were told was an 18th century American haversack of soiled onsaberg linen on which someone had painted the shield of our regiment in an early American primitive style.  However, we could see right away that it was actually a grease stain that looked vaguely like a bearded man with undressed hair which is clearly not 18thcentury. While Larry is not unconvinced that it may in fact be a representation of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, one of the colony's first royal governors who reputedly dressed in women's clothing to effect a likeness to his cousin, Queen Anne, I remain skeptical.

In any event, we were extremely disappointed to have followed another promising lead down a false trail, but then noticed a bundle of rags that at first we took for something even Adam Young might refuse to wear but which actually proved to be an old book wrapped in tow cloth.  What we found inside literally blew our minds.

It appears to be a journal, in appallingly poor handwriting, written by an enlisted man in my ancestor Colonel Ogden’s 1st New Jersey.  As you may know, anything written by enlisted men is rare enough from this period.  Aside from the 1776 diary of Timothy Tuttle, there is no other contemporary journal of its kind known from our regiment.  While it is very difficult to decipher, appears to have been written in a variety of natural inks, and has many loose pages all out of order, Larry and I have made enough progress to be able to say with certainty that the author is one Constant Belcher of Elizabethtown and that he was for a period the waiter or batman of my own direct ancestor, Brigade Major Aaron Ogden, the brother of Colonel Matthias Ogden! 

Like Ogden, Belcher is an old Elizabeth New Jersey name, and The Belcher-Ogden House in Elizabeth, also known as the Governor Jonathan Belcher Mansion, is another intriguing connection between these families.  I had no idea that Maj. Ogden had a batman named Belcher, and never conceived that he might have left a journal of his experiences.  Larry and I promptly made a $10 contribution to the Spanktown Yearly Meeting and they let us take the tow cloth and its contents.

We are now busily trying to decipher and transcribe the Journal of Constant Belcher and prepare it for scholarly publication.  It is hard going, but each of us has taken sections and we will share the results with you as we have them.  We have decided to add punctuation where needed for clarity, but otherwise to leave the entries as Belcher wrote them.

I am so excited by this discovery.  Larry and I feel it will absolutely change our understanding of the Revolution from the common man's perspective, and is likely to get a few noses out of joint on RevList.  We won't have to throw way our Pickering's Tools anymore as inauthentic, for one thing, as you will see.