Revolutionary War Historical Article
Eyewitness Account at Yorktown
of Sarah Osborn Benjamin
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the October 1993 Edition of the
Valley Compatriot Newsletter
It has been two hundred and twelve years since the victory at Yorktown. The details of the battle are well known to all our readers, however, the following eyewitness account taken from the pension record of Sarah Osborn Benjamin.
She was an acute observer. In 1837, at age eighty-one, her memory was remarkable; most of the details that can be verified are accurate.
She was a extraordinary women. She served in her husband’s Company for three years, cooking and sewing for the soldiers.
Her account of the surrender at Yorktown is as fine an eyewitness account as we have.
Unfortunately, space limitations in the Valley Compatriot preclude our reprinting her entire story as relayed to the Court of Common Pleas in Wayne County, Pennsylvania on November 12th, 1837. A brief recap tells us that she was married firstly to Aaron Osborn who served as a Drummer, and later a Private in Captain James Gregg's 6th Company, in Colonel Goose Van Schaick's 2nd Regiment New York Continental Line. After the War she remarried John Benjamin, also a veteran of the Revolution. Her application was approved and she received a double pension, for both her husbands, Osborn and Benjamin, and she deserved every penny of it.
[Here is her eyewitness account,]
"When the Army were about to leave West Point and go south, they crossed over the river to Robinson's Farms and remained there for a length of time to induce the belief, as deponent understood, that they were going to take up quarters there, whereas they recrossed the river in the nighttime into the Jerseys and traveled all night in a direct course for Philadelphia. Deponent was part of the time on horseback and part of the time in a wagon. Deponent's said husband was still serving as one of the commissary guard.
In their march for Philadelphia, they were under command of Generals Washington and [James] Clinton, Colonel Van Schaick, Captain Gregg, Captain Parsons, Lieutenant [Joseph] Forman, Sergeant Lamberson, [there was a Sgt. Simon Lamberton with the 2nd Regiment] Ensign [Alexander] Clinton, one of the general's sons. They continued their march to Philadelphia, deponent on horseback through the streets, and arrived at a place toward the Schuylkill where the British had burnt some houses, where they encamped for the afternoon and night. Being out of bread, deponent was employed in baking the afternoon and evening. Deponent recollects no females but Sergeant Lamberson’s and Lieutenant Forman’s wives and a colored woman by the name of Letta. The Quaker ladies who came round urged deponent to stay, but her said husband said, ‘No, he could not leave her behind.’ Accordingly, next day they continued their march from day to day till they arrived at Baltimore, where deponent and her said husband and the forces under command of General Clinton, Captain Gregg, and several other officers, all of whom she does not recollect, embarked on board a vessel and sailed down the Chesapeake. There were several vessels along, and deponent was in the foremost. General Washington was not in the vessel with deponent, and she does not know where he was till he arrived at Yorktown, where she again saw him. He might have embarked at another place, but deponent is confident she embarked at Baltimore and that General Clinton was in the same vessel with her. Some of the troops went down by land. They continued sail until they had got up the St. James River as far as the tide would carry them, about twelve miles from the mouth, and then landed, and the tide being spent they had a fine time catching sea lobsters, which they ate.
They, however, marched immediately for a place called Williamsburg, as she thinks, deponent alternately on horseback and on foot. There arrived, they remained two days till the army all came in by land and then marched for Yorktown, or Little York as it was then called. The [New] York troops were posted at the right, the Connecticut troops next, and the French to the left. In about one day or less than a day, they reached the place of encampment about one mile from Yorktown. Deponent was on foot and the other females above named and her husband still on the commissary's guard. Deponent's attention was arrested by the appearance of a large plain between them and Yorktown and an entrenchment thrown up. She also saw a number of dead Negroes lying round their encampment, whom she understood the British had driven out of tow and left starve, or were first starved and then thrown out. Deponent took her stand just back of the American tents, say about a mile from the town, and busied herself washing, mending, and cooking for the soldiers, in which she was assisted by the other females; some men washed their own clothing. She heard the roar of the artillery for a number of days, and the last night the Americans threw up entrenchments, it was a misty, foggy night, rather wet but not rainy. Every soldier threw up for himself, as she understood, and she afterwards saw and went into the entrenchments. Deponent's said husband was there throwing up entrenchments, and deponent cooked and carried in beef, and bread, and coffee (in a gallon pot) to the soldiers in the entrenchments.
On one occasion when deponent was thus employed carrying in provisions, she met General Washington, who asked her if she ‘was not afraid of the cannonballs?’ She relied, 'No, the bullets would not cheat the gallows' that ‘It would not do for the men to fight and starve too.’
They dug entrenchments nearer and nearer to Yorktown every night or two till the last. While digging that, the enemy fired very heavy till about nine o'clock next morning, then stopped, and the drums from the enemy beat excessively. Deponent was a little way off in Colonel Van Schiack's or the other officer's marquee and a number of officers were present, among whom was Captain Gregg, who, on account of infirmities, did not go out much to do duty.
The drums continued beating, and all at once the officers hurrahed and swung their hats, and deponent asked them,’what is the matter now?’
One of them replied, ‘The British have surrendered’
Deponent, having provisions ready, carried the same down to the entrenchments that morning, and four of the soldiers whom she was in the habit of cooking for ate their breakfasts.
Deponent stood on one side of the road and the American officers upon the other side when the British Officers came out of the town and rode up to the American Officers and delivered up their swords, which the deponent thinks were returned again, and the British officers rode right on before the army, who marched out beating and playing a melancholy tune, their drums covered with black handkerchiefs and their fifes with black ribbon tied around them, into an old field and there grounded their arms and then returned into the town again to await their destiny. Deponent recollects seeing a great many American Officers, some on horseback, and some on foot, but cannot call them all by name. Washington, Lafayette, and Clinton were among the number. The British general [General Charles O'Hara] at the head of the army was a large, portly man, full face, and the tears rolled down his cheeks as he passed along. She does not recollect his name, but it was not Cornwallis. She saw the latter afterwards and noticed his being a man of diminutive appearance and having crossed eyes.
On going into town, she noticed two dead Negroes lying by the market house. She had the curiosity to go into a large building that stood nearby, and there she noticed the cupboards smashed to pieces and china dishes and other ware strewed around upon the floor, and among the rest a pewter cover to a hot basin that had a handle on it. She picked it up, supposing it to belong to the British, but the governor [Thomas Nelson] came in and claimed it as his, but said he would have the name of giving it away as it was the last one out of twelve that he could see, and accordingly presented it to deponent, and afterwards brought it home with her to Orange County and sold it for old pewter, which she has a hundred times regretted.
After two or three days, deponent and her husband, Captain Gregg, and others who were sick or complaining embarked on board a vessel from Yorktown, not the same they came down in, and set sail up the Chesapeake Bay and continued to the Head of [the] Elk, where they landed. The main body of the army remained behind but came on soon afterwards."
She returned to West Point and later New Windsor and stayed until February 20th, 1783, when the army was disbanded. Her husband Aaron left her at New Windsor and she never saw him again. He married a girl by the name of Polly Sloat. She confirmed the remarriage of her husband and not being willing to contest it she returned to her home in Blooming Grove, Orange County, New York, where she married John Benjamin.
Art Collection - Newberry Library
American Phrenological Journal November 1854 pages 101-102
Revolutionary War Pension Applications - National Archives.
Camden , S.C. Historic Society