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Last Survivors Of The Revolution

July 2024
13min read

In the misty memories of six centenarians recorded in 1864, the great war lives again

In the summer of 1864, as the Civil War dragged on, the Reverend Elias Brewster Hillard, a Congregational clergyman from Connecticut, was asked by a Hartford publisher to visit the last surviving soldiers of the American Revolution in order to record their memories of that earlier war and to obtain their views on “the present rebellion” imperiling the Union they had helped bring to birth.

Of all the men who had marched with Washington and Arnold, with Gates and Greene and Mad Anthony Wayne, only seven were still alive. All were past 100; the eldest, Lemuel Cook, was 105. Four lived in New York State, one in Maine, and one in Ohio; the seventh, James Barham, lived somewhere in Missouri, but he did not reply to inquiries and Mr. Hillard was unable to find him. With the possible exception of the Reverend Daniel Waldo, who was related to the Adamses of Quincy and who had served as chaplain of the House of Representatives, none was famous. Once participants in great and stirring events, they were now forgotten old men living out their remaining years with sons or daughters. (Samuel Downing’s son was 73, but his father still called him “Bub.”)

The minister was preceded in his tour by a photographer-artist who took the veterans’ pictures and made sketches of their koines. Before Mr. Hilhird set out on his own journey one of his subjects, Adam Link, died, and Mr. Hillard arrived at the home of the Reverend Daniel Waldo to find him on his deathbed. But Mr. Hillard obtained their stories from the photographer or from relatives and included them with the others in a slender yet moving book published that same year. Excerpts from it, including a photograph of each veteran and a sketch of his house, appeal on these and the next four pages. The editors are indebted to Mr. Hillard’s grandson, the poet Archibald MacLeish, who first brought this old book to their attention some years ago.

Within a very short time all these men would be dead and the country’s last living link with its origins severed. But for a moment, in their own words and in Mr. Hillard’s unobtrusive but perceptive descriptions, the six centenarians, “comrades in the old common conflict, take each other by the hand, and look into each other’s faces, and tell to one another the story of their lives, before they say the last farewell.”

Samuel Downing lives in the town of Edinburgh, Saratoga County, New York. His age is one hundred and two years. … The house of Mr. Downing, built by himself, (was) the first framed house in the town of Edinburgh, seventy years ago. … Mr. Downing is altogether the most vigorous in body and mind of the survivors. Indeed, judging from his bearing and conversation, you would not take him to be over seventy years of age. His eye is indeed dim, but all his other faculties are unimpaired, and his natural force is not at all abated. Still he is strong, hearty, enthusiastic, cheery: the most sociable of men and the very best of company. Seated in the house, and my errand made known to him, he entered upon the story of his life, which I will give as nearly as possible in the old man’s own words.

“I was born,” said he, “in the town of Newburyport, Mass., on the 30th of November, 1761. … Well, the war broke out. They was enlisting three years men and for-the-war men. I heard say that Hopkinton was the enlisting place. I waited till dinner time, when I thought nobody would see me, and then I started. It was eighteen miles, and I went it pretty quick. The recruiting officer, when I told him what I’d come for, said I was too small. I told him just what I’d done. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘you stay here and I’ll give you a letter to Col. Fifield over in Charlestown and perhaps he’ll take you.’ So I staid with him; and when uncle and aunt came home that night they had no Sam. The next day I went and carried the letter to Col. Fifield, and he accepted me. But he wasn’t quite ready to go: he had his haying to do; so I staid with him and helped him through it, and then I started for the war.

“The first duty I ever did was to guard wagons from Exeter to Springfield. We played the British a trick; I can remember what I said as well as can be. We all started off on a run, and as I couldn’t see anything, I said, ‘I don’t see what the devil we’re running after or running away from; for I can’t see anything.’ One of the officers behind me said, ‘Run, you little dog, or I’ll spontoon you.’ ‘Well’, I answered, ‘I guess I can run as fast as you can and as far.’ Pretty soon I found they were going to surprise a British train. We captured it; and among the stores were some hogsheads of rum. So when we got back to camp that night the officers had a great time drinking and gambling: but none for the poor soldiers. Says one of the sergeants to me, ‘We’ll have some of that rum.’ It fell to my lot to be on sentry that night; so I couldn’t let ‘em in at the door. But they waited till the officers got boozy; then they went in at the windows and drew a pailful, and brought it out and we filled our canteens, and then they went in and drew another. So we had some of the rum; all we wanted was to live with the officers, not any better.

“Afterwards we were stationed in the Mohawk valley. Arnold was our fighting general, and a bloody fellow he was. He didn’t care for nothing; he’d ride right in. It was ‘Come on, boys!’ ‘twasn’t ‘Go, boys!’ He was as brave a man as ever lived. He was darkskinned, with black hair, of middling height. There wasn’t any waste timber on him. He was a stern looking man, but kind to his soldiers. They didn’t treat him right; he ought to have had Burgoyne’s sword. But he ought to have been true. We had true men then; ‘twasn’t as it is now. Everybody was true: the tories we’d killed or driven to Canada.”

“You don’t believe, then, in letting men stay at their homes and help the enemy?”

“Not by a grand sight!” was his emphatic reply. “The men that caught Andre were true. He wanted to get away, offered them everything. Washington hated to hang him; he cried, they said.”

The student of American history will remember the important part which Arnold performed in the battle connected with the surrender of Burgoyne. Mr. Downing was engaged.

“We heard,” he said, “Burgoyne was coming. The tories began to feel triumphant. One of them came in one morning and said to his wife, ‘Ty (Ticonderoga) is taken, my dear.’ But they soon changed their tune. The first day at Bemis Heights both claimed the victory. But by and by we got Burgoyne where we wanted him, and he gave up. He saw there was no use in fighting it out. There’s where I call ‘em gentlemen . Bless your body, we had gentlemen to fight with in those days. When they was whipped they gave up. It isn’t so now.

“Gates was an ‘old granny’ looking fellow. When Burgoyne came up to surrender his sword, he said to Gates, ‘Are you a general? You look more like a granny than you do like a general.’ ‘I be a granny,’ said Gates, ‘and I’ve delivered you of ten thousand men to-day.’

“By and by they began to talk about going to take New York. There’s always policy, you know, in war. We made the British think we were coming to take the city. We drew up in line of battle: the British drew up over there (pointing with his hand). They looked very handsome. But Washington went south to Yorktown. LaFayette laid down the white sticks, and we threw up entrenchments by them. We were right opposite Washington’s headquarters. I saw him every day.”

“Was he as fine a looking man as he is reported to have been?”

“Oh!” he exclaimed, lifting up both his hands and pausing, “but you never got a smile out of him. He was a nice man. We loved him. They’d sell their lives for him.” I asked, “What do you think he would say if he was here now?”

“Say!” exclaimed he, “I don’t know, but he’d be mad to see me sitting here. I tell ‘em if they’ll give me a horse I’ll go as it is. If the rebels come here, I shall sartingly take my gun. I can see best furtherest off.”

“How would Washington treat traitors if he caught them?”

“Hang ‘em to the first tree!” was his reply. …

“When peace was declared,” said the old man, concluding his story of the war, “we burnt thirteen candles in every hut, one for each State.”

Since [Adam Link’s] picture was taken, he has passed away. He was born in Washington county, near Hagerstown, Maryland, November 14, 1761. He died at Sulphur Springs, Crawford county, Ohio, August 15, 1864. His age was one hundred and two.

The circumstances of Mr. Link’s life were humble, and his part in the war unimportant. He enlisted at the age of sixteen, in Wheeling, Virginia, for the frontier service, and spent live years in that service, mostly in the vicinity of Wheeling. …

At the age of twenty-eight years, he married Elizabeth Link, a distant relative. After this, being fond of (hange, he roamed about from place to place. At the age of sixty, he walked one hundred and forty-one, miles from his home in Pennsylvania to Ohio, accomplishing it in three days. When seventy years of age, he set about clearing a farm …

Perpetuating the habits of the frontier service, Mr. Link roughed’ it through life. His constitution must have been of iron to have endured his irregularities and excesses. He paid no attention to his manner of eating, and he was addicted to strong drink. Notwithstanding all, his health was good till near the very close of his life. … Upon the artist when he took his photograph] telling him that he had come a long way to see him, he replied, “You can see me cheap now. Whatever else they may say of me, no man ever could call me a coward.”

At Adam’s Basin, on the Rochester and Niagara Falls division of the Central Railroad, lives Alexander Milliner. Mr. Milliner was born at Quebec on the 14th of March, 1760. … On the 14th of March, of the present year, therefore, Mr. Milliner was one hundred and four years old. …

Too young at the time of his enlistment for service in the ranks, he was enlisted as drummer boy; and in this capacity he served four years, in Washington’s Life Guard. He was a great favorite, he says, with the Commander-in-Chief. … His recollection of Washington is distinct and vivid: “He was a good man, a beautiful man. He was always pleasant; never changed countenance, but wore the same in defeat and retreat as in victory.” Lady Washington, too, he recollects, on her visits to the camp. “She was a short, thick woman; very pleasant and kind. She used to visit the hospitals, was kind-hearted, and had a motherly care.”

“One day,” he continued, “the General sent for me to come up to headquarters, and told me to play. So I took the drum, overhauled her, braced her up, and played a tune. The General put his hand in his pocket and gave me three dollars; then one and another gave me more—so I made out well; in all, I got fifteen dollars. I was glad of it: my mother wanted some tea, and I got the poor old woman some.” His mother accompanied the army as washerwoman, to be near her boy.

He relates the following anecdote of General Washington: “We were going along one day, slow march, and came to where the boys were jerking stones. ‘Halt!’ came the command. ‘Now, boys,’ said the General, ‘I will show you how to jerk a stone.’ He beat ‘em all. He smiled, but didn’t laugh out.”

Mr. Milliner was at the battles of White Plains, Brandywine, Saratoga, Monmouth, Yorktown, and some others. The first of these he describes as “a nasty battle.” At Monmouth, he received a flesh wound in his thigh. “One of the officers came along, and, looking at me, said, ‘What’s the matter with you, boy?’ ‘Nothing,’ I answered. ‘Poor fellow,’ exclaimed he, ‘you are bleeding to death.’ I looked down; the blood was gushing out of me. …”

Of Burgoyne’s surrender he says, “The British soldiers looked down-hearted. When the order came to ‘ground arms,’ one of them exclaimed, with an oath, ‘You are not going to have my gun!’ and threw it violently on the ground, and smashed it. Arnold was a smart man; they didn’t sarve him quite straight.”

He was at the encampment at Valley Forge. “Lady Washington visited the army. She used thorns instead of pins on her clothes. The poor soldiers had bloody feet.” At Yorktown he shook hands with Cornwallis. He describes him as “a fine looking man; very mild. The day after the surrender, the Life Guard came up. Cornwallis sat on an old bench. ‘Halt!’ he ordered; then looked at us—viewed us.”

In all, Mr. Milliner served six years and a half in the army. Besides his service in the army, Mr. Milliner has served his country five years and a half in the navy. Three years of this service was on board the old frigate Constitution , he being in the action of February 20, 1814, in which she engaged the two British ships, the Cyane and the Levant , capturing them both. While following the sea he was captured by the French and carried into Guadaloupe. As a prisoner there, he suffered hard treatment. Of the bread which he says he has eaten in seven kingdoms, he pronounces that in the French prison decidedly the worst. …

At the time his photograph was taken he could still handle his drum, playing for the artist, with excellent time and flourishes which showed him to have been a master of the art. … His sight is as good yet as when young. He reads his Bible every day without the aid of glasses. His memory is clear respecting events which occurred eighty or ninety years ago. …

In the present conflict with treason, Mr. Milliner’s sympathies, as with all his surviving Revolutionary comrades, are enlisted most strongly on the side of the Union; he declaring that it is “too bad that this country, so hardly got, should be destroyed by its own people.”

Syracuse, N.Y., was the home of Rev. Daniel Waldo. … Most painful was my disappointment on reaching his house to find that death was dealing with the old man. … His age was one hundred and one.

Daniel Waldo was born in Windham, (Scotland Parish), Conn., on the 10th of September, 1762. … In 1778, being then sixteen years old, he enlisted for eight months in the service of the State; and during the term of this enlistment, in March, 1779, was taken prisoner by the tories at Horseneck. One of the guards, on leaving his beat one stormy night, failed to give him warning, and thus the tories surprised him. One of them snapped a musket at him, but it only flashed in the pan; whereupon Mr. Waldo surrendered. This terminated his immediate connection with the war. Upon his release by exchange, he returned to his home, in Windham.

At the age of about twenty, becoming hopefully a Christian, he resolved to devote himself to the ministry … and for more than seventy years he was a minister in the Congregational Church. … In 1805, Mrs. Waldo became insane, and died seven years ago. “I lived,” said the old man, in speaking of it, “fifty years with a crazy wife.”

On the 22d of December, 1856, Mr. Waldo was chosen chaplain of the House of Representatives. He spent most of his time in reading, which he greatly loved—not wishing, as he used to say, to hear “the quarrels in the House.”

William Hutchings was born in York, York county, Maine (then Massachusetts), in 1764. He is, therefore, in his one hundred and first year.

Mr. Hutchings’ connection with the war of the Revolution was but limited. He enlisted at the age of fifteen for the coast defense of his own state; and this was the only service in which he was engaged during the war. The only fighting which he saw was at the siege of Castine, where he was taken prisoner; but the British, declaring it a shame to hold as prisoner one so young, promptly released him. …

The father of Mr. Hutchings had … in 1768 removed with his family from York to Penobscot, being one of the earliest settlers there. … They were finally beginning to live comfortably when the British took possession of the neighboring town of Castine, and drove his father from his home, who fled with his family to Newcastle, where he abode till the close of the war, while William remained to fight the foe. … Mr. Hutchings has been throughout life an early riser and a hard worker; not particularly regular in his habits. He smokes regularly, and uses spirituous liquors moderately. His mind is still vigorous, though his body is feeble. He is deeply interested in the present conflict. Speaking of General Grant and his prospects of success in his campaign against Richmond, he concluded by saying, “Well, I know two old folks up here in Maine who are praying for him.”

Lemuel Cook is the oldest survivor of the Revolution. He lives in the town of Clarendon (near Rochester), Orleans county, New York. His age is one hundred and five years.

Mr. Cook was born in Northbury, Litchfield county, Connecticut, September 10, 1759. He enlisted at Cheshire, in that state, when only sixteen years old, served through the war, and was discharged in Danbury, June 12, 1784. The circumstances of his service he relates as follows:

“The first time I smelt gunpowder was at Valentine’s Hill (West Chester, New York). A troop of British horse were coming. ‘Mount your horses in a minute,’ cried the colonel. I was on mine as quick as a squirrel. There were two fires—crash! Up came Darrow, good old soul! and said, ‘Lem, what do yon think of gunpowder? Smell good to you?’

“The first time I was ordered on sentry was at Dobbs’ Ferry. A man came out of a barn and leveled his piece and fired. I felt the wind of the ball. A soldier near me said, ‘Lem, they mean you; go on the other side of the road.’ So I went over; and pretty soon another man came out of the barn and aimed and fired. He didn’t come near me. Soon another came out and fired. His ball lodged in my hat. By this time the firing had roused the camp, and a company of our troops came on one side, and a party of the French on the other; and they took the men in the barn prisoners, and brought them in. This was the first time I saw the French in operation. They stepped as though on edge. They were a dreadful proud nation. When they brought the men in, one of them … told how they had each laid out a crown, and agreed that the one who brought me down should have the three. When he got through with his story, I stepped to my holster and took out my pistol, and walked up to him and said, ‘If I’ve been a mark to you for money, I’ll take my turn now. So, deliver your money, or your life!’ He handed over four crowns, and I got three more from the other two.”

Mr. Cook was at the battle of Brandywine and at Cornwallis’ surrender. Of the latter he gives the following account: “It was reported Washington was going to storm New York. … Baron Steuben was mustermaster. He had us called out to select men and horses fit for service. When he came to me, he said, ‘Young man, how old are you?’ I told him. ‘Be on the ground to-morrow morning at nine o’clock,’ said he. … We marched off towards White Plains. Then ‘left wheel,’ and struck right north. Got to King’s Ferry, below Tarrytown. There were boats, scows, &c. We went right across into the Jerseys. … Then we were in Virginia. There wasn’t much fighting. Cornwallis tried to force his way north to New York; but fell into the arms of LaFayette, and he drove him back. We were on a kind of side hill. We had plaguey little to eat and nothing to drink under heaven. We hove up some brush to keep the flies off. Washington ordered that there should be no laughing at the British; said it was bad enough to have to surrender without being insulted. The army were paraded on a great smooth lot, and there they stacked their arms, Then came the devil—old women, and all (camp followers). One said, ‘I wonder if the d—d Yankees will give me any bread.’ The horses were starved out. Washington turned out with his horses and helped ‘em up the hill. When they see the artillery, they said, ‘There, them’s the very artillery that belonged to Burgoyne.’ Greene come from the southard: the awfullest set you ever see. Some, I should presume, had a pint of lice on ‘em. No boots nor shoes.”

The old man’s talk is very broken and fragmentary. He recalls the past slowly, and with difficulty; his articulation, also, is very imperfect; but when he has fixed his mind upon it, all seems to come up clear. … He has voted the Democratic ticket since the organization of the government, supposing that it still represents the same party that it did in Jefferson’s time. The old man’s health is comfortably good. Altogether, he is a noble old man; and long may it yet be before his name shall be missed from the roll of his country’s deliverers.

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