Revolutionary War Historical Article
Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the
Second Continental Light Dragoons
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the April 2007 Edition
of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
Typical of the average 18th century American citizen, we know very little about Elijah Churchill. He was born on September 5th, 1755, at Newington, Connecticut, the son of Giles Churchill. And, yes, he shares an ancestor with the famous Compatriot Sir Winston Churchill. According to the 1790 Federal census he was a carpenter by trade. His enlistment record in the 5th Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Line stated he was 5 feet nine inches tall, dark complexion, gray eyes and dark hair. On March 10th, 1777, he married Elinor Nooney of Simsbury, Connecticut. They had the following children: Sophia, (born: 8 February 1782), Elijah, Jr. (born: 21 April 1784), James (born: 11 November 1785), Eleanor (born 14 November 1788), Eleanor (born: 7 July 1790) ,Giles (born: 28 July 1793), Charles (born: 16 February 1796) and Sophia (born: 30 January 1798).
Sergeant Elijah Churchill was a true hero. He was one of three known recipients of the Badge of Military Merit established by General George Washington.
In the "General Orders" for August 7th, 1782, General Washington ordered: "The General, ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military Merit, directs that whenever any singular meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth, edged with a narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with due reward." The orders then specified a very strict reporting system that required the Commander-in-Chief’s final approval. Finally, the order stated: "Men who have merited this last distinction to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinels which officers are permitted to do . . . “
Although because of its design, it is often compared to today's "Purple Heart", but in reality it is more akin to the Medal of Honor!
Most cavalrymen gain recognition in the saddle, but not Elijah Churchill. He gained his claim to fame in a whale boat!
Major Benjamin Tallmadge, commanding a troop from the 2nd Connecticut Light Dragoons set out on a dangerous, but very important mission. During the evening of November 21st, 1780, they rowed their eight whale boats from Connecticut, across Long Island Sound and launched a raid on the British supply depot at Fort George at Mastic, Long Island.
This Fort was triangular in shape, encompassing several acres. It contained a 96 foot redoubt, surrounded by a deep moat, and abatis. Tallmadge divided his force into three groups, with Sergeant Churchill leading one. They captured 300 prisoners, destroyed the fort, burned several heavily laden cargo vessels that were moored offshore and then burned more than 300 tons of hay. Hay or fodder was exceptionally important. The lack of it starved the horses thereby hindering the cavalry, artillery and transportation. At the same time this raid was conducted, the American forces were denying the British fodder from west of the North (Hudson) River. With the destruction of this source, the British had to rely on fodder being shipped all the way from England!
Eleven months later on October 2nd, 1781, General Sir Henry Clinton was trying to decide how to assist General Lord Cornwallis, who was trapped at Yorktown, Virginia, and while General Washington and French General The Comte Rochambeau were marching on his position, Sergeant Churchill struck again! He had a force of 100 Light Dragoons from the 2nd, and infantry from the 5th Connecticut of the Continental Line. They rowed their whale boats from Westport, Connecticut to Long Island. They launched a surprise attack on Fort Slongo, (near present day Northport, Long Island). In addition to the destruction of this Fort, they captured 21 prisoners, and again destroyed a great quantity of military stores and tons of hay. It is unknown if the loss of this material influenced General Clinton's thinking, but it certainly had to have had an impact.
Sergeant Elijah Churchill Receiving the "Badge of
Military Merit" from General George Washington
Painting By Charles McBarron
The order conferring the Badge of Military Merit to Sergeant Elijah Churchill reads in part:
General George Washington, Esquire
General and Commander-in-Chief of
the Forces of the United States of America, Etc.
That Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons, in the several enterprises against Fort George and Fort Slongo on Long Island, acted in a very conspicuous and singularly meritorious part; that at the head of each body of attack he not only acquitted himself with great gallantry, firmness and address; but that the surprise in one instance, and the success of the attack in the other, proceeded in a considerable degree from his conduct and management.
Now therefore Know Ye, that the aforesaid Sergeant Elijah Churchill, hath fully and truly deserved, and has been properly invested with the Honorary Badge of Military Merit, and is authorized to pass and repass all guards and military posts as fully and amply as any Commissioned Officer whatever; and is hereby recommended to that favorable notice which a Brave and Faithful Soldier deserves from his Countrymen.
After the Revolutionary War, Elijah and his family moved to Massachusetts. He died there on April 11th, 1841 and is buried in the Bell Cemetery at Middlefield, Massachusetts.