Revolutionary War Historical Article
Captain Asa Lawrence
by Donald Ross McDowell
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the September 1996 Edition of the Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter
Asa Lawrence, a fifth generation descendant of the immigrant John Lawrence, was born June 14th, 1737. He lived about a mile north of the center of the town of Groton, Massachusetts, on a farm known later as the Governor Sullivan Place, after James Sullivan. He was the local justice of the peace during the war and governor of the Commonwealth in 1807. Except for his military service, Asa was a farmer all his life.
On July 27th, 1757, he married Abigail King, a descendant of Daniel King, an early settler of Lynn, Massachusetts. Asa and Abigail had ten children.
On October 26th, 1774, the First Provincial Congress of Massachusetts passed a resolution that at least one quarter of members of the militia regiments be formed into companies - "to be ready, at short notice, to march to a designated place of rendezvous on orders of the Committee of Safety". These were the First of the famed "Minuteman" companies. The Colonial militia had existed under British jurisdiction since before the Indian Wars a century earlier. Two Groton companies were duly formed as part of a regiment commanded by Colonel William Prescott of nearby Pepperell. Asa Lawrence and Henry Farwell were elected to lead the two companies of about fifty men each.
Early on the morning of April 19th, 1775, word of the fighting at Lexington and Concord reached Groton. The alarm spread quickly to the surrounding countryside, and by late morning the two Groton minuteman companies were marching toward Concord, some fifteen miles away. They arrived too late for the fighting so they hurried toward Cambridge, camping overnight at Lexington. At Cambridge, they joined the hundreds, later thousands, of militiamen from as far away as Pennsylvania and Virginia who were to bottle up General Gage's Regulars, until the British had to abandon Boston in March of 1776. A few days after the Lexington and Concord action the troops that stayed were enlisted into a Continental Army under the command of General Artemus Ward. Colonel Prescott's nine companies became the 10th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Line.
On May 25th Prescott's company captains, to make sure that there would be no change of command, certified in writing to the "Honorable Congress of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay now sitting in Watertown" that they were "well contented with their officers."
On May 27th, a mixed force of about 200 men under the command of Colonel John Nixon, which including the two Groton companies, were dispatched to remove livestock from Noddle's and Hogg Islands, now known as East Boston, but in 1775 it was a swampy area on the north shore of Boston harbor. The British detected the movement and sent the schooner H.M.S. Diana, with a company of Royal Marines, to intercept the colonials. After a brief skirmish, the Marines were forced to return to their ship, which then took the militiamen under fire from its ship's guns. Shortly thereafter, the H.M.S. Diana ran aground in one of the shallow channels, caught by the ebbing tide. Listing badly, her guns no longer could be brought to bear. The British were forced to abandon ship.
Wading through waist deep water, Captain Asa Lawrence led a boarding party which burned the H.M.S. Diana, but only after removing her twelve cannons and other supplies.
On June 16th, Colonel Prescott was ordered to take command of the regiments of Colonel Bridge and Frye, and with his men, proceed to Bunker Hill, under cover of darkness, and erect fortifications to preempt a possible breakout of the British by way of the Charlestown peninsula. Because Prescott's men thought they would be relieved after the breastworks were completed, they took only their entrancing tools, a minimum supply of ammunition, and almost no food or water. They disobeyed their orders by marching past Bunker Hill to Breed's Hill, where they worked quietly through the night without being detected. But, with the coming of daylight the surprised British opened a heavy barrage from Copp's Hill in Boston and from four warships anchored in the Charles River, less then a mile away. Prescott's men continued their digging in spite of this bombardment, suffering several casualties, including Lieutenant Joseph Spaulding of Asa Lawrence's company, who was decapitated by a cannon ball as he stood next to Colonel William Prescott.
The action on that historic day is too well known to be repeated here. Suffice it to say that the British lost 226 killed and 828 wounded for a total of 1,054 or nearly fifty percent of the 2,300 British soldiers engaged. Many companies of about forty men each had only three or four men left, and casualties among the officers were well over fifty percent. A month after the battle, General George Washington put the American losses at 115 killed, 305 wounded and 30 missing, for a total of 450, out of the 1,500 who were actually engaged. More men were lost from Groton than from any other town, a total of twelve, including six of Asa's men who were killed outright and a number of others wounded.
Captain Lawrence was called upon several more times during the war. On September 27th. 1777, he was ordered to assemble a company to serve under Colonel Jonathan Reed for "Service at the Northward", which meant to join the army under Major General Horatio Gates, who with the help of Daniel Morgan and his Virginia riflemen and General Philip Schuyler's New Yorkers, was preparing to engage British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, advancing down the Hudson Valley with a force of 5,000 British, Hessians, Tories and Indians. Lawrence assembled his veterans quickly, marching from Groton just three days after the call. He reached the scene of the fighting ten days later, after a march of 120 miles, too late for the last major battle a Freeman's Farm, but in time for the final skirmishing around Saratoga. Asa and his men were among the ordered ranks of silent, sturdy Continentals who watched the red unformed, but weaponless, British and Hessians pass in review after the October surrender.
Captain Lawrence was discharged on November 9th, 1777, and returned to Groton with his company. Although General Gates is not considered one of our great revolutionary war leaders, Asa must have admired him, because he named is fourth son, born June 11th, 1778, Horatio Gates Lawrence. Young Horatio Lawrence died October 28th at the age of four months.
In early 1778, the British still maintained a strong naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, which constituted a threat for possible future moves into Connecticut and Massachusetts. General Washington and French Admiral D'Estaing mapped out a pincers attack by sea to remove this threat, with the Americans to be under the command of the capable General John Sullivan of New Hampshire, who put together a strong force of Continental regiments, and Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island militia in addition to his own troops.
Asa's Groton company was again called upon and he was re-commissioned on May 17, 1778. After serving six weeks in the Rhode Island Campaign, his company was ordered to Peekskill, New York, to guard the "North (Hudson) River Passes" against British moves north from New York City and some of the lower river strong points which they had held since the beginnings of the hostilities. Asa was discharged "In consequence of Gen'l Washington's Orders" on October 12th, 1778, at West Point, although his company remained there until the following February. This was Asa's last military service, the War having moved to the south.
On January 29th, 1779, Asa Lawrence petitioned the House of Representatives of the State of Massachusetts Bay for reimbursement for "Services and losses", referring to his part in the actions at Chelsea, Bunker Hill and Rhode Island. He listed a "gun and bayonet, coat and blanket, knapsack and tumpline lost at Bunker Hill", and stated that he had received no received no pay at any time. In a resolution passed on May 4th, 1780, the House of Representatives awarded Asa 100 pounds. The resolution was approved by John Hancock and endorsed by Samuel Adams and Artemus Ward and thirteen other representatives.
Asa's two oldest sons, Rowland and Roger, also served in the war.
Rowland, born March 25th, 1763, marched with his father's company of Minutemen to Concord and on to Cambridge on that fateful morning of April 19th, 1775. He had just passed his 12th birthday. Azubah Parker Lawrence, his widow, in an 1843 pension application, stated that he served as a "waiter" to his father, which in those times had nothing to do with food, but meant, a servant or handyman. Azubah didn't get her pension because she apparently didn't know about Rowland's later service.
Among the minutemen who assembled on the Groton Common was seventeen year old Nehemiah Parker, brother of seven year old Azubah, who with most of the townspeople watched the ragged ranks of sons, husbands and brothers. Each was issued enough powder, balls and flints for twenty loads. These brave men and boys then marched off to face the armed might of the greatest military power on earth, not knowing the strength of the British Expedition or whether they would be standing alone or with other militia companies from surrounding towns.
I cannot help but picture little Azubah waving to her brother Nehemiah, who was to die at Fort Ticonderoga a year later, and her friend Rowland Lawrence, marching proudly at his father's side at the head of the company. Rowland and Azubah were married in 1792 and had ten children, including Parintha, my great grandmother, born in 1806. She married James Sullivan Davis and had a daughter and seven sons, six of whom served in the Civil War from Illinois. Four died in battle or from disease.
Rowland Lawrence later served four months in Captain John Minot's company in Colonel Dyke's Regiment at Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston Harbor. He was discharged in February, 1777, one month before his fourteenth birthday.
Asa's second son, Roger, described as being 5' 5" tall with light complexion, enlisted in 1779 at age fifteen, under Captain Moses Barns, for six months guard service between Swansea, Massachusetts, and Tiverton, Rhode Island. He reenlisted in July, 1780, in Lieutenant Colonel Ebenezer Sprout's 12th Regiment of the Continental Line. With twentythree other Groton boys joined the regiment at Fishkill, New York. He was discharged on December 12th, 1780, at West Point after service at English Neighborhood, Totaway and Stony Point.
In May, 1781, just past his seventeenth birthday, Roger enlisted as a Continental Marine on board the 10-gun privateer Venus, commanded by Captain George Babcock. On August 1st, the Venus was captured by the Royal Navy frigates, H.M.S. Surprise and H.M.S. Diana (named after the ship his father had burned!). Roger was held prisoner in Haliflax, Nova Scotia, until exchanged in late October.
In March 1782, he again shipped out as a Continental Marine aboard the U.S.S. Deane, 550 tons and 34 guns , Captain Samuel Nicholson commanding. The U.S.S. Deane was one of six frigates built in Nantes, France, in 1777. These ships made up the primary strength of the Continental Navy from 1778 to 1780. Only the U.S.S. Deane and the U.S.S. Alliance remained in service in 1781. The U.S.S. Deane had seen much action, and had taken at least thirteen prizes by 1781. She sailed for the West Indies shortly after Roger's enlistment, returning to Boston after a two month cruise during which time she took a brig, a schooner and three other armed British ships.
Under a new name, the U.S.S. Hague, she sailed and four months later, under Captain John Manly, she survived a fight with four British ships-of-the-line, including one of 74-guns and one of 40-guns. The Deane was decommissioned in Boston, in early 1783.
Roger was not aboard the U.S.S. Hague's last cruise. H had been discharged on July 25th, 1782. His father signed for his wages to that date of 3 pounds, 13 shillings and four pence, perhaps because he was still only eighteen years of age. Roger settled in Castine, Maine, and applied for a pension in 1832, which detailed his service.
Captain Asa Lawrence died January 4th, 1804 and is buried in the "Old Burying Ground" at Groton. Asa's son Rowland died June 1 , 1812.
In addition to his headstone there is a bronze plaque at Asa's grave site which reads: